Castration revenge as a prelude to group revenge: this man, recently castrated by his rape victim, is about to be further punished by a group of female soldiers. A scene from Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron.
Jennifer Hills enduring the second of three rapes in the original I Spit on Your Grave.
Experiencing the aftermath of rape at a high-school football game in the Straw Dogs remake.
The trauma of rape: Raquel Welch as a rape victim in Hannie Caulder.
A poster for the low-budget rape-revenge western, The Animals (a.k.a., Five Savage Men).
Discovering evidence of rape in the Last House on the Left remake.
A rape victim undergoing questioning during her “second rape”: a scene from The Accused.
An oddly exasperated act of revenge in Lipstick.
Jennifer Hills prepares to castrate one of her rapists in the original I Spit on Your Grave.
Jennifer Hills demonstrating her power in perhaps the most famous (and exhilarating) shot of the original I Spit on Your Grave.
The crucial insight here—that is, the one that is most pertinent to our discussion of rape-revenge—is that the enormous pain of rape is predicted by sexual-selection theory. Because of this pain, female rape victims are predisposed to see rape as a special crime that is on a par with murder. Further, sexual-selection theory suggests why rape is often difficult to prove. For biological as well as cultural reasons, men and women have often had different perspectives on rape. [open endnotes in new window] As Susan Brownmiller noted in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975) four decades ago, official institutions demand standards of evidence that cannot be met in rape trials, which often devolve into he-said, she-said arguments. Because these standards and the systems of justice they serve often fail rape victims, culminating in the dismissal of charges against rapists, rape is under-reported all over the world, particularly when perpetrated by acquaintances. Furthermore, even when the system does work and the rapist or rapists are punished, the reporting of a rape is still a risky prospect for the victim, for it might trigger punishments of her by her partner, her family, and her social circle. The impulse not to report such a crime is thus exceptionally strong and perhaps represents an evolved tendency. All in all, then, rape is a terrible crime for female victims and one that often goes un-reported to authorities and un-punished by third-party institutions, leaving victims and their allies burdened with outrage or resentment. Consequently, even when they don’t seek revenge outside the law, rape victims, their relatives, and their male or female allies may harbor violent vigilante fantasies in which the victim’s interests are avenged.
This evolutionary account of rape, though still quite sketchy, dovetails with an emerging account of revenge. Theorists in disciplines from evolutionary psychology to the social sciences are interested in the phenomenon of revenge and how it relates to human traits like moral outrage and physical aggression. The basic assumption across these inquiries is that revenge, in tandem with the outraged behavior that so often accompanies revenge, increases human fitness at the individual and group levels.
According to theorist Tamler Sommers, “retributive behavior is in a certain sense irrational,” for it cannot “undo the harm committed by the offense and it often comes with a significant cost” in tow. But this behavior is rational in the sense that without the threat of retaliation to keep offenders in check there is nothing to stop people from exploiting one another. In other words, if the cost of retaliating is often high, the cost of not retaliating can also be high. Sommers believes that human evolution solved this problem by developing “mechanisms that motivate us to behave retributively, even when the costs to our self-interests are high.” Here, the development of feelings like moralistic aggression, which arose in tandem with resentment and outrage, proved very useful in motivating “violent retaliation against defectors” despite the personal costs.  Together, these dispositions formed the basis of the human instinct for revenge as it evolved over the millennia. It is not difficult to see, of course, how these insights apply to rape. If there is a revenge instinct, there is almost certainly a rape-revenge instinct, for rape is one of the most fundamental human offenses there is.
However, even as the human instinct for revenge solved one of set of problems, it still left the victims of the original offense burdened with personal costs. Not only did they have to suffer the costs of the original offense, they also had to suffer the secondary costs of the retaliation, which could be just as high. To relieve the victim (and other offended parties) of these secondary costs, human cultures gradually moved toward third-party systems wherein civil authorities adjudicated and punished offenders; these systems offered the civic benefit of shouldering the costs of retaliation.
Unfortunately, in the case of rape, the human instinct for a more hands-on approach to revenge has been difficult to sublimate in third-party justice, because this form of justice has so often failed the victim and other offended parties. It is no wonder, then, that film scholars as far back as Clover have observed that, as a narrative structure, rape-revenge has had “a nervous relationship to third-party dispute settlement.”
The three key observations emerging from this general overview are, then, as follows. First, as a product of sexual selection, heterosexual rape is a male attempt to circumvent the constraints imposed by the different reproductive interests of the sexes. Whether rape represents a full adaptation, however, is an open question—one that film scholars should definitely not presume they know the answer to. Second, evolutionarily, rape has had a high cost for human females and their relatives, who have come to look on it as a special crime. Third, as such a crime, rape is a reliable trigger of the human instinct for revenge, but it is not one that is easily satisfied by cultural institutions. By reading rape-revenge films through this modest Darwinian account, we can tailor a biocultural approach to an area of film studies that needs an intervention. In the next section, I begin this process by demonstrating the different ways in which rape-revenge movies define rape as a special crime, something that is crucial to the appeal of these films.
Communicating the special-ness of rape
A rape-revenge film is one whose central narrative maneuver is to use an act of rape, on-screen or off, to motivate an act of vengeance. Or, to twist this just a bit, a rape-revenge film is, as Heller-Nicholas puts it, a movie in which
Clearly, the key criterion here is the judgment of narrative centrality, which in effect excludes films whose rape-revenge segments do not seem crucial to the way in which the plot plays out. Thus, in this essay, the centrality criterion precludes discussion of films in which the rape-revenge arc is an unambiguously minor element in the film as a whole (see, e.g., Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron ). It also precludes discussion of trickier cases, in which rape is a minor narrative element but a significant thematic one (e.g., Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls ). The rapes avenged in rape-revenge can be male-male (as in John Boorman’s Deliverance ), male-child (as in Daniel Grou’s Seven Days ), or female-female (as in any number of women-in-prison films), but the most common type is male-female, or heterosexual. Because this is also the kind of rape whose evolutionary significance is clearest, the discussion below focuses on rape-revenge films in which a heterosexual rape seems to be, in this analyst’s judgment, a central narrative element, one that motivates an equally central act of revenge.
In accord with the evolutionary observations note above, these rapes are perceived by the avenger figures in each film as special crimes that deserve equally distinctive acts of vengeance—a dynamic that has contributed to the use of torture-porn imagery in the revenge segments of recent rape-revenge remakes. Though revenge-oriented films often have a regressive or even right-wing slant, the political impetus of the rape-revenge film often seems different, for it is routinely wed to pro-female scenarios that support female sexual agency at the individual level and that usually sympathize with rape victims. Not surprisingly, these ideological sympathies often culminate in a progressive political impact, despite the countervailing obsession of these films with seemingly regressive or excessively voyeuristic elements like nudity, violence, and vigilantism. The exception to this rule is when the avenger figure in the narrative is the husband of the victim or when the rape only loosely motivates the revenge. Both factors are in play, for instance, in the Straw Dogs films (Sam Peckinpah, 1971/Rod Lurie, 2011), which have attracted many feminist critiques. Besides the victim’s husband, the most common avengers are the victim’s parents, the victim’s female allies, and of course the victim herself. As I explain in my next section, each type of avenger may be seen as having a distinctive set of evolutionarily-derived motivations for avenging the central rape(s).
Rape-revenge films convey the special-ness of the rape—a special-ness explained and predicted by sexual-selection theory—in several standard ways. Sometimes, they do so by depicting the ferocity and sadism of a rape. This is certainly true of the original I Spit on Your Grave, in which Meir Zarchi’s heroine is subjected to three separate attacks that take up twenty-five minutes of screen time. During these attacks, the victim is raped vaginally and anally; sodomized with a bottle; subjected to horrifying taunts, shouts, and jeers; and repeatedly punched, kicked, and beaten. Though such violence may not represent the average rape victim’s experience of rape, it effectively presents rape as an exceptional crime.
Another way in which the special-ness of rape is constructed cinematically is through glimpses into the mental deterioration of the victim. The logic here is indirect. The films’ dramatic response to rape indicates the dramatic nature of the original crime. Character portrayals typically show the victim subject to post-traumatic-stress disorders, often through recurring flashbacks triggered by noise and acts of violence. Today, such depictions are altogether standard, as indicated by the stylistic panache of some recent examples. See, for example, the Friday-night-football sequence in Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs. In this sequence, the reverberating traumas of rape are elicited by the pounding hits and the macho crowd noise of high-school football in small-town Mississippi. This sort of representation has obvious feminist resonance. But we should remember that the flashback in rape-revenge was used long before the second-wave critique of rape had even coalesced. Consider, for example, that three films from 1971—including the original Straw Dogs film and two rape-revenge westerns, Ron Joy’s Five Savage Men/The Animals and Burt Kennedy’s Hannie Caulder—feature heroines who manifest trauma through uncontrolled flashbacks.
Another common way that these films convey the uniqueness of rape is by placing rape in a comparative context that includes other crimes, like assault and murder. Then the films use the responses of third parties, most often parents, to evoke the unique awfulness of rape. For example, in Dennis Iliadis’ remake of Last House on the Left (2009), the victim’s father (Tony Goldwyn), a surgeon, finds that his daughter (Sara Paxton) has been shot in the back—but he is filled with markedly more horror and revulsion when he subsequently discovers that she has also been raped. Indeed, even when the “other” crime in these films is the ultimate one—murder—the rape can still seem the paramount sin, as it does in the original Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972) and in Eye for an Eye (John Schlesinger, 1996). Finally, these films also convey rape’s specialness by having their scripts directly assert that nothing can atone for rape. This happens, for example, in the remake of I Spit on Your Grave (Steven Monroe, 2010), when the victim (Sarah Butler) responds to a heartfelt apology from her rapist (Chad Lindberg) by declaring that when it comes to rape remorse “just isn’t good enough.” Such assertions in the dialogue indicate that the narrative is set up to accent rape’s exceptional nature.
By presenting rape as a special crime, rape-revenge makes the case for punishing this crime in a special way. Such punishment often requires vigilantism. Though rape-revenge often takes the necessity of vigilante action for granted, the narrative may also supply the standard rationale for it: the official legal system is a macho, patriarchal institution that is also prone to “raping” women, meaning that neither rape victims nor their sympathizers can rely on that system for justice. Movies that utilize this rationale begin by depicting an unfeeling police interrogation of the victim—a phenomenon that feminists have dubbed “the second rape”—which leads into a courtroom scene in which the victim is abused by lawyers. In the end, the charges against her rapist are reduced or dismissed by judges and juries. Though exploitation films with feminist aspirations like Rape Squad (Bob Kelljan, 1974) and Lethal Victims (Raphael Nussbaum, 1987) are the harshest in their critiques of the legal system, even mainstream productions such as Lipstick (Lamont Johnson, 1976), Extremities (Robert Young, 1986), and The Accused have little good to say about this system.
For example, in Lipstick, a super-model heroine (Margaux Hemingway) attempts to prosecute her rapist (Chris Sarandon) even though she knows that the tactic is risky. Unfortunately, the jury lets her attacker off, allowing him to rape again—and this time he rapes her sister (Mariel Hemingway). In an exasperated, oddly innocent act of rage, the heroine then opts for a hands-on style of justice. She stalks her rapist and shoots him with a hunting rifle, pumping his body with more bullets than are necessary to kill him. Here the rationale for vigilantism is spelled out against the backdrop of judicial insensitivity and ineffectiveness, which justifies a distinctive act of revenge.
This narrative equation may also be turned around. The special-ness of rape may at the narrative level justify a special act of revenge. But the special-ness of that revenge may also work to reinforce the special-ness of rape, in the process yielding a new awareness of the horror of rape. Perhaps the most iconic, resonant way in which rape-revenge uses a distinctive act of revenge to distinguish rape from other crimes is through its depiction of castration. In rape-revenge, avengers frequently deprive rapists of their offending organs by biting them off (sometimes after an avenger feigns attraction to a rapist, as in the original version of Last House on the Left) or by hacking, sawing, or snipping them off (as in both the original and the remade versions of I Spit on Your Grave).
Clearly, castration is an appropriate punishment. Not only is it a properly horrific response to rape, it is also one that keeps the rapist from raping again. But this dramatic loss of sexual and reproductive potential also explains why a castration scene is more horrific to male audiences than a more generic torture scene (one in which a rapist loses some other body part) might be. To castrate a rapist is to avenge one gender-specific trauma through another gender-specific trauma—thus providing audiences, male audiences in particular, an analogue for rape that registers at the gut level (and below).
If castration is the act of revenge best equipped to convey the instinctual horror of rape to male viewers, torture is the act best equipped to convey the feminist idea that rape is power, not sex. The difference is subtle yet significant. The feminist account of rape—which has been argued by many activists, starting with Brownmiller, and which has recently been disputed by evolutionary psychologists like Thornhill and Palmer—stresses that rape requires the non-consensual control of a woman by a man (or men) over a period of time. By this definition, rape is a form of torture, for torture requires the non-consensual control of one person by others over a period of time, during which physical and psychological scars may be left on the victim. If we keep this conceptual overlap in mind, it is possible to read gender-specific implications in rape-revenge’s recent turn toward torture-porn in the revenge sections of the remakes of Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave. My reading of this tendency—one best exemplified by Monroe’s remake of the Zarchi original—is that reciprocal cruelty allows an avenger to teach a rapist what it feels like to be raped, thus letting the audience in on the secret as well.