Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present

Joanna Bourke,
Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present.
Virago Press, 2007
ISBN-13: 978 184408154 7
UK£12.99 (pb)

In the introduction to her exhaustive Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present (2007), history professor and self-defined “socialist feminist”[1]  Joanna Bourke presents statistics that chillingly demonstrate just how pervasive the reality of rape is. She cites evidence claiming approximately 47,000 adult females were raped each year in the United Kingdom, and that in the United States, 27% of a sample of female college students were either victims of rape or attempted rape since the age of 14[2] . As if this is not intolerable enough, an even more glaring statistic in particular leaps to the attention of those of us with a specific interest in the representation of rape in film. On the back of the 2008 paperback release, the blurb begins with the shocking declaration that “one in every eight Hollywood movies includes a rape scene”.

Although not a Cinema Studies book per se, the privileged position of this statement as a key ‘selling point’ places it squarely within the discipline’s critical grasp. While there is little debate of the ubiquity of images of sexual violence on-screen[3] , this simple statement even at first glance raises more questions than it answers: Which Hollywood films? From what time period? Any genres specifically? Upon what criteria for text selection is this statistic based? A closer examination leads to the source of this statistic, tucked away in the footnoted small print on page 443. Bourke cites David Gelman’s 1990 Newsweek article “The Mind of the Rapist”, an in-depth analysis of the motivations that lead some men to rape. Bourke’s statement that “one in every eight Hollywood movies includes a rape scene” does not in fact quote Gelman at all, but rather paraphrases claims made in his interview with the notorious right-wing lobbyist, Dr Thomas Radecki. “Radecki cites statistics showing one out of eight Hollywood movies depicts a rape theme”, writes Gelman, but (apparently unobserved by Bourke) hastens to add only a few lines later that “Radecki’s position with a special-interest group may make such figures a little suspect”[4] .

To a trained researcher of Bourke’s calibre, it is first and foremost of concern that Radecki’s statement about “rape theme(s)” converts without explanation into literal “rape scenes”: as has been elaborated by writers such as Sarah Projansky and Sabine Sielke, there is often a stark chasm between the thematic intent of the representation of rape in film and its actual relationship to the realities of sexual violence. Of equal concern is the very public downfall of Radecki and his group, the National Coalition on Television Violence. Bourke may have viewed as irrelevant the fact that Radecki had publicly rallied against everything from Dungeons and Dragons [5] , Disney[6] , Cyndi Lauper[7]  and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles [8]  to Olympic boxing[9]  and Hamlet [10] . But much less apparent is why, with her avowed and determined focus upon women, sex and power, she should rely so heavily upon a misquoted and unsupported statistic from a man that the public record alleges had his licence to practice psychiatry in the State of Illinois revoked for a minimum of five years due to “allegations of inappropriate sexual activity…with one of his female patients”[11] . While these allegations may not have influenced Bourke’s decision to flaunt this statistic so aggressively, it certainly affected Radecki’s position as a key figure in public discourse on screen violence: he all but vanished from the field after this incident[12] .

Why does this matter? Consider the press excerpts that accompany this “one in every eight” claim on the book’s back cover: “A tour de force of evidence and argument”, declares Jean Seaton of The Guardian. “A new milestone in research on the complexities of sexual violence”, chimes in Lynne Segal of THES. What is significant is not just the fact that such an error could sneak into a prime position on this book’s back cover in the first place. More importantly, it is that even despite this, the book is still celebrated as a research victory. I am therefore personally and professionally horrified that such a hugely important area has been reduced to little more than a shiny (and inherently dubious) promotional gimmick that might help sell a few more books. That statistic is not only misquoted, but the source article itself even casts doubt upon its reliability. There is no debate that images of rape are ubiquitous, but taking this privileged position of this statistic into account, can the book really be celebrated as “a tour de force of evidence”?

Not in my name.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas,
La Trobe University, Australia.


[1]  Farry, Eithne. “Why Aren’t We More Outraged?” The Guardian. 5 October 2007.http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/oct/05/gender.uk. Accessed 1 December 2008.
[2]  Bourke, Joanna. Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present. Virago: London, 2008. 17.
[3] Projansky, Sarah. Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture. New York: New York UP, 2001. See also: Sielke, Sabine. Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.
[4] Gelman, David. “The Mind of the Rapist”. Newsweek. July 23 1990. http://www.newsweek.com/id/127857. Accessed 1 December 2008.
[5] Cardwell, Jr., Paul. “The Attack on Role Playing Games”. Skeptical Inquirer. 18.2(Winter 1994): 157-165.
[6] “Duck, Donald! Is Disney too violent?” Time 123 (May 7, 1984): 108. Also, “Disney TV Is Called Violent.” New York Times. 24 April 1984. C18.
[7] Kaplan, Peter W. “TV Notes: Measuring Violence in Rock N’ Roll Videos.” New York Times. 15 December 1984. A46.
[8] Radecki, Thomas. “Ninja Turtles Is Too Violent for Children”. USA Today. 17 April 1990. A10.
[9] “In Search of a Knockout” Christianity Today. 33.6 (7 April 1989): 50.
[10]  Harmetz, Aljean. “Some Groups Unhappy with PG-13 Rating”. New York Times. 13 August 1984. C.20.
[11] In his article “The Attacks on Role Playing Games” (1994), Paul Cardwell Jr. cites the case “Department of Professional Regulation. State of Illinois v. Thomas E. Radecki, No. 91-6666-LEG, consent order” which appears to refer to the revoking of Radecki’s license. More explicit is the story in Entertainment Weekly on December 25, 1992 (#150-151) which states “the founder of the National Coalition of Television Violence is charged with inappropriate sexual activity.” See http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,312826,00.html
[12] Radecki has re-appeared in recent years as the head of a new lobby group called Doctors and Lawyers for a Drug Free Youth. In a letter to the editor of New Scientist magazine on 4 March 2006, he signs as representative of the group.

Created on: Saturday, 18 April 2009

About the Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

About the Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a PhD student in the Cinema Studies department at Latrobe University. She is a regular contributor to a variety of publications, and teaches Cinema Studies at Latrobe and Swinburne University. More information can be found http://www.heller-nicholas.com/alexandra.View all posts by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas →