Mary McAlpin

Professor of French, University of Tennessee (US)

Mary McAlpin is professor of French at the University of Tennessee. She is the author of two monographs on eighteenth-century French literature and culture, most recently "Female Sexuality and Cultural Degradation in Enlightenment France: Medicine and Literature" (UK: Ashgate, 2012). Her research interests include the French Revolution, the epistolary novel, and the history of medicine, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. Recent articles consider gendered environmental theory in Montesquieu’s "Lettres persanes"; childhood sexual abuse in Marie-Jeanne Roland’s "Mémoires"; puberty in Rousseau’s autobiographical writings; and rape in Choderlos de Laclos’s "Liaisons dangereuses".  

Rape as We Know It: Representing Sexual Violence in the French Enlightenment

This project explores a lasting transformation in how rape was perceived in the Western cultural imagination. During the Enlightenment, theorists such as the Montpellier vitalists began promoting sexual desire as “natural” and beneficial. This secularization required explaining the complexities of human sexual response, including French society’s celebration of chasteness in women. Recasting womanly modesty as Nature’s trick for enflaming male desire, these theorists made rape a logical impossibility, as reflected in the era’s novels, paintings, political theories, and philosophical treatises.

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