Have you ever known someone for a while – liked them, gotten along with them, and respected their opinion – only to suddenly have them destroy your regard by saying or doing something so wrong, so terrible, so callous that you immediately had second-thoughts about remaining their friend? Because that’s exactly how I felt when Tracy V. Wilson from the Stuff You Missed in History podcast argued that you could not apply modern definitions of rape and consent to events that happened centuries ago.
If you don’t know what the Stuff You Missed in History podcast is, you should go check it out by clicking here. It’s basically a series of episodes about lesser-known events in history such as the history of plastic, the Nome Serum Run, or the US Ghost Army of WWII. I’ve listened to around 35 episodes at this point, and overall I’ve really liked them. A few of my favorites have been the ones about the Soviet fighter regiment the Night Witches, the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, and the amazing strongwoman Katie Sandwina. The hosts, Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, are pretty engaging, pretty well informed, and do a good job laying out the information in a coherent, logical manner. They’ve gotten me through a lot of shitty commutes.
Then I came to the listener mail in the episode about Christina of Sweden. In this mail (starting at 33:00 of the episode), the listener Liz took issue with Tracy and Holly claiming that some women aboard the prisoner ship the Lady Juliana, which was transporting female “criminals” to Australia to help in the colonization, had chosen to have sex with their captors and should therefore be called “wives.” According to Liz, the fact that the women had no real option – it was either submit to sexual and marital relations or be raped – meant that they could never consent and were therefore rape victims. She also thought that Holly and Tracy should be less circumspect and call liaisons aboard the Lady Juliana rape instead of contributing to the centuries of whitewashing that we do about rape.
I was really impressed with Liz’s mail and her arguments, and I thought she made a really good point. Consent is, after all, about a lot more than simply saying yes, getting aroused, or not physically fighting back. If you’re intoxicated, impaired, or below a certain mental capacity or age, you cannot be said to consent. Likewise, is it really consent if your only option is to give yourself before you’re gang-raped? Is it really consent if you think that the only way to continue getting food or water is to allow someone to have sex with you? Is it really consent if you’re literally floating in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by men who are demanding you sleep with them, and you do? I honestly don’t think it is.
So I was incredibly surprised when Tracy replied in a somewhat irritated manner that the women aboard the Lady Juliana weren’t in fact rape victims and that we couldn’t apply modern definitions of consent and rape to events that happened hundreds of years in the past. And that to do so would mean that we’d have to call almost every sexual or marital relation a woman had before 1984 rape. And that we couldn’t claim any of the women aboard the Lady Juliana were rape victims since they later married their captors and had apparently happy marriages with them.
Actually, “surprised” is not the correct word – “shocked,” “appalled,” and “disgusted” might do it though. There are just so many things wrong with her comments. Just because someone marries their rapist doesn’t mean they haven’t been raped or that they’re actually happy – you can absolutely be raped by your domestic partner and be forced to stay with them, especially if you’re considered “damaged goods” and have no other options – like being shipped thousands of miles from home to live among hardened criminals. Arguing that we can’t apply modern definitions of rape and consent to the past means that you think rape and consent suddenly became a thing in the 20th century. It’s like saying that narcolepsy or syphilis didn’t exist before their definitions – actions can occur before we figure out what to call them. Claiming that applying modern standards of rape and consent to one situation means that we have to apply it to every situation is an exercise in logical fallacy and creates a straw man argument. Acknowledging that rape has been a consistent and glossed over part of women’s history does not negate the impact of so-called “legitimate rape” – it helps highlight how fucking ridiculous it is that it’s 2015 and we still have to argue about what rape is and who can do it. In fact, this acknowledgement could finally hammer home how pervasive rape culture is – after all, we won’t acknowledge it even existed in the past and will do anything we can to excuse it.
Tracy’s assertions threw me for a complete loop and honestly made me question the integrity of the entire podcast. I’ve often noticed hers and Holly’s hesitance and nervousness to talk about controversial topics as well as their habit of laying down absolutes. And yet, I never thought much of it. I figured these were quirks of their personalities and things I shouldn’t take much issue with, but now I honestly don’t know. How can I continue to listen to someone so fundamentally wrong?
I am honestly considering not listening to Stuff You Missed in History Class anymore. While I was excited that this podcast even existed and was looking forward to several of their older episodes, I don’t know if I want to support them anymore. There are literally thousands of other podcasts out there, and surely at least one of them is hosted by someone who thinks intimate partner rape is real. I just wish it had been this one.