TW for discussion of rape, gang rape and death by sexual violence. 

Yesterday Rachel Stone published a very interesting blog post on Carolingian homosociality, which I was flattered to read was inspired by a twitter-conversation with me. In her post, she considers ways in which Carolingian society constructed homosocial environments, identifying four key strands: team-building, establishing group identity, patronage networks, and teaching homosocial practice.

Interestingly (for me, at least) enough, these are themes that are central to my own research, even though my period of consideration is several centuries after Rachel’s. It has reinforced my determination to host a small conference on homosociality across time later in this academic year – especially since thanks to the Leverhulme Trust I have the assurance of some funding for it! I’m really hoping to bring together scholars from antiquity to the modern day to think about homosociality: its foundations, manifestations and processes. I expect we’ll see a great deal of historical continuity in terms of the key elements that make and maintain homosocial culture, even if their form varies over time.

As you’ve probably guessed from the content of my blog and the papers I’ve given lately, I’ve recently been preoccupied with the role sexual violence plays in establishing homosocial culture – namely that seemingly-innocuous activity we call male bonding. I’m in the midst of working on a range of medieval examples that I hope will find their way into print in the not-too-distant future, and since I’m still mulling them over I won’t talk about them here. But I will give a contemporary and early modern example of the kind of role sexual violence can play in homosocial culture, which contain repeating motifs that I think originate well before either of the events in these case studies took place.

In the dim early hours of 18 January 2015, Stanford University student Brock Turner was arrested on suspicion of rape. As detectives took him into custody, a message via the application GroupMe, which allows group text messaging, flashed up on his cell phone. It read simply: “WHOS TIT IS THAT” (sic). Although police were unable to find proof that Brock Turner had sent his friends a photograph, as messages within the GroupMe app can be deleted by any group member, Turner’s unconscious victim was discovered with one breast exposed. Brock Turner was ultimately found guilty of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.

In 1740, William Duell lured Sarah Griffin, a servant girl travelling home alone on the road to Worcestershire, into a barn. He returned with several friends, who all repeatedly raped her.  George Curtis raped Griffin with a broomstick, and she later died from her injuries. Duell and Curtis were both convicted for gang rape, robbery and murder. (Follow the link to Garthine Walker’s excellent article on early modern rape that introduced me to this case.) 

These two cases are separated by centuries. They have different outcomes – Turner, as has famously been discussed all over today’s media, was sentenced to only six months in prison and has now indeed been released, while Curtis and Duell were executed. But both cases have a great many similarities: the preying upon a vulnerable women (in the first case, a woman who was intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness, the second a young girl travelling a long distance home on a night time road), the use of a foreign object to rape, and the homosocial element of involving male friends in the assault. In the eighteenth century, Duell brought his friends with him; in the twenty-first century, Turner used modern technology to allow his friends to accompany him on his attack. Turner’s assault would not be classified as a gang rape as Duell and Curtis’s clearly is: but it was a shared social experience that I hope encourages us to think more deeply about culpability and the participatory nature of rape, and emphasises the key role of male sociability in rape culture. As we all hopefully know by now, “stranger rape” of one woman by one man she’s never met before is a very rare form of assault in comparison to other situations resulting in rape. But the collective involvement of, and responsibility for, rape by men operating in homosocial cultures is an area still ripe for further research. Watch this space.