Comparing the representation of rape in Dutch and Spanish newspapers, 1930-1940
“Another one of those pretty boys” and “Things that happen”: two examples of headlines in Dutch and Spanish media respectively about rape and its perpetrators in the 1930s. In the first example, we see a fairly condemning – if facetious – accusatory finger pointed at the perpetrator. In the second headline, there is a tone of acceptance and even normalization of sexual violence. They highlight the various ways in which the media might look at rape: reported on through a focus on the accused; as a disembodied event; or as something that happens to the victim. This blog looks at the presentation of victims, perpetrators, and experts in media reports of rape between 1930 and 1939. The goal is to explore how the media discussed rape cases in the Netherlands and Spain. As it turns out, the differences between these two countries are fairly small, their similarities more pronounced.
A brief explanation of the sources used for this exploration might be helpful. This blog is based on a textual analysis of newspaper articles about rape. These were found in newspaper databases of both countries. For the Spanish case study, FORCE-intern Irene Rodríguez Coello analysed media from the website of the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Spain, the Biblioteca de Prensa Histórica. The Dutch case study is based on the news reports found in the database Delpher, which includes articles from national and local newspapers. It also uses the dissertation Drama in the Dailies by Claire Wilkinson as a source.
Central to this brief inquiry are ideas about sexual violence and, specifically, the concept of rape. Seemingly a simple word, it carries in it a multitude of ideas and meanings. As historians such as Joanna Bourke and Georges Vigarello have argued, ideas about rape and, importantly, the perceived impact of rape, have shifted over time. Early conceptions posit rape as an act of violence against male property, a perception that relegated the sexual nature of rape to a secondary position. From the late sixteenth century onwards, a shift in this perception meant that the victim became more central to the concept. It was then that rape began to be seen as a sexual crime against an individual woman. More recently again, in the nineteenth century, rape was perceived as an attack on an individual’s body; the female body came to be included in the notion of rape. Yet it was only in the twentieth century that this notion also started to encompass consequences for the inner life of the victim. Increasingly, rape was conceived as an attack on the woman’s sexual identity and a violation of the self. Therefore, while the language in earlier periods often focused more on the social and economic consequences of rape, in the twentieth-century discourse started to consider trauma as a possible (or even main) consequence.
Case studies: Netherlands and Spain
Taking these changes in the ideas surrounding rape into account it is interesting to compare the news reports in two countries and see if and how they can be related to this process. This blog focuses on two of the case studies central to the project of “Forensic Cultures”: the Netherlands and Spain. In both countries, the period between 1930 and 1940 was one of significant social transformations. In Spain, the 1930s marked a historic change in the role of women, as the era of the Second Republic (1931-1939) brought recognition to women as full citizens. Women were allowed to vote, worked in all economic sectors, and gained access to different educational levels. In theory, this granted the female population a lot of freedom. In practice, however, their life was not exactly free from social constraints. More ‘traditional’ ideas of the woman in the role of mother, wife, and caretaker still held sway and limited the scope of social freedom. Moreover, as Angel Alcalde highlights in his article “Wartime and Post-War Rape in Franco’s Spain”, the fact that in rural communities women performed the same work as men, made them more vulnerable to become the victims of what Alcalde terms “rural rape.” Additionally, the Spanish civil war between 1936 and 1939 disrupted life severely, meaning that any social change in the position of the women was virtually undone in the war-torn circumstances of the Franco regime.
As historian Marjan Schwegman has shown, the position of the woman also changed in the Netherlands during the same period. Access to work – sometimes pushed by economic necessity – increased the participation of women in the workforce and meant women spent more time outside the familial or marital home. As such, both in the Netherlands and in Spain, women’s positions changed substantially, though many of the older constraints continued to shape their social standing. Even if one were to speak about progress in the position of women, this was not a linear process. In the Netherlands, for example, there were significant efforts to oust the newly entered women from the workforce, in a bid to lower unemployment among men.
Reporting on rape
Unfortunately, changing social circumstances did not protect women from becoming the victim of rape. Yet not nearly every case of rape made it to the police. Because rape cases often brought with them a significant amount of social stigma toward the victim, many abstained from making a formal complaint or dropped the complaint throughout the police investigation. For the Spanish context, Angel Alcalde remarks: “Culture, social relations, politics, and laws hindered the reporting and prosecution of sexual aggression, restricting documentary traces of rape.” Alcalde gives the concrete example of a woman who had not reported an assault “’…because she was a married woman… so that her husband wouldn’t find out.’” In Spain, maybe more so than in the Dutch context, the presumed dishonour of the victim played a large role in the reluctance of victims to report their assault. Moreover, in the Spanish context, a complainant of rape could play a role that was unparalleled in the Netherlands. In Spain, a rape case could be ended in its tracks if the victim “forgave” or pardoned the perpetrator. This occurrence is even mentioned several times throughout the sample that was studied. In the Netherlands, such a pardon by the victim was not a part of legal proceedings.
Content of media reports
Yet in the cases that a victim did decide to bring their case to the police – and in Spain, did not forgive their aggressor – not all reported rapes made it into the newspapers. For those cases that did end up in Dutch or Spanish newspapers, they were often only reported in limited detail. This was in part due to a wish to protect the sensibilities of the general public, meaning that ‘sordid’ details were often omitted. As Wilkinson has pointed out for the Netherlands, the way newspapers reported on sex crimes was part of their strategy to connect with their growing female readership at the time. Yet there was also a practical reason that prevented extensive articles about rape: both countries almost invariably tried rape cases behind closed doors. This effectively barred journalists from attending trials and meant they had to rely on the information shared with the general public.
As such, the information available to journalists was fairly limited. Public details generally only included some basic information about the supposed perpetrator, the crime of which they had been accused, and the demanded sentence. For rape cases that were tried in Dutch courts, for example, the vast majority were reported in a very brief article.
This often consisted of a minuscule mention, no longer than two lines in which the basic details of the perpetrator were shared, the legal article of the crime for which they were tried, and the sentence they received. Lists of these crimes and sentences were published mostly in regional newspapers. The “weight” of the crime – in this case, deduced from the sentences given- did not seem to impact these reporting practices. Crimes that lead to a sentence of as little as a month are reported in the same way as those given much heavier sentences (several years). In a sense, this type of reporting did not pay any attention to the victim of the crime, focusing instead the person of the perpetrator and the punishment of the offense.
Representing perpetrators and survivors
Occasionally, a little more information was available on rape cases. This was especially the case when the charge of rape was combined with another charge against the accused. For example, cases that combined kidnapping or murder with a rape charge tended to be discussed in more detail. This was done both in the Netherlands and Spain. This was especially also the case for attacks by an unknown suspect in the Netherlands. While the sexual assault was still often couched in unoffensive terms, these reports often included far more details about the crime, often based on the story of the victim.
Yet there are also differences to be found between Dutch and Spanish reporting. Spanish newspapers reported the whole legal process of rape cases, from the investigation until the sentencing. The information included in the reports was inconsistent. In some cases, quite a lot of information did become public knowledge. This could include information such as the age of the victim – the majority of these cases feature an underage victim – or the personal relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, for example when it concerned assault by a parent, or when the two people involved were in a relationship without being married.
In the Netherlands, two main strains of reporting can be identified: reporting on the crime and reporting on the sentencing of the perpetrator. In the discussion of the crime, only basic information about the victim was included, such as age and gender. However, victim’s experience or the report they gave to the police were quite often used as the basis for the article. As already mentioned, this was mostly the case when the crime was by an unidentified perpetrator. In the reports of sentencing, no details were given on the victim at all. In contrast to the Spanish cases, moreover, the Dutch newspapers generally omit any mentions of a biological relationship between the victim and the perpetrator – they might mention that the victim was in the care of the perpetrator, but this is never specified to be a parental relationship. Potentially, this might be related to limited contemporary interest in incest as a crime distinct from other sex crimes.
Other information was also often given on victims in Spanish newspapers that was generally not included in Dutch newspapers. One characteristic that was reported, for example, was the mental or physical disability of a victim. In the case of Spain, such a preexisting condition on the side of the victim could lead to a higher sentence for the perpetrator. This information is rarely (if ever) reported by Dutch newspapers, although the reasons for this are unclear. Conversely, there are various mentions of male victims in the Dutch context, whereas these are conspicuously absent in the Spanish newspapers.
Narratives and tone of voice
Yet the tone of reporting could and did differ, both between the Dutch and Spanish contexts and between cases. In the Spanish case, the tone was generally one of resigned acceptance: it was indeed “something that happened” as the headline at the beginning of this blog highlights. These types of titles suggest a type of normalization, implying that rape, was in fact, nothing out of the ordinary. While these appear to be outliers, the fact that these headlines were printed, shows that at least individual newspapers and/or journalists could take a lighter view of the condemnation of rape cases.
In the Dutch context, however, the measure of condemnation and recognition of the effects on the victims differed. One example is a brief report from the Dutch newspaper Dagblad Nieuwe Hoornsche Courant from 24-06-1937. Under the header “Another one of those pretty boys!” (“Weer zoo’n mooie jongen!”), the newspaper reports that a 27-year-old male was arrested for a serious sex crime with a minor. The tone of the article is somewhat light, regarding the crime to be of an “offensive” nature (“…op zeer ergerlijke wijze bezig gehouden met een meisje…”), while the rest of the text was written somewhat facetiously.
In the majority of articles, however, moral condemnation was present and often severe. Moreover, there seems to have been some realization that rape and sexual crimes in general had consequences for the mental state of the victim. This is seen for example in an article from 1930 where a victim of a double assault identified the perpetrator, the report recognizes that she was strongly affected by it (“Zij was zeer ontdaan.” Nieuwe Vlaardingsche Courant, 04-03-1930). Another report, from 1937, recognized that “As can be well understood, the girl was very upset by the situation”, following an attempted assault (“Zoals te begrijpen is, was het meisje van het gebeuren danig overstuur.” Delftsche Courant, 26-05-1937).
In light of the FORCE project, it is also interesting to see how forensic experts are presented in the reports on rape. In both Spain and the Netherlands, only a very limited number of the articles mention the involvement of a forensic doctor in rape cases or trials. The reasons for this are unclear: does this relate to the fact that these cases were tried behind closed doors? Or because there rarely was a doctor involved? Or, conversely, when a doctor was mentioned, was this maybe because it was unusual for this particular doctor to be involved in a trial? In general, however, the analysis of media reports offers only limited information. In the Netherlands, when an expert was mentioned in a news report, it was often a psychiatrist who made a statement about the mental state of the accused. Yet the contents of this statement were rarely included in reports. Occasionally, physicians were consulted, but often in earlier stages of the investigations and not necessarily in rape cases (rather, they were heard in cases of abortion or where rape was combined with another crime, such as murder). In Spain, in the few cases in which a forensic doctor was included in a case, the charge of rape was brought together with other accusations, such as kidnapping, murder, or multiple rape cases. Then, the expertise that was called for took the shape of a medical examiner, rather than a psychiatrist. Thus, physicians were more prominently present in the Spanish media than in the Dutch reports on sexual assault, whereas cases in the Netherlands were far more likely to feature psychiatrists.
Conclusion: the space of the “victim”
So what can an analysis of Dutch and Spanish reporting practices tell us? First of all, while there are some differences, the reporting of rape in Dutch and Spanish newspapers seems to have shaped itself along similar lines. As cases were tried behind closed doors and the mores of the general public were to be protected, reports on rape were generally limited. Details of the crime were omitted, although details of the perpetrator certainly were not. Only those details of the victim that were considered “relevant” for the crime, were included. It is tempting to perceive the reporting in the Dutch and Spanish context as one that reports rape as an attack on an anonymized female body. While the act was generally condemned, little consideration was given to the experience of the victim – a finding that is in line with the shifting cultural conceptions of rape and its effects on victims mentioned at the beginning of this blog, i.e. that there was limited awareness or consideration for the effects of rape on the victim.
Yet this might deserve some nuance. The fact that this data set also includes the years of the Civil War in Spain, makes it hard to come up with sweeping generalizations for the Spanish context, as this impacted the media’s reporting on rape. This has been shown inter alia by Stephanie Wright and Angel Alcalde. For the Dutch context, this brief exploration might point to a transitioning to the most recent conceptualization of rape during this time, with a recognition that rape was an attack on an individual woman, with serious consequences for the well being of the victim. Further studies would have to show whether this is indeed the case by, for example, comparing newspaper reports from the 1920s, 1940s (post-war), and the 1950s. But as of now, this data set might imply that Dutch newspapers started reflecting more compassionately on the experience of victims of rape and sexual assault in this period, with seemingly an awareness that the event could have a lasting impact on the psyche of the victim, even if accounts of “trauma” as a result of rape only seem to truly appear in Dutch newspapers from the 1970s and 1980s onward.
By Anne van Dam. Special thanks is given to Irene Rodríguez Coello for her analysis of the Spanish newspapers and examples mentioned in this blog.
Alcalde, Angel. “Wartime and Post-War Rape in Franco’s Spain” The Historical Journal, 64, 4 (2021), 1060 – 1082
Bourke, Joanna, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present Day (London 2007)
Hartmans, Rob. “Gevecht tegen het aanrecht. Feminisme in de jaren 30.” Historisch Nieuwsblad, 2 (2014), Visited on 08-08-2022
Merino Hernández, Rosa. “La Segunda República, una coyuntura para la mujer española: cambios y permanencias en las relaciones de género.” Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Salamanca, 2016.
Schwegman, Marjan. “Nieuwe kapsels, nieuwe keukens, nieuwe kansen. De geschiedenis van Nederlandse vrouwen tijdens het Interbellum opnieuw bekeken”, Kleio, 31, 7 (1990), 3-10
Vigarello, Georges. A History of Rape. Sexual Violence in France from the 16th to the 20th century. (London 2000)
Wilkinson, Clare. “Drama in the Dailies. Violence and Gender in Dutch Newspapers, 1880-1930”. Unpublished PhD thesis (Leiden University 2020)
Wright, Stephanie. ““Facts that are declared proven.” Francoism, forensic medicine, and the policing of sexual violence in twentieth-century Spain’” Unpublished paper, presented at the conference Forensic Cultures, 2021, at Utrecht University/online.