Stuff You Missed in History Class — Like That Rape Wasn’t a Thing Before 1984, Apparently

og_imageApril 7, 2015

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.

For information on intimate partner rape/wife rape/marital rape, click here, here, and here.


3 thoughts on “Stuff You Missed in History Class — Like That Rape Wasn’t a Thing Before 1984, Apparently

  1. ccdmn says:

    THANK YOU. I was listening to this podcast and my mouth just fell open. If you compare any other heinous crime that may have been legal or allowed hundreds of years ago but is abhorred now, it does not become more understandable or okay that it happened. Just because the “base line” as Tracy puts it for, say, child sacrifice was much, much lower at the time doesn’t mean that it isn’t child sacrifice, for example. I just really could not believe what she was saying. Thanks for putting into words what I was loudly and slightly incoherently shouting in my head.


  2. S says:

    As someone whose worked in the gender violence field for years, I understand the frustration. Debating over the definitions of rape or conceptualized ideals of what constent consist of feels as though we haven’t progressed very far. However, I believe what Tracey was ultimately trying to saying was that we cannot broadly portray all these women as victims especially using modern discourse of rape. I’ve studied the history of gender violence in the US during the 19th century and It is very true that this is a difficult field to research because, like today, experiences vary. As Tracey stated in the show, the women’s experiences on Lady Juliana were ranged. I would like to point out that Tracey and Holly stated that the environment upon the Lady Juliana lacked the hostile nature akin to the one experienced on the male transports(the women weren’t chained up, they had some free range of the ship, and they received better rations including material for recreational actives such as sewing). This was not a critical situation where women were beaten or starved unless they gave into the crews demands. This doesn’t negate the fact that they didn’t have a lot of options or that there was most certainly inappropriate activity happening. Rather, it would not be inaccurate to say that everyone of these women on the ship were victims of sexual assault. The main reason is lack of evidence. We don’t know what most of the women’s experiences were first hand; we can only speculate. I personally believe Tracey was trying to point out the danger of universally labeling the women on the lady Juliana as victims of sexual assault especially through a modernly constructed discourse of the subject of gender violence. Historically speaking it is a cardinal sin to portray individuals of the past with such definitive labels. I know how frustrating it can be hearing and seeing women of the past being denied their statuses as victims of such despicable crimes but it is critical to mind the past prespectives of these individuals when studying history. To us, these women were most certainly victims of many injustices including inappropriate sexual advances that resulted in numerous assaults. Yet we cannot definitively say that every single one of these women were victims due to the fact that we do not have evidence indicating that all were indeed attacked and more importantly they may not have considered themselves to be victims in the first place. We do have some evidence that in a few case some women took the role as initiator in the first place and they went on to have loving even romantic relationships. In short, without concrete evidence, it is inappropriate to broadly label all of these women as victims. In my opinion, Tracey was by no means downplaying the plight of these women, rather she was pointing out this critical element in historical research. It is a difficult process to put aside our modern ideals in order to fully comprehend the past but it is nevertheless critical in order to have accurate understanding and appreciation.


    • clbutor says:

      It’s been a while since I wrote this piece or listened to the podcast (I did eventually get fed up with it and stopped listening.), but I believe my big point of contention was how dismissive Tracey was of Liz’s comments. She absolutely shut down the woman and didn’t have any time for an alternate interpretation of the event. It’s hardly conducive to a discussion to have someone just say, “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

      I also just can’t agree that we can never view the past through a modern lens or apply modern definitions to the past. As an archaeology and history student, I understand the importance of contextualizing past events, but as a women’s and gender’s studies student, I also understand the importance of breaking the chain of silence and precedence. If we never call out past actions for what they are — rape, coercion, cruel and unusual punishment, an abuse of authority — then we can never hope to break the cycle in the future. Perhaps this assertion seems hyperbolic to you, but until someone says, “This was bad. It should have never happened,” and keeps saying it, it will repeat itself.

      For a modern equivalent, think of prisoners. We know that both sexual abuse and supposedly consenting sex happen in prisons, but we cannot always figure out where the consent starts or stops. Even if a prisoner has consenting sex with a guard, the guard is still accused of rape and punished. If prisoners have sex with other prisoners, are they doing so because they want to, they feel pressured to, they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t, or they’re overtly forced to? The common understanding is that some prisoners want to have sex but that the act of sex in a prison is violent and punitive. And there’s certainly no way to really get away from your fellow prisoners. Guards can’t protect you 24/7 nor do they always want to, so if someone wishes to have sex with you, perhaps you figure that it’s best to just “consent.”

      Sex itself creates bonds of affection and trust between people. Organisms literally flood your system with hormones that create love, trust, and pleasure. So even if a relationship starts out coercive, it is fully possible for it to become more consensual and for the victim-prisoner to seek out the relationship — even after the prison term has ended. Being in prison (or crossing a world) is a unique, isolating experience. There are not many people who can relate to that, so if you have a relationship that more or less makes you feel good, if you’re afraid of your prospects later, and if you are at an extreme disadvantage because of your prison sentence (or sex), it is not unlikely that you would “choose” to stay with your abuser. Does that lessen the abuse? Does that negate it? Or are you simply making the best of a bad situation?

      So while I understand we cannot say every woman was abused, it is still important to at least acknowledge that these women did not have many options and were most likely victims. First, they were prisoners. Then their sentences were maximized. Then they were sent over literally to help populate the penal colony by having sex. There were, as far as I could tell, no safeguards to ensure they would be taken care of or have a livelihood ahead of them. They may not have been chained hand to foot, and they may have received food, but that hardly constitutes as decent treatment.

      And if we want to learn about “stuff you missed in history class,” wouldn’t a far place to start be the reality of these women’s lives, prospects, and freedoms? And if we want to stop future abusers towards prisoners, shouldn’t we be a bit stricter with how we whitewash the past?


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