Sexual Assault Cases Are Our Modern-Day Witch Trials

By Hillary Di Menna

“The Witch, №1”, c. 1892 lithograph by Joseph E. Baker

Mandi Gray is considered a deceptive mistress with an ardent thirst for exacting revenge against innocent men. She is known to partake in late-night merrymaking alongside other women. Her goal, it is said, is to achieve fame and fortune through the telling of fallacious stories designed to contradict patriarchal narratives.

The judicial system automatically assumes her to be guilty of lying and lechery, and she possesses the ability to make a court body go wild under her spell.

Gray’s story may sound like something straight from the Salem witch trials circa the 1600s — but in actuality, she’s a woman from modern-day Toronto, Canada, who has been embroiled since February in an often-ugly trial to convict the man — fellow York University graduate student Mustafa Ururyar — who allegedly raped her last year, after the two had been dating for a couple weeks (Editor’s Note: Ururyar was found guilty on July 21 and sentenced to 18 months in prison in September; he’s currently appealing the verdict).

The fact that the details of her case so clearly mirror those of the witch trials of yore is both telling and chilling. Then as now, we are conditioned to consider women who take a stand against the patriarchy sexually manipulative liars. Then as now — literally or metaphorically — we burn these women at the stake.

Gray and Ururyar had been seeing each other for a couple weeks soon after meeting each other. He started to get mean, and Gray would tell friends that her relationship with him was no longer fun. However, after a night at the bar with other members within the graduate student’s union CUPE 3903, she felt safer walking to his place and crashing there than taking a cab alone in Toronto. During the walk to his place, Ururyar began to berate Gray for not behaving according to his standards of femininity: She drank too much, she touched his leg in front of people, and she didn’t try hard enough to fulfill his fantasy of having a threesome — something Gray says she had not even been aware of. Feeling too broken and hurt to go home on her own, Gray continued to his place, where she thought they would simply go to bed. Instead, he told her that tonight would be the last night he would fuck her. He then proceeded to rape her.

Gray did everything those who have experienced rape are told to do. She obtained a rape kit, she alerted the union and the university, and she called the police. A detective told her that her consent was implied since she had been drinking. Additionally, though rapes by strangers are seen as the “ideal” in victim-blaming narratives, Gray’s familiarity with her accuser would be used against her throughout her trial.

As Ururyar’s defence lawyer Lisa Bristow said, “You were satisfied that you got the hot sex that you wanted.”

While Western witch trials emerged in the 15th century, they continued into the 18th century, with the Church and state brought together by one common enemy: women. To prevent women from rioting against rising costs of food, and in retaliation against their efforts to organize together, men at that time might accuse them of witchcraft. If crops went bad, it was because an old beggar woman who was jealous of the wealthy cast a spell. If a woman did not have children, was a lesbian, or was unmarried, her punishment for not fitting into the heteronormative ideal was to be persecuted as a witch.

If a woman stepped out of the socially constructed norm in any way — and really, even if she kept in line — she could be considered a witch. Persecutions involved hanging and burnings; in some cases, children would be forced to watch their mothers be whipped to death before being killed themselves.

While the total number of witchcraft executions for these kinds of trivialities is, of course, difficult to accurately quantify, Dworkin says, “For the whole of the Continent and the British Isles, the most responsible estimate would seem to be 9 million.”

witches 3
Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland (1585), by Johann Jakob Wick.

She goes on to emphasize that while some men were executed for being witches, it was an anomaly — witchcraft was distinctly a women’s crime:

“Men were, not surprisingly, most often the bewitched. Subject to women’s evil designs, they were terrified victims. Those men who were convicted of witchcraft were often family of convicted women witches, or were in positions of civil power, or had political ambitions which conflicted with those of the Church, a monarch, or a local dignitary. Men were protected from becoming witches not only by virtue of superior intellect and faith, but because Jesus Christ, phallic divinity, died ‘to preserve the male sex from so great a crime: since He was willing to be born and to die for us, therefore He has granted to men this privilege.’ Christ died literally for men and left women to fend with the Devil themselves. “

As early as the 1480s, women were faced with people like Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, German monks who wrote the Catholic Church’s official text on witch-hunting after being named Inquisitors by the pope and asked to define witchcraft. The text they crafted, called Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, was used for three centuries. In it, they wrote that women are liars by nature and are more carnal than men.

In Andrea Dworkin’s book, “Woman Hating,” she explains why the gravity of this tome can’t be overlooked:

“In the Dark Ages, few people read and books were hard to come by. Yet the Malleus was printed in numerous editions. It was Gynocide: The Witches 129 found in every courtroom. It had been read by every judge, each of whom would know it chapter and verse. The Malleus had more currency than the Bible. It was theology, it was law. To disregard it, to challenge its authority . . . was to commit heresy, a capital crime.”

Today, we see the assumption that women are carnal liars at play in the case of Gray; Ururyar insisted that it was Gray who used her sexual prowess against him. It was she, he says, who got under the bed covers, inviting him to join her. It was she who groped his thigh despite his telling her not to. It was she who climbed on top of him to perform oral sex. And it was she who, afterward, got “on all fours” — an animalistic description reminiscent of the language used against witches, who were sometimes accused of having the ability to morph into animals.

According to author G. Geiss, in an essay for British Journal of Law and Society titled “Lord Hale, Witches, and Rape,” King James I wrote in his dissertation Daemonologie, published in 1597, that women had been lured into witchcraft by three passions: curiosity, a thirst for revenge, and a greedy appetite.

One of the key arguments made by Ururyar’s lawyer Bristow has been that Gray made up her story because she is trying to get revenge. Specifically, it’s been suggested that Gray is just upset that Ururyar chose another woman over her — an accusation Gray responded to by saying, “Sorry, it’s just so absurd to me. I would never destroy my life or someone else’s life and put everything on hold for an entire year for someone I had known for two weeks.”

The comments section for a March, 30, 2016 article in Now by Gray — The Defence Called It Collusion. I Call It Friendship” — is also rife with angry male supremacists implying Gray made up her story for fame and to emasculate men. One commenter goes so far as to prescribe her with “scorned woman syndrome.”

Gray, like the accused witches of yore, has also been vilified for staying out too late and having too much fun.

In her book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici says that women were once punished for gathering late at night because doing so was in opposition to capitalist workdays:

“The witch-hunt condemned female sexuality as the source of every evil, but it was also the main vehicle for a broad restructuring of sexual life that, conforming with the new capitalist work-discipline, criminalized any sexual activity that threatened procreation, the transmission of property within the family, or took time and energies away from work.”

Today, we have Bristow forcefully emphasizing during the first day of Gray’s trial that she was out drinking and up so late that she could not find an open restaurant for food — seemingly implying that this “merrymaking” is why she ended up in the situation she did.

A detective also told Gray that her consent was implied because she had been drinking.

The Obscene Kiss, an illustration of witches kissing the Devil's anus from Francesco Maria Guazzo's Compendium Maleficarum (1608).

The Obscene Kiss, an illustration of witches kissing the Devil’s anus from Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum (1608).

Federici additionally writes about how, in the days of witch trials, it was incriminating for women to maintain friendships with other women, with such connections sometimes leading to persecution.

For her part, Gray has faced backlash for leaning on other women for support after her assault. In the aftermath of the alleged rape, Gray founded Silence is Violence, a survivor-led group advocating for the rights of those sexually assaulted on campus, and her advocacy alongside other women has been documented in a film called — in a subversive nod to the stereotypes levied against sexual assault victims — Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial.

Through feminist organizing, every date of the trial has seen between 30 and 40 of Gray’s supporters pack the court; on the last day, supporters had to take shifts, as the room was not big enough for everyone to fit.

In the wake of this collective advocacy, Bristow has claimed that Gray is profiting off the violence she experienced, as part of her feminist agenda, saying Gray’s behavior is disrespectful in court and she simply loves the attention she is receiving. Bristow has also often accused Gray of getting the body of the court excited — similar to how, as Stacy Schiff writes in her book The Witches, accused Salem witches were said to have bewitched members of the court.

But the most chilling similarity of all is the most explicit and direct one. During the 17th century, according to Federici, men would call women “witches” to directly absolve themselves of rape, or of hurting women in any way:

“We know . . . that some men made a business of denouncing women, appointing themselves as ‘witch finders,’ traveling from village to village threatening to women unless they paid up. Other men took advantage of the climate of suspicion surrounding women to free themselves from unwanted wives and lovers, or to blunt the revenge of women they had raped or seduced.”

By calling women manipulative liars, these men wouldn’t have to face any punishment for their actions . . . effectively enabling rape culture to endure.

Sound familiar?

All images: Wikimedia Commons

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