Undercover: Susan Brownmiller on the Myths of Rape (12/08/75)

In history as in society rape has been trivialized as too commonplace a practice to require special study and dismissed as a form of behavior too ambiguous or aberrant to be of real social significance. Many men and women still believe a woman cannot be raped against her will; that rape is just a matter of young men “sowing their wild oats”; of women “asking for it” or “getting what they deserve”; or of psychotic deviance (“Anyone who’d want to rape an 80-year-old woman,” says the joker, “has to be crazy!”). These views and their endless corollaries are held by many teenage boys, housewives, doctors, judges, cops, porno kings, eminent novelists, male and female friends of rape victims, lawyers and legislators. They are also held by many rapists. None of these views has, or ever had, anything of significance to do with the realities of rape.

Susan Brownmiller‘s Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (Simon & Shuster, 476 pp., $10.95) is the first study of rape to receive the attention both it and the subject deserve. Containing more hard and diverse information about rape than has ever before been collected, the book hits the subject from almost every conceivable angle. Some of the most important include:

speculations on rape in early society that trace the institutions of private property and monogamy to rape;
the first coherent history of rape in terms of social attitudes, law, war, social upheaval and interaction between races (particularly blacks and whites in America);
incisive demolition of pervasive falsehoods about what rape is, why it happens, how it happens, who it happens to and who commits it;
analysis of the psychology of rapists and victims, the myths (cultural, psychoanalytic, and otherwise) that encourage and legitimize the rapist and trap the victim, homosexual rape, child rape, and many other factors:
proposed solutions: stronger feminist consciousness, organized antirape groups, radical revision of rape law, male-female parity in all areas of law enforcement, self-defense training, and an end to toleration of prostitution and pornography.

It is impossible not to be impressed with the imagination and perseverance of the work Brownmiller has done, especially in her early chapters on legal history and rape in war and social crisis, which seem to me the strongest in the book. The legal research establishes that rape has traditionally been and in many ways still is seen as an offense against, another man; a violation not of the woman but of a man’s property, well-being or self-respect. The converse of this is the tradition in which suspicion and blame adhere to the victim; rape law has been and is now framed in terms of “victim consent” and “victim precipitation,” not criminal action or intent. Brownmiller’s exhaustive, horrifying, and always compelling account of rape in war makes clear that rape is not a crime of perverts or in any real sense a sex crime at all, but an act by “normal” men, of aggression and conquest—motivated not by lust but by hatred and contempt for women and a wish to humiliate, degrade, and exercise power over women.
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“Sometimes,” wrote Newsweek, “[Brownmiller] seems to he suggesting that all history may he seen as rape—a view many readers will find bemusing.” I have no idea who those are who might find this “bemusing,” nor any desire to he personally enlightened, but I think a view of history as rape is precisely what Brownmiller is suggesting, and that it is what makes Against Our Will a book of importance and power.

She begins with close to the largest possible claim. Rape, she writes, “is a conscious process of intimidation in which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” This seems to mean (given the use of “conscious,” which implies intent) that though all men do not rape, they directly or indirectly (but not unintentionally) assent to, encourage, and benefit from rape. Brownmiller then proceeds to treat rape as a first principle in human affairs, applying that principle to see if it will turn our world askew and make us see in new ways, which it does. When she holds to this theoretical underpinning, the book has real force.

But often she has no interest in deepening her theory; the book is less argued than pieced together. The obviously questionable but potentially prfound claim of “all men—all women” hangs over the book, but it is never developed. It does not, as it should and indeed must, organize the book. When the theory fades and Brownmiller attempts to deal with issues and subjects on their own terms, she often loses them (the chapter on race is one example). Her attempt to make new sense out of a vast amount of material begins to seem instead like a scramble to touch all the bases. The presentation becomes confused and contradictory, the analysis sometimes superficial and facile.

These problems emerge most seriously in the chapter “The Police Blotter Rapist,” where Brownmiller relies heavily (not exclusively) on Menachen Amir’s famous study of police rape statistics for Philadelphia in 1958 and 1960. This study (like all such studies) is incomplete and inherently biased at best. The legal definition of rape excludes some forms of rape and discourages the reporting of many others. Less than one rape in five (probably much closer to one in ten or 20 or more) is ever reported to the police; many reported rapes are not “founded” (believed) by police and thus never enter their records. It takes no genius for statistical analysis to understand that certain kinds of rape committed by certain kinds of men are more likely to be reported and founded than others.

Brownmiller mentions some of this, and proceeds as if she has not heard herself. She has a predilection for single causes, answers and “profiles,” and she “finds” them in the kind of “hard” information statistics supposedly supply. She has little toleration for ambiguity or uncertainty. Thus the very small percentage of reported, founded rape, selectively sampled, becomes rape per se. The reported, founded rapist—usually young, lower-class and/or black—becomes “the typical rapist” and then simply “the rapist.” “The typical [rapist] is little more than an aggressive, hostile youth who chooses to do violence to women.” “Rape is… committed by punk kids, their cousins and older brothers…”

This idea in the clothes of a fact leads Brownmiller to an unsupported (and at this stage in the study of rape, unsupportable) conclusion. Forty percent of the rapes Amir collected were gang rapes. To Brownmiller this means that 40% of rape is gang rape, and that rape is a significant expression of lower class “male bonding,” a need she says middle-class men satisfy with such things as raft trips. The point about “male bonding” does not seem to me of great importance (it could as easily be a matter of male cowardice and the safety of numbers) but the hidden, false implication is important: Middle-class men don’t rape.

Similarly, in an analysis of interviews with four young gang-rapists, she gratuitously observes that the most middle class of the four was less violent, attacked the victim last, and was more creative in his interpretations of Rorschach blots. This single case proves nothing about rape—but it buttresses, again, a need to wrap rape up in a neat, class-biased package.

Thus rape shrinks from its central place in human affairs to a phenomenon of the lower-class “culture of violence.” And what becomes of the powerful, disturbing assertion concerning “all men—all women“? It remains, unfortunately, an assertion. Returning to it for the only time in the book, Brownmiller concludes “The Police Blotter Rapist” by taking a great step back. The rapist—young, lower class—does the “dirty work” for other men, who do not rape but reap the spoils. The center of the original claim—rape as “a conscious process in which all men…”—has dropped out. What is left is this: “That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of fear.” Inarguable, but a long way from where we started, the end of a very different road.

I have not labored over this just to catch Brownmiller out in sloppy semantics; the gap is at the heart of the matter. If police-blotter rape can be taken for rape itself, what of the countless “hidden” rapes—more ambiguous, but no less rape and no less serious? Is there “real” rape, and then “something else”?

Left out of reported, founded rape is the enormous majority of rape by dates, lovers, friends, relatives, doctors, psychiatrists who bully patients into sleeping with them “for their own good,” professors, employers, all rape by husbands, and rape by those with money and status. When a boss threatens a secretary with the loss of her job if she does not come across, that is no less forcible rape than the appearance of the man from the shadows. That such “hidden,” middle-class and professional-class rapes are less likely to be reported, or believed by the police, is irrelevant; that to the law and most people (the rapist and the victim perhaps included) they seem like something other than “rape” is equally irrelevant. Or rather it is a crucial question in any attempt to bring the public consciousness of rape into line with the variety and subtlety of the practice itself. Brownmiller’s discussion of these matters is submerged in her intellectually and politically irresponsible promotion of the “punk kid” as “the rapist.” It means that along with her destruction of old myths she is perpetrating a new one.

There is also in Against Our Will a problem of a different kind: a serious lack of generosity toward other women. Brownmiller has little sympathy for women of earlier times who had the misfortune of being less sophisticated about rape than she is at this moment. This is most obvious in her treatment of pioneer female psychoanalysts Helene Deutsch (“a traitor to her sex”) and Karen Horney. After a strong analysis of destructive misconceptions in their work, she concludes that they significantly damaged the lot of women, and then pretentiously withholds from them what she calls “a full pardon.” Brownmiller herself admits to us in her preface that before she came to see rape as she now does, she interviewed scores of people for an Esquire piece about an interracial rape without even considering speaking to the white victim. Given this, and given that Deutsch and Homey were brave, risk-taking women who, unlike Brownmiller, had to do lonely work without the intellectual support of a feminist movement, and whose choices, especially in Horney’s case, cost them far more than Brownmiller’s have cost her, this is an incredible posture for her to assume.

Of a piece with this is a generally elitist attitude. There is the repeated implication that Brownmiller and a few friends were primarily responsible for the politicization of rape and for the initiation of organized attempts to combat it, neither of which is true. More seriously, there is the introduction, near the end of the book, of a false dichotomy between strong and weak women, as regards women who do or do not fight rapists, have gynecological_ pain of any sort (first sexual experiences, cramps, pregnancy, childbirth), have rape fantasies, and so on. That women who experience pain in childbirth or have rape fantasies are somehow inferior to or less fully feminist than women who do not is philistine nonsense—the basis for an elitist, elect-and-reprobate myth no less dangerous than that discussed above.

That Against Our Will falls short of its ambitions hardly means anyone can afford to ignore it. It is the most complete book on its subject. At its best, it is characterized by the kind of courageous thinking necessary to see around the terror and complexity of rape.


Rolling Stone, December 8, 1975


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