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Why Has Humanity Always Fantasized About the Capture and Rape of Women?

Misogyny’s deepest roots are exposed in the endless repetition of stories about capture and rape.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Peter Paul Rubens, "Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus"

 
 
 
 

If you think about it, a woman carried off against her will is one of the most popular stories in human history. Whether she’s forced to marry, sexually violated, or otherwise tormented, the female captive pops up in Persian tales, Arthurian legends, and the great epics of India. She’s a staple of every art form and cultural product, from the paintings of great masters to true crime stories, from sonnets to soap operas. She’s woven into explanations of imperial origins: the Romans became the Romans because they snatched women from a neighboring tribe in a celebrated event known as the Rape of the Sabines. Biblical stories of captured women are so commonplace that the Lord issues helpful instructions on how to do the thing correctly, which include shaving the captive’s head, and if she fails to please you, properly disposing of her after she has been “dishonored.” ( Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

Myths overflow with women abducted and raped (the two terms have an ancient linkage): Persephone is carried off by Hades, Europa by Zeus, and Helen by Paris, which sets off the Trojan War. The romance would not be the romance, nor the novel the novel, without the long tradition of captive women in everything from the legendary medieval romance Apollonius of Tyre, to the grotesqueries of the Marquis de Sade, right on down to Stieg Larsson’s pop culture sensation, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (original title: Men Who Hate Women).  

How do we explain this persistence? First, there’s the ancient notion of a maiden taken for the purpose of bringing “new blood” to the tribe  – what anthropologists call “ exogamy.” This idea, usually expressed in a rape or a violent raid, gets sanitized and elevated in originary cultural narratives like the story of the Virgin Mary, whose divine impregnation (which she didn’t appear to choose), transforms her into the mother of the Christian religion.

Sometimes the captive woman expresses dramatic tensions, and even attractions, between men, as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where the capture and violation of a female creates a fraught male triangle. Other times captive women express economic and political conflicts between large groups. In Europe, popular stories of women abducted into Oriental harems (often featured in erotica) were brought over by settlers to America, where they gave way to tales of white people – often young women – taken captive by Indians (Western movies like The Searchers carried on this tradition). The visual titillation provided by captive women, a favorite theme of great European painters like Rubens and Titian, became a cinematic staple of schlocky slasher films, where young girls are abducted and terrorized until a “rescue” releases the audience from any collective feelings of guilt about watching women chopped into confetti.

The horror doesn’t end with the story. Captivity tales have a disturbing way of floating between fantasy and enactment. The key modern captivity novel, John Fowles’ The Collector,  centers on a lonely clerk who collects butterflies until he kidnaps the object of his romantic obsession and locks her in the cellar. The novel inspired countless imitations in literature and film. It was also cited as the real-life inspiration for not one but three different American serial killers, one of whom, Leonard Lake, actually named his kidnapping and killing spree “Operation Miranda” after the victim in Fowles’ book.

In the porn industry, the capture, degradation and torture of females constitutes an entire subgenre. Women are hogtied, gang-banged, and locked away in dungeons. The captured and raped schoolgirl is a favorite theme of Japanese erotic hentai cartoons and video games. Monster porn adds the spectacle of tentacled aliens and horned devils delivering the torture.