This essay identifies what the author terms “adjudicative reading,” a tendency in literary criticism to read novels depicting sexual violence as if in a court of law. Adjudicative reading tracks characters’ motivations and the physical outcomes of their actions as if novels can offer evidence, or lack thereof, of criminal conduct. This legalistic style of criticism not only ignores the fictionality of incidences of rape in novels, but it replicates the prejudices inherent in historical rape law by centering the experiences of the accused character over and against the harm caused to the fictional victim of rape. By contrast, the “capacious” conception of rape proposed here refuses to locate rape in a particular bodily act (as the law does), rejects the yoking of rape’s harms to a particular gender, and understands various forms of violence as equally serious (rather than creating a hierarchy of sexual assault, as current legal conceptions tend to do).

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