Sexual Assault and Male Dominance
last updated February 1, 2006

With the current understanding of sexual assault as an act of violence, theorists also came to understand sexual assault as a manifestation of and means for ensuring female subordination. "[R]ape is a result of long-held traditions of male dominance. This male dominance is reinforced by prostitution and pornography, in which women are degraded and treated in subservient ways. In other words, rape is the male response to social inequality between men and women." From Jana L Jasinski, Theoretical Explanations for Violence Against Women, in Sourcebook on Violence Against Women 5, 12-13 (Claire M. Renzetti et al. eds., 2001).

Sexual assault must also be understood historically, in the context of legal and social frameworks within which women were considered the property of men. Historically, the crime of rape was a property crime: "Rape was a crime not against the victim, but against the man who owned her, her husband or father." From Peggy Miller & Nancy Biele, Twenty Years Later: The Unfinished Revolution, in Transforming a Rape Culture 47, 50 (Emilie Buchwald et al. eds., 1993). Thus, the "[s]exual abuse of a woman was more a violation of a man's property than a violation of a woman's 'bodily integrity.' Rape laws, therefore, originated as a means of protecting a man's or family's property." From Beverly Ford, Rape and Sexual Harassment Around the World, in Violent Relationships: Battering Abuse Among Adults 47 (2001). As a property crime, the punishment for rape was often the payment of a sum to the father or brother of the woman. In some countries even today, families of a victim may seek financial compensation from the rapist's family. From World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health 164 (2002). The legal and cultural frameworks within which women have historically been considered the property of their husbands also support the assumption that men are entitled to sexual access to their wives and thus contribute to the failure to view marital rape as a crime.

Yet sexual assault is not only a reflection of societal arrangements that devalue women (i.e., it is acceptable to target and violate women because they are not valued), but itself serves to reinforce women's subordination and ensure their conformity with preset gender roles: "Rape has been used historically for the subjugation of women and as a means of ensuring that women conform to the behavior patterns required by the community." From Radhika Coomaraswamy & Lisa M. Kois, Violence Against Women, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 177, 179 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds. 1999). Gender roles and societal expectations require women to be "virginal" and "pure." Women who do not conform—for example, those who dress seductively—are deemed to have provoked the sexual assault, thus also ensuring enforcement of these gender norms. From Dorothy Q. Thomas & Robin S. Levi, Common Abuses Against Women, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 139, 149 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds. 1999).