For Joanna Bourke, there was a turning point in her ongoing study of rape, when her own feelings about the subject shifted suddenly to anger: "On or about 30 February 2005 I became enraged." What infuriated her was a Home Office statistic showing that only one in 20 reported rapes results in a conviction. You expect after this that her book will be driven by a single-minded need to discover the reasons for this discrepancy and make proposals for changing a world in which, so scandalously, "Men are getting away with rape."
In part, it is. But Bourke's own working definition of rape as whatever anyone – whether "participant" or "third party" – thinks of as rape is so broad as to render impossible any general argument about one specifiable crime. The book's pointedly grey cover already makes it seem more likely that Bourke's history of rape will be at pains to avoid simple black-and -white categories of judgement – as well as the titillatingly colourful kinds of story that reinforce the prevailing images of rape and its victims.
The would-be precision of Bourke's date is characteristic of a book that seeks to qualify the starkness of a maddening statistic by offering a multiplicity of historical and ideological amplifications. Beyond the commonest representation of rape as "stranger rape" involving the penetration of a vagina by a penis without the woman's consent, Bourke discusses the history of numerous other categories of sexual assault, with different numbers and genders and ages of victim and perpetrator, different kinds of physical abuse, different degrees of acquaintance, different settings. Apart from rape, she also looks at less violent kinds of sexual performance, such as "indecent exposure". This gives her – and her readers – a respite from the harrowing material elsewhere.
Some gentle fun with mid-20th-century psychoanalytic interpretations of eccentric sexual practices can be allowed, and you sense that anger is not Bourke's natural writing mode. She also analyses the rise and disappearance of the "psychopath", whose indefinite identity was enshrined in legal and psychiatric categories as well as popular ideology.
Unlike the serial killer, another much-mediatised violent character, there is nothing to form an identifiable profile of "the rapist", who in practice may be male or female; may have one "victim" or a few, or none, or many; and may act on his own or in a group. Although stranger rape remains the dominant image, most rapes occur between those who are close or at least know one another. Though it has resulted in a negligible number of convictions, a category of conjugal rape was established in British law in the 1990s, responding to a developing acceptance of women's – and wives'– sexual autonomy. A century ago, the gaps of experience and expectations may have made forced sex a commonplace occurrence at the start of a marriage. "What takes place often amounts to nothing more or less than rape," the psychiatrist Leopold Loewenfeld bluntly said in 1913.
That he said it at all, and with that word, was the sign of a shifting awareness of the secret traumas of sexual life. Bourke argues that changing possibilities of linguistic expression are not just outward signs of what's going on but actively shape what is thought and experienced. Cultural discourse makes "the rapist": it is through what she calls "rape myths" that people form ideas of what kind of person rapes or gets raped, and such ideas have a direct bearing on how courts interpret evidence; or how legislators or medical experts come up with classifications of the propensity to rape as a crime or illness.
More controversially, Bourke also argues that cultural discourse makes not just "the rapist" but the rapist, in that "human subjects choose their 'coming into being' from a range of discursive practices circulating within their historical time and place". What Bourke is trying to do here, I think, is to avoid the determinism of positing that some kind of raping tendency slaps itself programmatically onto an inertly receptive mind.
But neither her model nor the one she rejects can really account for why some men might be rapists (and others not) or how it might be possible to change their choices and actions. Beyond these two alternatives is the grey area of fantasies, including rape fantasies, that may underlie some of the most "normal" of sexual practices.
Elsewhere, Bourke's detailed discussions do suggest other answers to the question of what makes sexual abusers do what they do. One explanation is cultural in a slightly different sense. Prisons and the army, for instance, are examples of institutional settings within which otherwise outlawed sexual practices can become normal or acceptable. There is some reliance here on 19th- and early 20th-century theories of group behaviour as bringing down moral barriers, but the fact that otherwise prohibited and shameful acts become almost routine in such settings would also lend weight to Bourke's argument about the infinite historical range of human behavioural norms. The sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by British and American troops was shocking to the non-military "general public" in part because it was visibly not a source of shame to perpetrators at the time.
The incidents at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere take Bourke into another territory that is normally fenced-off when it comes to discussions of rape. She does not shirk the fact that some of the aggressors were women: women now militarised, but not simply "male-identified". They were inventing distinctly female forms of torture of their male victims. Other parts of the book detail other types of abuse by women – of men, or other women, or children. Nannies, servants and mothers all emerge as suspects in relation to more or less harmful and sexualised acts.
Bourke is right to refuse the sanctimonious division which makes only men and male sexuality dangerous and aggressive, or potentially so. But this, as she regretfully acknowledges, makes it all the more difficult to sustain a coordinated argument about how to change the incidence or understanding of rape: "Politically, the argument that 'women do it too' and that 'men can also be victimized' is difficult to make... Talking theory, this is fine; doing activism, it may be dangerous." By her own account, she can propose no final or general answers. She is too honest intellectually for that; and the result is a book which is thought-provoking at every turn – but which inevitably cannot deliver the sorts of clear-cut solution its rightly angered writer also longs to offer.
Rachel Bowlby is professor of English at UCL; her 'Freudian Mythologies: Greek tragedy and modern identities' is published by OUP
Virago £25 (566pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897Reuse content