ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Winter 1989


Sheila McGregor

Rape, pornography and capitalism


From International Socialism 2:45, Winter 1989, pp. 3–31.
Copied with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Violence against women has been a recurrent political issue over the last 15 years. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, it is a reflection of the sexism which all women experience in their daily lives and of the violence and rape which a minority of women suffer. Secondly, it is a result of the women’s movement’s increasing concern with male violence. Finally, however, it is a reflection of changes in sexuality and of women’s position in late capitalist society.

Women’s demand to control their sexuality has arisen alongside their increasingly central economic role as waged workers. Many women’s dissatisfaction with the abuse of their bodies – whether in advertising, pornography, or by sexual harassment and rape – contradicts society’s expectation that they will positively bear the burden of the family as wives, lovers and mothers subordinate to their husbands or lovers. This dissatisfaction also stands in contradiction to a society which measures successful personal relationships between men and women in terms of sex. Lastly, it stands in contradiction in a society in which sexuality is bought and sold as a commodity or is used to buy and sell other commodities.

In 1975 Susan Brownmiller wrote Against Our Will, a book which was to be profoundly influential amongst feminists. In many ways this book set the terms of the debate about rape and violence against women. It reflected the strength of radical feminism in the US women’s movement, a current which theorised women’s oppression in terms of personal relations between men and women, strongly emphasising male violence against women. Such ideas were often based on claims about human biology. Brownmiller argues that the sexual act itself is the key to understanding male domination:

Man’s structural capacity to rape and woman’s corresponding structural vulnerability are as basic to the physiology of both our sexes as the primal act of sex itself. [1]

Brownmiller believes:

Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear is one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe. From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. [2]

Once the terms of reference had been set, later work emanating from Rape Crisis Centres seemed to reinforce Brownmiller’s analysis. The first Rape Crisis Centre was set up in Britain in 1975. By 1981 there were 16. The women reporting incidents to these centres made it clear that rape was far more common than the crime statistics revealed. The majority of women who have been raped do not, for all sorts of reasons, report it to the police. [3] As a result of such work, many feminists came to the conclusion that all men are potential rapists. The following, taken from the report of the London Rape Crisis Centre 1984, Sexual Violence – The Reality for Women, is fairly typical of the conclusions they drew:

The greatest myth of all is the one which tells us that rape is an aberration removed from the ways in which men relate to women emotionally, sexually and physically. Our experiences over the last eight years have shown that rape is the extreme and logical conclusion of this relationship. [4]

From a correct insight that rape results from the structuring of men’s relationships with women, many feminists concluded that all male behaviour is tantamount to rape. In the same report there is a dangerous tendency to define rape to include any kind of sexist behaviour:

Rape is not confined to forcible penetration of a woman’s vagina by a man’s penis. It is all the sexual assaults, verbal and physical, that we all suffer in our daily contact with men. These range from being “touched up” or “chatted up” to being brutally sexually assaulted with objects. Throughout this book we use the word “rape” to describe any kind of sexual assault. [5]

Viewed like this, all men must be rapists because there can hardly be any man who has not chatted up a woman at some time in their lives. Unfortunately this slide into including all forms of male behaviour as rape is also made by socialists. Ken Livingstone, for instance, has recently said, “Every recent authoritative study of the psychology of the rapist shows that there is no measurable difference between the rapists and men in general.” [6] It is one thing to argue that rape is the consequence of a certain kind of socialisation, but it is quite another to argue that all male sexual behaviour is tantamount to rape. It is dangerous because it robs rape of its specificity and because, although rape is more widespread than revealed by crime statistics, it is still a minority experience for women. The overwhelming majority of men do not rape, as a wide range of studies have made apparent. [7]

The purpose of this article is to show that rape and sexual violence have not existed throughout human history and that it is possible to explain the pattern of sexual violence today in terms of developments in late capitalist society.

Has male violence always existed?

There is a widespread view that male violence has always existed. It is the cornerstone of the radical feminists’ view of women’s oppression. Andrea Dworkin, author of many books on the subject of violence against women, writes:

In the intimate world of men and women, there is no mid-twentieth century distinct from any other century. There are only the old values, women there for the taking. the means of taking determined by the male. It is ancient and it is modern; it is caveman and astronaut, agricultural and industrial, urban and rural. For men the right to abuse women is elemental, the first principle, with no beginning unless one is willing to trace origins back to God and with no end plausibly in sight. [8]

The idea that human nature is both violent and unchanging is part of right wing “common sense” but, under the impact of the women’s movement, it has become quite widespread on the left. The entire campaign against the stationing of cruise missiles at Greenham Common in the early 1980s was led by women because, many argued, all men are violent and warlike. One of the main slogans of the campaign was “Take the toys from the boys”. It is important, therefore, to show that violence is not intrinsic to human nature, that relationships between men and women have not always been governed by violence and inequality and that they are subject to social change.

Marx and Engels’ starting point in trying to understand the nature of human society was to examine the organisation of the production and reproduction of human life. The earliest forms of human society were relatively small bands which survived through a combination of hunting game and gathering fruits and roots. From the outset human beings’ existence depended on social organisation – combining with other human beings to ensure adequate provision of food, shelter and the like. In other words, from the very beginning humans were social beings, not autonomous subjects who at some stage bumped into one another and started building human society.

The whole of human development can be traced by examining the methods, tools and techniques that men and women used to secure their existence. The means by which men and women secure their existence shapes the development of human behaviour and the development of the human personality. Engels, basing himself on anthropological evidence available at the time, wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which he outlined the ways in which human society has been transformed by crucial changes in productive technique. Most importantly, Engels argued, only when it became possible to produce a surplus of food was society able to sustain a minority of human beings freed from the drudgery of daily productive labour. This created the possibility (and necessity) of class society emerging, based on the subjugation of the majority to the minority.

The transition to a society based on class exploitation entailed profound changes in previous egalitarian ways of living. The minority could only maintain its pre-eminence through control over the production of the surplus. This required an armed power – the state – and inheritance through the family. Such inheritance implied monogamy and an intensification of effort in child care. This in turn meant the subjugation of women.

Since Engels’ time a number of Marxist and feminist anthropologists have used contemporary studies of hunter-gatherer societies to substantiate the essentials of his argument. From such studies it is possible to conclude there were a number of important features of the earliest forms of human society which show that Brownmiller and Dworkin’s belief in the eternal existence of male violence is quite wrong. Firstly, hunter-gatherer societies were based on a sexual division of labour in which men and women co-operated in securing their existence. The sexual division of labour was egalitarian, shaped by necessity and varied according to habitat. It was not dictated by male power. The labour of both women and men was essential to secure the diet necessary for survival.

For example, amongst the Kung! in the Kalahari desert there was sharp division of labour when it came to procuring food – only men hunted and only women gathered. But women were required to travel long distances and stay away from the band on the same basis as men. The women provided not only essential food but also crucial intelligence on the movement of game for their menfolk. By contrast, amongst the Mbuti pygmies inhabiting relatively lush ram forests where small game and fruits are plentiful the sexual division of labour is much less marked. Men and women co-operate in communal hunts.

The hunter-gatherer band depends for its survival on the collective input of all, hence decisions concerning the band are taken collectively. If greater weight is attributed to certain people’s views this is either a product of their greater experience, skill or, as in the case of the Mbuti, assumed greater wisdom because of age.

Other features of such bands are their small size, so that everyone in the group knows one another. There is no distinction between public and private spheres, so that all intercourse between human beings takes place within earshot and in view of other members of the band. These features of hunter-gatherer bands serve to promote the socialisation of men, women and children based on egalitarian, co-operative principles free from interpersonal violence.

Similar points about the socialisation of men, women and children are recounted by Eleanor Leacock in Myths of Male Dominance [9] and in Colin Turnbull’s The Wayward Servant. [10] The recognition of children’s right to adopt the gender role of the opposite sex seems to have been well established in tribes of north American Indians. [11]

The point of describing the way of life of recent hunter-gatherer bands is not to glorify it as a paradise lost for the rest of us. It is to show that the means by which people get their food – the economic organisation of society – shapes relations between people and, in turn, their personal behaviour to one another. Such bands clearly show that equality between human beings, and therefore men and women, is possible and rooted in the autonomous, but equally important, contribution made by both sexes to the economy of the band. It also shows that economic co-operation gives rise to social co-operation, and that precludes interpersonal violence between adults or between adults and children. The lives of such bands may be hard, but they are free from sexual oppression. [12]

The transition from relatively egalitarian societies to fully fledged class societies illustrates how the subordination of women is tied to the subordination of the majority. In her article, The State Formation in Sumer and the Subjugation of Women [13] Ruby Rohrlich argues that the impetus for the city of Sumer to establish an empire came from intercity competition for control of trade routes and distant sources of supply.

The crucial turning point came with the establishment of empire and the consolidation of a ruling class which destroyed all previous egalitarian kinship structures, drove women out of their respected occupations and instituted a centralised state with codified laws and the patriarchal family. The key to male dominance was military prowess. Only when fighting becomes a systematic feature of society does women’s reproductive capacity become a handicap.

The earliest law code known to us is that of Urakagina who won the military struggle for the kingship. His edicts protected the property of the ruling elite, regulated status and behaviour in class and gender hierarchies, prescribed monogamy for women and made adultery by women a crime punishable by death. Any resistance by women to this loss of autonomy was met with physical mutilation: “The woman who was seized by saying something to a man which she should not have said must have her teeth crushed with burnt bricks upon which her guilty deed has been inscribed.” [14] Within a few generations this had been consolidated further in Hammurabi’s code which “tended to exact severer penalties for certain offences, especially for offences against the sacredness of the family tie”. [15] The existence of provisions for punishment for women shows both that women resisted their subordination and that force was needed to break this resistance. If women had always been subordinate to men, no such sanctions would have been required.

Rohrlich’s account shows how the consolidation of class society simultaneously entailed the formation of the state, the subordination of women through the family and how this is then enforced by the law. So, according to this account, the historical process which resulted in the oppression of women stands in complete contrast to Brownmiller’s account, which uses Hammurabi’s law code to argue that women’s oppression has always existcd. [16] Once we can show that societies existed without rape and violence it is possible to refute entirely the pessimistic view put forward by Dworkin, Brownmiller and others that, however else society may change, relations between the sexes stay the same.

Peggy Sanday, who undertook a review of 150 different societies from 6th century be to the present based on ethnographic data assembled in the United States, concluded:

The plans that structure the relationship between the sexes can be categorised as follows: either the sexes are merged or they are segregated; the power to make decisions is either vested in both sexes or is dominated by one sex. Sex role plans are cultural, not biological. This means that they do not derive from human genetics but from the historical and political circumstances in which people find themselves when they are forced to come to terms with their environment and themselves as a social unit. If sex role plans were derived from the human biological structure, we would not find the variety of plans that do exist. [17]

Sanday’s investigations led her to conclude that in 40 percent of the societies she studied there existed what she terms mythical male dominance – male aggression exists but women wield economic and political power. In 28 percent there was male aggression with women completely excluded from any kind of power, and in 33 percent there was no male aggression and women wielded economic and political power. Furthermore, Sanday’s study shows how societies structure men’s and women’s sexual identities and behaviour:

Because the plan that guides the behaviour of the sexes in everyday life is part of the foundations of a people’s culture from one generation to the next, they transmit sex role principles. Human beings do not invent new paths for males and females to follow from one generation to the next. Rather young people are inexorably bound by the sexual life-styles of their parents. No matter how hard they try to be different, young males and females eventually experience the tidal pull of their culture and history. These plans are subject to change only when a people’s traditional culture has been shattered by environmental and social exigencies. When this happens, either a new code for social identity is formulated or a people become extinct as a social unit. It is not unusual to find in reformulated social codes, new forms of social identities and a revised sex role plan. [18]

There is one further theory of rape which needs to be dealt with before looking at the real causes. There is a trend in sociobiology which argues that the only means by which a proportion of men could propagate themselves was through rape. Unable to attract women, such men resort to violence. There are a number of objections to this. It doesn’t explain the different kinds of rape which vary from warfare, the right to the first night and rape in marriage (even where there are children), to name but a few. Since very few women become pregnant from rape it also seems an extremely hit and miss method of propagating the species. In addition, rapists apparently suffer from a high rate of sexual dysfunction – difficulties in initiating and maintaining an erection, in achieving ejaculation or its opposite, premature ejaculation. [19] The sociobiological view of rape is completely ahistorical, seeing it as unchanged over time or in different societies.

We can confidently conclude that rape and violence against women are neither universal features of human society nor simply the product of male biology. Furthermore, since pre-class society accounts for approximately 90 percent of the time human society has existed, the experience of class exploitation, inequality and systematic violence – including violence against women – is an extremely late development in human society. As Chris Harman points out, “If there is a ‘biological’ human nature, its features must have been laid down in this period” [20], in other words in the context of co-operation and non-violence. It also means that any understanding of rape, pornography and violence against women has to be rooted concretely in a historical analysis of particular societies, not in sweeping generalisations about human nature.

Capitalism and sexuality

The development of modern capitalist society has wrought massive changes both in people’s personal and working lives. Capitalism not only restructured the world of work but also the family, the institution we all grow up in. The development of the factory system of production brought about the complete separation of work and family. For the ruling class the family remained a vital mechanism with which to control powerand wealth. But for working class people the family ceased to be a productive unit.

The basis of marriage therefore ceased to be the search for a good strong working partner and became based on mutual attraction, or as Engels put it, “individual sex love”. In modern capitalist society marriage, and its equivalent common law relationships, are entered into freely by men and women on the basis of mutual attraction. But although relationships are freely entered into, men’s and women’s lives are structured by the family, the basis of which is the privatised reproduction of labour power and not the fulfilment of human need. The family also structures and perpetuates the oppression of women because they bear the main burden of child care. The majority of cooking, cleaning, shopping and attending to children’s needs is undertaken by women. In addition, most married women go out to work. Men do little domestic work, but their wages provide the bulk of the family income. Only in a minority of cases do men also take on some of the burden of childcare and other household tasks.

This division of labour between men and women in the family serves the interests of the ruling class because current and future generations of workers are provided for largely from workers’ wages and women carry a double burden of home and work. Women face inequality with men in their family lives. And at work they face both class and sexual inequality. Male workers experience class inequality but not sexual inequality. Class and gender roles pervade the totality of society – in the family, in education, at work and in entertainment – and so no individual can avoid being shaped in particular ways, however fraught that process may be. Thus there is no escape from gender roles, even for those who neither marry nor have children.

The continual restructuring of the family is part of the development of capitalism. The initial impact of industrialisation threw the old family structure into crisis, ripping men, women and children from the home and dumping them in the factory for their entire waking day. Marx and Engels both believed that this process had destroyed the basis for the working class family. Their prognosis turned out to be wrong. Working class men and women sought to maintain some kind of family as a defence against the ravages of the industrial revolution. And the ruling class was concerned to secure the family as a means of reproducing labour power. [21] The same period also saw serious attempts by the state to regulate sexuality. This was a ruling class offensive designed to impose bourgeois norms of family life on the working class. The Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, by outlawing outdoor relief for unmarried mothers, helped break earlier patterns of premarital sex. Other laws in the 1880s raised the age of consent for girls, regulated obscenity, prostitution and homosexuality and were part of a drive to establish the marriage bed as the sole legitimate place for sexual relations, at least for women. The consequences for women’s sexuality are perhaps most aptly summed up by the Victorian advice to women to “lie back and think of England”. [22]

The contradiction between people’s hopes of fulfilment from relationships and the reality of family life is one of the major problems people have in their sexual lives. In addition, changes in capitalist society, beginning in the early decades of the century, have had an impact on the relationship between men and women. The family itself, although separate from production, is not immune to changes in the nature of production. Gradually every aspect of the home – housework, cooking, furniture, decor – was subordinated to the influence of mass commodity production.

The growth of the mass market and production line manufacture led to the rise of mass advertising. Women were encouraged to change their habits and buy everything from ready made bread, jam and cakes through to clothing and, increasingly, electrical goods. These were advertised as aids to creating the perfect family home. The bulk of advertising, which expanded massively during the 1920s, was aimed at women because they were responsible for buying household goods. [23] The growth in mass advertising was hit by the slump of the 1930s, but the deeper trends in production and the creation of mass consumerism continued. Mass advertising aimed at women revived with renewed vigour after the war.

Appealing to women as consumers was accompanied by a shift towards portraying wives as sex objects. Women were encouraged to use sex and physical appearance to maintain the interest of their husbands. Women were increasingly pushed into becoming self conscious about their bodies and appearance. Beauty and sensuality became subordinated to consumption and the cash nexus. If mutual attraction was the basis on which men and women now developed relationships and bringing up children the material reason for the family, then increasingly sex became the means by which women had to keep their husbands in the family home. Slogans such as “Even your best friend won’t tell you” and “Often a bridesmaid but never a bride” were taken up and promoted by advertisers to sell deodorants and, in at least one case, stockings.

Ewan Stuart, from his own survey of advertisements in women’s magazines throughout the 1920s, observed that a noticeable proportion showed women looking at themselves in a mirror. He concluded,

For women the imperative of beauty was directly linked to the question of job security – their survival in fact depended on their ability to keep a husband, advertisements continually reminded women – or more precisely the wage that he brought home to underwrite their managerial role. [24]

The trend towards treating women as sex objects and the use of women’s bodies in advertising became subject, especially in the post-war world, to other important developments which crucially affected the role of women. The first was the entry of women into paid work on such a scale that all women’s lives were transformed. Today most women work outside the home for most of their lives. The length of time women spend away from paid work continues to decline. The second major factor is the development and use of contraception since the 1960s. This of course has facilitated the growth of the female workforce. Today 75 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 44 use some kind of contraception. The average number of children per family has now dropped to 1.8. Contraception not only allows women to decide how many children to have, it creates the possibility of sex solely for pleasure, as opposed to sex for procreation.

Both these changes occurred during the sustained boom which followed the Second World War. With the boom came the growth of the welfare state, stable full employment and the growing belief that a whole range of problems could be resolved within the framework of a caring capitalism. The conservative mood of the 1950s, reinforced by the atmosphere created by the cold war, gave way to a liberalisation of social attitudes. Several pieces of important social legislation passed in the late 1960s made abortion much more widely available and liberalised attitudes to homosexuality.

This period also saw the weakening of censorship with battles oven the publishing of DH Lawrence’s book Lady Chatterley’s Lover and rows over Kenneth Tynan’s language on television. Advertising started to portray women’s bodies more openly and films went from open portrayal of the female body to a generally more explicit portrayal of sex.

The demands of the early women’s liberation movement – for equal pay, an end to sex discrimination, free contraception, free abortion on demand and 24 hour nurseries – are probably an accurate reflection of the changing aspirations of millions of working class women. For women, demands for equality in the field of work go hand in hand with the demand to have greater control over their own bodies.

Today it has become clear that the impact of these changes has led to the separation of sexuality from both marriage and reproduction, and is reflected in the pattern of marriage, divorce and illegitimate births. Men and women marry later and live longer. [25] Almost a quarter of marriages end in divorce within four years, although a substantial proportion then go on to try again – and again. [26] Most adults think premarital sex is perfectly acceptable but that extra-marital sex is wrong. [27] In England and Wales illegitimate births have risen steadily, although this has been accompanied by an increase in such births being registered in the name of both parents. [28] The majority of people still live in couples, but fewer have dependent children. [29]

This means that child care, previously the basis for the family, provides less and less reason for couples to stay together. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the trend of making sex central to both marriage and marketing should have continued. [30] But now this trend has reached the point where sex has ceased to be tied to marriage.

These changes perhaps also explain the growing interest in sexual behaviour. At the turn of the century Freud’s writings, in providing a theory of the role of sexuality in society and the differences in the gender development of men and women, also shattered the illusion that children were not sexual beings. Studies by Kinsey in 1951, followed by Masters and Johnson in 1965, helped popularise the view that sex should be for pleasure, not just procreation. Masters and Johnson’s work did much to promote the view that women were capable of enjoying sex. But, although they noted that women had a higher rate of orgasm from masturbation than during intercourse, they emphasised the centrality of penetration for real sexual satisfaction. This tended to reinforce more traditional views about what was best for women. These views were strongly contested by the early women’s liberation movement. But it was Shere Hite who, in 1976, came up with results which showed that the overwhelming majority of women did not achieve orgasm through sexual intercourse but through clitoral stimulation. [31]

In today’s world sex and the portrayal of women’s bodies are abstracted from wider human relationships. Such attitudes and images are part of everyday life. Mass circulation newspapers such as the Sun and the Mirror use pin-up girls to enhance their selling powers. Advertising and fashion exert an almost inescapable pressure on women to be sexually attractive to men. Magazines for young women are particularly geared to presenting women as devastatingly sexually attractive, though essentially passive, beings whose sole purpose is to lure a man their way. [32]

A woman’s sexuality has become the means by which she is supposed to attract someone of the opposite sex. Women get caught in a double bind of being expected to look good without then being treated like a sex object. At the same time sex appears as an object, something unrelated to human emotions such as love and friendship, a shared sense of joie de vivre and the like.

Marx argued over 100 years ago that a society based on exploitation leads to the most profound alienation of human beings from their natural capacities. The essence of his theory of alienation is that a society created by human beings seemingly takes the form of an alien power oven them. This is a reflection of the fundamental contradiction in class society, that a minority control the means to life but this control is hidden behind the apparently impersonal working of the market. The very essence of human beings, their labour, is bought and sold according to market forces in the face of which they seem powerless. This process, Marx argued, influenced the totality of human life and experience, including the seemingly most natural relationship of all – that between men and women.

In late capitalist society human sexuality is caught in a series of profound contradictions. On the one hand, sex has become abstracted from human relationships, an object that can be bought and sold like any other. Women’s bodies have become central to their ability to develop relationships with men. And the oppression of women means that relationships between men and women continue to be unequal. On the other hand, the increasing independence of women as workers and professionals has raised their expectations of being able to control their own lives and bodies. They expect to be treated with dignity and respect.

A number of examples illustrate these contradictions. A study of teenage sexual behaviour, conducted over 20 years ago, found that after their first sexual experience almost three quarters of the men wanted to do it again, but only just over half the women agreed. Nevertheless just under three quarters of women had had sexual relations more than 50 times in the previous year, compared with just over half of the boys. These differences can probably be accounted for by two things – that women get less satisfaction from the sexual side of relationships but have more sex because they have steadier relationships. More stable relationships result in more sex. [33]

Another contemporary problem is the pressures both men and women face to enjoy “good”, frequent sex. One researcher in Britain found that expectations of successful sex in marriage had increased by 50 percent between 1950 and 1970. [34] Yet this expectation is frustrated, as is shown by the low proportion of women who really get sexual satisfaction from relationships with men. Many women also suffer from the ambivalence inherent in the Situation: is a man really interested in a woman for her personality and individuality, or simply for sex? If she has sexual relations with a man, will he still respect her in the morning or think she’s just an “easy lay”? If he wants an ongoing relationship with her, will this be at the expense of her own autonomy?

Meanwhile governments and bosses gain both ways. Governments constantly assert the necessity of being a good wife and mother, whilst bosses use women’s sexuality as a vital part of pressure selling techniques. And while all these changes have been taking place the privatised family remains the place where boys and girls learn that heterosexuality and monogamy are the norm, that men and women are different and that women are responsible for the home whilst men are the main breadwinners. Children also quickly learn that there is a hierarchy of authority in the family and in wider society.

What children do not appear to learn much about is their own sexuality or about sexual relationships in general. In two surveys of teenage sexuality – the first in 1965 and a follow up study in 1973 – Michael Schofield established that sex education varied considerably according to both class and gender. Boys learned least from their parents. Some 60 percent of the middle class boys, 70 percent of the non-manual and 73 percent of the manual working class boys, learned nothing from their parents. Girls did learn about sex from their parents, but they learned nothing about birth control. This presumably means that girls were taught about menstruation and warned about the dangers of becoming pregnant. [35] The overwhelming majority of both sexes, 80 percent in fact, wanted to know more about orgasms, sexual pleasures and dangers, methods of contraception and the opposite sex. Over 60 percent of both sexes said their main source of information was their friends. According to Schofield, other studies show that children not taught about sex tend to make up their own explanations. [36]

Schofield’s studies indicate one problem: that young people often grow up surrounded by images of sex but in sexual ignorance. They don’t understand or know their own bodies, never mind anyone else’s body. Boys, who are supposed to take the lead in sexual matters, grow up knowing least of all. This state of affairs is compounded by the circumstances where sexual relations first take place – cars, parks and disused buildings in 29 percent of Schofield’s sample. [37] This is hardly conducive to making the experience an easy one. Using one of the parental homes may be more comfortable, but risks getting “caught”. Small wonder that Schofield found only 46 percent of the boys and 38 percent of the girls enjoyed their first experience. [38]

Schofield’s study also gives us some clues about how sexual relations break down and, in particular, about one of the most common forms of rape, “date rape”.

Patterns of rape in capitalist society

Date or “acquaintance” rape: It is now quite widely known (and accepted by feminists and most researchers) that only a minority of rapes are committed by strangers. [39] Ruth Hall, in her study Ask Any Woman, claims 75 percent of male rapists are known to the woman. [40] Half of the rapes took place in the home of either the man or the woman. In a study based on a sample in San Francisco, Diana Russell calculated that only 3 percent of rapists were strangers, 8 percent husbands and the majority boy friends, dates, lovers, ex-lovers or acquaintances. [41]

Numerous studies point to adolescence and young adulthood as the period when rape is most likely to occur. [42] A recent study of adolescents and sexual assault in the US gives some insight into how rape occurs. [43] The study was part of a national five year investigation on adolescence and crime. The sub-sample for sexual assault spanned the three years from 1978 to 1981. The definition of sexual assault included all forced sexual behaviour, including touching sexual parts, and allowed for a range of pressure from verbal to physical beating, including the use of weapons. On this quite wide definition, between 7 and 9 percent of female adolescents experienced some kind of sexual assault over the three years. [44] In the first two years 75 percent of the assaults took place in a vehicle or in the home of either the victim or offender. In 1980 two thirds took place somewhere in the neighbourhood and only 23 percent in one of the homes. [45]

One of the most striking aspects of the survey is that in only 20 percent of cases in 1978 and 1979 was the assault completed, i.e. a rape took place. In 1980 this figure rose to a third. [46] In all three years the majority of women were able to stop the assault – between 43 and 48 percent used reasoning and between 28 and 39 percent used anger and hostility. [47] Overall only 5 percent did not resist at all because of fear or use of drugs. In two thirds of cases, where the assault involved a date or boyfriend, the relationship changed. About 87 percent of them were ended. [48] The survey also looked at the reactions by both sexes to the assaults. The main response from the women was anger followed by embarrassment. Lack of interest in, and fear of, further sex came third. [49] The majority of women were treated sympathetically when they told others, including boyfriends or husbands, what had happened. [50]

The picture with the young male offenders is somewhat different. The majority reported feeling satisfied, if confused, about the outcome of the assault. A minority felt embarrassed, and some more powerful afterwards. The response of their friends is instructive – 40 percent claimed friends approved of the assault, 20 percent disapproved and 25 gave no reaction. [51]

Precipitating factors mentioned by the men in 40 percent of cases were, firstly, a combination of the woman’s physical build, flirting and teasing by the victim and, secondly, their own sexual arousal. A proportion mentioned sexual arousal in the woman. [52] The women identified the time of day and sexual arousal in the man as the key factors, followed by location and drink. The overwhelming majority of women did not see anything special in their own behaviour or dress which might have precipitated the assault. [53] Ageton, author of Sexual Assault Amongst Adolescents, herself concluded:

A review of the description of these incidents suggests that a number of them reflect the classic dating scenario where the male presses the female for sex. Most of these incidents did not involve more than verbal pressure, and a high proportion were unsuccessful attempts according to offender reports. [54]

The Ms magazine survey, based on college campuses in the US, revealed a similar pattern of rape as part of the dating scenario. [55] Even more revealing are the different judgements of both the men and the women to rape. Just over a quarter of women did not consider themselves to be rape victims. [56] Of the 8 percent of men who had either raped or attempted to rape a woman, 75 percent said they had never forced an unwanted sexual act on a woman. [57] Almost half of the women had sex again with the same man. [58] This is a clear indication of the difference between the sexual attitudes of men and women towards sex. It also showshow inequality between men and women affects the most intimate relationships between them. At the same time it shows that women may have so profoundly internalised this inequality that they do not recognise rape for what it is. It also indicates how difficult it is for a woman to accept that a man who is attracted to her could behave in such a fashion. Women obviously face an enormous problem in confronting the experience of rape, particularly if they feel there is little they can do about it.

Given that premarital sex is fairly common and that young men are supposed to go out and get sex from young women, it is hardly surprising that there is some incidence of breakdown, i.e. rape. Furthermore, since dating is common to all adolescents, this would explain why “date rape” occurs in all classes of the population. The incidence of rape on US campuses is an example of how particular social conditions appear to contribute to the vulnerability of mainly white middle class students to rape. Unfortunately no similar studies to the Ms survey exist for the non-student population which would allow comparisons to be made. [59] The important point for the purposes of this analysis is that “dating” itself is part of a distinctly modern sexuality created by capitalist society. The “dating” scenario would also explain the age range in which the majority of rapes occur. Young men and women inexperienced in personal and sexual relationships are more likely to have problems than older men and women. Experience helps men to initiate relationships more easily and women to gain confidence in dealing with men.

There are two further kinds of rape which are clearly affected by the conditions of capitalist society – rape in marriage and “stranger” rape. [60]

Rape in marriage: A quarter of all violent crime takes place in the family. According to a recent article, “Every three days a woman dies at the hands of her husband, cohabitee, lover or a man with whom she has had such a relationship.” [61] Child abuse, physical and sexual, wife battering and rape are all symptoms of family breakdown. Rape within marriage – a recognised crime in Scotland, but not in England and Wales – is about the intersection of women’s oppression, class and sexuality mediated by the family.

In Ruth Hall’s study, over 20 percent of the married women interviewed said they had had sexual relations against their will. [62] Russell’s survey found that 12 percent of the married women interviewed had been raped by the husbands. [63] In West Germany a survey in 1976 found that 58 percent of married women concurred with the view, “I let it happen to me because otherwise I have to put up with his bad mood for days.” [64]

Central to understanding rape in marriage is the impact of inequality between men and women – the assumption that men are entitled to sex from their wives, that sex is part of marriage and a wife has no right to refuse. In fact, women’s own perception of whether or not they have been raped by their husbands, and whether violence was used, changes. Ruth Hall found that amongst the married women who had sex against their will, 35 percent thought it was rape at the time and 65 percent thought it was rape by the time the survey was conducted. There was a similar increase in the numbers who thought physical force, or the threat of it, had been used to obtain sex. This changed from 58 percent at the time to 85 percent when the survey was undertaken. [65]

Wives’ ability to control their sexual relationships with their husbands seems to be intimately bound up with their levels of economic independence as well as with the threat of force. Two thirds of the women in Ruth Hall’s study cited physical force or the threat of it as the reason for what happened. But half also said it was financial pressure – 20 percent were worried about losing their housekeeping money. Nearly 40 percent said sex was expected in exchange for their husband’s support for the family. Half were afraid their husbands would take it out on them in other ways and 20 percent were afraid they would take it out on the children. Some 30 percent “assumed that this was normal”.

A woman’s ability to leave marriages after being raped is also heavily conditioned by economic factors. Most women, some 87 percent in fact, tried to leave and 77 percent succeeded. Three quarters of those who did not leave gave material reasons, such as housing and finances, for staying. [66] Such factors weigh particularly heavily on women with children. Diana Russell’s study of rape in marriage found that “100 per cent of wives who were primary breadwinners when they were first raped were no longer married to their rapist husbands.” [67] This is evidence enough to dispel the view held by some that women enjoy being raped. It also tallies with the findings amongst adolescents, the overwhelming majority of whom changed their relationships after being sexually assaulted. But it also clearly shows how the combination of the family and class leads to some women being trapped in horrible relationships. Sometimes this trap is emotional – women care about their husbands, feel guilty or can visualise nothing else. But more often it is material. Women simply do not command the means to leave, hence the poorest suffer most. [68]

Stranger rape: Stranger rape is less common than other forms of rape, but most likely to be reported to the police because women are more willing to report men they do not know. Stranger rapes are also more likely to involve an element of violence. There are indications that a proportion of such rapes are committed in the course of some other crime. [69]

Crime is clearly associated with social conditions. A society based on an unequal distribution of wealth creates crimes of property. Under capitalism the majority of people are dependent on selling their labour power for wages in order to gain access to the necessities of life. Since a proportion either earn too little or are unemployed, the only means of satisfying their needs is by stealing or going into debt. Writing in 1844 Engels noted that crime was rising faster in England than elsewhere. In particular it was rising in the new industrial cities. By booking at levels of education, Engels decided that “nearly all crimes arise within the proletariat”. [70] The same is true today. In a recent study, David Farrington says,

Offending may increase to a peak between the ages of 14 and 20 because boys – especially lower class school failures – are highly impulsive, have high desires for excitement, material goods and social status and little chance of achieving their desires legally and little to lose. Legal penalties are lenient and their intimates – male peers – often approve of offending. [71]

It is hardly surprising, in a society which bombards everyone with images of women’s bodies and encourages young men to prove themselves by getting off with women, that a number resort to stealing sex, that is to rape. Most surveys on rape come to this conclusion. Katz and Mazur say, “In conclusion, the available literature suggests that both men and women from the lower classes are more vulnerable to all forms of violent crime, including rape.” [72] Russell’s study associated stranger rape with young men on low incomes. [73] Ageton said that “youthful victims of violent sexual assaults are predominantly black, lower class, urban females”. She also argued that rapists were more likely to feel a failure at school, isolated and unappreciated at home as well as generally what she described as “more delinquent”. [74]

The association of this kind of rape with general “delinquency” and crime explains why rape statistics based on police reports and prison populations turn up a high concentration of men who are young and lower class – and, in the US, mainly black. Class society creates the crime and the criminals. It also creates the victims – two in five of the black women interviewed for Ruth Hall’s Ask any Woman were assaulted because of their race or nationality and one third on sexual grounds. [75] Ruth Hall concluded:

Women with the least financial security – low paid jobs and or low paid partners, poor housing and no access to a car – stood a greater chance of being assaulted or verbally abused because of their race or nationality ... The chances of experiencing assault or abuse are high if you are black and high if your income is low. [76]

Class would also appear to play a role in enabling women to prevent rape. In Rape Victimisation in 26 American Cities McDermott found that, “while 65 percent of the attacks on women in the lowest income category were not completed, as many as 92 percent of the sexual assaults against women in the highest income bracket were not completed”. [77]

Unfortunately no reasons are given, but women from middle and upper middle class backgrounds derive greater authority and confidence from their overall position in society than do many young working class women. This might well have a bearing on some women being able to stop rapes from taking place. But equally, it may well be the case that working class women are simply more vulnerable because of having to rely on poor public transport, live on rotten estates and the like.

Pornography and sexuality

So far I have tried to show that rape today, although a minority occurrence, results from the way in which capitalism produces changes in the nature of sexuality, the family and the socialisation of men and women into different class and gender roles. I now want to try to show that pornography is also a product of capitalist sexuality rather than a key component in structuring it. This argument runs counter to the accepted wisdom amongst the majority of feminists and much of the left. Susan Brownmiller, for example, writes that “pornography is the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda”. [78] In one interview Dworkin simply asserts that pornography “promotes sexual abuse of women”. [79] In another interview in Feminist Review, Dworkin says,

I think we would be fools to think that we have inner lives that are disassociated from the actual system in which we live. And I feel that my responsibility in this area is to insist on what I know. And what I know is that pornography is reality ... The first premise is that it can’t be isolated from male supremacy. [80]

For the women’s movement in the late 1970s, which had completely accepted the theory of patriarchy and was almost entirely preoccupied with violence against women, two statements were unquestioned. The first was “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice” and the second was Brownmiller’s “Rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” [81]

Many feminists also widen the definition of pornography to include all sexist images of women. [82] To disagree with this is not to say that advertisements and publications, ranging from the daily newspapers to magazines for young women, are not more influential in affirming an image of women as passive sex objects than pornography, with its much smaller audience. However, to elide the definitions of pornography and of sexist advertisements does not further our understanding of the relationship between the two or their relationship to sexual behaviour.

It should be fairly apparent from this analysis that I do not believe pornography is the cause of rape or of women’s oppression. Pornography may make socialists and feminists angry because it is degrading to women, but that is a different question.

The use of pornography has grown alongside the general changes both in attitudes to sex and the portrayal of women’s bodies. Today it is no longer considered outrageous for women to appear “topless” on beaches. People also seem to have become more adventurous in their sexual behaviour, or at least more willing to admit that they are adventurous. In the US the proportion of people who engage in oral sex has increased enormously since Kinsey’s findings in 1953. [83] The length of time spent in the act of love making rose from two minutes in Kinsey’s day to ten minutes in the 1970s. [84] The overwhelming majority of couples were also prepared, by the 1970s, to experiment with positions other than the “missionary position”. [85] Women’s responsiveness to erotic stimuli, whether visual or verbal, is now similar to that of men, according to a group of German sociologists. [86] This is a big change from Kinsey’s findings in 1953. [87] In other words, people’s appetites for more varied and frequent sex have been whetted. Where expectations are not fulfilled, it is possible pornography helps fill the gap.

Apart from the increase in the round of marriage, divorce and remarriage, there is some evidence of a generalised dissatisfaction with relationships. Schofield noted in 1965 that a significant proportion of young men thought they should have a good time before getting married because afterwards life would be dreary. Eight years later he noticed that marriage meant less guilt and worry about sexual performance but an increase in boredom. [88] Shere Hite’s latest survey, Women and Love, gives some indication of the turmoil which lies behind the statistics. Nearly 90 percent of women believed in monogamy as an ideal, but after five years of marriage very substantial numbers of women were having affairs unknown to their husbands, or so they thought. These women gave alienation from their husbands as the main reason for the affairs. The pattern is almost identical for men – except they start their affairs after only two years of marriage. [89]

It is clear that many women find relationships with men hard going, complaining that men refuse to discuss emotional problems, withdrawing into silence. Many relationships also clearly leave women feeling emotionally drained, psychologically harassed and undermined or put down. [90] All the above needs to be borne in mind in any discussion about the nature and use of pornography.

Pornography has become a worldwide, multi-billion dollar business in the last 20 years. It is a business dominated by a dozen porn barons with a revenue calculated at between $5 billion and $10 billion annually. This development is part of the general development of the media industry, colour magazines, colour film and videos. Well over one million porn videos are circulating in the UK. [91] There are 46 million people over 15 years old at present in the UK and 40 percent of households have videos. [92] This rises to 60 percent in two parent households with children. [93] The porn films themselves have moved with the times. Sets have changed from the simple backcloth used when the films were often made in garages, to ones that would not disgrace Dallas and Dynasty. But, according to Hebditch and Anning, one distinctive hallmark of pornography films remain: they are boring. Porn films have highly structured story lines which hardly vary. They also argue that 90 percent of pornography “depicts what would generally be considered to be in the mainstream of sexual activity”. They characterise only 10 percent as bizarre, involving sadomasochism and the like. One percent is child pornography. [94]

Although the users would, in the main, appear to be young men, Hebditch and Anning note:

It is no longer unusual for pornography to be bought or rented by couples. A survey by a staid women’s magazine in Copenhagen recently revealed that a third of its middle-class, middle-aged readership viewed some porn before retiring to bed with their partners ... a survey of the Australian mail order market recorded that over 30 percent of buyers are women. Because of its cost (even in legal markets) pornography tends to be a middle income hobby. [95]

Although I would be cautious about making judgements about the class use of pornography based on the cost of videos, in general the picture fits the previous analysis of sex becoming more central to couples’ relationships and of changing attitudes over the last few decades. Viewing pornography may still only be a minority activity but it can hardly be written off as the prerogative of cranks and oddballs. Pornography is clearly reaching a mass market of men and, to a lesser extent, of women.

In the United States the first presidential commission on obscenity and pornography in 1970, which reviewed the impact of non-violent sexually explicit material, concluded:

The findings of available research cast considerable doubt on the thesis that erotica is a determinant of either the extent or nature of individuals’ habitual sexual behaviour. Such behaviour effects as were observed were short lived, and consisted virtually of a transitory increase in masturbation or coitus amongst persons who habitually engage in these activities. [96]

The commission also felt that family background and conservative sexual attitudes were “a better predictor of sex crimes and other deviant sex practices than self reports of the influence of pornography consumption”. [97]

Some researchers maintain that pornography may have an educative role. In 1978 CF Wilson quoted a figure of 20 percent of American couples who were dissatisfied with their sex lives. Pornography “provided them with sex information, reduced their sexual inhibitions, increased their willingness to discuss sex with others, caused them to try ‘new things’ and generally improved their sexual relationships”. [98]

By 1986, in a completely different political climate, the US Attorney General’s Commission concluded that there was a link between aggressive pornography and violence to women. Firstly it is worth bearing in mind that 90 percent of all pornography is routine sex. The levels of violence in Playboy are apparently currently below those of 1977 (and below that of kids’ comics) because Hefner ordered his editors to watch for violence levels. In 1977, 5 percent of images in Playboy and Penthouse were violent. Secondly, it has to be remembered that researchers themselves have been influenced by the impact of both feminist and moral majority arguments that violent images lead to an increase in violent behaviour.

Despite all the problems with some of the methods of current research – self-selecting samples of students, experiments conducted in highly artificial laboratory surroundings – some of the findings are instructive. Firstly, both Donnerstein and Malamuth, whose findings are used by those arguing for bans on pornography, found that sex films bad no impact on men at all. [99] But Donnerstein, (whose expert testimony was used by Mackinnon in the 1986 Missouri test case) found that men’s levels of aggression against women rose after seeing violent rape scenes under one of two conditions – that the woman being raped was shown to enjoy the rape and that the male viewer bad already been made to feel angry by a woman. [100] Two other researchers, Malamuth and Ceniti, got similar results. [101] Ironically, these findings seem to point to quite different conclusions from those drawn by the researchers themselves. In real life many women stop sexual assaults from being completed, as I have shown above. Nor do women enjoy such assaults. The difference between the imagery and real women is crucial, as is the difference between being a passive viewer and an active rapist. Real women try to control what men do to them and, in the main, real men respond. In other words, the research method is fatally flawed because it is not based on any notion of human interaction, but on a simplistic behaviourist stimulus-response view of human actions.

Many feminists adopt a similarly simplistic behaviourist model of human relationships. With violent videos, it is surely the violence that arouses aggression in men, not the sex. Ironically, “slasher videos” (violent videos containing little sex), are often produced as an alternative to sex films because they avoid obscenity laws and are considered less dangerous!

The researchers also fail to ask another important question, who is the most likely woman in a man’s life to trigger his anger? The answer, surely, is the woman he lives with. This would point in the direction of the family as the most dangerous place for a woman to be. A recent article in the New Statesman, based on the work of Tony Black, the former chief psychologist at Broadmoor Hospital, argued that in cases of domestic murder “the typical killer is likely to be a quiet, retiring person, who wants to be accepted socially, and may have difficulty expressing or identifying emotions”. Tony Black says, “Many have never felt able to lose their temper and when they kill it is a disastrous attempt to express their feelings after a long period of pressure.” [102] This is a far cry from the image, conjured up by Brownmiller, of male violence as an organised system of keeping women down. On the contrary, it points to a crisis of inadequacy resulting from an inability to cope with stress.

The nature and robe of pornography has to be seen against the back cloth of the enormous upheavals in peoples’ lives and the changing and contradictory nature of sexuality today. The fascination with looking at pictures of women’s sexual parts is surely borne of a society in which sex is simultaneously all pervasive but real nudity considered, at worst, outrageous or, at least, odd. Nudity is, after all, an arrestable offence. If seeing men and women’s bodies was not restricted to the privacy of the bedroom but was part of public life, some of the fascination which leads men in particular to look at pornography would disappear. [103]

This also explains why part of the role pornography plays is that of sex educator. Many people grow up inadequately prepared for adolescence and sex and so pornography provides answers they cannot find elsewhere. It is no accident that Playboy carries an advice column. A society which fails to transmit a real understanding of sexuality should not be surprised that magazines mainly concerned with a male audience are dominated by pictures of women’s bodies. Given the structuring of sexuality in capitalist society, such magazines are presumably a substitute – and a poor one at that – for really satisfying emotional and sexual relationships. They are a distortion of human sexuality, a barrier to men and women developing such relationships with one another.

Films and videos of sexual intercourse, I think, are slightly different. Firstly, they are not one sided about sex in the same way that stills of women are. They show men as well as women in the sex act. It does not seem a tenable position to argue that seeing sexual intercourse is harmful, unless it is also argued that sexual intercourse itself is harmful. It is also important to distinguish between a reluctance to watch others engaged in sexual intercourse – borne out of respect for people’s privacy – and reactions based on prudery.

The real problem with such films is not that they are violent – most are not – or that they isolate women’s bodies as sex objects for male viewers, which they don’t particularly, but that the sex act is shown abstracted from real human relationships. They are not about sex where one human being responds to another, but the portrayal of the physical act for an anonymous viewer. Such films show sex in a completely alienated, objectified form. They are a mirror reflecting a society for which sex has become a commodity and in which women’s oppression is still steadfastly locked into every facet of life. But this mirror also distorts the reality. Real people live dynamic lives: they talk to one another, argue and fight with one another and try to bring about change in themselves and others. Men and women influence one another. It is precisely this sense of dynamism and human interaction which is missing from pornography.

At the same time, there is a real gap in people’s lives and It is this gap which pornography partially fills for some people. Those who use pornography as either a stimulus, a substitute or a source of information would surely gladly throw it away if their lives were transformed. Men who batter, rape and murder women are individuals out of control in a world where the vast majority are denied control. Most men do not rape, beat up women or commit murder. Most struggle, more or less successfully, with the pressures to keep relationships and families going, seeking some kind of affection and relief from those close to them. Women pay a high price for the failures of a minority. But to see that failure as a success story for male domination is to miss entirely the social forces which lead to the breakdown of some individuals. Those individuals are to be pitied, not made scapegoats.


This journal has a long tradition of trying to come to grips with changes in the world round about us. Articles in previous issues have discussed the changing nature of women’s oppression in late capitalist society. One aspect of those changes is their impact on sexuality. Unfortunately much of the debate has been dominated by radical feminists who view the world through the prism of patriarchy theory, explaining women’s position with ideas based on rape, pornography and individual male violence. Such an approach only serves to obscure what needs to be explained and reduces complex processes to a single dimension of male behaviour. The aim of this article has been to try and locate the pattern of rape and pornography in the context of changes in capitalist society and the changing reality of women’s lives.

The impact of work outside the home, the availability of contraception and abortion, has given women much greater social weight inside society and raised women’s own expectations about their ability to control their lives and their bodies. Women want to be treated equally and with respect and dignity and to have satisfying personal relationships. These changes, in turn, have bad their impact on the family, which has declined in size. The basis for the family remains the care of children, the reproduction of the next generation of labour power. But this takes proportionally less time in adults’ lives than in the past. Nevertheless, the family, which locks women into a double burden of home and work and is the root of women’s oppression, remains the institution which structures everyone’s lives. Women have greater economic and social independence and raised expectations, but remain unequal in society. Working class women bear the burden of the two interlocking inequalities of class and gender.

These changes in women’s lives have occurred in a society where every facet of our daily lives is subordinated to commodity production. The food we eat, the houses we live in, the transport we use, the clothes we wear, the entertainment and leisure facilities available to us are all subject to the laws of capitalist society. Sexuality neither is, nor can bc, an exception to this. On the one hand, control over reproduction has freed sexuality from the iron grip of procreation. Partly because of this and the continuing influence of the period in which It occurred – the “permissive sixties” – attitudes to sexuality are incomparably more open than in Victorian times. It is possible for women and men to gain first hand experience of personal and sexual relationships without having to get married first and there is at least some kind of sex education in schools.

Today it is taken for granted that women are sexual beings capable of enjoying sex in their own right. This is a considerable advance. It is one of the reasons that the debate today is about increasing women’ s enjoyment by freeing women from the fear of rape and violence. In the 19th century debates about sexuality took the form of campaigns against prostitution. This only served to increase repressive attitudes to sex in general and reinforce the view that “good” women did not enjoy sex. Nor is prostitution essential for survival for the many women workers in advanced capitalist society, unlike earlier times. But it is still the case that women’s sexuality is trapped by the inequality which shapes the whole of their lives.

Just as the prospect of a more open satisfying sexuality was opened up by capitalism, it was dashed by the contradictions inherent in a society based on the exploitation of the majority of both men and women and the oppression of women. Sex became a commodity beyond the control of men and women. It is a commodity which men get from women by fair means or foul and It is also used to sell other commodities. The pattern of daily life for the vast majority involves such stress and strain that satisfying sex lives become more of a dream than a real possibility. The fact that personal relationships are so often dominated by the expectation of successful sex simply adds to the pressure and highlights the contrast with reality. These contradictory pressures run too deep to allow these expectations to be fulfilled.

In a society based on fulfilling human need, sexuality would surely be integrated into the total possible range of human experience in a completely different way. In today’s world the contradictions will continue to exert themselves on people’s lives. The majority will continue to struggle to achieve what measure of affection and satisfaction they can while a minority will continue to break down in the face of these same pressures. That breakdown can take many different forms.

This article has only tried to address two such forms – rape and pornography. The reason for only addressing these questions is political. For a long time socialists have been faced with a theory about rape and pornography which is well nigh hegemonic amongst feminists and socialists, a theory which starts from a dismissal of the importance of class in understanding society. [104] The decline in struggle and the move to the right which accompanied It in the late 1970s and early 1980s meant that violence against women came to dominate perspectives for women’s liberation. The results were contradictory. On the one hand, a real problem in women’s lives was uncovered. On the other hand, the political analysis which bay behind this move meant redirecting women’s energy away from a real challenge to society. Radical feminists confused violence against women with real power of men over women. Instead of seeing rape and pornography as the result of the lack of power for the majority of women and men, radical feminists attributed It to male power.

The result was to direct women’s attention to fighting men in their personal lives rather than arguing for working class women and men to combine to overthrow the society which created the conditions for both rape and pornography. The effect of the debate about violence against women was to marginalise socialist feminists and socialist ideas and, in truth, strengthen bourgeois ideas. In this article I have tried to show that radical feminist theory about rape and pornography is inadequate and misleading and to provide a framework for a better understanding of this aspect of women’s oppression. Hopefully it will also give revolutionaries added confidence that Marxism is far superior to radical feminist theory as a guide to changing the world.


This article could not have been written without the debate inside the SWP which served to clarify our theoretical understanding of women’s oppression and the relationship of the women’s question to the class struggle. Of particular importance were the contributions made by Tony Cliff in Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation (London 1984), and Lindsey German in Sex, Class and Socialism (London 1989). Julie Waterson pioneered much of the work on rape and pornography in meetings and articles for Socialist Worker and Socialist Worker Review. Many thanks to Sue Clegg, Lindsey German, John Molyneux, Ann Rogers and Julie Waterson for comments and criticisms. Particular thanks to the editor.

1. S. Brownmiller, Against Our Will (Harmondsworth 1976), pp. 13–14.

2. Ibid., pp. 14–15.

3. The reason for this is partly police attitudes, but mainly the nature of most rape – that women know their rapist.

4. London Rape Crisis Centre, Sexual Violence: The reality for women (London 1984), p. 5.

5. Ibid., Preface.

6. K. Livingstone, The Independent, 2 September 1989.

7. See D. Russell, Sexual Exploitation (London,1984). S Ageton, Sexual Assault Amongst Adolescents (Lexington Massachusetts 1985). R. Warshaw, I Never Called it Rape (Ms Report, New York 1988). S. Katz, M.A. Mazur, Review of Rape Literature (1979), quoted in D. Russell, R. Hall, Ask Any Woman (Bristol 1985).

8. Quoted in E Wilson, What is to be Done About Violence Against Women (London 1983), p. 162.

9. E. Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance (London 1981).

10. C. Turnbull, The Wayward Servant (London 1966).

11. E. Blackwood, Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: the Case of Cross-Gender Females (Signs 10, 1985) pp. 27–42.

12. Feminists often recount stories of hunter-gatherer societies where women are subject to violence, without looking at the relationship between such bands and other societies. Colonialism and the market subvert egalitarian relationships. The case of the Yanomamo Indians in Brazil and Venezuela which is often used as evidence to illustrate that hunter-gatherer bands can be extremely violent in fact proves very little. The interpersonal violence does sound appalling, but then it has to be remembered that theirs is the only band in the region to have survived the Spanish Conquest. The impact of warfare imposed from without and the current scarcity of food in the area where they live adequately account for the violence today. It anything, the case of the Yanomamo is a pointer to another important feature of violence in human society – where there is violence against women there is also violence against men by other men fighting for supremacy. For further elaboration of this argument sec E. Leacock, op. cit., or P. Sanday, Female Power and Male Dominance (Cambridge 1981).

13. R. Rohrlich, The State Formation in Sumer and the Subjugation of Women, Feminist Studies, Spring 1980.

14. Ibid., p. 97.

15. Ibid., p. 97.

16. S. Brownmiller, op. cit., p. 18.

17. Ibid.,p.11.

18. P. Sanday, op. cit., p. 15.

19. Cited in Violence Against Women, A Critique of the Sociobiology of Women, eds. S.R. Sanday, E. Tobach (New York 1985), p. 49.

20. C. Harman, Socialist Review, September 1984, issue 68, p. 15.

21. For full explanation of the changes in the family with the development of capitalism, see L. German, Sex, Class and Socialism (London 1989).

22. See J. Weeks, Sex, Society and Politics (London 1989). J.R. Gillis, For Better, For Worse, British Marriages 1600 to the Present (Oxford 1985). A. Clark, Women’s Silence, Men’s Violence (London 1987).

23. In 1929 in the USA, 80 percent of household goods were bought by women. Quoted in E. Stuart, Captains of Consciousness (New York 1976), p. 167.

24. Ibid., p. 178.

25. Social Trends, Central Statistical Office (London 1988), p. 47.

26. Ibid., 1989, p. 41.

27. British Social Attitudes, Social and Community Planning Research (Aldershot 1988), p. 36.

28. Social Trends, op. cit., p. 47.

29. Ibid., p. 39.

30. In 1948 a leading figure in the marriage guidance movement said “a good sex adjustment for husband and wife means satisfying orgasms for both – simultaneous orgasm is a desirable idea”. About the same time the Marriage Guidance Council produced a best selling booklet called How to Treat a Young Wife which argued that sexual technique by men was necessary to satisfy women.

31. S. Hite, Women and Love, (London 1989), p. xxxiv. Although the debate in the women’s liberation movement initially provided some valid insights into the question of women’s sexuality and raised the issue of women as subjects of sexual intercourse as opposed to being passive objects for men in bed, it soon got lost in the political debate about the roots of women’s oppression. The dominance of radical feminism led to political lesbianism, which in turn viewed all sexual intercourse involving men as “fucking the enemy”. An argument for mutuality was replaced with one for complete abstinence from sex with men.

32. See magazines such as 19 or MISS.

33. M. Schofield, The Sexual Behaviour of Young Adults (London 1973), pp. 164 and 169 respectively.

34. Figures quoted from Gorer in J. Gathorne-Hardy, Love, Sex, Marriage and Divorce (London 1981), p. 327.

35. M. Schofield, op. cit., p. 23.

36. Ibid., p. 26.

37. Ibid., p. 167.

38. Ibid., p. 162.

39. I have used a number of different studies for this article (see note 7) to try to make some sense of what is happening. There are a number of problems which readers need to be aware of. Firstly, most of the studies are one sided because they look at the question of rape in isolation from die majority experience of sexuality. Secondly, the basis of the studies varies enormously. Russell’s study was based on a properly compiled representative cross-section of just under 1,000 women in San Francisco. The National Crime Survey was clearly national and therefore much broader in scope.

Hall’s study was based on questionnaires handed to random individuals (although at selected places in London) and then voluntarily returned. Therefore her study is not a proper representative sample of women in London. The Ms survey is based only on students. Hite’s study was also based on self reporting but involved 15,000 women, of whom she took a sample of 4,500, which closely matched the demography of the USA. The strength of Hite’s study is that it looks at women’s relationships as a totality and her starting point is that relationships are shaped by cultural rather than biological factors. Unfortunately I have not been able to get hold of her study on men based on similar methods. One major problem with almost all the studies is the political assumption of the researchers that class is irrelevant. The theory of patriarchy (male domination over women independent of class society) is so pervasive that researchers are either concerned to prove that class is irrelevant or simply do not attempt to find out if it really is. One exception to this is Schofield’s work based on Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Ageton study is a partial exception.

There are also problems with the definition of class. It the material is so one sided and unsatisfactory, why use it? Partly because there is nothing else and partly because, despite the limitations of the research, certain themes often recur. 1 think it is therefore possible to see a pattern which can be integrated into some kind of sensible analysis of society. Figures in the text should not be taken as absolutes but as indicators.

Finally, most of the work is based on the USA. Although there are considerable similarities between the USA and Britain – both are advanced capitalist societies – there are also differences which might well have a bearing on the incidence of rape, but which I cannot prove. For example, student social life on campuses in the USA is much more segregated from the rest of society than is usually the case in Britain, and dominated by the fraternity system. This seems to me a bit like student social life being controlled by the rugby club over here. The high incidence of rape on campuses in the USA may well be influenced by both these factors. Other differences between the two countries are the much higher density of unionisation among men and women in Britain and the existence of the Labour Party. Despite the limitations of both, I believe that the experience of collective organisation of men and women for social and political ends based at least notionally on equality has some influence on the “acculturation” process of men and women. The fact that the whole debate about equality for women and violence against women was conducted by socialist feminists inside the unions and the Labour Party means that at least such ideas have been discussed by quite a wide audience in a serious way. The fact that unions as disparate as the union for fire fighters, the FBU, with a majority of male members and NALGO, for local government workers, with a majority of women members have structures to deal with women’s complaints must contribute to setting a benchmark for tolerable behaviour by men towards women, But again, I can’t prove it.

Although both societies have been subject to a massive swing to the right in the last decade, there are important differences. Britain has not seen the same powerful movement of the Moral Majority and the influence of religious fundamentalism. Strong views about the family, firm beliefs about the innate differences between men and women and religious ideas all shape attitudes to women and sexuality. Religious views tend to have an “inhibiting effect” on people’s attitudes to sex. But the effects of the last decade are bound to be contradictory because of the underlying reality of the change in women’s lives, with women’s work outside the home a permanent feature of the economy. In both the USA and Britain the majority of people still believe in women’s right to abortion and to the right of both sexes to premarital sex, for example. On the other hand, attitudes to homosexuality have been subject to much sharper swings towards intolerance in the last six years. But in the USA there seems to be less tolerance of premarital sex and homosexuality than in Britain, according to data presented in the British Social Attitudes Survey, 1988 (op. cit., p. 37). In general the same data would indicate that the liberalisation in sexual attitudes which has occurred since the early 1970s has held constant.

40. R. Hall, op. cit., p. 69.

41. Russell, op. cit., p. 60.

42. All the studies referred to in Note 7. Russell also quotes S. Katz and M.A. Mazur, “The high risk ages are adolescents (ages 13–17), through young adulthood (ages 18–24)”, op. cit., p. 79. Russell also quotes the following figures given by D. Mulvihill, M. Tumin and L. Curtis in the US Federal Government Report on Crimes of Violence in 1969: Rapes 47 percent for those under 17 years, 29 percent for those between 18–25 years and 24 percent for those of 26 years and over, p. 79.

43. S Ageton, op. cit., p. ??.

44. Ibid., p. 25.

45. Ibid., p. 39.

46. Ibid., p. 43.

47. Ibid., p. 43.

48. Ibid., p. 50.

49. Ibid., p. 53.

50. Ibid., p. 50.

51. Ibid., p. 99.

52. Ibid., p. 98.

53. Ibid., p. 40.

54. Ibid., p. 16.

55. R. Warshaw, op. cit.

56. Ibid., p. 90.

57. Ibid., p. 84.

58. Ibid., p. 63.

59. See note 39.

60. Rape in marriage undoubtedly occurred in other class societies because of the family. It should also be pointed out that this does not exhaust the other kinds of rape which occur in different class societies, as well as rape in wartime which occurs in capitalist society.

61. P. Smith, New Statesman, 7 July 1989, p. 11.

62. R. Hall, op. cit., p. 90.

63. D. Russell, op. cit., p. 61.

64. R. Hall, op. cit. p. 94.

65. Ibid., p. 91.

66. Ibid., see pp. 93–8.

67. Quoted in J.R. Schwendinger and H. Schwendinger, Rape and Inequality (California, 1983), p. 217.

68. These conclusions were borne out in a World in Action programme on rape in marriage on 25 September 1989, based on a survey of 1,000 women done by the centre for criminology at Middlesex Polytechnic.

69. Quoted in J.R. Schwendinger and H. Schwendinger, op. cit., p. 213.

70. F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, (London 1974), p. 160.

71. D. Farrington, Cambridge Institute of Criminology, quoted by S Helms in an article Delinquency Study Links Crime with Deprivation, in the Independent, 20 July 1989.

72. Quoted in Russell, op. cit., p. 85.

73. Ibid., p. 85.

74. S. Ageton, op. cit., p. 122.

75. R. Hall, op. cit., p. 49.

76. Ibid., ch.2.

77. J.R. Schwendinger and H. Schwendinger, op. cit., p. 215.

78. S. Brownmiller, op. cit., p. 394.

79. A. Dworkin, interview in Spare Rib (London, June 1986), p. 40.

80. A. Dworkin interview in Feminist Review (London), No. 11, June 1982, p. 25.

81. S. Brownmiller, op. cit., p. 15.

82. “Pornography includes all forms of visual and verbal humiliation of women for the sexual titillation of men from page three in the Sun to striptease and flagellation movies, plus the exploitation and humiliation of women for economic gain e.g. advertising, entertainment etc.” – statement in Women against Violence against Women, eds. D. Rhodes and S. McNeill, from the Leeds Sexual Violence Against Women Conference in November 1980, p. 13.

83. J. Gathorne-Hardy, op. cit., p. 325.

84. Ibid., p. 324.

85. Ibid., p. 325.

86. L.D. Scanzoni and J. Scanzoni, Men, Women and Change (London 1981), p. 111.

87. Ibid., p. 110.

88. M. Schofield, op. cit., (1965) p. 103 and (1973) p. 176 respectively.

89. S. Hite, op. cit., pp. 5–15. Similar points are made by Lillian Ruhm who notes that working class men in particular tend to withdraw into themselves, quoted in T. Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation (London 1984), p. 214.

90. S. Hite, op. cit., pp. 45–73.

91. D. Hebditch and N. Anning, Porn Gold (London 1988), p. 1.

92. Social Trends 19, HMO (London 1989), p. 24.

93. Ibid., p. 164.

94. D. Hebditch and N. Anning, op. cit., p. 367 and p. 371.

95. Ibid., p. 372.

96. Quoted in E Donnerstein, D Linz and S Pernod, The Question of Pornography (New York 1987), p. 30.

97. Ibid., p. 133.

98. Ibid. p. 83.

99. Ibid. For full outline of experiments see chapter 3, p. 38.

100. Ibid., p. 96.

101. Ibid., p. 102.

102. P. Smith, op. cit., p. 14.

103. This is apparent from the different attitudes to nudity in different countries.

104. In the recent past a number of socialist feminists have challenged radical feminist views on pornography and rape. See L. Segal’s useful chapter, Beauty and the beast 1: Sex and violence, in Is the future female? (London 1987); M. Benn’s article Adventures in the Soho skin trade, in New Statesman, 11 December 1987; E. Wilson, What is to be Done About Violence Against Women (Harmondsworth 1983).

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 3 May 2014