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Julie Waterson

Rape: the socialist answer

(June 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 88, June 1986.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

FROM NEWSPAPER headlines, the TV and radio to the corridors of Whitehall we have all heard various theories and themes concerning rape in the past few months.

The release of controversial crime statistics on rape shows a 29 percent increase, 50 percent in London, of reported rapes to the police. This has led to many demands, ranging from castration, hanging and higher sentences, to more sympathetic police units.

It has even compelled Woman’s Own, with a readership of over five million, to do ‘our most important survey ever’. The male author of their article is surprised with his conclusion, that ‘every one of us (men) has the guilt and blood of woman’s suffering on our hands’.

His conclusions – that men cannot be changed, that the answer lies in higher sentencing – dovetail with feminist arguments.

Those who argue against higher sentences, like Melissa Benn in April’s Marxism Today, demand the ‘protection’ of women through government expenditure on street lighting, public transport and on housing estates, but even more for a changing of men’s attitudes towards women.

We are a long way from the days when rape victims were weighed down with stones and birch branches and drowned in peat bogs, or where rape victims and their attackers were bound and thrown into the river, awaiting rescue by husband or king.

But we still live in a society which treats women who have been raped with hypocrisy, disdain and distrust. This is true from the newspapers to the church and the courts.

We live in a society where rape is still legally impossible in marriage, where (although not required legally) over 60 percent of rape victims have their past sexual history brought up in court. Where in 82 percent of all rape cases which reach the courts it is a question of consent – did she really say no?

It is a society where women are taught to blame themselves for rape, ‘was it something I said/did’, ‘maybe I shouldn’t have taken that drink’ and where this attitude is embodied into every institution surrounding rape.

This is true from the judge in the Old Bailey case in 1976 who said, ‘It is well known that women in particular and small boys are liable to be untruthful and invent stories’, to the Ipswich judge in 1982 who found a woman who had been raped guilty of ‘contributory negligence’ because she had been hitch-hiking at the time.

The recent statistics have frightened many people because they expose the reality of rape. For the first time for many they have broken the myths surrounding rape.

The press coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper case in the early 1980s – which painted rapists as manic strangers ready to pounce on women late at night in deserted dark alleyways – is no longer seen as the norm.

From the tabloids to the ‘respectable’ press we witness a recognition of rape as widespread and common – something done by ordinary men to ordinary women.

The released figures may be frightening but even more so is the fact that an estimated four out every five rapes are not reported to the police at all.

This has been recognised by feminists for a long time. The Women’s Movement since its inception has fought to dispel the myths and lies fed about rape and violence against women.

But it has been in the framework of pointing the finger at the wrong enemy – of laying the blame for rape firmly at the feet of individual men, in the specific, and overall male control in general.

There is hardly a feminist writer who disagrees with this analysis.

We always hear the echo of the famous, and widely used, statement of Susan Brownmiller from her book Against Our Will: ‘Rape is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’.

But is this really the case? Does the blame lie with male control inside society?

There can be no disputing the fact that blame lies with individual men, in as far as they are the ones who rape and sexually assault women. But do men rape women as part of an overall conspiracy to subjugate women, as a reflection of their overall control inside society?

The answer has to be no.

The London Rape Crisis Centre stated in its first report in 1977, two years after its foundation, that,

‘In a society where woman and man are seen as divided as initiator and consenter, aggressive and passive, predator and prey, wolf and chick, then rape is not abnormal ... Rape is the logical and extreme end of the spectrum of male/female relationships’.

We are reminded constantly of our ‘roles’ inside this society. There is the daily dose of rank hypocrisy from the tabloids which talk sympathetically of rape whilst on the same page carry degrading and humiliating images and stories of women as willing sex objects.

From the billboards we see women being used to sell anything from motor oil to lawnmowers. From the day we’re born to the day we die we’re forced to live stereotypes.

This traps men and women from the pink and blue as babies, from the thin, beautiful blonde and Levi 501 body as young adults, to the dutiful wife and mother and breadwinning husband in later life.

These ideas, and the divisions they cause between women and men, have to be seen in the framework of class society. A society much different from that painted by feminists when they talk of male violence.

It is one where the majority of people, both working class men and women, suffer because of their alienation. Where being forced to depend on selling your labour power means having no real control over where you live, where you work or what you earn.

Capitalism doesn’t begin and end at the factory gate, it affects all aspects of our lives.

From the firefighter’s wife who was speaking during her husband’s strike of 1977/8 when she said:

‘I can’t talk to my husband when he comes in – the job makes him so tense and ill. When I tell him his dinner’s in the oven or something, he often just tells me to shut-up.’

To the Ford worker who said of working on the production line in the 1960s:

‘I used to come home from work and fall straight asleep. My legs and arms used to be burning. And I knew hard work ... I didn’t have any relations with my wife for months. Now that’s not right is it? No work should be that hard.’

This is in stark contrast to what we are taught to expect from life – love, marriage, kids and eternal happiness, with perhaps a few hiccups.

The reality means unhappiness, loneliness, distorted sexual relationships and more alienation. And we should not be surprised when that results in violence. Because of the inequality and nature of society it will mean male violence.

No matter how hard we try we are reminded that we can’t have free and equal relationships in a society which treats men and women unequally. Or a society which treats any of its members unequally.

Witness the treatment of black and white men in America.

Blacks are only 11 percent of the population and they are the poorest and most alienated.

Murder, assault, rape and robbery are the big four in violent crime in America. Blacks, in 1973, constituted 58 percent of all arrests for murder, 63 percent for armed robbery and 47 percent for rape.

An examination of 3,000 rapists in 11 southern states, between 1945 and 1965, showed that blacks were seven times as likely as whites to get the maximum sentence of death and 18 times as likely if a black man raped a white woman than if a white man raped a black woman.

The US Justice Department showed that blacks were 89 percent of all men executed for rape between 1930 and 1964.

A survey carried out by Amir into all reported rapes – 646 cases with 1,292 offenders – in Philadelphia between the years 1958 and 1960 noted that 90 percent of rapists ‘belonged to the lower part of the occupational scale, from skilled workers to the unemployed’ and were aged between 15 and 19 years old. Most had previous convictions for burglary, robbery, disorderly conduct or assault – only 9 percent had a previous conviction for rape.

He concluded that the average rapist was the ‘typical youthful offender’.

The FBI has said that 61 percent of American rapists are under 25 years old. And other studies have noted that two thirds of American rapists are single and from the ‘lower classes’. Their victims too are young and from the ‘lower classes’.

Most studies point to the majority of rapes occurring late at night during the weekend and an increase in the numbers of rapes during the summer. They have also noted a link between the consumption of alcohol and rape.

As Susan Brownmiller has noted the typical American rapist is likely to be 19 years old and the boy next door, that is if you happen to live in a ghetto. She says:

‘Women who live in urban lower-class neighbourhoods of high crime and juvenile delinquency are subject to the greatest risk of any class. It follows then, and statistics bear it out, that the group of women who run the greatest risk of being assualted ... are black, teenage, urban lower-class girls.’

We are victims of a class society, not a patriarchial society as feminists would have us believe. Yet Ruth Hall, from Women Against Rape, said in 1976 that rape was ‘a violent expression of men’s power over women, and a backlash when that power is challenged.’

Women can fight back, we are continually reminded, but ultimately all men, although they may not all choose to rape, have the ability to rape and are aware of that fact. Hence the feminist slogan ‘all men are potential rapists’.

The fact that the vast majority of rapes are committed by men known to their victims – recent British statistics show that only 26 percent of rapes are by strangers, and all rape statistics show that over a half of all rapes are committed in either the victim or rapist’s home – they argue proves their theory. It allows them to draw the conclusion ‘never trust a man’.

As the London Rape Crisis Centre says, ‘the existence of rape is fundamental to the power structure which exists between men and women ... If you are a man you cannot empathise with a woman about rape’.

The conclusions that we draw as Marxists are very different.

Rape is the violent product of a violent and brutal society based on the domination of one class over another. This society teaches its male members that women are commodities, that women are willing sexual participants – anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

No socialist would ever condone rape or violence against women just as no socialist would ever blame individual men for a society which distorts men’s lives as well as women’s.

And the suffering is not equal inside society either. Feminists argue that all women, of all ages, and all classes are raped in equal proportions and are under the same reign of fear from being attacked.

We need to dispel these myths.

Looking at studies which have been carried out into rape helps us do this but it has to be done in the understanding that many cases never reach the realms of being a ‘statistic’. These studies are also few and far between, and mostly American.

But nonetheless they do point to vital factors in determining the class nature of rape.

Amir found that 70 percent of rapes are planned and 11 percent were partially planned and the majority carried out by men known to the women they raped. The London Rape Crisis Centre agrees with this, saying that 80 percent are either wholly or partially planned.

As I have stated above, a recent study by Women Against Rape of 1,236 London women showed that three out of every four rapists knew the woman they raped.

The fact that the majority of rapes are carried out by young, working class kids or young, working class women does not mean that middle class and upper class women are not raped, or do not suffer the threat of rape. This would be an absurd argument.

But it is true to say, when looked at in the perspective of degrees of alienation financial comfort and control over your life as an individual, that the threat is far more pronounced in the working class.

The Kinsey Report on sexuality in America in the 1950s conclusively pointed to the middle class having freer, easier and less inhibited sexual relationships. The same conclusions were drawn by the Sunday Times in May 1984 after their survey on sex and political parties. The SDP topped the poll for best sexual relationships.

As Women Against Rape note from their findings:

‘Women with the least financial security – low paid jobs and/or low paid partners, poor housing and no access to a car – stood a better chance of being assaulted or sexually abused ... The chances of experiencing assault or abuse are high if you are black and if your income is low.’

Often rape is seen by people as a process to intimidate and humiliate women. Although indisputably this happens, it is not the reasons men have for raping women.

More likely is that, in the words of Susan Brownmiller, it is ‘stemming from a need to find or prove their masculinity. They are desperately trying to learn to be successful men’.

And who determines what a ‘successful man’ is – capitalist society.

Gang rape, defined as when two or more men rape one women, is common. Overt violence and sexual humiliation is not.

In Amir’s study 43 percent were gang rapes. He noted that in two out of every three rapes ‘non-brutal’ physical violence was used. Fellatio and repeated intercourse occurred in 27 percent of all the rapes (this was how he defined sexual humiliation).

A study in Toronto showed 50 percent of rapes were gang rapes and in Washington DC it was 30 percent.

An Australian study of rapes in New South Wales in 1973 found 69 percent were single offenders and violence occurring in 13 percent of all rapes.

A study in Denver showed that in nearly all rapes there were demands for affection and co-operation.

Again Women Against Rape note: ‘About half the sexual assaults and about half the rapes were accomplished by means other than the use or threat of physical violence.’

Men do not rape simply to exert violence over women. They rape out of a distorted view of sexuality – one given to them by capitalism.

This is not to say that rape should be ignored or not fought against. Far from it. For socialists the answers to rape and violence against women lies with the collective organisation of both working class men and women. For feminists it means the opposite.

In No Turning Back, an anthology of writings from the Women’s Movement, a feminist theorist writes that,

‘An economic revolution cannot eradicate patriarchial social relations as the basis for male/female antagonisms does not lie in the economic mode of production but in the reproductive role ... and it is here that the final battle will be fought.’

To believe that leads feminists into the reformist camp, with reactionary conclusions. They end up supporting, and calling for, higher sentences, male curfews, ‘better’ police procedure and laws and so on.

They are not the solution to the problem. They end up putting more power into the hands of the state and have the end result of, not only being substitutionist and reformist, but of further widening the divide between working class men and women.

Nearly all feminists call for higher sentences for rapists, some even support castration and hanging. In doing so they distort and misunderstand the real role of the courts and the prison service.

It is still the case that in Britain 25 percent of all violent crime is domestic – ‘crime’ resulting from the frustrations in people’s lives.

Violence in the home, and rape, will be with us until we get rid of the system that creates that violence. The police and courts do not exist primarily to protect ordinary women from that violence, they are an integral part of the system – which is why they spend most of their time defending the property of the rich or smashing up picket lines (note the fact that the police only ever solve 16 percent of all reported crime).

Only a tiny minority of people are sentenced, and when they are it is likely to be for between two and four years (the maximum penalty is life). Rapists normally serve their term of imprisonment in isolation units with little or no rehabilitation therapy.

Unfortunately there are no statistics available in this country which enable us to analyse whether convicted rapists are likely to rape again.

But a whole range of people – from the Royal College of Psychiatrists to feminists – agree that the vast majority of rapists are not lunatics and there is evidence from America that therapy has had an 80 percent success rate.

Socialists should be against the demand for higher sentences because it wrongly locates the blame in individual men, just as we should be against demands for better policing.

It is not a question, as Susan Brownmiller says, of demanding that all lawful power structures ‘must be stripped of male dominance and control’ and that this is ‘a revolutionary goal of the utmost importance to women’s rights’.

Rather it is a question of stripping a minority of their control over the majority of people inside this society. To do that demands class unity.

Feminists draw the wrong conclusions because they have the wrong analysis of the world. They do not believe that working class men can change and see women as victims of a male dominated society. This is a strategy which leaves the working class on the sidelines of changing society and leaves women struggling to reform the system and/or ‘sharing our fears and anxieties’.

One look back to the miners’ strike proves conclusively that working class men and women can change.

It is a small example. But it goes against the argument put by feminists and demonstrates that by fighting together we can not only change society but our ideas and sexual relationships too.

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