Thursday, February 19, 2015

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller Part I


From time to time I will be blogging about books relating to Feminist themes. Some of my general thoughts on feminism and the issue of violence directed at women are here.


Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller was written in 1975 and has become the seminal study on the rape of women as well as a cornerstone of feminist thought. I would describe this as a combination of history and sociology, as well as an exposition of the author’s social theory and philosophy. This book is an extremely important work that seems to have had an enormous influence upon the way society views and responds to rape.

The book is extensive. Brownmiller covers rape from a vast array of perspectives. The historical, anthropological, sociological, psychological and legal topics are all examined. Multiple issues, such as false rape accusations, victim blaming, the rape of men and the history of literature and film in relation to rape, are all covered in some detail. The author does a good job of separating the segments where she attempts to provide an extensive history and view of current events (as of the time of the book’s publication) on the subject, from her extensive analysis, theorizing and philosophizing.

This book is harrowing. It describes numerous cases of rape, murder and torture. As a student of history, I have read a fair number books of this intensity before. Nevertheless, there were parts that I found difficult to get through. This work is not for the faint of heart and should not be read by anyone who feels that they will be overly disturbed by descriptions of terrible sexual cruelty and brutality.

The consensus on this work is that it, along with a few other intellectual developments that occurred during the 1970s, fundamentally changed how society views rape. One area where attitudes have changed can be exemplified by a famous line from this book is 

rape is a crime not of lust, but of violence and power.” 

The above idea seems to have really sunken into society’s conscience since this book’s  publication. In terms of rape awareness and attempted remediation of the problem, this book has also had a big impact.

 The author writes in a 2013 introduction to this book,

I will tell you in one sentence. In the 1970s, unprecedented strategies against rape —speak-outs, crisis centers, twenty-four-hour hotlines, state-by-state campaigns to amend unfair criminal codes— erupted across this country and spread through the Western world. 


Brownmiller goes on to point out that though the Western world has indeed changed to some extent, many of the basic issues remain the same.

There is so much here in terms of history, sociological and philosophical theory that is still very relevant for both today’s world and for the understanding of human history. Thus, there are many things that I can write about in regard to this book. I cannot cover them all in the two posts that I am devoting to this work. Though not the only important theme, I want to mention Brownmiller’s historical examination and arguments concerning the power and domination aspects of rape.  In another post I will examine her social and philosophical contentions.

Brownmiller’s characterization and analyses of rape as part of historical events and conflicts is an important component of this book and its conclusions. Various conflicts, such as the Mongol invasions, World War I, World War II, the Bengali Civil War, the American civil rights movement and many more are covered. I have read a lot of history and other social science topics relating to war, revolutions, social conflicts and slavery as well as general world history. The author’s horrifying description of rape during these times closely fits what I already knew and have learned about these conflicts. Thus, the historical segments of the book ring very true for me. 

As an aside, I find something to be ironic, but perhaps also illustrative of this book’s influence. In my opinion, the segment on the American Revolution, the conflict that I know the most about, underestimates the frequency and brutality of rape. This may be attributable to the fact that many of the histories that I have read on this event were written subsequent to this book’s publication. I think that to some degree, partially as a result of this and related works, historians and authors are now more aware of sexual violence in times of war, and therefore concentrate on it more.

One of the many convincing arguments here is that rape has historically been employed as a tool and a strategy. It is often used as a political and social weapon. Oppressors use rape to keep oppressed groups under control as well as to satisfy their feelings of dominance. Disturbingly, when oppressed groups begin to challenge injustice, they tend to begin raping women who are members of the dominant group. 

In regards to this role reversal, Brownmiller writes,

"It is also historically observable that oppressed males take on the values of those who have oppressed them."

In addition, a case is made that rape has been used throughout history by certain societies, as well as by criminal organizations, to punish individual women who do not conform. Furthermore, Brownmiller also argues that when rape occurs within fairly stable societies, or what the author calls “police blotter rape,” it is used as a mechanism by men as an expression of their dominance over women.

In regard to the analysis and arguments that I have summarized above, I find this book to be very convincing. The use of rape as a tool to dominate and intimidate is shown to be sometimes the result of an individual man making choices, but at other times is the result of semi-organized encouragement, and at other times still, a very organized direction.

Brownmiller goes a lot further than summarizing the above in terms of social theory and enters into very controversial territory. I personally agree with portions of these theories, but I disagree with other portions. These arguments are significant enough that I will be posting a separate blog on these hypotheses. Another reason that I am dividing my posts on this book is that I do not want some intellectual differences that I have with some of the controversial contentions to distract from the importance of this work as a whole. 

I must also note that parts of this book are dated, especially when it delves into the child molestation, date or acquaintance rape, prison rape of men, etc. It seems that society is much more aware of these things now. Nevertheless the vast majority of this book is still extremely relevant.

I cannot overemphasize the significance of this work. Aside from the social impact that it has had, it delves deeply into human society and history. Tragically, rape has been a ubiquitous concept in the human story. This book successfully puts these horrors into perspective over a wide spectrum.

35 comments:

Sharon Henning said...

What a harrowing book to read. Does the author provide any solutions?

I wonder what she would think about the popularity of "Fifty Shades of Grey"? I mean the popularity the book and movie has among women.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - This was indeed a disturbing book.

Brownmiller does offer solutions. They involve things like awareness, sentencing of rapists, changing cultural attitudes towards rape.

Since the publication of this book many of these ideas have been implemented in the West. As Browmniller alludes to in her recent introduction, and I agree with, things have gotten better but terrible crimes persist.

I do not know if Susan Brownmiller has said anything about Fifty Shades of Gray, but there is a major Feminist backlash to the film on social media. Folks are being encouraged to donate $50.00 to a domestic abuse center instead of going to see the movie.

JacquiWine said...

Brian, I admire you for reading this as it does sound very harrowing. The comments on how oppressors often use this crime as a means of controlling the oppressed reminded me of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Have you seen it? Another harrowing experience, but a vital and necessary film, I think.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, thank you for your incisive review of what must be a difficult book to read! I'm sure Against Our Will still has great impact and the ability to raise consciousness and awareness.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - indeed this is a conscious raiser even today. From the horrors of ISIS to the victim blaming and shaming that goes on in the United States, and many more examples, this world still has a terrible problem when it comes to rape.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - I did see 12 years A Slave. I find such things very disturbing.

Brownmiller talks about slavery, particularly American slavery, extensively in this book. It was, among other things, mass, legalized rape.

Kate Love said...

I am familiar with the viewpoint “rape is a crime not of lust, but of violence and power.”

I think it is likely true in many (most?) cases to some extent. However, knowing what I know about my own rapist I think it is also about lust. He was (is?) a man who, by his own admission, was (is?) deeply entrenched in a world of pornography viewing. I am convinced that his extensive viewing of pornography helped this man satisfy his lust without realizing (or caring?) about the act of violence he was committing.

Thank you for bringing this review to my attention.

Kate Love said...

And I, on my student's limited income, donated $50 to my local domestic violence shelter last weekend in response to 50 Shades coming out. I spent most of my adult life in an abusive marriage that had all the hallmarks depicted in that movie.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - Thank you for stopping by.

I am so sorry about the experiences that you mentioned.

I agree with you concerning the motivations for rape. My understanding is that before the 1970s and thinkers like Brownmiller helped to change the way that society views rape, the standard belief was that it was a crime of lust. I do think that the pendulum has swung towards the belief that it is only a crime of anger and power.

I think that like most things, the truth is complex. It is certainly and act of power and domination but that is often a component of lust involved also.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Steven Pinker does, what is is my opinion an analyses of the motivations behind rape attempts to define the complex motivations.

It is wonderful that the release of the 50 Shades of Gray film is motivating many people to donate to domestic violence shelters.

I myself also contribute what I can to a local shelter. It is a very worthy cause.

Guy Savage said...

I am old enough to remember when this book came out and all the controversy surrounding its arguments at that time. Do you consider that it's still a controversial book?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - That is a really good question and it is one of the reasons that i am posting two entries on this book. The points that I covered in this post have in my opinion worked their way into popular thought and I would not define as controversial.

There are other points made in this book that I believe to be still controversial. I will address those points in my next post.

Parrish Lantern said...

This sounds like a really thought provoking read & one that will remain with one past its last page.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - I find that books about terrible violence on a large scale do stay with me. I have read a fair amount of books like that. This is indeed one of them.

James said...

This certainly sounds like an impressive and extensive history and analysis of a difficult topic. Your commentary is thoughtful and challenging.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks so much.


The extensiveness of this book was surprising to me also. It delved into so may areas.

Caroline said...

It does sound very interesting and I could imagine myself reading this at some point. I can also see how this must have been very influential. Since rape is still so much part of our lives, I don't think the bok per see is dated but maybe the way she presents her arguments. On the other hand I couldn't think of another author looking into this topic like she did. But maybe I'm juts not aware.
I'm really glad you are doing this series/project.

Tracy Terry said...

Sounds like a harrowing read and yet one well worth the read. I too couldn't help but wonder what the author would make of books such as Fifty Shades Of Grey.

With rape and alcohol much in the news here in England I'd be especially keen to know if the author has any particular thoughts on this combination.

Guy Savage said...

Brian: I had to stop by and leave a comment. When looking for a book this am I came across one called: Spank your Secretary: In Space No One Can Hear You. Had to laugh given the whole Fifty Shades of Twaddle furor.

The Bookworm said...

This sounds like an interesting read on such an important issue. Interesting that the author covers historical events here as well. During wars it must have been a horrific thing for the women who were left behind at home while the men to fight. The dangers they faced at being alone, rape being one major one.
I look forward to your future posts on this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - As I mentioned in my original post on Feminism, this has been an eye opening experience for me to.

It seems that there are several books on rape out there, they actually looked to be heavily influenced by this one.

In many ways the book is not dated. Just the few points that I mentioned show are indicative of the fact that a lot have has happened in the world since this was written.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I am not sure if Brpwnmiller has anything to say about Fifty Shades of Gray or not.


There is a major feminist backlash against the books and the film going on right now on social media.

The book talks about alcohol a little. I do not think that there were any major points made on the subject however.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - The Fifty Shades of Gray phenomenon and the Feminist reaction to it are interesting. See my above answer to Kate for more details.


Brownmiller does have theories on masochism and how that relates to rape.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The historical nature of rape form a major part of Brwnmiller's theories. She makes a convincing argument that armies generally commit a lot of rape whether or not the local men or present.

One horrible tragedy was that in some conflict, particularly the Bengali Civil war, many men disowned their wives after they were raped.

So many books, so little time said...

It amazes me that there are still so many important books on subjects like this and I haven't heard of them. This sounds like a harrowing read however, it sounds like it highlights many important issues and factors.

Thanks for an insightful review, as always, Brian.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Thanks for the good word

I think that there are so many important books out there that One cannot hope to get to or hear about all the important ones. I also think that one has to focus upon what one is particularly interested in.

Tracy Terry said...

I was more interested to know if she made any connections/had any thoughts about alcohol and rape. Very topical in the UK at the moment. Here is a link to one case that is being highly debated ....

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11409596/Rape-consent-trial-led-to-landmark-appeal.html

That said .... Re: Fifty Shades. Whilst doing my research for my Monday media post I had noticed a rape case in which the reading of the book has been cited as a contributory factor.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I misunderstood your previous comment. In terms of alcohol and constant I do not recall it being delved into in the book. Had this work been written today I suspect it would be addressed as lack of consent, alcohol and rape have become major feminist issues. I have spoken out to the effect that a very inebriated person cannot give consent and any kind of intercourse with such a person is rape.

Thanks for that link as it seems that the case is close to a case study on the problem.

The murder relating to Fifty Shades Grey film has been a topic amoung feminists in social media. The works have generally been condemned and the miser, at least in part blamed on the film.

I have mixed and complex thoughts on the film and the book. Not having read or seen it muddles my life views even further. With all that I am very hesitant to blame such violence directly on a piece of fiction regardless of what the perpetrators say were thier motivations.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

Brian, thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - You are very welcome. It is a really important one, not just because of its subject matter but because of its cultural impact.

Brian Joseph said...

Since many were asking and wondering, Susan Brownmiller has commented on Fifty Shades of Grey. Unsurprisingly, she is highly critical of it.

This is also an informative interview in other ways.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9UnH4EZEGnVRUZ0Z2VYc2FEUkU/view

Maria Behar said...

This is a very important book indeed, Brian, and I'm so glad you've taken the time to read it and post your excellent commentary on it!

I read it years ago, but should read it again, in order to review it for my blog. Its message is, unfortunately, still very much relevant today, even though, as you've stated in your review, parts of it are dated. You also point out that Brownmiller covers this unpleasant subject from several angles, thus providing a very thorough overview of it. Of course, this is the book's greatest strength. After all, there's no arguing with the facts!

The most shocking detail about this book that has stayed with me through the years is this one: in BOTH the Korean and Vietnam wars, the U.S. Army actually HIRED women from those countries as prostitutes, and set up brothels in both countries. This was done so that the soldiers would have a means of satisfying their sexual needs, and thus, not rape the local women every time they invaded towns and villages!! How SICK is that?!

This brings up the whole disgusting, totally UNFAIR idea of "the double standard", which has poisoned relations between men and women for centuries. The idea that men need to have sex, whether in or out of marriage, yet women are supposed to be "virtuous" and "virginal" is behind the reality of rape. A lot of men feel that they have a "right" to sex, and if they can't find a willing woman, then they go out and rape one. It's all about power and control.

If I were president of the United States, or a legislator in Congress, I would do my very utmost to pass a law that required every single little girl in this country to be trained in martial arts, starting at the age of 7. That wouldn't stop ALL rape, of course, but it would certainly go a long way in deterring potential rapists. But then, we need to go beyond that. We need to empower women, to change the entire cultural view of women as being "less than" men. Heck, we even need to change the traditional wedding ceremony, in which a father "gives his daughter away"! He is, of course, giving up his own "control" of his daughter, and her new husband then "takes over". This might sound very protective of women, but I see it (and many feminists would agree) as actually being demeaning to a woman.

I'm so glad that Brownmiller is highly critical of "Fifty Shades of Grey"! I'm also saddened, angry, and totally surprised that so many women love this sick, disgusting stuff. Who brainwashed them? Hasn't the feminist movement had any impact on these women? As you know, when the movie first came out in February, right around Valentine's Day, I posted a LOT of tweets in support of donating $50.00 to women's shelters, and boycotting this movie.

Thank you so much for your great review!! Now on to your second post about this book!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for the great comment.

The US military hiring and setting up camps of prostitutes in the Korean and Vietnam reflects the very unfortunate story of a lot of wars fought by a lot of countries. Brownmiller points out that many of the women and girls who were prostitutes were forced by terrible circumstances to be there. This is particularly disturbing.

The self - defense thing for women is interesting. I have observed on social media that when someone brings this up on social media, mist, but not all feminist react negatively. I seems that the reasoning is that women changing behavior is not the solution to rape but it is men who need to change. Though I agree with the basis of this I find that many feminists take this a bit too far and thus oppose some common sense and logical protective measures that people should take to protect themselves. Brownmiller, for her part, at least in this book is an advocate of women learning martial arts to defend themselves. I agree that it could not hurt and likely help, at least a little.

I myself do not like a lot of cultural practices that subtly demean women like the farther of the bride giving the women away. On the other hand culture and traditional are complicated. I think that discussing these things is important. In light of such debate folks should decide whether they want to follow these traditions or not.

The entire diminishing the concept of being a women or a girl in culture does need to change. Though it was initiated by a corporation for advertising reasons, I am a big advocate of the Like a Girl Campaign which is trying to challenge these perceptions.

I do find the Fifty Shades of Grey thing complicated. Donating to a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse IS the thing to do. I have done so.

I have not read the books or seen the film, thus I am hesitant to dig into this too deeply. I THINK that this story is popular because it is a fantasy for many. I have heard that the male protagonist in a classic abusive/manipulator. Such men are a big problem in society. But such fantasies do sometimes involve behavior that in reality would be destructive and dangerous. I am not sure if such fictional accounts of these things should be boycotted by those inclined to read or watch. As such I am hesitant to join the chorus of condemnation. This one is, admittedly, complicated.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, again, Brian!

Thanks for complimenting my previous comment, as well as for your very detailed reply!

I do see your point about the martial arts requirement, but think that it would make for a more level "playing field". It would also do much to change the perception of women as weaker than men, which of course we are, physically speaking. However, with martial arts, other things, such as swiftness and agility, are more important than strength.

As for the "Fifty Shades" controversy, I do wish these books had NEVER been published!! I say this even though I abhor censorship. These books are dangerous because of the way they can influence young minds, as well as the position of women as a group in society. Although I have not read them, I HAVE read excerpts online, and these were disgusting and degrading. Also, I have read the Wikipedia article about the first book, "Fifty Shades of Grey", which includes a plot summary of the book. There are also Wikipedia articles for the other two books in the trilogy -- "Fifty Shades Darker", and "Fifty Shades Freed".

Two very important facts about these books are also very alarming and disturbing, which is why feminists, including Brownmiller, are so much against them: 1.) Christian Grey's behavior is "excused" because he was himself seduced and introduced to the BDSM lifestyle by an older woman in his past, and 2.) by the end of the third book, Anastasia's love (she is the female protagonist) has "redeemed" him from his abusive, controlling behavior.

No woman can "redeems" or change an abusive, controlling man, no matter how much she loves him! This is a TOTALLY UNREALISTIC aspect of these books, and is the ultimate female fantasy. I know, because I myself have been enthralled by this fantasy, which is behind the classic "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale, as well as all of its retellings.

So you see why there is so much OUTRAGE about these books, and the recent film, in the feminist camp!

Thanks again for your thoughts!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Ultimatly I think the self defense option is not a bad one and I am not against it.

I am very aware of the outrage over The Fifty Shades books in the feminist camp. I am firmly in that camp but disagree with my wonderful friends on this one :)

I do not believe that criticism of speech nor voluntary boycotts is censorship Art is fair game for both. I do also agree that from what I can tell, the male protagonist in the film is a terrible person and that such relationships often end with a women who is injured, killed, or in a shelter.

With all that I am not sure if these stories are advocating this sort of relationship. If they are then I am for the boycott. I think that it safe to say neither one of us is likely one of us us likely to read these books or see this film:) Thus I can never be reallly sure.

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