RAPE ON THE PUBLIC AGENDA: FEMINISM AND THE POLITICS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT by Maria Bevacqua. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000. 280 pp. Cloth $50.00. ISBN: 1-55553-447-3. Paper $18.95. ISBN: 1-55553-446-5.
Reviewed by Michelle Donaldson Deardorff, Department of Political Science, Millikin University.
Recently, within the Law and Courts Section of the American Political Science Association, there has been a lengthy debate over what aspects of law should be examined by political scientists. RAPE ON THE PUBLIC AGENDA is a classic example of an examination of law that should be highly relevant to public law scholars, but often is not. She explores a specific area of policy in its entire context - historical and contemporary, including its legal implications. Maria Bevacqua argues that the anti-rape movement attempts to challenge a social, political, and legal culture in which "sexual assault is tolerated, violent and sexual images are intertwined, women are blamed for being raped, sexist attitudes prevail, and male sexual privilege goes unquestioned" (p. 9). This book, in part, examines the formalized response by different groups of feminists to such a legal culture.
The first half of the book examines the perceptions of rape within the culture of the United States during the first half of the Twentieth Century and its emergence on the feminist political agenda. She looks at the development of grassroots organizations and their different individualized and collective strategies to challenge a culture feminists perceived as protecting and allowing rape. Bevacqua finds that liberal and radical activists determined that multiple approaches were necessary to challenge not just the act of rape, but the culture that fostered and protected it. Most importantly, they discovered that "statutes alone are sterile without community-based organizations in place to hold lawmakers and law enforcement officers accountable for their actions" (p. 109). So, even with laws on the books, Bevacqua finds that a culture that is radically opposed to the values expressed in the laws can prevent the laws from taking effect. The second half of the book discusses the problems of selective prosecution, the continued racialization of rape, concerns about the trivialization of the problem by police and district attorneys, redefinitions of rape to include date rape and marital rape, and the public stereotyping of racial victims as being a hindrance to filing claims. She concludes the book by examining recent federal legislation that incorporates rape in the larger arena of gender-based violence (the book was published prior to the Supreme Court's decision in UNITED STATES v. MORRISON 2000) and recent public conflicts regarding rape in the feminist community.
Through an examination of the secondary literature, numerous interviews with the leaders of these movements, and the manuscript collections of these grassroots organizations, Bevacqua has provided a very readable history and analysis of a fairly recent political movement. More important
Page 629 begins here
for our interests, she discusses the cultural and political forces that affect the ways laws are written, enforced, and perceived by what Bradley Canon and Charles Johnson (1999) call the "consuming population." Although the focus of the book is not on the law, the implications of their research is quite clear - culture and politics matter for both the creation and enforcement of law, both criminal and civil.
This book asks a very important question, after the legislators have drafted a law to respond to a policy issue and the courts have interpreted the meaning of this legislation, how can citizens respond to the inadequacies of these new legal definitions? Bevacqua examines the development of the anti-rape movement within the feminist communities in the United States, the battle for legislative protections, the courts' application of the law, and then the development of more radical anti-rape grassroots movements when these laws were found to be inadequate. Although the focus of her work has been to place the anti-rape movement into the larger political movement literature and to begin the process of documenting this fairly recent policy history, I believe this type of research can have great import to public law scholarship. The tendency in public law scholarship is to often look only at the court decisions and implementation, this book places that smaller story into a larger political context--a context that may give greater meaning to the specific narrative.
Canon, Bradley C. and Charles A. Johnson. 1999. JUDICIAL POLICIES:
IMPLEMENTATION AND IMPACT, Second Edition. Washington, D.C.:CQ Press.
UNITED STATES V. MORRISON, 120 S.Ct. 1740 (2000)