Jane Austen and a Women’s Right to Refuse, by E.M. Storm-Smith

Jane Austen and a Women’s Right to Refuse, by E.M. Storm-Smith

Hello Friends! April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. So, as your resident ultra-feminist, I would like to take my time this month to talk about how Jane Austen inserted themes of women’s empowerment and sexual violence into her novels and why the things she talked about over 200 years ago are still relevant.

Let’s start with this – if you or anyone you know is struggling with sexual violence please find help. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) and find additional resources at the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) website.

Now for some statistics from my home country (source: https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics):

  • Every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted – men and women.
  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and of the women affected, a third are minors.
  • Nationwide, 81% of US women and 43% of US men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.
  • It is estimated that only about 25% of rapes were reported to police in 2018.

Our culture of encouraging boys to “sow their wild oats” and “boys will be boys” and the countless movies that glorify chasing women or using coercive tactics to get someone to engage sexually certainly isn’t doing anything to help curb these statistics. But rape culture is not a new phenomenon. Jane Austen was aware of the power dynamics around men, women and sex, and she wrote undertones of these issues into her stories.

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

How many times is a woman to say no before she is believed? Apparently even Mr. Collins, who is by no means the worst example of an Austenesque rogue in even just Pride and Prejudice, would have accepted no less than three.

Taking another Austen heroine’s rejection of a suitor, Emma has to fend off unwanted, aggressive advances by her would be suitor, Mr. Elton (what did Austen have against the clergy?). Elton does not physically harm Emma, though he grabs her several times in the coach during his unexpected proposal, but he does defend himself with the gaslighting typical of rape culture apologists – he acted because of “the encouragement [he] received.

It’s a typical scenario that many women are unfortunately too familiar with. My own #MeToo moment happened when I was apparently too friendly with some guy I’d just met and he took mild friendliness to mean I was interested in a sexual relationship. After being groped and kissed in an elevator, I was lucky. He walked me to my dorm room and didn’t try to come up. But sometimes I still have a hard time getting into elevators with male strangers, worried about another bad actor.

I know that not all men are bad. I’m married to a pretty good one, if I do say so myself. But it’s hard to know who is good and who is bad. I recently heard a good analogy that will probably ring true for the US readers here. The first rule of gun safety is to approach every gun as if it’s loaded. You cannot look at a gun and know whether there is a live round in the chamber or not. The only way to be sure of your safely is to proceed with caution.

Even the, arguably, most loved Austen hero falls victim to this problem. Fitzwilliam Darcy believes Elizabeth Bennet to be expecting his proposal when he first asks her to marry him. Their intellectual banter and her natural impertinence had him convinced that Elizabeth would be receptive to his advances. I guess that we should be glad that he at least got the hint quickly, but still, how are women to protect themselves from providing encouragement to every guy they meet if even Elizabeth’s argumentative verbal sparing didn’t discourage Darcy?

Nearly every one of Austen’s novels includes a character which would be considered a sex offender today. George Wickham was an approximately 27-year-old man who was the serial predator of 15-year-old girls. John Willoughby impregnates then abandons one teenage girl before pursuing another (Marianne Dashwood), then a third whom he marries for her money. John Thorpe spends the majority of Northanger Abbey stalking Catherine Morland and trying to force her hand into marriage by making statements to his family and hers that she had as good as promised to become engaged to him. Henry Crawford, determined to marry sweet Fanny Price, won’t take her “no” for an answer and, not only tries to force her hand with the Bertrams, but he follows her home to try and convince her to reconsider. We’ve already spoken of Elton’s offenses against Emma and that only leaves Anne Elliott. Persuasion is the outlier in that there is no specific character who is billed as the “bad boy” as a contrast to the hero, however it does spend the entire book examining how a woman’s only firm right is the right to refuse. Anne suffers from her refusal of Captain Wentworth, but she is left unharmed.

Jane Austen essentially wrote romance novels with happily-ever-afters for all of her heroines, but she also wrote powerful stories about women’s voices. Too often, even in modern literature, women are silenced, men are given a pass they don’t deserve, and the stories being fed to young people glorify the bad actor. But Elizabeth, Fanny, Emma, Anne, Catherine – they all use their voice to stand up to and reject men whom they do not love. They take up their space and we are supposed to identify with these women. They are the main characters after all. The actions of the “bad” men, while never really punished through the criminal justice system, are shown in a negative light. They are ridiculed by the narrator and often times the other male characters. Our heroines find them undesirable and they get their comeuppance through, most often, unhappy marriages.

So why have this conversation at all? What are we supposed to do with this information?

I’d suggest that we should spend more time promoting Austen’s books to young people of all genders and identity. #JaneAustenisforEveryone ! Lots of people have asked me “Are Austen’s books really for men?” – YES! They should be for men, boys, teenagers, and anyone who wants to read about strong women characters. It’s our patriarchal dominated society that says books and stories about being a woman are just for the segment of the population that identifies as female. We don’t bat an eye at stories about being/becoming a man being taught in elementary classrooms. My son’s 2nd grade classroom read both My Side of the Mountain and Where the Red Fern Grows this year. Both wonderful books worthy of being read, but I can’t think of a single story they read that centers a young female perspective.

We don’t have time to get into the whole conversation around the recent Disney-Pixar movie Turing Red, but if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s really worth it. The main subject is about the hush-hush nature of puberty, especially girls menstruation, and the challenges that young people face today. Because the story is centered on a young girl, and has a metaphor around menstruation, many men have declared that it’s not “relatable.” How many shows have you seen that casually drop in a reference to young boys’ unwanted, random erections? Like every 90’s sitcom ever? As a woman, will I ever have an unwanted erection – no – but as a human can I relate to the embarrassment of my body betraying me at inopportune moments – of course.

We need to take the same view of women’s stories. Just because someone may not fully identify with the main character that doesn’t mean that learning their perspective is not “relatable”. If more men and boys read and really took Austen’s stories to heart, maybe we can start making a dent in those statistics. When society starts seeing woman as equals and women’s stories as relatable, they might stop using the same tired tactics that Austen’s villains used to abuse people today.



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April 20, 2022 1:44 PM

Thank you for this post. It’s a shame that some men don’t understand that “no” means “no”! Alas I suppose that there will always be some like this.
You are right about Wickham, he would be arrested as a sexual predator nowadays, it’s a shame he wasn’t then!

April 18, 2022 3:18 PM

Thanks for this informative post.

Riana Everly
April 13, 2022 8:31 PM

Fabulous post, and thanks for sharing those resources at the beginning.
I’ve seen it said, and I agree, that one reason women love Darcy is because he makes his advances (inappropriately, I admit), then goes away and doesn’t push like Mr. Collins does, and when he fixes himself and offers again, he states clearly that he will accept NO and will not bother Elizabeth again.

I have to wonder at some of Jane Austen’s associates, considering that the competition for top slimy bad guy is pretty stiff. Pity more guys don’t take Mr Darcy as their role model.

Kirstin Odegaard
April 13, 2022 3:17 PM

Wonderful and important post. As a parent, I’ve been bothered by how the children’s stories and shows with mostly male characters are about action and adventure, while the stories with mostly female characters are about friendship and those girls fighting with each other. As if girls are only interested in bland plots and petty squabbles. My daughter once said, “I like action and adventure too,” and it broke my heart.

And don’t even get me started on the sexist genre “women’s fiction.” Isn’t it just fiction?

Charmaine M
Charmaine M
April 13, 2022 10:54 AM

Fantastic post! And people wonder if JA is relevant today. There will always be those people who ‘use’ others for their own gratifications. As I look at each of the JA ladies, both heroines and others, I can see that they represent not just their era, but ours as well. Thanks for the post.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
April 13, 2022 10:25 AM

Great post! You have to be so careful the things you do and say today so No one thinks you are harassing anyone sexually or otherwise.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
April 13, 2022 7:32 AM

Excellent post! Unfortunately, it does seem that any woman who is friendly and somewhat playful is seen as flirtatious. Therefore, she is considered to be ready and willing. Even my husband, who is a great guy, has said to me, “Oh, she will be going home with that guy tonight!” based on a woman who is just dancing and having fun.

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