Repository logo

Rape and "consent to force" : legal doctrine and social context in Victorian Britain



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title




Degree Level



This thesis is an exercise in the historical use of legal analysis. It illuminates the social construction of gender in an era of changing social mores, by relating rape doctrines to demographic, economic, social, and cultural changes. Changes in the rape law of early Industrial Britain (1800-1860) are examined as: 1). results of ideological changes since the eighteenth century; and 2). causes of the creation of Victorian sexual culture. The ideology of “Separate Spheres” for men and women led to a fearful sexual regime which prescribed chaperoning to ensure women’s chastity. Law made women’s avoidance of being alone outside, where they could become prey of strange men, a requirement for sexual respectability, because rape became more difficult to prove.The 1817 rural Midlands murder case of Rex versus Abraham Thornton caused popular controversy because the judge said physical evidence of brutal sex was not inconsistent with consensual sex: the woman could have been “persuaded” by violence: reasonable doubt on the rape meant the accused was presumed to lack a motive to kill the deceased. Thornton was influential on law and gender ideology. “Consent to force”—the idea that a woman could meaningfully consent to sex after violence—was extended in later rape cases. Secondly, even though the public reacted against Thornton’s acquittal, popular culture interpreted it to support “Stranger Danger”—that women risk rape by strangers while out alone, and should remain at home unless accompanied by trusted men. “Consent to Force” and “Stranger Danger” worked at different levels of the social hierarchy. But both served to extend Separate Spheres to working class women.Law undermined traditional mores which had supported the North West European marriage system—late marriage, small age difference between brides and grooms, nuclear family households, and numerous adolescents working in others’ homes as servants, resulting in low rates of premarital births during long courtships. Young commoners had managed a sexual balancing act by engaging in sexual exploration while refraining from vaginal intercourse. Late marriage, very low illegitimacy, and high rates of prenuptial conceptions of first marital births, resulted from young couples engaging in sexual intercourse only when conditions for marriage were right. Young men had to marry pregnant sweethearts, because communities could identify putative fathers.Industrialization threw the North West marriage system out of balance: young men became more mobile and able to evade forced marriage. It also became more difficult for young men, especially artisans, to achieve the status traditionally associated with marriage. This sexual crisis was exacerbated by upper class libertinism spreading to commoner men. The Thornton case promoted libertinism among all men, to allow men of higher class to approach lower class women for prostitution.The moral denigration of lower class women under rape law after Thornton was the flip side of the association of marriage with making wives consent to sex upon demand by their husbands, under Fraternal Patriarchy. Categorizing women as “bad girls” or “good girls” became central to rape law, yet illusory. Lower class women “persuadable” by force were subjected to similar constraints as wives: both were to think selflessly about fulfilling men’s “needs”. Bourgeois wives, like domestic servants, entered lifelong contracts to serve heads of households upon demand. Domestic torts based upon the property right of masters of households to service provided by wives and children, as well as servants, linked treatment of different classes of women. But because lower class women were not marriageable to elite men, their premarital chastity was not considered as valuable. Working class women’s gender value was discounted; working class men were emasculated as potential heads of households, by economic instability interfering with marriage, the displacement of men’s authority over wives to their employers, and the 1834 New Poor Law, which proposed removing wives and children from working class husbands and fathers when they went onto relief. De-gendering of lower class women and men was reflected in the difficulty that lower class men had in obtaining damages for domestic torts. Privileging of the bourgeois with respect to gender contributed to the failure of feminist and labour movements to cement a political alliance. Industrial-era rape doctrines were ultimately applied to all women rape complainants, regardless of class status, and became the basis for the anti-victim rape laws which second wave feminists analyzed and opposed. Modern rape law still presents women with similar challenges, based upon rape myths like Stranger Danger.



feminist legal theory, legal history, Britain, rape



Master of Laws (LL.M.)


College of Law


College of Law



Part Of