The Christian View on Rape


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    If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife ...
    Deuteronomy 22:28-9


    This biblical passage clearly countenanced the rape of virgins, and Christians were generally prepared to follow God's guidance on the matter. If a Christian man wanted to marry an unwilling nubile woman one of the best ways to do it was to rape her and pay up. The idea held through the Dark and Middle Ages and into modern times. This happened not just among the lower classes. Eleanor of Aquitaine escaped two attempted rapes by ambitious Christian nobles in the short time between her divorce from the king of France and her marriage to the future king of England. Fifty shekels was not a bad price for the rich lands of Aquitaine. Isabelle, the twelve year old daughter of the Count of Angouleme, was abducted by King John in 1200 so that he could marry her, even though she was already betrothed. Mary Queen of Scots was obliged to marry James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, after being raped by him a month earlier in 1567.

    The idea was explicitly recognised in Church Law, as one of the three circumstances in which marriage was lawful.

    One reads of three lawful marriages in scripture [cf. Deut. 22:28]. ...
    The second is when a virgin is seized by a man in the city and joined with him through force. If her father wishes, the man must endow her with as much as the father decides, and then give him the price of her modesty.
    (Decretum gratiani, Case 36, q II, C8)

    The price is specified later in the chapter as fifty silver drachmas, rather than the fifty shekels specified by the bible.

    Sometimes theologians ignored the words of Deuteronomy 22:23-27, which prescribed punishments for other categories of rape. Pope Gregory I confirmed explicitly that rape was not a defilement. On the other hand, women who invited rape by their looks were defiled, and thus sinful. In support he cited Matthew 15:11, which said that people are defiled by what goes out not by what goes in. Inviting looks went out, so that is where the sin lay, not with the rape itself*.

    As in many non-Christian religious countries today, it was accepted that a women on her own out of doors was fair game for any man. Even knightly proponents of courtly love found "a little compulsion" acceptable. As Andrew the Chaplain (Andreas Capellanus), at the court of Alienor of Aquitaine put it around 1186, in the Third Dialogue of De amore

    If you should, by some chance, fall in love with a peasant woman, be careful to puff her up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient opportunity, do not hold back but take your pleasure and embrace her by force. For you can hardly soften their outward inflexibility so far that they will grant you their embraces quietly or permit you to have the solaces you desire unless you first use a little compulsion as a convenient cure for their shyness..

    Sir Lancelot, as portrayed by Chrétien de Troyes in his the Knight of the Cart, expressed another view the contemporary code of knightly honour. He maintained that a knight should not rape a woman travelling alone, but a knight who fights and defeats a woman’s male escort ‘would then be able to have his will of her without incurring any shame or reproach’. Medieval women were possessions of a man. They were listed as the daughter, wife, or widow of their closest male kin. If the male guardian could not protect a woman’s chastity, then it was taken for granted that it would be taken, much like any other possession he might have dropped in the road.

    The words of Deuteronomy 22 and Decretum gratiani were often used to justify the rape of virgins. If a man wanted to marry a woman - whether she wanted him or not - a standard ,method was to abduct her and have sex with her. As "soiled goods", she would be unlikely to find another husband, so her choice was to marry her abductor or live out the rest of her life as a spinster. The biblical passage only seems to have been applied to social equals. There would be no expectation of marriage between a lord and peasant woman.

    The idea was not confined to Catholics. Calvinist Geneva permitted a single woman's father to consent to her marriage to her rapist. The victim had no separate right to refuse the marriage, and the perpetrator had no right to divorce.

    The practice of raping virgins in order to marry them was popular well into the twentieth century in conservative Christian countries. Until the 1980s it was common practice for Sicilian youths to rape girls in order to force them to marry. There was thought to be little wrong with this technique, after all it is sanctioned by the passage from Deuteronomy cited above and had by then enjoyed centuries of sanctification by the Church. The girl had virtually no rights in the matter. If she declined to marry the man concerned she could expect little sympathy, after all she was no longer a virgin. No other respectable Christian man would want her. For the rest of her life she would be considered little better than a common prostitute, even though she was blameless. The practice may not yet be obsolete in Roman Catholic countries, nor in Orthodox ones, though it is no longer as universally acceptable as it once was, and it tends to make the newspaper headlines nowadays*. Being justified in scripture one can see why the Church should have difficulty in condemning premeditated rape like this. Yet the modern mind might marvel that men who regard themselves as the highest moral authority on earth can have accepted this practice while condemning masturbation as a heinous sin.

    The Old Testament refers many times to rape, or what we now regard as rape. According to God's own infallible scripture rape is encouraged by God. He threatens it and on occasion he abets it. If the victim is a virgin she may be obliged to marry her rapist. If the victim is already married then she is to be stoned to death*.

    Many books called penitentials have survived from the early Middle Ages. They list various sexual sins and for each a recommended penance, from which it is possible to establish the various rankings of seriousness in different places and at different times. The crime of rape did not feature at all. It became a crime only as the Church tightened its grip on all matters sexual. Gratian seems to have redefined an existing term raptus to cover what we would now call rape, adopting the idea from the Code of Justinian. Rape was still not necessarily a serious crime. Like other crimes against property, its seriousness depended on the value of the property. There was also a question of family honour. The greater the family honour, the greater the crime. Ordinary people had no great family honour to cite, so their daughters could not hope for the protection of the law. Where rapists were fined, the penalty was sometimes halved if the victim was a servant. There are still remnants of such views. For example rape is unusually difficult to prove in Chile because the penal code for sexual crimes from 1874 describes it as a "crime against the honour of families and good customs". No family honour: no crime.

    Abducted women were safe if rescued by their own family,
    but "rescue" by anyone else might well be worse
    The Rescue
    , by Vereker Monteith Hamilton

    In some towns gang rape seems to have been common, and the perpetrators were punished — if they were punished at all — by a fine or a short spell in prison*. The Church still did not regard certain types of rape as punishable offences. For example a man could still rape his wife. So too, he could rape as many prostitutes as he desired. In Europe, this changed only after the crime had been taken over by the secular courts

    Legal cases reflected Christian mores, and in particular that women were property. In 1707, English Lord Chief Justice John Holt described the act of a man having sexual relations with another man's wife as "the highest invasion of property".

    Sir Matthew Hale, in his 1736 legal treatise, Historia Placitorum Coronæ or History of the Pleas of the Crown, wrote that rape within marriage could not be recognised since the wife "hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract." The law was revised in England and Wales in 1991 by the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, in the case of R v R (1991 All ER 481).

    Traditional rape laws in the US defined rape as forced sexual intercourse by a male with a "female not his wife", making it clear that the statutes did not apply to married couples. For example the 1962 Model Penal Code stated that "A male who has sexual intercourse with a female not his wife is guilty of rape if: ..." In the USA the rape statutes in many states precluded the prosecution of spouses, including estranged or even legally separated couples. In 1993, North Carolina became the last state to remove the spousal exemption. But this did not mean that rape within marriage was treated as seriously as other rape. Some states regard rape within marriage, spousal rape, as a lesser crime than rape. Spousal rape was treated like other cases of rape only where "excessive" force or violence was used. When Tennessee changed its law in 2005, it left South Carolina the only US state with a law requiring excessive force or violence for spousal rape to be considered like other cases of rape.

    Feminists have worked since the 1960s to criminalised marital rape as part of a world-wide reclassification of sexual crimes from offences against morality, the family, good customs, honor, or chastity to offences against liberty, self-determination, or physical integrity. Heavily Catholic countries still retain vestiges of the biblical law. For example criminal prosecution for rape still terminates in some South American countries if victim and perpetrator marry.

    Views among conservative Christians in the USA appear not to have moved very far from the traditional Christian position. In the run-up to the 2012 elections in the USA, a right wing Christian U.S. Senate candidate, Todd Akin, attempted to justify his position that abortion should not be permitted in cases where rape has led to pregnancy. He said on television that in cases of "legitimate rape" women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy (which he was unable to explain or justify). Another candidate, Richard Mourdock in Indiana also defended the view that abortion should not be permitted when pregnancy is caused by rape, During a debate with Democrat Joe Donnelly, he said: " I came to realise that life is a gift from God - that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." In saying that it was "something God intended" he was simply stating the traditional Church justification for opposing abortion, but articulating it was enough for many modern Christian voters to abandon him.


    Characteristically Christian views on rape in the Republican party in the USA, ("God's Own Party") based on traditional Christian teachings, is the butt of bitter humour for secularists and liberal Churches alike.
    The quotations below are all genuine.



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    § Penitentials did mention raptus, but in Roman law raptus did not necessarily involve sex. The penitentials regarded raptus as the Roman law did — as a property offence, since a female chattel was being stolen from her legal guardian. Raptus corresponds most closely to what would now be called abduction or kidnapping. See Richards, Sex, Dissidence and Damnation, p 30.

    §. Gregory the Great, Canonical Letter I. Modern versions tend to translate the passage from Matthew as referring specifically to what goes into and comes out of the mouth, but Gregory evidently had a broader understanding.

    §. At the time of writing the practice is still common, for example in Georgia. "My hostage and my wife", The Tuesday Review, The Independent, features p 9, 20 th October 1998.

    §. For God's observations on and instructions about rape see Deuteronomy 20:10-14, Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Deuteronomy 22:23-24, Deuteronomy 22:28-29, Judges 21:10-24, Numbers 31:7-18, 2 Samuel 12:11-14, Judges 5:30, Exodus 21:7-11, and Zechariah 14:1-2). For an effective summary see

    §. Richards, Sex, Dissidence and Damnation, pp 38-39 citing Ruggiero, Guido, The Boundaries of Eros ( Oxford, 1988) for cases in Dijon and Venice.


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