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Literary and Dramatic Representations of Coercion and Consent

Posted By Kirsten N. Mendoza, Monday, April 17, 2017

The first statutes of Westminster issued in the reign of Edward I conflated the abduction of a woman with the sexual violation of her body with or without her consent. In the early modern period, rape became a felony and transitioned to a more contemporary definition: the carnal knowledge of a woman against her will. This legal separation of abduction from rape made the consent of a woman or female child the determining factor for whether or not rape had occurred. Despite the legal evolution of rape that eventually emphasized the efficacy of a woman’s will, the cultural perception that women could not withhold consent from their aggressors often prevented rape victims from obtaining and even seeking justice. In fact, the prevalence of sixteenth century legal tracts debating the specifics of ravishment and the role of women’s will and pleasure in violent sexual encounters attest to the manifold uncertainties and dilemmas that arise when legal statutes do not align with cultural practices. Allegations of rape were more likely to be brought forth and given due process either when the victim was younger than the age of consent or if the assault was particularly heinous. The difficulty of proving non-consent no doubt contributed to the scarcity of rape cases in the period.


This panel proposes that early modern transformations in rape law placed pressure on issues concerning female self-possession, sexual knowledge, pleasure, and consent and that these tensions were critiqued and, at times, exploited by playwrights and authors of the period. In what ways do sixteenth and seventeenth century poetry, drama, and literature explore the injustices and ambiguities arising from the elision of resistance, coercion, and consent in sexual encounters? Papers for this panel might discuss the critical approaches of playwrights and authors to the no-means-yes topos, which interprets coyness as foreplay and masculine aggression as a consequence of and response to feminine arousal; representations of the social consequences of a victim’s linguistic “failure” to dissuade her aggressor and protect her body from rape; sexual assault and racial miscegenation; tropes of seduction and coercion in politics or religious conversion; rape and empire; sexual pleasure and submission.  


Please submit your name, contact information, a 1-page CV, paper title, and abstract (150-word maximum) by Monday, 15 May 2017 to Kirsten Mendoza (

Tags:  consent  legal statutes  pleasure  rape  seduction  sexuality 

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