A Woman Writes of Rape
Book Review by Vera Buch Weisbord
(From the magazine “La Parola del Popolo")
"Against Our Will—Men, Women and Rape”, by Susan Brownmiller: Simon & Schuster, New York, 1975.
AT LAST in this massive scholarly work the outcry of the victims finds utterance. The facts on rape are assembled from early tribal times, through the ancient societies of the Middle East, later English society, American Indian customs and those of slavery in the USA, the wars of modern times: World Wars I & II, Bangladesh and Vietnam, riots, pogroms and revolutions as well as what is happening in contemporary America. It is not possible to give more than a brief summary of the data (the source notes fill 38 pages).
Brownmiller dwells on the physiological aspects of rape as a violent penetration of the sexual parts of a woman against her will and with no possibility of retaliation in kind from her. She stresses the dire effects on the victim: not merely the physical trauma but the shock and fear, often leaving the woman a nervous wreck. She brings out the humiliating treatment accorded rape victims in police stations and even in hospitals, the impossibility of obtaining a fair trial under present circumstances. Women have to live all their lives in fear of rape.
In primitive societies mass rape was common; later women became “man’s first piece of real property,” page 17 (*) their offspring also the property of the father. An “historical landmark” to this author was the holding of one woman permanently by one man not merely for her domestic labor but for the exclusive use of her body as well. Rape of virgins later (in ancient Hebrew society) became a crime when fathers found themselves with damaged property (ravished daughters) difficult to sell or dispose of.
Rape of black women by their masters under slavery in the USA is dealt with in full. “Forced sexual exploitation of the black woman under slavery was not offhand experience. Total control over her reproductive system meant a steady supply of slave babies, and slave children, when they reached the age of six or eight, were put to work,” pages 153-4.
Mass rapes as well as innumerable single rapes were always an accompaniment of wars both ancient and modern, and of this the book gives ample documentation. Rape in war is seen as a price paid by the women of the invaded, conquered country as well as an humiliation of the male population….. “Rape by a conqueror is compelling evidence of the conqueror’s status of male impotence,” page 38.
Brownmiller exposes the fallacy of the old myth, whether in war or in peace, of rape being a necessary and excusable outlet for the male need to ejaculate. She shows how in Vietnam in spite of the existence of massage parlors,” “hootchmaids,” and military brothels for the sexual relief of the soldiers, rapes single and especially gang raps by soldiers on Vietnamese women were common. When the victim did not die from repeated brutal assaults, the soldiers summarily murdered her to remove the evidence of their crime.
For the study of rape in contemporary America, the author bases herself on the Uniform Crime Reports of the FBI, police department records, several specific studies by sociologists in a number of cities, as well as a great many books of a more general nature. A typical portrait of a rapist results: "From the no-nonsense reports of the FBI statistics and some intensive sociological studies … the typical American rapist is no weirdo phycho-schizophrenic beset by timidity, sexual deprivation and a domineering wife or mother.” … A typical rapist “is an aggressive, hostile youth who chooses to do violence to women,” page 176. Brownmiller stresses also the economic background: rape, like all crimes of violence, is more prevalent in the lower economic levels of society.
That rapists are chiefly black, a common belief, is refuted. “The crimes of blacks are disproportionate to their population ratio in the census figures, but not in their economic position,” page 181. The FBI reports of 1975 find 47 per cent of rapists black and 51 per cent white, page 176. In all studies rapists are predominantly young, in the 16-24 age group. The belief that black men assaulting white women is the most common form of rape appears to be unfounded. Black on blacks is most common. As for rape convictions, there is ample evidence that black men are more frequently convicted and get heavier sentences, especially if the victim is a white woman.
Statistics prove that most rapes are not attacks of one man on one woman, but rather are committed in pairs or groups. A Philadelphia study finds 55 per cent by gangs and 16 per cent by pairs, page 188. The true nature of rape becomes apparent in these studies of gang rapes. Such rapes are not spontaneous actions; they are planned. The pair or group decide to indulge in this pastime; they select a victim, convey her to some secluded spot and proceed to assault her. The victim is completely helpless whether or not there is display of a weapon. Furthermore, the rapists are not satisfied with repeated sexual assaults; they indulge in defilement of the victim’s body: urinating and ejaculating over her, burning her with cigarettes, stuffing foreign objects into her vagina, etc. (Such defilement’s occurred in the Vietnam gang rapes also.) Such actions reveal the true male psychology of rape: it is primarily an assertion of male dominance, but at the same time an expression of contempt of women, a desire to degrade the woman to the lowest possible level.
Of single rapes, whether they occur on the street or in the bedroom, most are accompanied by robbery. Typical is the robber breaking into the woman’s apartment at night and “combining business with pleasure.”
THE sad, sordid story of male rape and prostitution, so common in all our US penal institutions is exposed thoroughly and sympathetically. Incest and child molestation in the home are also dealt with. Brownmiller explodes the myth current in fiction and TV serials of the “heroic rapist” and the "willing victim.”
While I appreciate the value of Brownmiller’s researches I must take exception to some of her postulations, as for example: “Concepts of hierarchy, slavery and private property flowed from, and could only be predicated upon the initial subjugation of women,” pages 17-18. Too great simplification makes this incorrect. Long before the tribal period in question, in what is known as the matriarchate, women had a decisive voice and descent was traced through the woman’s line. All this probably coincided with the time when the role of the male in procreation was not yet known. Men then venerated women for this mysterious power they alone had of producing offspring. When the function of the semen became known there was a drastic reversal of roles; then began phallic worship, the putting down of women and the establishment of male dominance which has persisted until today.
F. Engles (basing himself upon Morgan) says: “The downfall of maternal law was the historic defeat of the female sex. The men seized the reins also in the house, the women were stripped of their dignity, enslaved, tools of men’s lust and mere machines for the generation of children,” Engels: “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” page 70. Engels also shows the transfer to monogamy which subjected one woman to one man to have taken place gradually over a long period of time, not at one blow.
I find missing in “Against Our Will” a full account of the special exposures of working women to rape (factory workers by foremen, secretaries forced into unwilling relations with their bosses, women who work at night exposed in the streets, etc. Wealthy women are surely more protected against rape.
To me the gang rape may be seen in a way as something akin to going hunting, really a survival of very old instincts. But while the stalking and killing of big game required courage, assaulting a helpless woman is to say the least, an act of abject cowardice. As slavery bred cruelty in the master, so subjugation of women breeds contempt and a desire to take it out on her. It may be added that war-making capitalist countries have to train their future soldiers in attitudes of brutality and callousness.
As a Marxist I believe it will take a revolution to eliminate rape from society. On the other hand, since it is such a deeply-rooted thing, as much physiological as sociological, and long predating capitalism, it will not be overcome simply by the expropriation of the means of production by the producers. It is really a question of creating a new, more civilized human being. Equality of women—or of blacks, or any other oppressed minority, will be achieved only when the class struggle comes to an end leaving no motive of one group to suppress another. With a genuine socialist revolution on an international scale, at last the scourge of war will be eliminated, releasing untold energies now devoted to slaughter and destruction to creative human purpose. Then we may hope for an end to such outrages as rape.
(*) Incorrect: “real property” refers to land.—VBW.