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


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.

There is no telling how many souls sit in darkened rooms consuming these flickering fantasies, which reflect the whole pantheon of sexual taboos and repressions. It’s not only men; women, too, have fantasies associated with capture-and-rape, for a variety of reasons, among them the need to erase culturally prescribed guilt about initiating sex. For a reasonably well-adjusted adult, consumption of violent porn may be a way to process common human fears and desires in a way that doesn’t actually hurt anyone. For others -- it’s impossible to know how many -- the images may become haunting demons that taunt the watcher into action.

In any case, the fantasy of capturing a woman and getting away with it is nothing if not pervasive. But how exactly does the fantasy come to be acted out? Would it happen, or happen as often, without the images and the narratives pointing the way?

We don’t yet know what combination of elements drove Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro to enact his particular fantasies, what biological components and individual life experiences set the stage for his horrific actions. But we do know that the capture-and-rape narrative is deeply embedded in our cultural DNA. We think of acts like Castro’s as the aberrations of a monster or the sickness of a pervert, but they reflect something that permeates our shared culture – our literature, myths, religious rituals, everything that forms what Freud called our archaic inheritance, or, if you prefer Jung, our collective unconscious.

It is the myth of Persephone, I think, which exposes the deepest roots of the capture-and-rape fantasy. In that ancient tale, Persephone is out gathering flowers when a cleft in the earth opens and out leaps Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who snatches her and carries her off to his dark kingdom. Eventually, Persephone is allowed to return to the upper world for half the year. The part where she is down below is winter, and her return signals spring.

In this case, the abduction of a woman is meant to explain the cycles of nature. That makes sense when you consider that a woman’s body is always more connected to the cycles of nature than a man’s. It’s she who bleeds every month, and she who gives birth. Because of her association with the cycles of life, she’s always connected to death. After all, that which is born must also die. (The death and the maiden motif, a cousin of capture-and-rape, is its own artistic subgenre.) The womb is always connected to the tomb. And woman must be punished for it.

In many ways, human civilization can be seen as a frantic effort to transcend nature – to break away from the cycles that condemn us to die. Patriarchal cultures work desperately to erase our dependence on nature, personified in women’s bodies. We give children the names of their fathers, erasing matrilineal history, and in our religious fantasies we turn mothers into virgins impregnated by gods. We intuitively understand that manly gods, whether Zeus or Yahweh, must impose themselves over nature and humans – that is how we know they are gods. We are conditioned to expect that they will exert their authority through and over the bodies of women.

In the kingdom of his dilapidated home, Ariel Castro could fancy himself a godling; transcendent over the processes of nature. He could control the sexuality of the women he imprisoned. He could control the process of birth, which he evidently did with deadly enthusiasm, forcing Michelle Knight to deliver Amanda Berry’s baby, threatening to murder her if the infant did not survive. He was in charge of the process of life and death. Destiny itself belonged to him.

Castro is a deeply disturbed criminal, but he is not an alien. The sensationalistic coverage of the Cleveland kidnappings, with its rapt attention to every lurid detail, every particle of torture, expresses both our horror at the criminal’s actions and our voyeuristic participation in his fantasy. The comforting notion that we are only trying to understand brutality erases the shared guilt we feel in suspecting that a whole host of psychological, cultural and political structures in our society reinforce the idea that a woman is an object to be taken and owned, a bit of prey to be hunted, a temptation whose behavior can suddenly spark a man’s animal nature. The focus on the criminal’s punishment – will he or won’t he get the death penalty?  -- promises the counterpart of the “happy ending” in the slasher film. And yet once the criminal has been brought to justice, the vicious dynamics of power, the negligence of the legal system, the visual culture dependent on tormented female bodies, and the lingering curse of patriarchy itself, remain largely undisturbed. 

But no matter, soon we’ll get to see the made-for-TV movie.

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