Is rape a cultural construct?

I have been writing a job application recently, which inevitably involved updating my CV. It has been the biggest CV overhaul I have done for a long time, and it set me reflecting on what have been the themes of all the work I have ever done. One of these turns out to be ‘multiple viewpoints’. My PhD at Edinburgh back in the 1990s was about disagreement, and how to get a computer system to be able to handle the knowledge from multiple sources with wildly differing worldviews (such as Inuit people and the oil industry, or peanut farmers and doctors, or beekeepers and meteorologists). These days I write novels, but I realise that all my novels have people with different cultures bumping into each other. The action is fuelled by the resulting misunderstanding or discord.

The reason I find novel writing so interesting is because I have to get myself inside people with different world views. In The Last Bear the three main characters were Viking, Scots and Pict.

In my most recent novel trilogy, Pytheas arrives from the Greek empire on the western and northern shores of the British Isles, and he brings with him a mindset that is fundamentally different from the Celtic culture he is visiting. A rape plays an important role in the story, and (without spoiling the story) I have had to get my head around what the ancient Greek and ancient Celtic views of rape would have been. It’s hard to know, of course, with any certainty. I have asked numerous historians what they think and it is clear that twentieth-century ideas about rape just don’t map onto the Iron Age.

It seems that in ancient Greek culture, the idea that a woman might need to consent to sex was not an issue. One historian said to me, ‘The only man who would be likely to be worried about the rape of a woman was if he was her father, because by no longer being a virgin she would have lost value.’ It’s hard for me to get my mind around quite such a radical reduction of a woman to a commodity. So Pytheas, coming from such a patriarchy, would be unlikely to be sympathetic to a woman who had been forced into sex against her will.

Were people’s views any different on the Atlantic fringes? It’s hard to know, but there are signs that the culture was much less patriarchal. The most powerful deities were goddesses, and there were matrilineal forms of inheritance. The chances are that women held relatively high status in society. So perhaps an Iron Age woman in the north might have had a greater expectation of the right to choose who she did and who she didn’t have sex with. I hope so.


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