Rape has been defined and redefined for centuries.
Greeks portrayed it as heroic conquest, as in Zeus in the guise of a swan enveloping Leda. For Romans, it was a narrative pivot point in the history of their kings, particularly the rape of Lucretia, the virtuous wife of a Roman prince whose rape led to the formation of a new Roman republic.
They called it raptus, derived from the Latin verb rapere, meaning to forcibly seize and carry off — it was kidnapping more than violation, women as the spoils of war.
According to The Encyclopedia of Rape, a comprehensive history edited by scholar Merril Smith, in Hammurabi’s ancient code from 1780 bc, virgins who were raped were considered innocent while their offenders were executed; however, if a married woman was raped, she was considered an adulteress, and both she and her rapist were thrown in the river unless her husband bestowed mercy.
In the Middle Ages, the rape of a virgin was a crime against a woman’s family, because her virginity had to be protected in order for her to make a prosperous marriage. If a woman who claimed she was raped became pregnant, she was often considered a liar; a woman’s orgasm was thought to be necessary to conceive, and she couldn’t have had an orgasm if sex was forced on her.
In the United States, legal and linguistic shifts continued well into the twentieth century. In 1940 an American husband was still legally free to force himself on his wife, and some states retained this law into the 1990s. The FBI’s definition of rape, formulated in 1927 — “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” — did not waver.
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Eighty-five years later, the definition shifted and finally began to include male and trans victims. Today, our law calls rape “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Reasons consent cannot be given include the use of force, the threat of force, or incapacitation. Though universities have messed with the definition of incapacitation, in criminal law, those who can’t give consent are those who are unconscious due to drinking or drugs, asleep, physically or mentally disabled, or underage.