“Compulsive Rapism”: Psychiatric Approaches to Sexual Violence in the 1980s
Dodd, Jenifer Michele
This dissertation examines the battle between various ideas—psychiatric and feminist in particular—surrounding sexual violence in the 1980s. Women’s advocates worked tirelessly in the 1980s to redefine rape as an act of violence rather than one of sex. This argument hinged on an understanding of gender roles as largely sociological—men and women were socialized in vastly different ways and the product of this socialization was a patriarchal system in which men expressed their dominance over women through acts of violence. For psychiatrists, however, sexual violence was a more specific problem and one that might be dealt with through psychiatric means. Attempts to research and theorize sexual violence were simultaneously attempts to treat sexual violence by treating sex offenders. Psychiatrists involved in this type of work consistently argued that existing solutions for sexual violence were not sufficient—incarceration did not solve the underlying disposition of the sex offender, and therefore neither did feminist legal advocacy that pushed for higher conviction rates—whereas psychiatric treatment might offer a more productive way forward in the long-term. This dissertation argues that these two groups became caught up in a political battle that focused on somewhat semantic differences (rape as sex versus rape as violence, when in reality both groups weighed both factors) and legal questions (how rape-as-mental-illness would affect conviction rates), rather than working together to offer alternative solutions to America’s problem with sexual violence. This debate ultimately distracted from the issue of how society could best deal with rape, and became instead a space for both groups to talk about gender roles, and the importance of socialization in shaping mental illness. The dissertation also discusses the ways in which these various ideas about sexual violence were taken up in other arenas (the courts, popular media, and fringe sexual groups), in ways that neither psychiatrists nor feminists had initially envisioned.