You know the story of the pretty girl dressed in questionable clothing who walks into the woods and speaks a little too freely to a leering wolf. “All the better to eat you with, my dear,” the Wolf says to explain his large, sharp teeth to Little Red Riding Hood. The fairytale, a childhood staple with multiple iterations, began in the oral tradition and was first written down by Charles Perrault in 1697. Perrault’s version ends with the wolf first eating Grandma, then Red. “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies,” the moral of the fairytale clarifies, “should never talk to strangers… They may well provide dinner for a wolf.”
Every adult—and every astute kid—knows what’s really going on in “Little Red Riding Hood,” and it’s a lot creepier than a wolf sitting at the top of the food chain. Audiences recognize that this fairytale is less concerned with literal predation than it is preoccupied with literal rape. But when the anthropomorphized wolf consumes Grandma and Red, “Little Red Riding Hood” conflates eating and rape in a strangely cannibalistic act. In this connection, “Little Red Riding Hood,” whose oral tradition dates to at least 1000 CE, suggests a place we modern humans might look to the demise of one ancient behavior—cannibalism—to find the end of another ancient human behavior—rape.
Rape and cannibalism are not the same—for one thing, rape survivors can tell their own stories, while cannibalized peoples cannot. Another major difference is that while cannibalism has died out in a rich brocade of taboo woven from narrative, religion and sometimes law, rape lives on. The question becomes what cannibalism can teach us about new ways of looking at, understanding and ultimately preventing rape.