Trigger warning: Rape
MAY 3, 1959 — A parked car near Jake Gaither Park in Tallahassee, Florida, is approached by four white men at 1 a.m. Inside the car were four African American students who had spent the first half of their night at a Florida A&M University dance, still donning tuxedos and dresses. One individual, Betty Jean Owens, was forcibly abducted by the men and eventually raped seven times at another location. Owens survived the attack though spent several days in recovery at the local “colored” hospital.
As news broke out about Owens’s kidnapping and rape, potent sentiments erupted across the United States. Fury from civil rights activists and feminists called for the immediate persecution of Owens’s rapists; many felt that the evidence was strong enough that a trial was unnecessary. On the other hand, certain white folks in Florida and neighboring states responded with fear, relying on racist stereotypes of “black beast rapists” by imagining unrealistic possibilities of black men attacking in retaliation (which never occurred.)
The rapists pleaded innocent, which therefore marked the beginning of the trial, witnessed by approximately four hundred people. It was quickly revealed that Owens’s four rapists had intended to “go out and get a n––––r girl” and throw an “all-night party” (McGuire, Sexual Violence and the Long Civil Rights Movement.)
Nonetheless, the trial continued, and the men insisted that all sexual conduct between them and Owens was consensual. Owens, testifying on her own behalf, said that the defendants did indeed rape her – a total of seven times – and threatened to kill if she did not comply.
While this trial was occurring and its jurors contemplated, activism was engendering in nearby universities. Florida A&M University, Owens’s alma mater, was one of many colleges wherein protests ensued. Just twelve hours after Owens’s hospitalization, fifteen hundred students marched into Lee Auditorium in support of Owens (McGuire.)
Many mantras were painted on protesters’ signs, from “It could have been YOUR sister, wife, or mother” and “It was like all of us had been raped.” In retrospect, could the latter statement be used nowadays as an effective form of activism? Despite its benevolent and activist intention, “It was like all of us had been raped” dismantles a victim’s trauma and transforms this abuse into a moniker, shifting the spotlight from the victim to the activists themselves.
Rape culture’s existence outlives its use in rhetoric. In fact, the term “rape culture” was not coined until feminism’s second wave in the 1970s (Merril, Encyclopedia of Rape.) As such, activists in the 1950s and even 1960s had no standardized definition of rape beyond the act of forcing one to partake in sex. Today, we now know that rape is much more nuanced and stems from pre-established societal norms, particularly caused by patriarchal power.
Rape culture, in sum, normalizes rape and creates a cultural attitude that legitimizes trauma, which is precisely what Owens’s attackers’ minds were laden with. It may never be known whether the rapists thought what they were doing was necessarily rape – after all, documents detail the men’s cavalier demeanors when questioned by police, joking about their rape (McGuire.) However, this in no way excuses the violence and assault that these men produced – Owens stated she was raped, doctors caring for her confirmed she was raped and Owens’s friends witnessed Owens being forcibly taken away. The former should be enough to convince anyone of abuse, though history shows this to be false under the law.
When reading documents detailing Owens’s trial, it becomes apparent how vastly rape culture was engrained in society, especially the arguments made by the trial’s defense attorney. From victim-blaming – the attorney arguing that Owens could have simply walked away – to excusing the rapists’ actions through racism (“Indian blood” influenced the rapists), this culture of belittling rape victims was rampant though began to lessen in severity in certain, few instances.
The verdict was finally announced: Betty Jean Owens’s rapists were sentenced to life in prison and were spared the electric chair. Feelings of victory were fleeting nevertheless, especially within the African American community. Rape in Florida at the time was punishable by death – albeit this instance, the rapists in question, who assaulted a black woman, were spared death. As a result, attitudes toward rape were evolving (little by little) while racism, as an institution, remained static throughout this case and beyond.
Regarding the motto “It was like all of us were raped,” this statement not only reinforces rape culture by shifting focus away from the victim but is also inaccurate; no, all of you were not raped – Betty Jean Owens was, which is why this form of pseudo-activism stayed in the 1950s and 60s and started to be scrutinized upon the arrival of second-wave feminism. Such a display would undoubtedly be heavily criticized by feminists and contemporary activists alike – as it should be. Voicing support and solidarity with a victim of rape is one time, but equating oneself with their trauma and abuse is inappropriate and frankly untrue.
McGuire, Danielle L. (2005). “Sexual Violence and the Long Civil Rights Movement.” ‘It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped:’ Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle. The Organization of American Historians.
Smith, Merril D. (2004). Encyclopedia of Rape (1st ed.). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. 174.