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Rape as Social Murder by Cathy Winkler  

SUGGESTED CITATION - Winkler, Cathy. 1991. Rape As Social Murder. Available,  http://stopviolence.com/winkler/social-murder.htm

Definitions of Rape. Rape is a horrifying crime, but what is the meaning of this horrifying act of rape? For twenty years, researchers have investigated the attacks, the attackers, the survivors (note 1), and the personal and institutional ramifications on the victim-survivors. In general, definitions of rape point out that rape is a loss of control or power. Legal definitions of rape stress the use or threat to use force, Metzger notes that rape is depersonalization (1976:406). Burgess and Holmstrom (1974b) and Millett (1971) define rape as violence, MacKinnon stresses rape as sex without consent ( 1982:532), and Sheffield (1987) emphasizes rape as terror. Weis and Borges point out that “rape is a total attack against the whole person, affecting the victim’s physical, psychological and social identity” (1973:72). Some emphasize that the attack of rape is not just against the person but is targeted at the sexuality of the individual: Barry takes this perspective and explains “where there is any attempt to separate the sexual experience from the total person, the first act of objectification is perversion (1979:266). Researchers then explain that rape is a depersonalization, a terror, a perverse objectification. Their definitions of rape reveal crucial and integral parts of what is rape, and on these ideas, I would like to build my perspective.

This article contains strong content that could trigger emotional reactions or flashbacks in people who have been victimized
Cathy Winkler is the author of One Night: The Realities of Rape. This article originally ran in Anthropology Today (June 1991).

article as printable Acrobat/.pdf file

In order to explain my position, I analyze a rape attack. In this instance, I want to use the words and actions of the rapist who attacked me along with the effects of rape trauma that I experienced in order to demonstrate the meaning of rape. The use of this attack for data enables me to have an investigator-victim perspective (note 2) not otherwise conceivable.

I argue that the rapist tried to completely define himself into my existence. In general, rapists’ attempt to define their existence over and above the existence of their victims is an attempt to define victims out of existence. Rapists overrule not only the words and actions of their victims but also attack victims’ definition of their body and their sexual self. Rapists’ threats extend beyond superficial retorts and mentally and psychologically invade victims’ being and self-definition.

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(c) 2003 Cathy Winkler, reproduced here by kind permission of the author. Permission is freely given to link to these pages or use them for non -commercial purposes, including distribution of printed copies at or below cost.

Case Study. The attack began when the rapist awakened me. His body stood over my body, with his arms and shoulders raised in an assault position. Not only did he have me cornered but he blocked the one exit. His physical force began by grabbing my clothes with the intent to tear them off. At the onset, he wrenched my wrist and forced my body over his by grabbing the back of my head, and inserting his penis into my mouth. His control of my body varied from pushing his penis into my vagina to his forcing me to lick his penis and anus, with continual variations of these as pleased him over a three and half hour period (note 3). For the supposed act of sex, he held my body, moving it back and forth with his arms and legs while he simultaneously banged his body onto and inside of mine in the supposed mimic movements of sexual intercourse. He amused himself with my body: In fact, he masturbated inside me. His intermittent actions of bruising me from clenching my arms to pounding his body on my vaginal area to squeezing my nipples implanted his body on my body externally and internally. His sweat drenched down from his face and fell over my forehead and cheeks, drops of which I could not turn away from. To leave his imprint in terms of body fluids on me, he licked me with his tongue, salivating on my face, breasts, and genital area. His arms constantly pushed my face away in order to prevent my eyes from memorizing his face and to control my vision. When I initially failed to respond to his orders, he beat me numerous times. His fists to my face made me realize that his (note 4) attack of rape was my escape and only hope from physical death. By his actions, the rapist had given me a choice: to suffer his attack or to face my physical death. Of the two, I chose (note 5) to live through and survivor after the rape attack.

Related StopViolence pages:

Rape (inc Acq Rape & date Rape drugs)

Domestic Violence (& Teen Dating Violence)

For Victims & About Victimization

Men Working to End Violence Against Women

See also 

Scenarios of Victim Recovery: Rape and Attempted Murder, excerpted from Gregg Barak's Violence & Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding 

The definition of his body on mine extended to his definition of himself throughout my home, from thrown items to cigarettes ground into the wood floor. He tore out the phones and took my car keys. In other words, his relocation of my material items and his cutting off of my communication and transportation temporarily imprisoned me.

My bodily reactions throughout the attack shocked even myself. The first feeling was nausea which remained throughout the ordeal. The dryness of my mouth made my tongue feel like sandpaper as he forced me to sodomize him countless times.

The most gripping bodily response was smell. As the attack began, the room filled with the odors of urine and bowel movements: These lasted for hours. The reality of the smells convinced me to tell the police of these as part of the rapist’s crimes. Yet when I returned with the detectives to my home – now the scene of the crime – the room was vacant of such evidence. His terror transformed my environment into a room filled with excretion. The disgusting forms of these imagined smells reflected my feelings of horror.

The rapist’s endeavors to define his life over mine were also clear by his words. As he maneuvered the movements of my body in regard to his wants, he interpreted the situation. He announced what and why an action had happened. He sexually invaded me in every orifice, and after he pushed his penis into my anus, he announced: “Oh, you like that.” He wanted to decide my wants and likes sexually. Further data on his sexual definition of me was his image of pleasure on his face as he repeatedly inserted his penis into my vagina, and as such, he announced what he thought should be my feelings: “I know I’m your boyfriend. You like it.” None of these statements needed a response from me. His words were to be declarations of my ideas. 

As frequently noted in the literature, power is an issue of rape. Unlike negotiated power though, rapists demand an autocratic, monarch-like power. At the beginning of the attack, he said: “I’m here and I’m going to get what I came for.” In other words, no obstacle was to stand in the way of his wishes. His power to control his entrance into any abode again was an announcement of his rambo-like power: “I can break into any place. No house can keep me out.” While the truth of such points may be in question, nevertheless the intentions of the rapist were clear.

Explore the resources and activities of Paul's Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Class.

Related Books

Diana Scully, Understanding Sexual Violence: A Study of Convicted Rapists

Charlotte Pierce-Baker, Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape.

Patricia Weaver Francisco, Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery

Jeff Benedict, Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes & Crimes Against Women

Helen M. Eigenberg, Woman Battering in the United States

Cathy Winkler, One Night: The Realities of Rape

In many cases of power, the issue is that people demand control without evidence of their right or without a basis for their force. The rapist too took that approach: he wanted power even if his backup force was imaginary. He stated: “I’ve got a knife in my back pocket.” While I wondered why a person makes threats in such cases without visible evidence, I did not want to know whether or not his material force was imaginary or real. Moreover, his power was not in a material object, but his power was, and he knew this, that I could not test the visibility of the evidence. To challenge him would have ended my existence. One must understand that, in this case, not challenging the rapist was a mechanism of self-defense.

Rapists impose guilt upon their victims. During his conversation, the rapist justified his actions by attempting to implant these feelings of guilt in order to hamper me from reporting the crime, and from learning to live beyond the attack. He tried to turn my resistance to his actions into feelings of guilt by mismatching his actions and his statements of the situation. His first words after clubbing me with his fists were: “You made me beat you up.” He reiterated this line many times throughout the attack: “It’s your fault. I didn’t want to hurt you.” The rapist wanted to control me after the attack, and in this regard, built was his method of control.

Many of the rapist’s responses were schizophrenic, contradictory statements, and sometimes one after the other. At one point, he made the emphatic statement: “you liked it,” and then he immediately followed with the matter-of-fact contradiction: “I’m a rapist. I know that I raped you.” Another set of schizophrenic statements began with the definition of him self as omnipotent: “I watched you for three weeks. I was going to get you” and “I can break into any place.” Later, his savage acts seemed to transform him also, and in this aspect, into denial of my vulnerability: “Use this type of locks on the windows, and you’ll be safe.” At one point when he was glorifying himself, he announced that he had five girl friends that he could visit any time, and later when I said that his girl friends must like him sexually – and this kindness was another one of my methods of self-defense – he announced that “They’re just five holes.”

Rapists play mind games with their victims. This attacker, who acknowledged that he raped me, also acted as a protector toward me. “You don’t have to leave [the neighborhood]. I’m not coming back. You can stay [here]. I’ll take care of that.” As the bruised colors on my face along with my swollen head became apparent, the rapist responded in a gentle and unbelievable manner: “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” One wonders about the logic of a rapist: he blamed me for the beating, and then acted as my protector and caretaker by offering to drive me to a hospital. Yet he caused the damnation to my body.

My self-defense was rape-defined, and the attack had made self-defense a necessity. From my conversation, the rapist had noted several of my characteristics: “You’re a smart one. You’ll go to the police. I’m not going back there for this.” His fear of a police investigation was a fear of me reporting the crime. First, to make myself a valued and alive commodity to him, I treated him like a respected human being, the essence of goodness, of manliness, and of sensibility, and I praised him as a man of handsome beauty, and one loved by women for his lustful prowess. He dictated my freedom by forcing me to verbalize a beauty in the repulsiveness that I was experiencing. Second, while I did not believe this, I convinced him that a police report was vacuous: his features, even with a moustache, were indistinguishable from many men in the neighborhood. Third, my body had to physically decease. The less I reacted the more pleasure he personified. My demonstration of complete subjugation, even to whims of his forcing me to lick his anus and his penis, resulted in his facial displays of immense ecstasy. His face gave the appearance of a drug-like high while attacking me. My escape was his obliteration of my freedom.

My ability to control my body and its movements was non-existent. The one control that I had and that I held onto was my mind. Yet this too was in jeopardy. Every thought was a rejection and fight against his schizophrenic statements and his mental games along with those distorted actions. Since my thoughts were my only means for sanity, in my mind I shouted at myself not to believe him; silently I screamed that he was guilty, and secretly I fought for my sanity. No time existed for me to think about anything other than about the rapist and his attack..

Rape trauma: context and meaning. To understand the rapist’s attempts during the attack to take control over my body and mind is insufficient to completely explain the meaning of rape. One must further investigate the trauma. This area likewise holds evidence of the rapist’s intent and impact. Rapists bury land mines in the bodies of their victims, and these emotional explosions – such as confusion, nausea, nightmares, tremors, depression, shakiness – form the “rape trauma syndrome” (note 6). I argue that the types of trauma result in an experiential feeling (note 7) of partial and temporary mind-body separation (note 8) – usually unrecognizable and unseen by others (note 9).

Rapists’ terror is an attempt to split our bodies from our minds (note 10). In effect, rapists are partially successful. Because of this feeling of a split between the mind and body, which in a healthy situation act in unison, the body’s response to that terror and shock is trauma, and more importantly, the raped body’s trauma becomes a means for the survivor to analyze the terror that rapists force inside us. In a trauma-like fashion, the body – superseding the mind’s protective barriers – announces to the raped person a context which is of potential or immediate danger. Trauma reactions by the raped person’s body, I argue, contain meanings such as protective trauma and reclamation trauma but these are not of primary concern to this argument.

In summary form, I will present some of the data on the rapist’s land-mines that exploded inside me months after the attack. For myself, what I call “rapist-identified trauma” surfaced when I was in the presence of the rapist on the street; visually, I could not recognize him (note 11). Instead my body by means of trauma reenacted the terror that he had placed there. At the time of the attack, he was the rapist – a face I saw and knew then, but on the street he visually appeared to me like a stranger. When “the stranger” came within six to nine feet of my personal boundaries, my body relived again his terror to warn me of his dangerous presence. My body felt the rapist’s presence while my mind could not visually identify him. Not only had he invaded my body with his repulsion, but he had invaded me mentally, my inability to visually identify him – note that my ability in visual identification has always been a characteristic in which I pride myself – demonstrated further how he had tampered with my mind.

In another instance, trauma exploded like a bombshell. In the calm and comfort of my place, alone and without others’ presence, this trauma erupted in a volcanic-like blast: my mouth screamed, and my body evacuated its contents. In the newspaper account that I was reading at the time, another rapist’s words – which paralleled the meaning of the words that the rapist had said to me – made my body realize that my life had been a fraction away from extermination during the attack. My body’s explosion revealed my confrontation with death.

Discussion. I want to argue that we need a more poignant definition of rape, one that concisely duplicates rapists’ acts. The data here demonstrate that the rapist tried to control my being bodily through my movements. Verbally he dictated the conversation or lack of. In regards to my identity, he penetrated my existence, physically tearing me up and battering my body. His bodily control over me was an attempt to bodily disfigure me. Mentally he tried to infiltrate my existence from his impact upon my olfactory responses to my visual difficulty in identification of him.

His rape attack left me with two choices: not report the crime and live with the knowledge that he would continue inflicting his hell on other women – a hell that I am now familiar with, or, to spend years (note 12) as I have in the court system trying to stop his attacks. Even this paper must be interpreted not just as a person speaking out against a crime we hate, but a description of a crime against my body and my being which in its public pronouncement contains an embarrassing horror that I felt and that I now feel again as you read this.

Rapists attempt to socially, psychologically, mentally and sexually define their victims. Their torture and terror are their efforts to brand us. As Barry notes, “[rapists are] out of control” (1979:254, author’s emphasis). While they are successful in scorching our beings, thankfully they are not always successful in taking over ourselves, hence the word “rape survivor.” Whether their attempts contain the threat of physical death or not, I argue that the rapist’s attempts are those of social murder. Without our abilities to think and feel ourselves as we choose, then our existence becomes like a body on life support. During an attack, victims have confronted social death, and grappled with it to save themselves.

As my student/friend/informant, Renata McMullen (note 13) pointed out, “violation is a death in itself” (personal communication: 1990), and she further stresses that even without physical battering, her body felt battered as if the date rapist had physically beaten her up. Likewise, George Scott (note 14) remembers the feelings of humiliation when two rapists attacked him: “Humiliation is psychological battery that feels like physical battery” (personal communication: 1991). Rape is the experience of social death. Rapists want to socially exterminate us. Victims’ fear of death is not an imaginary experience. Our fears are a result of rapists’ intentions. I argue for such a definition of rape as social murder, not just from my hate of the act, but to explain the meaning of rape. If we don’t understand these acts of horror, and if we cannot succinctly define them as they really exist and are experienced, then people in this culture from jurors to our family members will continue to support rapists and their act of horror.

Postscript: I assume that this might have been a difficult paper for you to read, and I don’t want to leave people in such a state. Therefore, I have two hopefully amusing anecdotes to help the readers release built-up tension from the reading of this article and to demonstrate that survivors like myself are still human beings with their own sense of humor.

Anthropologists are becoming more and more careful with their presentation of data cross-culturally because unlike the informants of fifty years ago, today’s informants have access to our writings and sometimes have doctoral degrees. A sinking feeling comes over us when an informant would like to comment on our research in their community. But in my area of research on the rape-attack, I actually wish the rapist would speak up and say: “Excuse me, Dr. Winkler, but you misquoted one of my lines from the attack.” Unfortunately, rapists’ silence about their attacks lasts an indeterminable period of time.

On another level and in response to today’s computer dependency, it is amazing how many of the words used in this paper are not in the computer spell check.



I use this reading in my seminar on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault. During 2004, some of the students asked how Winkler could say it was social murder when she's gone on to write articles, a book and be socially active around the cause of rape. Cathy Winkler responded, and her thoughts are included here because of the additional light they shed on her experience even more than 10 years after she wrote the original article.

WINKLER WRITES: Paul, your students’ comments were great. You must have a terrific group, insightful and diligent, and humanitarians. One student made a comparison between date and stranger rape. This I have heard so often from victim-survivors. They are hierarchicalizing rapists as if one rape is worse or better because of the type. I take the perspective that all rapes are horrifying.

But she also makes an extremely astute comment by calling her terrorizing experience a “black hole.” One idea in the back of my mind was the need for a book on the different types and meanings of rape. While I might describe it as social death, her perspective as a black-hole experience is incredibly insightful. She’s got an article there.

In regard to social murder versus a strong energized seven years of battling legally for the trial of the rapist is a good point. As any good author, I would argue first to read my book. If you can’t afford it, have your library order it and then more people can read it.

As I thought through the ways that I experienced attempted social murder, I had to cry again for what I lost. To begin, I use the term “attempted social murder” because the rapist did not succeed in destroying all of my identity. But I do believe for some rapists and some rape situations that this result could occur. My feelings or lack of at the end of the attack, when I laid there emotionless and feeling like a statue frozen in time, unable to think or react, was a chilling time because I had to make myself not exist for the rapist to leave.

Since the rape, over fifteen years ago, some of me is gone. If I die in the next few minutes, I don’t care. Ending this life is a joy. I have never been able to feel a zest for life since then. I have had tons of “happy” moments and people around me – who appreciate me -- would describe me as outgoing, funny, caring, forgiving and giving. What I portray is not necessarily what I feel. Death would not be a hazard to me. I cry writing this because I know that for forty years I never felt like that. I might not be at the point of suicide, and never had, death would be a blessing, not a regret.

I used to be proud of my ability to remember any face that I have ever seen. Since the trauma of recognition of the rapist occurred because of the rape, I have trouble-recognizing people. I’m not sure if I’ve given up and I just can’t do it because the trauma has blocked my mind. 

Energy to do projects and create things was a major part of my past life. I don’t care now. While I’m still creative and still do some projects, it is a battle to find the energy or will. Others see me as unchanged, but they did not know me when I was quite productive. I know there is less of me.

How could a victim of social murder work for seven years to stop a rapist? First, I had been an activist since the age of 15. I had 25 years of knowing what to do and trying to do something. I was a child of the Vietnam protests and closed down our university in protest. Other people did help also. Also I grew up in the lower middle class with strategies from my family that hard work was a necessity to live and strategizing daily and constantly was a way of life. I just always did it. 

The first years of the legal case I used the hate/anger of the rapist as an energizing force. Hate can be good if it is put to work. That is what I did. Then the hate/anger of the district attorneys’ methods became the energizing force for the next four years. I will admit that, when 48 hours came on board, I could relax and let them do a lot of the leg work.

During those seven years, I spent an hour a day – almost every day – in a hot tub of water, crying my heart out. I screamed and bellowed. No one ever heard me. But I needed that hour to survive the day-to-day living. I had dozens of strategies to get me through one day and each day. There were days when I jogged three different times and took three hot baths to protect my sanity.

Knowing the hell of the rapist and wanting my social murder to be his last was my primary goal. I just couldn’t live with myself knowing that I hadn’t tried everything. I believe in diversity of ideas but not in this type of idea. Hate should be destroyed forever. 

You will be glad to know that I don’t have the hateful-energy that I once had. The rapist is stopped for good, and now I don’t have to use or have that hate as an energy force anymore. 

Most importantly, I made it through those seven years because of tons and tons of people who held me up. My students were always the best. They understood better than adults my age. They would come up on days when they thought I might be sad and whisper words of support such as “Don’t give up. I had to.” And my friends did everything to aid me, and many suffered because of that. But I stood on the shoulders of lots and lots of people. I had four churches praying for me weekly. I may not pray but they understood and made it work. And I had lots of luck. The media helped to keep the case alive and that was great luck because most cases are denied.

So I don’t know if I will ever completely heal. I just keep living and see what happens. I’m lucky as hell that the rapist is stopped, and that I have a place to live and food to eat. What the rapes destroyed in me was less than some. Education made a humongous difference. 

1. My use of the terms “victim,” “survivor,” and “victim-survivor” varies with the meaning of the context. If a context is inescapable for the person, such as in rape, the person is a victim. If a context is a bombardment against the person, but exiting that context is possible, I use the term “victim-survivors,” and, if a context allows a person freedom to act and speak as they choose, such as the editors of Anthropology Today have encouraged me, then I use the word “survivor.”

2. My term “investigator-victim” opens up avenues of study – fortunately and unfortunately – not easily attainable by non-victims. This perspective allows me to bridge the gap between objective and subjective approaches, and hopefully, integrate my analysis with the impact of the data. This term parallels the meaning behind DuBois’ concept “double consciousness” (1967).

3. While the length of time provided an extensive amount of data, the feelings of terror, horror, and the rest described in this paper on rape are no different if the attacker raped the person for five minutes, ten minutes, or more. Before the attack on the body began, I felt the hell of terror which the rapist initiated with his presence, and thus my feelings of shock and horror remained largely unaltered throughout the rest of the attack.

4. In order to change the “blame-the-victim” perspective, alteration of phrases and word choices is important. In regards to the attack, I note that it was his attack and his rape, not mine, emphasizing that I did not participate in the rape by choice. Also, I avoid such a passive phrase as “I was raped,” and instead state that “he raped me,” or “the attacker raped me,”

5. Victims make choices and decisions during the rape attack even though these decisions are choices between different types of terror. This realization helps the victim live as a survivor.

6. Burgess and Holmstrom (1974a, 1974b) were the first ones to define and describe the “rape trauma syndrome.” Yet not until 1990 did New York state accept rape trauma syndrome as part of the crime of rape. Moreover, little information on rape trauma exists cross-culturally.

7. I have written further on this perspective of mine in the articles “The Meaning of Rape Trauma,” and “The Contexts of Rape Trauma.” These are works-in-progress.

8. Blacking (1978) argues that the body and mind work in unison, but his work does not center on situations of trauma.

9. Examples of this extreme experiential split are cases in which rapists trigger episodes of manic depression in people with this condition.

10. Incest victims likewise note this feeling of a split between the mind and body by what they term “out-of-body experiences.” Many rape victims have noted that during the attack they step outside of their body and mentally watch the attack.

11. Each time I have seen the rapist he appears to me as a different person. As a result, I have five unmatched images of him in my mind: the attack context, a police photograph, street encounter, arraignment hearing, and pre-trial motions.

12. The attack occurred in September 1987. While the rapist was found within the following months, legal action is still ongoing.

13. Renata and I recognize that the identification of rape with our name is no shame.

14. Because of a sense of privacy, George Scott prefers to use a pseudonym.

The author can be reached at cathywinkler@cox.net

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Bob Hull, Renata McMullen, Kate Wininger, Susan Caringella-MacDonald, Karen Endicott, Pauline Kolenda, William Garland, Larry Israel, Peggy Sanday and Johnathan Benthall for their comments.

Barry, K 1979 Female Sexual Slavery. NY: New York Univ. P.

Blacking, J 1978 The Anthropology of the Body. NY: Academic P.

Burgess, A W and Lynda L Holmstrom 1974a Rape Trauma Syndrome. Amer J of Psychiatry 131:981-6.
_______________________________ 1974b Rape: Victims of Crisis. Bowie, MD: Prentice-Hall.

DuBois, W.E.B. 1967 The Philadelphia Negro. NY: Schocken Books.

MacKinnon, C. 1982 Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State. Signs 7(3):515-44.

Metger, D 1976 It is always the woman who is raped. Amer J of Psychiatry 133(4):405-8.

Millett, K 1971 The Prostitution Papers. NY: Basic.

Sheffield, C 1987 Sexual Terrorism. IN Analyzing Gender. B Hess & M Ferree, eds. Newbury Park: Sage

Weis, K and S Borges 1973 Victimology and Rape. Issues in Criminology 8:71-115.



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