Addressing sexual assault in the United States through the lenses of de Goya’s “Disasters of Wars”

A couple posts back, I wrote about the Blanton Museum of Art here on campus, which is home to some really cool temporary and permanent exhibitions. Last semester, Francisco de Goya’s etchings were here on display, and for one of my classes, I wrote a paper using the themes in his etchings to look at sexual assault in the United States today. It’s definitely a pretty long read — but it’s also a subject that needs to be addressed.

(de Goya, F. 1810-1820. Real Academia Calcografía. Etching. Davidson Galleries.)

Even though they make up half the population, “women and girls have endured discrimination in most societies for thousands of years,” author Robert Silverstein notes (Fernandes). From the systematic degradation of women during the Medieval ages, with esteemed Church Fathers claiming that “it is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in [the principle that] the lesser serves the greater,” to the casual dismissal of leaked remarks of president-elect Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault as “locker-room talk,” women across the globe have struggled, and still are struggling, against this systematic oppression (Edwards).  The fight for women’s rights only truly launched during the 19th century in Europe, reaching monumental heights with the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which gave women in Britain the right to vote, and the passage of the 19th amendment in the United States two years later (Women).

But even before then, various members of society noticed and sought, if not explicitly to raise awareness, at least to point out, this unjust treatment of women; among them was Francisco de Goya, an 18th century Spanish painter and printmaker known for his artistic commentary on the chronicles of history. Included in his “Disaster of War” collection are five particularly compelling etchings that characterize the treatment of women during his lifetime and largely hint at the sexist and degrading attitudes of society towards women. From the time when Goya’s etchings were first published to now, over 150 years have passed, and analysis of his works reveals that the deeply-ingrained attitudes of misogyny within society contributed to the violent treatment of the women he depicted—a correlation that, to this day, still exists. Through Goya’s art and current research regarding the prevalence of sexual assault, the dramatic shift in our cultural mindset necessary to alleviate this problem is highlighted, as well as what the shift entails.

Francisco de Goya was born in 1746 in Spain and lived in Madrid for almost his entire life, even during the French occupation of Spain from 1808-1814, otherwise known as the Peninsular War (Voorhies). This event would come to characterize and influence most of his work during the latter half of his life. During this time, Goya witnessed the daily violence, absolute chaos and hardships experienced by the Spaniards who refused to succumb to French troops (Voorhies). One of Goya’s most famous works is a series of eighty-two etchings and aquatints called “Disasters of Wars,” which depict scenes from before and after the Napoleonic occupation of Spain. “Disasters of War” is separated into three sections: the prints of wartime disasters, which detail Napoleon’s invasion of Spain; a depiction of the famine of 1811 in Madrid that caused the death of over 20,000 people; finally, an allegorical caprichos that ridiculed and denounced the cruel and corrupt government of King Ferdinand VII, who reclaimed the crown after Napoleon in 1814 (Voorhies). Of these eighty-two etchings, five focus solely on the treatment of women during this time period:  in “No quieren,” “Las mujeres dan valor” and “Amarga Presencia,” French soldiers are raping women, ignoring their cries for help and resistance; in “Cruel Lástima,” women are begging for food and mercy in the streets; in “Estragos de la guerra,” women are being crushed by a falling building. Together, these five etchings encapsulate the horrific ordeals the women experienced and suffered through, as well as more indirectly hint at the roles that women played during the six years of the war and the lurking societal attitudes towards women that led to this treatment.

The treatment of women during the Peninsular War closely mirrors the treatment of women during any other war: in Against Our Will, author and journalist Susan Brownmiller argues that “rape has accompanied wars of religion; rape has accompanied wars of revolution…rape flourishes in warfare irrespective of nationality or geographic location” (Brownmiller). Indeed, as evident in Goya’s plates 4, 9 and 13, women are mercilessly attacked and raped by French troops; despite the women’s desperate struggles to protect their bodies, the soldiers continue regardless. Even more compelling is Goya’s depiction of the soldiers themselves: there is no clear distinction in the color contrasts or the style between the ordinary Spaniard male citizens and the French soldiers. Rather, the distinctions are more stylistically-evident between the men and the women in the etching. Instead, Goya allows the only difference between the two types of men—the soldiers who rape women and the civilians who don’t—to be their actions at that specific moment: there is no explicitly portrayal of these soldiers as monsters and symbols of obvious evil. In other words, men “who rape in war are ordinary Joes, made unordinary by entry into the most exclusive male-only club in the world; rape in war reveals the male psyche in its boldest form” (Brownmiller). This treatment of women portrayed in Goya’s etchings is then the amplification and expression of the dominance of and misogyny towards women that had already existed before the beginning of the war.

Other artists during the Peninsular War often portrayed women to an attempt to “add color, to heighten emotion, or to stress some political points,” such as Fernando Bramila and Jual Galvez, whose engravings of Agustina de Aragon became the “stock image of Spain’s struggle against Napoleon” (Esdaile). But to Goya, the exploitation of women’s suffering to benefit men underlined an unsettling hypocrisy. Thus, in his more pessimistic and oftentimes more realistic etchings during the war, the women are always starkly contrasted in lighter shades and tones against the darker shadows of men, emphasizing the former’s innocence and unfortunate involvement and treatment during the war. In plate 30, a group of women are crushed by a falling, flaming building while attempting to flee, to no avail. The falling building represents the crumbling of Spanish society, but no matter their efforts, the women cannot escape their fate because “they are the helpless victims of man’s inhumanity” (Esdiale). In portraying this desolate situation, Goya once again highlights the status of women during this time period: women are at the mercy of men and suffer the consequences of the latter’s actions. In reality, it is the preconceived notion of women being inferior to and weaker than men that is crushing them and preventing them from escaping their fates as dictated by men.

The five Goya etchings mentioned above are of particular interest: although they show the treatment of women during the Peninsular War in the early 1800s, the sexual assault, violence and underlying attitude towards the women depicted still remain prevalent issues in the United States today. According to statistics released by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women is raped in her lifetime, and of all incidences of sexual assault, less than 40% are reported to authorities, and only 3% of offenders spend even a day in jail (2012). In recent decades, much attention has been brought to these statistics, igniting conversations on how to address these issues, particularly the status of women and feminism in the U.S. today, as well as the authorities’ and justice system’s handling of these cases.

The current handling of sexual assault cases by the justice system paints a particularly bleak future for women in our society, especially those who are survivors of sexual assault. For example, ex-Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who had been convicted of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, was released from jail after three months. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s analysis of Justice Department data shows that 97% of rapists avoid all forms of punishment. Combined, these statistics and events all contribute to the widening justice gap and “rates of attrition, otherwise known as the number of rape cases lost in or dropped from the justice system” (Lonsway). According to a study conducted by the University of Maryland, many rape victims “feel that the criminal justice system re-victimizes them in its process,” and often cite “fear of reprisal and of the justice system, [and] the belief that the police would not and could not do anything to help” as reasons why they choose not to report offenders (Reporting). In a letter written to the judge in the Brock Turner case, the victim wrote that following:

[The defendant] hired a powerful attorney, expert witnesses, private investigators who were going to try and find details about my personal life to use against me, find loopholes in my story to invalidate me and my sister, in order to show that this sexual assault was in fact a 4 misunderstanding. That he was going to go to any length to convince the world he had simply been confused. I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation. (J. Wang)

The victim’s experience illustrates why so many women fear the justice system, and points to an inherent flaw within the system itself—“the persistence of the idea that ‘real’ victims…can prove their victim status and establish the credibility of their rape claims by demonstrating that they resisted the assault and that their resistance took a socially-expected form” (Randall). The rape culture and the prevalence of victim blaming—the interrogation of a woman on what she wore, what she drank and what she said the day of the assault, rather than the investigation of the actions of the man—underscore a societal mindset of misogyny by placing women at fault for, and at the mercy of, men’s actions.

Turner was eventually sentenced to six months in jail, but the judge later released him in three. The judge reasoned that “you have to take the whole picture in terms of what impact imprisonment has on a specific individual’s life. And the…character letters that have been submitted [on behalf of Turner] do show a huge collateral consequence for Mr. Turner based on the conviction” (J. Wang). Such a reasoning implies that Turner’s happiness precedes the victim’s: instead of considering the effects of rape on the mental, physical and emotional health of the victim, the judge instead chose to focus on how a punishment would harm Turner and his future. At the foundation for this reasoning, then, is once again the same deep-seated mindset towards women: since the beginning of time, misogynistic attitudes have prevailed and dictated the treatment of women in society.

Like Goya’s plate 30 indicates, women were and still are—perhaps not as plainly and to the same extent—“victims of man’s inhumanity” (Esdaile). This justice gap is instead a reflection of the fact that 150 years after the Peninsular War and more than a century after women’s suffrage, the reality of the situation is that “pronouncements reporting the “good” news about the criminal justice system’s ability to effectively respond to sexual assault are not supported by statistical evidence”  (Lonsway). Our society, our laws and our very justice system are subtly yet acutely affected by our culture’s underlying misogynistic mindset.

In an attempt to address this widespread problem, many organizations and projects have come to realize that sexual assault against women and the justice gap are direct consequences of society’s pre-established chauvinistic attitudes towards women. UT Austin’s MenCanEnd program, launched by an all-male service group, stresses that “there’s a lot of conversation around anti-rape work that treats it as an absolute. It puts the responsibility on people to protect themselves and doesn’t address how it’s people who are committing these acts, because they have been taught and socialized in a certain way” (D. Wang). MenCanEnd’s approach recognizes that by targeting men and focusing on the root of the problem—the same misogynistic mindset portrayed in Goya’s etchings—rather than encouraging women to “dress more modestly” or to “not act provocatively,” the program can reduce victim-blaming and discourage rape culture (Stewart).

As Rebecca Stringer, University of Otago professor of sociology, suggests, “emphasizing only the aftermath of rape is not an effective political strategy because it accepts that women will be raped and are rape-able” (Stringer). Stringer argues against alternative “rape prevention approaches that suggests the answer to the problem of rape lies in positive counter-images of women as agents who are capable of preventing rape” (Stringer). These images of women are neither progressive or liberating: instead, they too fall into the category of victim-blaming and contribute to the rape culture and its attitudes.

Likewise, The Men’s Project, a sexual assault prevention program targeting college men, seeks to change the male mindset towards sexual assault by introducing them to issues such as gender socialization, male privilege and sexuality (Stewart). Results from the program demonstrate that “from baseline to posttest, participants reported reductions in sexism, rape myth acceptance, and gender-biased language use in addition to increases in collective action willingness, feminist activism, and bystander efficacy” (Stewart). By engaging men to work toward ending sexual assault, the discussions instead “centers on men’s role in ending sexual violence and the need for more prevention programs targeting men” (Stewart).

The effectiveness of programs that target men and strive to directly address society’s complex attitudes regarding women affirm that sexual assault and violence towards women is in fact an expression of deeply-ingrained misogynistic attitudes. Therefore, a dramatic shift beginning at the very foundation of society must be initiated in order to thoroughly eliminate misogyny, and in turn, sexual assault of women in society.

Goya’s etching portray women as victims of man’s inhumanity, and their experiences during the Peninsular War were largely an amplification of society’s pre-existing misogynistic attitudes towards women. Today, that same underlying theme remains in our society’s culture, albeit much more subtly and indirect. Sexual assault, the rape culture, the victim’s fear of reporting and the failure of the justice system in properly punishing offenders all attest to the fact that deep within our societal mindset, the same misogyny present in Goya’s etchings still exists today. Thus, in order to truly address and defeat the prevalence of sexual assault in the U.S., we must begin with the root of the problem, which lies in the very base and history of our society’s beliefs and attitudes.



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