Her Body, His Choice: Rape Culture and 18th Century Literature

It is a woman’s body, so it should be her choice as to what happens to it, right? Well historically, this has not been the case. This is not a new occurrence, as for some time now men have been deciding what is best for women. There have been times when women were unable  to give consent, let alone control what happened to them. While consent laws have become stricter in more recent history, cases such as the Brock Turner rape trial are still pushing the boundaries of what consent is. While the emergence of the rape culture is not new, the acknowledgement of its existence is. There are even cases transcribed in literature of times when consent were not accounted for. Two such cases can be seen through “The Lady’s Dressing Room” by Jonathan Swift (1732) and The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope (1712).

Women all over the country, especially on college campuses, are still having men force their will/desires onto them. This has become known as rape culture. Rape culture can be used to describe an array of behaviors that often involve sexual assault onto a person without their consent. In her  article, A Social Constructivist Approach to Understanding the Relationship Between Masculinity and Sexual Aggression, Sarah K. Murnen talks about many of the factors that can contribute to sexual assault. “Some of these factors dealt with violence including having attitudes supportive of violence, peer support for violence, and a history of violence in the family. Some of these dealt with sexuality such as early initiation of sex, impersonal sex experience, having sexually aggressive peers, and experiencing peer pressure to have sex” (Murnen 372).

Both of these poems are examples of how little control women had over themselves and their personal property. These works contrast each other in their severity, while maintaining the concept of consent, or lack thereof.  The Rape of the Lock is much more severe in that the Baron forcefully takes a lock of hair from Belinda. Though it is only a lock of her hair, it can be used to represent a bigger metaphor. The real problem that emerges out of this work, is the lack of repercussions for the actions of the Baron. While he had every right to admire Belinda and her hair, he had no right to forcefully remove her hair at his will.

“Th’ advent’rous Baron the bright lock admired;

He saw, he wished, and to the prize aspired:

Resolved to win, he meditates the way,

By force to ravish, or by fraud betray;

For when success a lover’s toil attends,

Few ask, if fraud or force attained his ends” (Pope lines 29-34).

The end of the quote even alludes to the fact that it was not uncommon for men to force their wills onto women. While the idea of rape culture might be a newer emergence, the practices within it have been going on for generations. The language used is just as violent as the action, in that if the greater metaphor represents her virginity, the fact that “force attained his ends” means not only was he expectant of her, but her refusal only convinced him to try harder.

The Lady’s Dressing Room, by Jonathan Swift, is on the other end of the spectrum of severity. While Strephon does not force himself upon Celia, he does invade a personal part of her life. Without her consent, he enters her room and goes through her personal belongings.

“Strephon, who found the room was void,

And Betty otherwise employed,

Stole in, and took a strict survey,

Of all the litter as it lay:” (Swift lines 5-8).

While this might seem like a mild offence, it should still be seen as an unconsented act. Her room is her personal space, in which she should be allowed to maintain control over who may or may not enter, in the same regards as she would hold to her body, since they both are hers.

The importance of these two texts show the contrast between the severity in them, as there are ranging degrees of assault. Some might seem minor from an outside perspective, but the influence of either event could have a lasting effect on the person it was perpetuated onto.

“When Celia in her glory shows,

If Strephon would but stop his nose,

Who now so impiously blasphemes

Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams;

Her washes, slops, and every clout,

With which she makes so foul a rout,

He soon would learn to think like me,

And bless his ravished eyes to see

Such order from confusion sprung,

Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.”(Lines 135-144).

For Celia, this invasion of privacy has forever altered her life. This man not only invaded her personal space, but he did so in a highly intrusive manner. He not only went into her room, but he went through her things, which breached a personal line that should have been respected by Strephon. While for Belinda, it is her own perspective of herself that is physically and mentally altered. Her body has been permanently changed, and although someone could make the argument that her hair would grow back, it could be considered the same as saying that wounds will heal. Neither of those arguments consider the mental ramifications of the Baron’s, or anyone else’s, actions.

“Forever cursed be this detested day,

Which snatched my best, my favorite curl away!

Happy! ah, ten times happy, had I been,

If Hampton Court these eyes had never seen!

Yet am not I the first mistaken maid,

By love of course num’rous ills betrayed” (Pope lines 147-152).

The hair on Belinda’s head might grow back, and any wounds she might have suffered would heal. But the mental turmoil she suffered might not ever heal, just as it will not for any woman who may have been subjected to sexual assault. This is even truer for Belinda, if in fact her hair is a metaphor for her virginity.

So while these two text only hint at the possibility of sexual assault and nonconsent, they are historical depictions of an ongoing struggle that women today are still subject to. Rape culture was present in the eighteenth century, just as it is today.


Works Cited

“The Rape of the Lock.” The Rape of the Lock Image, Miami University,  http://www.orgs.miamioh.edu/anthologies/bijou/youngcd/lock.html. Accessed 8 Mar. 2017.

Murnen, Sarah K. “A Social Constructivist Approach to Understanding the Relationship between Masculinity and Sexual Aggression.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity, vol. 16, no. 4,  Oct. 2015, pp. 370-373. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/a0039693.

Pope,Alexander, et al. “The Rape of the Lock.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Fourth ed., vol. 1C, Pearson, New York, NY, 2010, pp. 2472-2491.

Swift, Jonathan, et al. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Fourth ed., vol. 1C, Pearson, New York, NY, 2010, pp. 2346–2349.