Sunday, May 7, 2023

Susan Brownmiller on Rape and Male Power - Janice Fiamengo

The one thing genuinely new about Second Wave Feminism is its extensive theory of rape, rape not as an individual crime but as the paradigmatic expression of male power. Though she alone did not invent the theory, American feminist journalist Susan Brownmiller gave it influential expression in her repulsive 1975 tract Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. 
Susan Brownmiller

“I wrote this book because I am a woman who changed her mind about rape” (9). So wrote Brownmiller in a “Personal Statement” she placed at the beginning of her book. 

In this preface, Brownmiller described a shattering awakening and profound self-transformation that occurred when “I finally confronted my own fears, my own past, my own intellectual defenses” (p. 9). Analyzing the experience as a spiritual rebirth, Brownmiller explained that through listening to her “sisters in feminism,” she gained a new vision of male-female relations. Needless to say, it was not a positive one. Against Our Will records in detail her nightmarish revelation. 

Brownmiller went from seeing rape as a crime condemned by society and committed by aberrant individuals, to seeing it as a widely-accepted practice and the ultimate means of patriarchal control. “[Rape] is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (p. 15), she insisted. For Brownmiller, there was nothing deviant about men who commit rape; they are simply acting out the desires and beliefs of most men (see p. 312). 

Never providing any numbers, she simply repeated that rape was what men do because they can and believe it to be their right—the right “to gain access to the female body” (see p. 392). She compared rapists to the Myrmidons of Greek legend, those soldiers the warrior Achilles used as “hired henchmen in battle” and “effective agents of terror” (209). Ordinary rapists, according to Brownmiller, “in a very real sense perform a Myrmidon function for all men in our society” (209).

According to Brownmiller, “That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation, forever conscious of the knowledge that the biological tool [that is, the penis] must be held in awe for it may turn to weapon with sudden swiftness borne of harmful intent” (p. 209). 

Brownmiller believed that all men benefit from the existence of rape because, she assumed, all men enjoy dominance and take advantage of women’s fear. No surveys, no psychological studies, not even any reasoning processes were applied to support this conclusion. The minority of men who rape simply came to stand in for all men. 

If this sounds like a thoroughly ideological proposition based on an anti-male contempt so profound it never occurred to Brownmiller to prove it or test it against alternative hypotheses, that’s because it was, and it is truly shocking that so many reviewers never subjected Brownmiller’s risibly biased arguments to the interrogation they deserved. Brownmiller’s book was received with many positive reviews and was chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Outstanding Books of the Year.

Few took public issue with Brownmiller’s many unsupported assertions and tendentious conclusions. In her first chapter, she declared that from the beginning of recorded history, men had trouble taking rape seriously as a crime against a woman’s person. She admitted that from 1275 onward, rape was dealt with harshly, punishable in England according to the Second Statute of Westminster by death—but this fact hardly lessened her expressed certainty that the law did not care about women’s injuries. Lawmakers’ understandable worry about the possibility of a man being wrongly put to death—because a woman lied or was mistaken—she took as clear proof of male scorn for “victims.”

Two substantial chapters on rape in war and times of crisis supported Brownmiller’s claim that “War provides men with the perfect psychologic backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women” (p. 32). In other words, war allowed men to do what they wanted but normally could not. The fact that rape was made illegal and punishable by death or imprisonment under Article 120 of  the American Code of Military Justice was a mere technicality for her. 

That war is about men killing other men—and often torturing and mutilating them horribly—did not weaken Brownmiller’s belief that it is exclusively women’s bodily integrity that men choose to violate. 

From this point on, it is difficult not to notice how Brownmiller’s anger overshadows her ability to reason. 

She included, for example, a substantial section about wartime propaganda during the First World War in which she made much of the fact that Belgium was represented in British war propaganda as a woman raped by the armies of Germany. 

She didn’t seem to care that the propaganda provided evidence to oppose her thesis. It wasn’t that most men had contempt for women, but that many men were in fact willing to risk their lives in war, and to die by the hundreds of thousands, in order to attempt to save women. 

Expressions of public horror at the use of rape in war, and even the metaphorization of rape as a symbol of the worst possible atrocity, as in the phrase “The Rape of Nanking” (p. 57)—these seemed not to decrease Brownmiller’s confidence that rape was an accepted, even glorified, practice. 

Moreover, the horrific brutalization of men in war and the enormous psychological toll on men of war conditions were never once mentioned as factors requiring serious consideration in any study of wartime rape. In Brownmiller’s view, men simply were perpetrators of harm, never protectors and almost never suffering agents deserving of empathy.  Brownmiller wrote as a declared leftist who had broken with her Communist mentors on this particular issue. 

She mentions in the book, for example, her intellectual debt to well-known American Marxist historian Dr. Herbert Aptheker, from whom she took classes in American history. As a young Communist, she had been taught to see rape accusations by white women against black men as a weapon of racism; she had even believed that as a white woman, she should not object to black men’s sexualized behavior, believing she must “bear the white man’s burden of making amends for Southern racism” (p. 248). But no longer. 

In a chapter on interracial rape, Brownmiller resolved the tension between her Communist-inspired empathy for black men and her feminist-inspired defense of white female accusers by shifting the burden of guilt from white women who accused black men to the white men who allegedly coerced white women to lie and/or created the conditions by which black men felt compelled to rape. “We white women did not dangle ourselves yet everything the black man has been exposed to would lead him to this conclusion, and then to action, in imitation of the white man who raped ‘his’ woman” (p. 253). 

White women really were raped by black men, Brownmiller assertted, but they were raped because white men had raped black women, and had inspired justified though misdirected rage in black men. In Brownmiller’s convoluted rationalizations, we see clearly the strained negotiations necessary at the so-called “intersection” of race and gender ideologies—and the inevitable preference to blame white men whenever possible. Brownmiller ultimately called for solidarity between blacks and white women in recognition of their alleged mutual victimization by their white male enemy. “Rape is to women as lynching was to blacks” (p. 254), she said, and she claimed that “The mythified spectre of the black man as rapist […] must be understood as a control mechanism against the freedom, mobility and aspirations of all women, white and black” (p. 255). In other words, white men created a bogey-man of the black rapist in order to maintain white male power.

A chapter on prison rape amplified the glaring biases in Brownmiller’s intersectional feminist ideology. Having just discussed interracial rape, she went on to report that the vast majority of men raped in a Philadelphia prison, according to a recent study, were white men raped by black men, but she did not allow this fact to complicate her anti-white perspective.

Though recognizing the frequency and brutality of prison rape, she doggedly continued to see rape exclusively as an act of contempt against women. And even after admitting the existence of female-on-female sexual assaults in prisons and other institutional settings, Brownmiller refused to alter her male-perpetrator paradigm. 

Perhaps the best example of blinkered ideological certainty occurs when Brownmiller discussed the mythologization of rapists in history. She explained that the original Bluebeard, the French nobleman Gilles de Rais, was infamous in his time for abducting, raping and murdering between forty and one hundred male youths (p. 292). As she noted, Bluebeard is known today as a man who killed seven wives, not as a sex-murderer of small boys. 

She also mentioned American serial killer Dean Allen Corll who, with two disciples in the early 1970s, abducted at least twenty-eight teenaged boys who were then tortured, raped, and murdered. Corll’s name, she noted, has been essentially purged from popular memory. 

But so committed was Brownmiller to her theory of rape as an expression of male sexualized contempt for women that she speculated that the public forgetting of the sex-murders of boys occurred because ordinary men like to identify with rapists of women—that they get a sexual thrill from it—and cannot identify with a man who raped, tortured, and murdered boys. Here are her words: “Corll raped and killed his own kind, and what heterosexual man with a rich, imaginative, socially acceptable fantasy life could safely identify with Corll without at the height of his fantasy slipping a little and becoming for one dread instant that cringing, whimpering naked lad manacled wrist and foot to the makeshift wooden torture board? What a turnoff that would be! What a short circuit of the power lines!” (293). The naked hatred for male being could not be clearer. 

The simpler explanation for lack of public interest in boys’ deaths would be that few people care much about harms to boys, but this never seemed to occur to Brownmiller. In true misandrist style, she herself seemed immediately to forget the stories she reported of male vulnerability and suffering, always returning to her thesis about the abuse of women. Just a few pages after the discussion of serial killer Dean Corll, she stated once again that “To talk about rape, even with nervous laughter, is to acknowledge a woman’s special victim status. We hear the whispers when we are children: girls get raped. Not boys” (p. 309). 

For Brownmiller, in the tried-and-true tradition of feminist theorizing, women were without stain, men without redeeming qualities. Women played no active role in the history she recounted, and one day—when at last men’s power is overthrown—a new dawn will bring an end to all rape, all abuse, and all injustice.  At one point in the book, Brownmiller admitted that women do harbor well-documented and much-discussed fantasies of sexual masochism, including rape fantasies, but she insisted that this was so because men had forced such fantasies onto women (p. 316-317), and she was confident that when they could at last, women would develop better “sexual daydreams” (p. 323), as she called them, ones that would be, “non-exploitative, non-sadomasochistic, non-power-driven” (p. 324)—in other words, not perhaps very sexy at all. Women, according to Brownmiller, never wanted to “humiliate and degrade” (p. 379); only the male psyche seeks the degradation of the other.

Of all the repellant and defamatory theories feminists have promulgated about men over the years, Brownmiller’s may well be the worst, contaminating at the root the male-female pair bond and charging every man with complicity in rape ideology. Because she refused to accept in theory—even while admitting in fact!—that men could be victims and women perpetrators, Brownmiller decisively set the terms for all that is most unfair and demonizing in the feminist construct of male sexual guilt. And, with her call for “an overhaul of present laws and a fresh approach to sexual assault legislation” (p. 386), she paved the way for radical changes to law and policy, in which society and police must #BelieveWomen, in which a mere accusation can lead to severe punishment, and in which men’s avenues of legal defense are continually reduced. The malign accusations of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon built on the foundation Brownmiller had built.

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape is a collection of anti-male slanders designed to permanently stigmatize men at the deep heart of their masculinity. The only thing more shocking than Brownmiller’s preposterous claims was the credulity of the intellectuals and pundits who accepted, praised, and promoted them.  

                                         Janice Fiamengo

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