The Language of Marital Rape
An Analysis of Russian and American Literature and Law
“What happens in our intimate lives is reflected by forces on a bigger stage- in politics and economics, in religion and tradition, in gender and generations….If you really want to know a people, you start by looking inside their bedrooms.”
— Shereen El Feki
References to law are all around us. Every day, we encounter numerous instances where the legal system and laws come into action. The same concept applies to the literature that we read, whether it be newspapers, magazine stories or novels. In fact, scholars have suggested that the literature we read, especially when it contains instances relating to the laws that govern our society, is in part a reflection of the societies we live in. Following this reasoning, this thesis aims to discover how the way authors write about marital rape relates to the laws pertaining to the crime, and how accurate the literature is in serving as a reflection of social views on marital rape.
My thesis examines laws and works of literature from the United States and Russia, and compares and contrasts how marital rape is depicted in their corresponding fictional literature, as well as how their laws define the concept of marital rape. I aim to fill that gap in the literature and do a cross-national comparison of literature with some specific instances of marital rape to demonstrate how law emerges in literature and what the depiction of marital rape in literary sources reflects about American and Russian society.
Women in pre-1917 Russia were often seen more like object than rational people with inherent civil rights. These strict gender norms and practices existed up until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which “destroyed and undermined traditional norms and regulators of sexual conduct- church weddings, religious morality, [and] established gender social roles….As early as 1918, women were accorded full equal rights with men in all social and private areas, including marriage and family relations.”[i] Although the post-1917 Revolution push toward gender equality seemed positive in theory, the “liberation of women from the bonds of church-based marriage made them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.”[ii] Recognizing the failing social conditions that stemmed from the “empty plane”[iii] created by the Bolsheviks in their attempt to abolish old beliefs and social norms, the state chose to “return to more and more restrictive social policies,” which led to the suppression of sexuality.[iv] As a result, Soviet people were raised and lived in “an atmosphere of sexual ignorance” and up until the 1960’s, “sex was practically unmentionable” and “not a shred of public information was available about it.”[v] Living in such a society meant that any in-depth discussion of sexual relations did not take place, including instances of marital rape. Since publicly announcing one’s rape would be seen as a flaw of the built Communist utopian society, such instances were never mentioned in public and therefore remain unreported.
Even though laws regarding marital rape have changed, the preconceived notions regarding the marital rape exemption have prevailed and the previously held mentality continues to be reflected in literature. My thesis strives to explore how that mentality plays out in American and Russian literature, and therefore, how those societies approached the laws surrounding marital rape. By doing so, I hope to explore law’s influence on the societies we live in, especially in regards to criminal behavior.
Even though sex crimes are among the most controversial and shocking social infractions, they have received little to no attention in scholarly research on law and literature. Similarly, there has not been literature examining instances of marital rape in novels. In my thesis, I aim to fill that gap in the literature and do a cross-national comparison of literature with instances of marital rape to demonstrate how law emerges in literature and what the depiction of marital rape in literary sources reflects about American and Russian society.
A number of scholarly articles have discussed the history of marital rape. Some authors such as Augustine utilize court cases as their sources, while others use other sources, such as state legislative records,[vi] penal codes,[vii] and other scholarly literature,[viii] in addition to complement their findings. Although rape had been considered illegal as early as the seventeenth century, a rape committed between a husband and wife was not qualified as an illegal act.[ix] Russian legal scholars, such as Antonian and Tkachenko, identify what they believe to be the main causes of rape in a society. The first is a low cultural level in society, since a “civilized society” instead “strictly protects the honour and dignity of woman as symbol of its own honour.”[x] The second factor is the notion that certain men have views of “women as inferior creatures whose wishes one does not need to consider, destined only to serve man as the instrument of his sexual pleasure.”[xi]
Surprisingly, Antonian and Tkachenko also claim that a woman’s own behavior is thought to play “a considerable role in instigating” rape. For women who “really do not want to be raped, and are sober enough to take preventative action, Antonian and Tkachenko offer the following advice. Since some men use rape as a way of overcoming a sense of inadequacy, the woman should try ‘show[ing] him in some other way (not sexual) that his strength and support is essential to her.’”[xii]Antonian and Tkachenko portray rapists as the real victims: “manipulated into giving the woman what she wants and is then reported for doing so.”[xiii] By shifting the blame away from the perpetrators and on to the victims, men who rape their wives are claiming their innocence as opposed to taking responsibility for their actions. Such rapes are not seen as a crime on the husband’s part since the wife was “obviously” asking for it.
Scholars have examined the logic behind the marital rape exception and arrived at two main reasons that past societies had qualified rape as permissible and legal in the confines of marriage: women being seen as property and implied consent of the wife. A girl’s father could trade her virginity to a male suitor for economic or social gains. The initial purpose behind the outlawing of rape was to “protect the chastity of women and thus their property value to their fathers or husbands.”[xiv] By that reasoning, the husband had a property interest in his wife’s fidelity: therefore raping one’s wife was not seen as a crime since it did not infringe any property rights.[xv] In other words, the law is an echo of what society believes that behavior ought to be and not what behavior actually is. In the past, male-dominated society chose to believe that marital rape did not legally occur, but that does not mean that it did not occur in real life.
Academics cite many myths and misconceptions surrounding marital rape that tend to leave women at a disadvantage. Scholars note that because married women are often seen as un-rapable, as a result women themselves believe that it is their marital duty to submit to their husbands, and therefore are less likely to recognize an involuntary and non-consensual sexual act as rape.[xvi] In addition, due to the stigma associated with rape and the desire to avoid showcasing one’s marital issues in public, women are less likely to report instances of marital rape. Studies written in the late 1990’sthus reflecting the mentality of that time period, explain that complaining about an instance of rape was seen as demonstrating one’s marital problems, and since sex is seen as a personal matter between the husband and wife, legal authorities stayed away from becoming involved in couple’s private lives and did not prosecute accusations of marital rape.[xvii] As Klarfeld notes, society historically believed that marital harmony would be disturbed if the law encroached on the personal affairs of individuals and monitored the private lives of couples. However, no one thought to consider the following logical idea - in couples where marital rape occurs, it is probably very unlikely that the couple is living in harmony in the first place. Society also believed that if women were allowed to press charges against their husbands for rape, prosecution would be used by a vindictive wife as retaliation or to receive a more favorable ruling in cases of divorce or custody.[xviii]
As in Russia, there exist a number of rape myths in the United States as well, which discredit legitimate rape accusations. Thus, there exist the conceptions according to which women who are raped are somehow “asking for it” through their behavior or manner of dress, all women secretly want to be raped, and that the victims did not fight back strongly enough to constitute “real” rape.[xix] Even though today these myths are no longer widely believed, the statements must be based on actual preconceived notions that existed a number of years ago.
Even though laws regarding marital rape have changed in the past 300 years, the preconceived notions regarding the marital rape exemption have prevailed and the previously held mentality continues to be reflected in literature today. Most scholars in the field believe that literature can be seen, in a significant degree, as a reflection of law. As the result of this study, I will address how this mentality presents itself in Russian and American literary works and what it tells us about how both societies approach the law.
For my research, I have analyzed various literary sources that portray instances of marital rape. I have reviewed Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell as an example of American literature, and Cement by Fyodor Gladkov ("Цемент" by Федор Гладков), and Generations of Winter by Vasily Aksyonov ("МосковскаяCагa : Война и тюрьма" by ВасилийАксенов) as examples of Russian literature.
In my thesis, I analyze original language texts for the purpose of extracting the most accurate connotation and meaning of the language. In instances where I reference Russian literature, I provide the original quotation in the footnotes section while also providing what I, as a bilingual researcher, consider to be the best personal translation according to content and connotation. When discussing both American and Russian literature, I summarize the text and the specific scenes while paying particular attention to gendered language and language relevant to rape, love, and marriage relations.
Results, Analysis, and Discussion
In analyzing “Цемент” (Cement) by Федор Гладков (Fyodor Gladkov)[xx], we encounter the protagonist, Gleb, returning home from the Russian Civil War to discover that both his town and his wife, Dasha, have drastically changed while he was away. His formerly submissive wife now aims to be the empowered Soviet “new woman,”[xxi] and Gleb finds that her heart has hardened. In Part Two, Section One, Gladkov describes numerous tremulous interactions of the couple at home. Gleb is observing his wife and describes the “old” Dasha to be dead, with a “new” Dasha in front of him, with a scarlet bandana wrapped around her head, her eyes fierce and harsh[xxii]. Gleb recalls how Dasha returns his kisses tentatively, with worry in her eyes.[xxiii] He mentions that every time he approached her filled with carnal desire and passion, she would become aggravated and say, “now you hold on there a minute,” which would sting him as if she were to slap him across the face.[xxiv]Dasha would continue to reprimand him, asking why he “did not see a person in her,” why he did not consider her a “comrade,” and explain that she has changed and is no longer just a “plain woman,” but a valuable person.[xxv] To this, Gleb roughly replies that he currently needs “a plain woman”[xxvi] as opposed to a person and questions whether he “still has the right to have his wife,” or has he turned into a complete fool.[xxvii]
As we continue reading this section, we see Gleb recall another episode where Dasha, while changing for bed, mentions that she knows that he was probably with other women while away.[xxviii] An argument ensues and Gleb, deciding to test if their previous “love” still exists, forcefully grabs Dasha and throws her on the bed.[xxix]Dasha begins to fight back, her body contorting as she struggles to free herself from his grasp.[xxx] Suddenly, she kicks him off the bed and stands up.[xxxi]Gleb begins to plead that he does not understand why she is “torturing” him, to which Dasha responds that she refuses to engage in any relations with him until they know each other once again.[xxxii]
In this episode, we witness an attempted marital rape. Through his complaint that he wants a “plain woman” at the moment as opposed to a “comrade,” Gleb is referring to his desire to have sex as opposed to engage in stimulating conversation. By using the phrase “plain woman,” he implies that any woman, even one off the street would do. From his phrasing, we can conclude that he does not want to have intimate relations with Dasha because she is his wife, but because she is just a simple means to satisfy his urges.
Gleb equates not having the right to “have his wife” to being a fool. By doing so, we see the right to demand sex from one’s wife at any moment as a way to maintain a proper social status and power. Dasha’s refusal to submit to him insults his pride and catches him off guard since he has never experienced such denial before. By justifying his actions as a way to test if their previous “love” is still present, Gleb is defining “love” as Dasha’s “submission.” This episode presents a direct correlation between “love” and sex and leads to the assumption that a “loving” marriage or relationship, a notion that is often mentioned and couples, both in this novel and in American and Russian societies, strive to achieve, is defined by a submissive woman, or that “love” must be proven through a carnal act.
In Vasily Aksyonov’s МосковскаяСага: Война и тюрьма (Generations of Winter: Book 2)[xxxiii], we encounter Nikita and Veronika reuniting after four years apart .The couple is finally alone for the first time and they begin discussing Veronika’s experience in a labor camp. Nikita mentions to Veronika that she has remained as pretty and lovely as when he last saw her, but Veronika flinches and upon looking at his face sees something frightening and unrecognizable.[xxxiv] Veronika recalls that previously, even after a short time apart, Nikita would right away drag her upstairs and unless he got what he wanted, would be unable to converse with anyone.[xxxv] However, now, after four years apart, he spent several hours downstairs and smiled at everyone, even at her, but not in the same wanting way that he used to.[xxxvi] Nikita proceeds to sit Veronika down on his lap, murmuring that she still uses the same perfume, and begins to unbutton Veronika’s dress, to which she proposes that they just go to bed.[xxxvii] Nikita continues to question her about her time in the labor camp, and thus suddenly feels himself lose all control. He suddenly grabs her and turns her back to him.[xxxviii] As he catches his reflection in the window, he sees what he describes to be a highly pornographic image of an officer with a half-undressed “plain woman,”[xxxix] an image that stirs up everything inside him.[xl] Afterwards, they both lay motionlessly on the bed, Veronika with her face buried in a blanket.[xli] They were both utterly filled with anguish and sorrow and realized that they would never be able to return to the pure gentleness and passion that they had previously shared, and that all that remained between them was only prostitution.[xlii] After Veronika notices that Nikita has fallen asleep, she begins to pace around the room in distress.[xliii] She suddenly sits down on the floor by her dresser, and breaks down crying under the weight of her grief, shame, and hopelessness.[xliv]
In this episode, we witness Nikita, frustrated his time in the prison camp, rape his wife Veronika. Veronika sees something frightening and unrecognizable in his face, meaning that she has never seen this side of him before and it is scaring her. Aksyonov then describes Nikita as losing control, as if it was not his choice to rape his wife. In fact, when Nikita catches his reflection in the window, he describes what he sees as if he was viewing someone else. He has a visceral reaction to what he sees because he himself realized what he is doing and is disgusted and ashamed of it. At that moment, Nikita realizes that, like Dasha and Gleb in Cement, his relationship with Veronika has forever changed and they will never go back to the way they previously were. Nikita regrets what he did, which is a sign that this carnal act was not consensual. We also see Veronika experience grief, shame, and hopelessness after the incident, pacing around the room and feeling like a prostitute with her own husband. Her husband degrades her much like she was degraded in the labor camp, and consequently, she portrays feeling used and is in deep distress over the episode.
In the episode, Nikita takes out his frustration and anger at the outside world and his experiences in the past four years on Veronika. He does not rape her to be malicious or to hurt her, as demonstrated by his guilt and shame following the incident. Veronika merely becomes caught in the crossfire of his emotions. Nikita is not trying to get what he believes to be his “marital right,” nor does he exhibit any signs of viewing Veronika in a degrading light. Nikita’s frustrations with the outside world got the best of him and he took them out on the closest person to him.
In Chapter 54 of Gone with the Wind,[xlv] we encounter an interaction between Scarlet and drunken Rhett, who is described as “a terrifying faceless black bulk that swayed slightly on its feet.” After a short conversation about the night’s events, Rhett tells Scarlett that he loves her and suddenly seizes her:
“He swung her off her feet into his arms and started up the stairs. Her head was crushed against his chest and she heard the hard hammering of his heart beneath her ears. He hurt her and she cried out, muffled, frightened. Up the stairs he went in the utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. He was shaking, as though he stood in a strong wind, and his lips, traveling from her mouth downward to where the wrapper had fallen from her body, fell on her soft flesh….She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. When she awoke the next morning, he was gone.…The man who had carried her up the dark stairs was a stranger of whose existence she had not dreamed. He had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it…. Rhett loved her! At least, he said he loved her and how could she doubt it now?”
— Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind(New York: Scribner, 2011): 871.
In this passage, we see how Rhett takes Scarlett by force, crushing her head against her chest, humble, hurt, and use her “brutally through a wild mad night.” Scarlett is described as being frightened by the “black darkness.” She screams, stifles herself against him, obviously struggling to get away from Rhett. One does not usually associate words such as “brutal,” “crushing,” “fear,” or “hurt” with a consensual and pleasant sexual experience. Scarlett is attempting to escape from Rhett who is scaring and obviously hurting her. If one would read this passage, they would describe this as a scene of violence and force. The scene is described with vocabulary which is not used to describe voluntary sexual relations. However, at the end of the passage, the reader is told that Scarlett “gloried in” the experience. The message that this passage is sending to the reader is that Rhett raped Scarlett, and she seems to like it. We see her as waking up the next morning and remembering that she “gloried in” the abuse and ecstatic at the realization that Rhett loves her. In fact, she sees the rape as a demonstration of Rhett’s love for her. Once again, sex, and more specifically, forced sex, are being presented as visible markers or signs of love.
Scarlett’s reaction to the rape can be attributed to the social norms by which she has been raised. She has been raised “to consider sex merely a duty of marriage-the less said about it the better.”[i] Therefore, Scarlett may not recognize that coercion and force are not usual parts of sex. She grew up in a society that did not discuss sex, especially not with young ladies, and therefore all she knows and believes to be right is that it is her marital duty to submit to her husband. Thus, in the previous described scene, Scarlett feels that she must be happy about what happened in the morning, because she was taught that it was her duty to do so as a way to maintain marital bliss. Marital rape was not recognized as a crime in the 1860s or in 1936, and therefore it would not be as shocking as it is in present-day society to portray a rape where the woman appears to like it, as expected of her by society.
There exists a lot of discourse about whether this scene in Gone with the Wind is actually rape or just rough sex. Some argue that Scarlett was in fact raped and consequently novels such as Gone with the Wind render the reality of rape as invisible by portraying “the rapist as a handsome man whose domination is pleasurable in bed, and portray women as happy to have their own sexual choices and refusals crushed by such men.”[ii] Those who read the novel from a feminist perspective argue that “to try and make Scarlett finally fall in love with Rhett after all this is the ultimate insult to women,” since it gives men the green light “to abuse and humiliate women and if they do so badly enough the women will fall in love with them in return.”[iii] Such critics claim that the scene reinforces erroneous stereotypes portraying “women secretly desire to be taken by force,” and that men are led to commit the “‘ultimate act of domination’ because he is denied ‘the privileges he assumes are his right,’” which is common in twentieth-century American Southern fiction.[iv]
Others “recognize the ambiguous nature of the encounter and interpret it as a scene of mutually pleasurable rough sex,”[v] citing her giggling in the afterglow as their evidence. However, these claims only reinforce the previously discussed myths that woman secretly want to be taken by force, and thus reinforcing false rape myths. Despite Scarlett reacting masochistically to her rape by Rhett, I still believe that this episode is an example of marital rape, which is telling of the prevailing society norm of male aggressive and female submissiveness, in which Gone with the Wind takes place.
Even though all the novels analyzed portray a scene relating to marital rape, the background and social impact of the novels differ. For example, Gladkov’s Cement is an example of Socialist Realism writing.[vi] Dasha is portrayed as the ideal “new Soviet woman” who is socially equal to men and also politically active. Having Cement as a socialist realist novel presents a complication in my analysis, because it portrays how society should be as opposed to what society was actually like. Gleb and Dasha portray the pre-/post-revolution set of social norms and laws, but due to the genre of the novel, I cannot for sure claim whether Gladkov portrays the reality as it then was, or an idealistic wishful view of Soviet society. On the other hand, Mitchell is writing about a time period which existed approximately 80 years before she writes the novel, so even if social attitudes towards marital rape had changed, the marital rape exemption was still in place during both time periods. The novel reflects society’s views on the acceptability of marital rape and portrays a disturbing message: not only is marital rape not a crime or an unacceptable act, it is, in fact, what the woman wants, as demonstrated by Scarlett’s reaction in the morning-after scene.
Although none of the novels explicitly use the word “rape” to describe the scenes, it can be inferred that the author’s apprehension to name appropriately the violent act that occurred is due to the general lack of openness about this topic. In the United States, what occurred between Rhett and Scarlett would not be considered to be marital rape (since in the eyes of the law it did not exist), while in the Soviet Union sex was not discussed, so instances of marital rape would not be called to the public’s attention.
By analyzing Russian and American literature and law, this thesis revealed the mindset of husband rapists; including the guilt some of the described protagonists have experiences, and the factors that lead them to commit such acts of violence. Marital rape often occurs when the man feels that he must assert his dominance and re-gain power in his life. Gone with the Wind, a novel written in America at the time when the marital rape exemption was in place, demonstrates the victim seemingly enjoying the encounter, and thus not portraying the carnal act as criminal, as it actually should had been perceived by the readers. Generations of Winter portrays a guilty perpetrator, reflecting the post-Soviet mentality of the author even though the plot takes place during the Soviet era. Soviet literature often reflects the legal and general social changes and shift towards gender equality that were occurring, and thus demonstrating the clash of old vs. new mentalities.
Although marital rape in both American and Russian literature can be explained by the laws and the prevailing mentality which were in place at the time, I cannot make universal claims that the literature completely and accurately reflects the views of society. As with any literary work, these novels may purely be a mirror which exposes the very personal or individual thoughts and perspectives of the authors. However, if we are seeing the authors as products and also potential “reflectors” of the environment they live in, at least some portions of their descriptions of instances of marital rape can be attributed to the American and Russian societies as a whole. Through its analysis of both law and literature, this thesis helps us gain a better understanding of how the society we live in shapes our understanding of the ways of the world, including how we write about it.
In brainstorming ways to combine her interests in Slavic Literature and Sex Crime Law(s), Lena Gryaznova (’14) became interested in examining in her thesis how sex crimes were portrayed in Russian and American literature. After stumbling upon an article on Marital Rape exemption that used to be in place, she decided to write her thesis on Marital Rape in law and literature of the United States and Russia.