18th Century Rape Vs. 21st Century Rape: There is No Winner

‘Rape’ has become a common word in everyday vernacular here in the 21st century. While this is upsetting and not a lighthearted subject to breach, it should’ve been a more spoken term before now.  Eliza Haywood would not disagree with me either. Haywood’s work often includes the wrongful sexual actions of her time, and her opinions within her writings portray parallels with today’s rape culture.  When regarding Eliza Haywood’s tale Fantomina: Or, Love in a maze, Haywood obviously valued having her readers see what was actually happening in the real world, whether they wanted to acknowledge it or not.

Fantomina is a tale of a young unnamed girl struggling to understand her newfound sexuality while being a woman of “distinguished Birth, Beauty, Wit, and Spirit” (Haywood, 2796) in mid-18th-century England.  This is not a great combination as Fantomina knows, so she pursues her sexual endeavors by disguising herself into four different “characters” to gain the attention of a charming man that has captured her attention. Beauplaisir is a wealthy aristocratic man who often seeks the attention of women before tiring of their attention and moving on. But why does our protagonist have to disguise herself for her to pursue her newfound sexual endeavors and not Beauplaisir? Because she is a woman.  That is the only difference when comparing her and Beauplaisir.  Both characters are of a higher social status, both have sexual needs, both seek interactions with the opposite sex.  Because Beauplaisir is a man, it is socially acceptable for him to go out into society and have relations with whomever he wants.  For Fantomina, to have sexual relations so carelessly would mean sacrificing the only thing she has to herself: her virginity.

But how does this portray a relation between sexual misconduct of the 18thcentury and today’s rape culture? Fantomina was an attractive woman who was naïve and uneducated as to how the male population often gave unwanted advances to their female counterparts. This was not an uncommon occurrence for women of her age in this time either. In a society largely affected by puritan views, a woman’s only hope to succeed in life was to maintain her virtue and marry up. Women were seen as “Property belonging to the family monarch”. (Rudolph) This whole view of not being in charge of their own bodies closely parallels to the uninvited sexual assault that so many women today encounter.  Similar to Fantomina and girls of her time, all women that are subject to sexual assault are left with something missing after they survive it.

However, we have come a long way from the ‘property’ title that women were so often labeled with. In the eighteenth-century, the Whig party was at its highest, and this was when women started to be more vocal about what they thought their husbands should vote for and helped campaign when they could.  This was an important step for women to start to be vocal, and thanks to female authors like Eliza Haywood it was becoming more and more popular to speak your mind. As a human race, we have also improved our acceptance to women that choose to go through with unwanted pregnancies. Whether it be their choice to abort the child or carry it to term, we as a society, still look at the situation with less judgement than the people of Fantomina’s time.  When our protagonist discovers she is pregnant, she tries to hide the pregnancy and succeeds until giving birth in her town. Afterwards, we read that she is taken to a monastery in France so she won’t be a disgrace to her family. (Haywood,2813) Fantomina and women today are just victims to an unfair occurrence in their lives. They shouldn’t be judged for something that they had no control over. Yes, Fantomina soon believed she was in love with Beauplaisir, but she was still a victim of rape.  This 18th century literature just shows us how much women were not in charge of their own bodies.  They never belonged to themselves.

I have to mention that Haywood was not aiming to attack her male audience (okay maybe a little bit, Beauplaisir was quite oblivious), but rather to have them see what they were doing was not okay.  Haywood allows for the audience to see a redeeming factor in men when Beauplaisir steps up to the plate to help and take care of his child.  Even though it is not his, we see this good side to Beauplaisir. (Haywood, 2812) But alas, he was too late.  Much like men today, Beauplaisir do not realize or admit to their actions. Which is not anything new, which we hear every day in the news and on our social media. Not to mention the multiple women that go without reporting rape, like Fantomina, because they are afraid of what will happen to them.

Fantomina is arguably a very different type of woman than the ones we see headlining the social reform for change with Rape and Sexual Abuse in our world.  She was a young and sexually repressed girl who had never been properly educated as to how she should pursue the adult life and the sexuality that came with it. Haywood knew what she was doing.  She was pushing this character of innocence so she could basically yell in the face of the male society. She wanted to say, “look what you are doing!” We cannot pretend, as a society, that rape is even remotely okay.  Eliza Haywood knew that in the 18th century and used her writing to “refuse to indulge in the fiction” that the romance books of her time provided her female (and male as well) audience. She used her platform to speak her mind and make sure that it spoke about the difficult topics.  Without her, who is to say that those women of the Whig party supporters would have spoken up? Who is to say that we would have such an advanced advocacy for women who have been sexually assaulted?

Eliza Haywood defined rape culture. She is the winner of the fight against rape culture.


Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze. 1724. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 4th ed. Vol. 1C. New York: Longman, 2010. 2796-813. Print.

Hollis, Karen. “ELIZA HAYWOOD AND THE GENDER OF PRINT.” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 38, no. 1, 1997, pp. 43–62. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41467820.

Rudolph, Julia. “Rape and Resistance: Women and Consent in Seventeenth-Century English Legal and Political Thought.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, 2000, pp. 157–184. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/175937.


Morland, Henery Robert. “The Fair Nun Un-Masked.” Art UK, Leeds Museums and Galleries, artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-fair-nun-unmasked-38590/search/keyword:mask/page/4.