In Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990, Sabine Sielke traces the rhetoric of rape in the United States through four distinct periods of literary history, stretching from antebellum seduction narratives to postbellum realism to modernist texts “and their post modern refigurations” (2002, 7). Sielke establishes that talk about rape, like talk about love, “hardly ever hits its target” (2). Instead, when the act of rape gets turned into discourse, it acquires rhetorical powers, becoming “an insistent figure for other social, political, and economic concerns and conflicts, … talk about rape has its history, its ideology, and its dominant narratives” which are “nationally specific” (2). It is here that Sielke’s volume’s greatest contribution lies: her project continuously shows how “American rape narratives are over determined by a distinct history of racial conflict and a discourse on race that itself tends to overdetermine issues of class” (2). That talk about rape is always talk about power relations is not so surprising. But the ways that in the United States the legacy of slavery has informed rhetoric about rape is rather stunning, particularly the way it haunts rape narratives and rhetoric today. Sielke contends that the rhetoric of rape in the United States is always already informed by America’s primal incest scene, with its “enforced relations within the extended plantation family” (184) and the lynching of African American men.

Sielke’s first chapter yokes together sexual violence in antebellum American literature and contemporary feminist discourse, tracking how the dominant feminist rhetoric of rape relies on “nineteenth century perspectives on gender and race relations” (2002, 15). Here Sielke charges that contemporary feminist thinking about rape dangerously echoes earlier rhetoric, infanticizing women in much the same way that nineteenth century rhetoric about rape did–by making all heterosexual consent for women impossible and by defining all sexuality as “the violation of women by men” (29). Through a comparison of novels of seduction and slave narratives such as Susana Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and dominant rape-crisis discourse, Sielke illustrates how both examples of rape rhetoric succeed in lumping together a range of consensual and non consensual acts such as “consensual heterosexual intercourse … [and] acquaintance and stranger rape, as well as verbal coercion” (31).

In chapter two, Sielke shifts her focus to the turn-of-the-century obsession with masculinity, in particular “wild” images of black men represented as “bestial” and full of perverse, untamed desire. Texts like Frank Norris’s McTeague and Nelson Pages’ Red Rock reflect a national identity crisis and the image of the African American man as beast “ferociously invading the sacred rights of woman and endangering the home of whites” (Genovese in Sielke 2002, 34). Such a reduction of blackness to “extreme corporeality, to the literal, helps recast white womanhood in spiritual and figural terms” (37). Sielke examines the way realist rhetoric on sexual violence further sexualizes interracial encounters and suppresses/silences black on black and white on white sexual violence, ultimately upholding fictions of white supremacy. In the third chapter, Sielke demonstrates how modernist modes reveal an interrogation, for the first time, of the relationship between rape and representation, capitalizing on the “interdependence between representations of rape and the meanings the culture ascribes to real rape” (76). Modernists, Sielke notes, did not so much transform the rhetoric of rape as revise the reader’s approach to that rhetoric: William Faulkner’s Sanctuary for example, projects rape through images of silence, blindness, and deafness, thus metaphorizing both culture’s resistance to the realities of rape and rape’s resistance to representation … modernist fiction recognizes rape as a figure and form of representation rather than an event” (76).

In the 70s and 80s white women and African American women took wildly disparate approaches to the discussion of sexual violence. African American texts, for example, focused on intra-racial rape and incest–suggesting such violence was a direct result of years of internalized oppression and racism. White women, on the other hand, wrote novels which reveal a preoccupation with rape fantasy and revenge. But just as men’s castration fears don’t necessarily suggest a desire for castration, Sielke acknowledges that the rape fantasies which infiltrate texts like Lois Gould’s A Sea Change, Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying engage both the “dominant cultural imaginary and feminist consciousness, parodically exposing their limits” (2002, 166). These novels reveal what Sielke calls the ultimate paradox of 1970’s feminism–that attempts to recover a strong female self through celebration of the body resulted in a fear of rape (166).

Sielke’s afterword briefly examines both a major trend of rape rhetoric in the 1990s, namely the incest vogue, and the controversies around “a group of young African American visual artists who parodically reemploy stereotypes of blackness” (2002, 179). Her critique of the trend in incest narratives is not unique, but what is affecting is the connection she makes between the middle class white affinity and obsession with abuse, and a desire, at least in part, to “transcend racial conflict and avoid issues of race” (184). The memory of this early incest between whites and African Americans “looms large and sells well–in the poetics of current identity politics” (189). For white readers and writers alike, the incest narrative renders the historical specter of white on black violence less threatening and levels the playing field by under-scoring the notion that all victims of violence have something in common.

Sielke’s project is quite ambitious, if not overly so. So few volumes have examined the history of rape in literature (or rape rhetoric in literature) in any sustained way that Sielke’s book is long overdue. While “literature” serves as her main focus here, she also includes brief discussions of popular culture. These references–to the rhetoric of rape in newspapers, television and rap songs, etc.–beg another volume devoted exclusively to the ways popular culture has participated in establishing talk about rape. Nonetheless, Sielke’s contribution helps to make lucid the ways rape has entered into discourse and the work rape rhetoric has performed.