“Rape as an Illustration of Sexism in Criminal Law” Understanding the Effects of Rape and the Failures of the Justice System

This exhibit examines how during the Second Wave of feminism women used art, magazines, poetry, and other mediums to raise awareness about the true nature of rape as well as to expose the failures of the justice system in issues of rape as it “legitimizes and contributes to” the “restrictive and sexist views of our society” (Estrich 1091). During this period the vast majority of rape cases never made it to court, resulted in plea bargains, were dimissed, or were never reported. The patriarchy made women more afraid to come forward than stay silent because in court the victims were put on trial as much as their assaulters. Prior to 1975 when the “rape shield” laws were implemented, which prevented the defendants from using the past sexual conducts of the victims in court, the sexual history of the victims could be used as a form of public degradations as well as to invalidate the victim’s case leading to victim blaming. Knowing this made women afraid to report the crime in the first place.Additionally there was no clear definition of rape in law, leaving key concepts involved in rape decisions like “force” and “consent” to be defined by the male dominated criminal justice system and the patriarchy’s understanding of sexuality. This exhibit also illustrates how components addressed in the surging sexual revolution during the Second Wave, like the inherent unbalanced power dynamics of sexual relationships between men and women as well as society’s understanding of those relationships, contributed to root causes of rape. As Susan Estrich, American feminist and now lawyer, writes in the 1986 issue of “The Yale Law Journal,” “Rape [is] an illustration of sexism in criminal law…because the crime (rape) involves sex itself the law of rape inevitably treads on the explosive grounds of sex roles, of male aggression, and female passivity” (pg 1091). This leads to the law enforcing the sexist views of society therein encouraging male violence and the creation of more rapists. The exhibit begins with the poem “Rape” by Adrienne Rich, published in 1971-72, which exposes the staggering failures of the justice system’s rape legislature and its treatment of victims through the story of a someone who has just been raped. The second piece is a clipping from the article “Rape” by Susan Estrich as a part of the 1986 issue of “The Yale Law Journal” where she discusses the sexism present in rape laws by calling attention to the fact that rape legislature is determined by male standards and understandings of sexuality.  To close, the exhibit includes an article from the feminist periodical Second Wave, published in 1977,  titled, “An Open Letter to the Anti-Rape Movement” that promotes revolutionary action in order to end rape, critques the movements focus on working within the criminal justice system, and suggests ways for women to support women and combat sexual violence until the misogynistic patriarchy can be dismantled. This exhibit aims to address the struggles of those who were affected by sexual violence during the Second Wave, the failures of the justice system in creating unbiased rape law and supporting victims of sexual violence, and the ways in which women were able to combat rape culture through the use of art and periodicals.

– Dylan Fulcher-Melendy


“Rape” By Adrienne Rich

Analyzing the Sexism of Rape Law

“An Open Letter to the Anti-Rape Movement”