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“Rape of the Land:” 21st Century Ecofeminism and Environmental Rape Culture

One of the primary theoretical driving forces in the emergence of ecofeminism in the 1980s is the “rape of the land” concept. Essentially, ecofeminists argued that the root of contemporary ecological problems rested in a patriarchal society – one that placed a lower value upon the “other,” which was anything outside of the perceived norm: anything not male, not white, not heterosexual, and not “civilized” culture. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous people, and homosexuality all fell under this category. The realization that nature was also in this group was the work of early ecofeminists like Carolyn Merchant, Susan Griffin, and a slew of other creative and bright minds. The idea that a patriarchal society could “rape the land” stemmed from two theories:
1. That it is the nature of a patriarchal society to dominate and control entities that fall outside of established rules of culture.
2. That women could reclaim imagery of the goddess in nature (or, Mother Earth) as a source of power.

A few of the ways in which it was perceived the land was victim of violation was illustrated in the severe pollution highlighted by Rachel Carson, the overexploitation of whole species from the earth, and the controversial issue of nuclear power without proper waste disposal. Early ecofeminists decried the take, take, take of a patriarchal system that, at its core, believed in the authority of efficiency and use. By reclaiming the earth goddess for both divine and intellectual inspiration, ecofeminists connected the “body” of the land with the body of woman at the height of a renewed feminist awareness that sought the social and political respect of the feminine mind and body.

Considering the deep historical and rhetorical connection between ecofeminism and protests of rape, and the current conversation among American feminists regarding what is now dubbed “rape culture” in the twenty-first century, is there still a theoretical link between the environment and physical rape? Are there situational similarities that need to be revealed?

While these questions require a deeper analysis than what I can provide in one blog post, I will pose a few problems to consider. First, the indictments of a contemporary “rape culture” are many, including but not limited to: the realization that rape is more common than we think, that victims are often questioned about their “role” in the assault, regular complaints of disappointment in how the charge will affect the accused rapist’s life, and the prevalence of rape in popular jokes. “Rape culture” is considered by many to be a made-up grievance by extreme feminists who are looking for something to protest. Rape culture, in fact, continues as an extension of an archaic patriarchal system of dominance and conquest, but hidden by the apparent progress of feminism in mainstream culture that allowed women to live with greater independence, garner successes in reproductive rights, hold esteemed political positions and run for the office of presidency. So, the essence of rape culture is that is hidden. It is not obvious to us as we go about our days until we face it head-on, as many unfortunately do. It is important to acknowledge that rape is not limited to female victims, but 1 in 33 American men have experienced assault [RAINN]. Rape culture is a problem that we do not see, or wish to see.

Is there an environmental “rape culture?” I argue, in the United States, there is.
The international community came together in Paris at the end of 2015 to find real solutions to problems of climate change, while American politicians running for the nation’s highest office continue to deny its existence. Often cynics will argue that it is pointless to make the American public change course because other developing countries (they cite China) are not regulating their production of CO2. Energy industries like coal and natural gas fracking resist environmental change out of economic reservations, fueling the fears of working class Americans in those industries and pitting them against environmental progress. Still others cite religious texts to “show” that the inherent role of human culture is to “subdue the earth.”

Essentially, in the United States, Americans just do not know whom to trust because of the abundant contradictory “evidence” thrust in their direction. It also does not help that in an effort to show a “balanced” view, certain news outlets provide a one-on-one debate between a climate scientist and a skeptic, as if the opinions are equal. As we know, this is certainly not true.

This is the problem: if rape culture is rooted in a suspicion that the assertions of the victim is valid, or a blatant indifference for its existence in contemporary culture, then an “ecological rape culture” may also be real.

It is no longer suitable for ecofeminists to identify the “rapists,” but to convince the crowd that the rape occurred.

Theoretical ecofeminist principles must be formed that adapt to twenty-first century needs. The ecofeminist perspective of the 1980s is not suitable for today’s problems and the challenges must be addressed in a different manner. Ideally, it is not only skepticism that needs to be tackled, but apathetic attitudes by those who know the facts.


Further reading:

Diamond, Irene and Gloria Feman Orenstein, editors. Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990)

Dunnaway, Finis. Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1978)

Hoffman, Andrew J. How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015)

Howe, Joshua. Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983)

Plant, Judith, editor. Healing The Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989)


  1. Hi! I’ve been thinking about this article for several days now. It’s a very powerful, very clearly-written article. One question I have is related to possible consequences, implications, and/or hurt feelings my using such a strong metaphor/parallel.

    • Sarah Ruth Wilson says

      Hey there! Great question. I think it is an important one and, honestly, it has risen again and again over the years in regards to ecological feminist theory from the beginning. I see positive consequences, particularly since I advocate this kind of idea as a solution to laissez faire attitudes toward environmental solutions. I hope that individuals will recognize the seriousness of the problem, just as we are coming around (again) to recognizing the seriousness of rape in contemporary culture. I think hurt feelings can arise, but only in context of not fully understanding the conceptual link between the domination of land and domination of bodies (as we are learning, not just biologically female bodies) under a patriarchal system. Honestly, this is a critique of a patriarchal system. Additionally, a traditional ecofeminist approach would link the environment to the female body, but I believe that part of a philosophical shift in the 21st century must be a recognition that domination in physical rape can include non-female bodies, just as there must be a recognition that domination in a “rape” of the land can include aspects that are regularly ignored.

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  4. Sarah, this is a masterpiece

    Raping the Land is a powerful expression, done all the time by people in power.

    I posted your essay on Facebook today, to oppose the USFS plan to burn 3,600 acres of the Mark Twain National Forest. Please google Butler Hollow for details – and check Eureka dot News for my op-ed next week. The original USFS plan was to burn 18,000 acres, only to “restore” the forest to make it look like hot, arid, glades, great habitat for scorpions, snakes, tarantulas and other insects

    There is no difference for the residents near and in the forest between 3,600 and 18,000 acres with smoke and fire for decades. There is no safe, acceptable, kind way to rape.

    Kind regards, Luis

    • Sarah Ruth Wilson says

      Thanks for your kind words, Luis! You bring up incredibly important issues. We need to reinvigorate the conversation because many have become complacent.

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