There is a painting, Le droit du Seigneur by Vasily Polenov, of a well-dressed man at a rear door to the castle looking imperiously on a group of people, a young woman returning his gaze wide-eyed, another woman, perhaps her mother, with eyes cast down. The man stands squarely, hands on waist, lord of his domain. His hat, one of his hounds and his thinly-veiled erection all point at the young woman's face.
This was not an interview for a new cook.
We might guess further, that the position on offer would probably be temporary, and probably wounding for one of the parties. In the background, two armed guards block the entrance to the inner court, keeping a small crowd of onlookers at bay, while on the steps two almost cartoonish inmates of the castle observe the transaction. One of these characters, or caricatures, is shifting his eyes to scan the afternoon courtyard, while the other looks askance over priestly jowls, muttering an aside to his companion from the corner of his mouth.
Polenov's other works reveal an extraordinary eye for detail, a deep understanding of not only appearances, but the physical processes involved in the construction or formation of natural and manufactured objects. No detail is shown that the artist did not intend. Complete mastery of draughtsmanship aside, his great strength was in rendering sunlight and shadow, giving the impression of space, the time of day and the season. One even seems to sense the wind and hear the foliage rustling. Despite the richness of detail, the result is like nothing so much as a Japanese haiku: it endeavors, and succeeds completely, in capturing an emotional moment.
The rampant noble penis might go unnoticed, so cleverly ambiguous against a rough background, but lest anyone argue that its clear outline is but the right edge of his doublet seen from our low angle of view, the stairs in the background show the true perspective. To show that side of his garment the man would have to be suffering painful scoliosis. It won't do. He stands square and his hips are aligned with the stair-step behind him. The man is blatantly, unabashedly engorged for all to see except those who wish not to see. Once discerned, his tumescence stands out proud and outrageous as the focal point of the painting.
The entitlement depicted in that scene has never gone away. Nothing has changed in modern times but the style of the transaction. Daughters are financial assets, their father's at first, then a husband's. In more recent times, convention has it that the woman has title to her own person, like an emancipated slave -- conditional freedom. But this is seldom borne out in reality, as represented by law enforcement practices when things go terribly wrong, especially in societies where sexual attractiveness is a commodity. In the modern global economy, everything is a commodity. Youth and beauty. Love-songs. Memory. Hope. Love itself. Value has no other measure than Return on Investment. Rape is widely seen as property theft.
Aristocracies often deprecate ostentatious wealth, and pretend their women are at liberty to do as they please. Even a "trophy" wife. In the end, power is economic power, which is life-and-death power over the less-powerful, and any imbalance of power is quickly squeezed dry of advantage, exactly matched to the correlated perceptions and actions of everyone involved. A voluntarily obedient wife is the prize beyond price, for her lord-and-master -- her owner. In the better schools this is explicitly taught. A woman's dignity is preserved -- symbolically for the most part -- as value-added. Otherwise she is "ruined." Honorable men dare not trespass on the grounds of a Great House. You may think this is some archaic trope out of a bodice-ripper novel. You may think as you please. It's a free country. The pervasiveness of spousal abuse begs to differ. Some cultures are more blatantly abusive than others, but only in the density of the pretense.
Thus, the proud aristocrat in Polenov's painting could not care less who sees his scepter out waving in the breezes, or whether the objects of his lust have any opinion at all. What happens next will be determined solely by his personal whim. If he decides to take her then and there, not bothering to go upstairs, the other people are free to watch or turn away. His personal vulnerability would not have occurred to him, safe within his fortified walls. The guards at the gate would keep him from being caught with his pants down by anyone with the temerity to seize the moment and attack.
Everyone else in his world existed for his personal pleasure, and they all knew it. To witness such a scene would have had no value to them later, since their overlord cared not a fig; there would have been no power to be derived from it. More than likely this lordly personage had visited each of them on their wedding night, and had sex with the bride before the groom, in both senses of "before". This would establish the position permanently in their minds. His sleep would be untroubled.
This was "Le droit du Seigneur."
Famous rapists whose careers have been brought down in the #MeToo movement may have experienced themselves as Polenov's aristocrat. According to documents discovered during recent court cases, they behaved exactly that way, for decades, and with total impunity. And they did so in the company of a lot of very famously powerful men. In the most infamous case to date we will not be hearing about those famously powerful men: the perp refused to breathe in his cell and can no longer speak their names. Or the names of the children he procured for them.
The allocation of punishments defers to race first, and then net worth. Of two very famous men, credibly accused by many women of raping them, the African-American one is now in prison. The Anglo-American one, despite bragging about grabbing women, in his famously video-recorded words, "by the p*ssy," was made President of the United States of America, and may well be given a second term, albeit by hook or crook.
Today when the mighty fall from grace, it isn't because society has suddenly developed a collective conscience: it's because when they are exposed, their "brand," a commodity, is besmirched. Ultimately they fear punishment for hypocrisy, the one remaining crime that's still recognized. The aristocratic rapist in Polenov's painting was in every respect an honest man of his time. Nothing he did was seen as a crime, because it was he whodunnit. One might as well accuse the Atlantic Ocean of being wet.
And what did the women he violated lack, that women today have started to assert? It isn't justice that's sought, or ever found, in the cases that ever reach a courtroom. It's much more personal. It's the ability to hold your head up in public, and to look yourself in the eye. We might say the tables are being turned: the women no longer have to hide their faces in shame, it's the perpetrators who now have to run from the light. That's progress, and a good thing; but it's hardly a substantive change in the balance of power. It's merely a shift in cultural economic values. Dignity, too, has a price.