Thursday, February 26, 2015

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller Part II - Theories on Society



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.



I wrote about some of the basic points made by Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape here.

 In that post, I only alluded to some of the author’s social and philosophical theories. To this day, these concepts are controversial and have even angered some.

The most famous controversial sentences of the book are as follows,

"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."


Brownmiller spends many words elaborating and clarifying this statement.

Her first assertion is that the act of rape, and its ensuring fear, have been used intentionally by some men to oppress and control women. Up until this point, this theory of dominance and oppression is very convincing to me. I wrote about it in more detail in my previous post.

First, some clarification is in order. The author is not saying that all men intentionally rape; she is just saying that all men benefit from rape.  Brownmiller contends that throughout human history, the threat and fear of rape is the primary mechanism used to oppress women. Thus, based upon her reasoning, all men benefit.

The author goes on to say,

"A world without rapists would be a world in which women moved freely without fear of men. 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 must be held in awe for it may turn to weapon with sudden swiftness borne of harmful intent."

Though I think that there is an important underlying point in the above, in my opinion, Brownmiller goes too far. Gender roles, including those that have oppressed women, are rooted in multiple and complex factors. Such factors include actual reproductive differences, intimidation through the use of physical strength in ways other than rape, etc. The author does make a convincing argument that the threat and fear of rape has been one of these factors, perhaps a very important one. I am not so sure that I agree that rape is the primary factor in the historic oppression of women.

Brownmiller goes further. If I understand her reasoning, and there is the possibility that I may not be, she contends that rape and fear of rape have played so great a part in gender related social structures that they are the causes of people’s tendency to form monogamous relationships. She writes of our ancestors, who were women,

"among those creatures who were her predators, some might serve as her chosen protectors. Perhaps it was thus that the risky bargain was struck. Female fear of an open season of rape, and not a natural inclination toward monogamy, motherhood or love, was probably the single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man, the most important key to her historic dependence, her domestication by protective mating."

This is, indeed, a very controversial opinion about society. If I comprehend this correctly, Brownmiller seems to be contending that monogamous relationships, and thus marriage, came about in human history primarily due to women’s need to be protected from rape. Furthermore, such monogamous relationships led to the subjugation of women. This also supports her conclusion that all men benefit from rape.

Once again, I believe that Brownmiller is turning insight into dogma here. It seems to me that human social structures, culture and values are likely the result of a combination of biology (Brownmiller rejects most evolutionary causes of human behavior) and the evolution of society over time. These structures, culture and values, particularly those revolving around monogamous relationships and marriage, did indeed partially arise out of the need for mutual protection, including, but not exclusive to, protection from rape. Monogamous relationships also arose as a result of other reasons; there are all sorts of survival benefits to them. For instance: it is a helpful for one person to go out and hunt, while another stays close to home to process food, care for children, etc.

I must be clear about my beliefs in this case. I am not contending that love, the desire for companionship, the genuine desire to form monogamous relationships, etc. do not drive us. Instead, I am saying that such positive (I am labeling the theme as positive) human emotions and drives are the result of biological and cultural evolution because they benefit human survival for a host of complicated reasons. I think that Brownmiller is contending that these desires and structures evolved primarily because men wish to subjugate women and that women sought protection from rape.

Once again Brownmiller makes a convincing case that rape and the threat of rape played a part in the formation of these social structures and values. However, it seems to me that attributing so much to rape is oversimplifying something that is obviously much more complicated. Thus, I do not believe that all men benefit from women’s fear of rape, no more than all people who benefit from marriage are benefiting from the violence that may have prompted humans and nature to develop the concept of marriage.

I have quoted only a few sentences here. Brownmiller goes on for many pages elaborating, refining and attempting to support her contentions.  I devoted an entire blog to these hypotheses for two reasons. First, though I disagree with Brownmiller’s ultimate conclusions, I do think that she is on to something very important. That is, rape has played a big part in the formation of human social structures as well as in the oppression of women down through the millennia. I believe she errs in contending that it has played the primary part.

Second, I find Brownmiller’s chain of reasoning to be fascinating. She is a bold thinker who challenges our perceptions by looking at human history, culture and society in different ways. Though I do not think that she arrives at exactly the correct destination, she has discovered some valuable roads as a result of the trip.


This book is bursting with opinions, theory, analyses and philosophy about rape and gender issues that I have not even touched upon. I agree with many, but by no means all, of the author’s contentions.

I must note that Brownmiller makes several unsupported, generalized statements about men’s beliefs and perceptions. This is an unfortunate flaw in what is otherwise a work of intellectual and historical distinction.

The author’s beliefs as laid out in this work still cause a lot of controversy. She has been accused of misandry. This is unfounded. Her theories are intellectually based and rarely disparage men’s actions as an entire group. In terms of her generalizations about men that sometimes seem a little unfair, while they detract a little from her arguments, I will personally reserve any negative emotional response for those who have perpetuated the horror that is rape throughout the centuries and who still do so today.


Brownmiller is also very moderate in her views on most of her other subjects, at least from the perspective of someone looking back 40 years. Though I did not look into every one of her statistics regarding rape, most rang true or fit into what I know about the world. She has avoided some seemingly exaggerated statistics that I have seen on the subject. Many of her suggestions involving legal reform have already come about in much of the Western world. Her suggestions on sentencing for people convicted of rape are actually less severe then I would like to see. Finally, I cannot help mention that, like other feminists, she helped bring to light the issue of, and advocated for justice and protections for men who are rape survivors.

Regardless of what one thinks of Brownmiller’s arguments, for reasons that I outlined in my two posts, this is a brilliant and valuable work. I cannot recommend it to everyone, as it is full of descriptions of monstrous sexual brutality. However, if one can get through that horror, this book is highly recommended for all men and women.

28 comments:

Suko said...

This is very interesting commentary, Brian Joseph. I have not read her book, so I'm not sure what I think, although I do agree with many of the points you're making. However, I can also see the author's side of things, and the idea of marriage and family as a form of protection makes sense, too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I would say that the human institutions of marriage and family definitely came about partially due to the need for protection. I just think that Browmiiller overemphasizes the role that rape played in it.

HKatz said...

I'm still digesting this post, and the previous one. I think I'll read this book. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis; it's good to read people's responses when they aim to reflect rather than settle for a knee-jerk response.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Thanks!

This work is indeed food for thought. I would love to read your thoughts on this if you read it.

Lindsay said...

A lot to think about and digest here Brian, and some of her views look at this in ways I hadn't fully considered before. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - Brownmiller's ideas are indeed different. Though I disagree with her ultimate conclusions they do lend themselves to spending time thinking about them.

James said...

You have provided a critical essay that raises useful questions about the statements, reasoning, and conclusions of Ms. Brownmiller. These questions and observations uncover weaknesses if not flaws in her arguments.
I am particularly concerned about her minimization of the importance of evolution in her arguments. Thanks for your cogent analysis.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - It seems that these days, many, but not all feminists theoreticians, discount biological evolution when it comes to explaining the differences between genders.

I also am of a different opinion and do believe that our genes do play a part in our differences.

Sharon Henning said...

I've been thinking all week about your thoughtful analysis of Brownmiller's book. She obviously forms a lot of conclusions based on her own speculations. Like a philosophical theorem. However, I find her theorem's foundation faulty.

As a Christian I view rape as I do all sin. It's motivated by a corrupted need to dominate. This is true not only of men who rape women, it is also true of men who rape men, men and women who abuse children or any other crime where one person overpowers another.

On the lowest level it can be seen in the strong-willed friend or family member that incessantly demands their way on up to one country invading and dominating other countries.

Look at Kim Jung Un. His lust is to dominate a whole country as was Stalin's or Hitler's or any number of despots throughout the world.
It began with Lucifer wishing to overthrow God.

So you see, I begin with a different premise than Brownmiller. :)

And then there are the people who wish to be dominated. Which brings up my question of last week: why do so many women enjoy "Fifty Shades of Grey"? Are they fantasizing about being dominated?

Ha! You left me with something to think about all week. Maybe I'm paying you back. :)

The Bookworm said...

Very interesting Brian. Some of these points you are highlighting are really food for thought, especially where Brownmiller says that in past times women enter monogamous relationships in order to feel safe. Interesting how she ties that back to men benefiting from rape.
I can imagine her book has caused controversy. I myself do not like generalizations made about men or women, but sometimes people don't even realize they are making them.

It is so ingrained in society for us women to be wary of certain things and situations though and with good cause really. I bought mace for when walking to and from my night classes for example. The walk is almost 15 minutes long and in a darkened parking lot as late as 10pm, so, first thing I thought was I need mace.

Great even handed commentary.
Thanks for highlighting this work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Such interesting points.

On the different basis for the motivations of acts evil: If one believes in God and believes in Christianity, it seems obvious that God created a Universe where natural laws do apply the that science is very good at discovering those natural laws. Thus, I think that one can still believe that these horrendous evils have explainable natural causes while believing in an underlying structure of sin, God, etc.

Browmiller does tie rape into other forms of domination. Personally I think that you are exactly correct in that rape is in some ways the other side of the coin to both personal and political domination and abuse. I agree with your examples.

Brownmiller does address people who take a satisfaction in being dominated. Obviously we see this in Fifty Shades of Grey. She believes it to be the result of women internalizing all the abuse that they observe aimed at their gender in childhood. She attributes men who have these fantasies to situations where the men also observed the same abuse of women in their childhoods. Such men identified more with the women and also internalized a desire to be abused.

Personally I once again go with the evolutionary biology explanation. I think that such masochistic fantasies are a defense mechanism. The root of which is that these feelings are a way to cope with situations where someone is stuck in a situation where they are abused and dominated.

I do think that it is likely that some people like fantasies like Fifty Shades of Grey without translating such destructive behavior into their real lives.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The issue of the men who "Protect" who benefit from rape is a fascinating point and is indeed food for thought. There some other feminist thinkers (I do not believe Brownmiller ever used this term) who have likened this to a "Protection Racket." This is a bit over the top in terms of rhetoric but there seems to be SOME underlying truth here in terms of the formation of our social structures.

The entire issue of women needing to fear their safety has been a major these on social media over the past year or so. There is a lot of references to the buying of mace and pepper spray. I have spoken out strongly for change in society in reference to this issue. It is amazing how many people on social media actually OBJECT to people speaking out about such violence and threats. This reaction, which clearly is based upon misogynistic tendencies has shocked me and solidified my commitment to feminist ideals.

seraillon said...

Brian - I've been following your posts on this book but haven't yet written anything until now, but it strikes me that - at least from what you've summarized about Brownmiller's arguments - there's very little about economics, a domain that seems so critical in looking at other aspects of the oppression of women. I'm just wondering if Brownmiller engages this at all.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - Brownmiller does not talk all that much about economics in this book. I do agree with you that it has been related in major way to oppression.


Though I have concentrated on some social theories in this particular post, this book is first and foremost a study of rape. How rape fits into the big picture oppression of women is only a part of what this book was about.

Richard said...

I'd postponed reading these two posts of yours, Brian, because there's already enough grimness in my reading life; however, it seems I missed out because your two responses to Brownmiller's book are so very good. I do think it's a shame, though, that the author would trivialize her otherwise seemingly very thought-provoking scholarship on such an important subject by making the farfetched claim that all men benefit from rape; I don't see how she could possibly justify such a massive generalization and that sort of sloppy thinking makes me less inclined to want to read the book myself despite what seems like a lot of upside to it. Anyway, very nice work on the two posts.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - Thanks for the good word.

I definitely know what you mean. Sometimes books get too dark.

Though I ultimately disagree with Brownmiller final conclusion, I do think that it is important to remember that she is talking about benefits that resulted from social structures that formed over time. Also, in terms of actual words this only comprises a small part of this book.

Richard said...

I hear what you're saying, Brian, but it's what appears to be sloppy thinking on Brownmiller's part that bothers me rather than just a speculative hypothesis that I happen to disagree with. For example, how do gay men "benefit" benefit from the rape culture that Brownmiller says influenced heterosexual male/female couple relationships over time? How do all straight gay or bi men "benefit" from child rape or homosexual rape? I'm guessing that the author doesn't actually make the latter claim, but the declaration of a universal male "benefit" from the victimization of women still strikes me as a reach. I don't argue with Brownmiller's idea that rape probably had some influence on the development of some social structures over time, but her suggestion that all men benefited from this is still a reach to me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - It is true indeed that there is a lot of flawed thinking involved and I do not accept it either.I thought of the angle about gay men not benefiting myself. It is not an excuse for this omission, but I would think that this issue would be addressed had this book been written today.

Though Brownmiller spends a fair amount of time discussing the rape of men, that does not drive fear in women that she contends leads to oppression.

Tracy Terry said...

Such a thought provoking post. Not sure where I stand with all the issues raised, but thank you and all those who commentated for providing so much to think about.

So many books, so little time said...

As with your previous post, this provokes much though and commentary on the subject. Even reading the comments you can see how differently people think about such subjects. I think it is a book I would need to try and read to gauge what my true thoughts would be on it but not sure it is something I could bring myself to read at this moment in time.

As always, thanks for such a thought provoking review.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I think that these issues may be difficult to decide upon because even if one disagrees with the basic premise, there may be some underlying truth here.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Thanks for the good word.

indeed there are lots of ideas here a a read for oneself is the best way to explore them.

Indeed this is something that some folks should not read. This is absolutely understandable.

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

Caroline said...

I watched the interview you attcahed above earlier today. It's amazing that she was this influential.
I have no clue whether rape was the initial means of oppression. It's used consciously in wars but historically? I don't know. Saying all men benefit is, of course, an extreme statement. But I guess it was necessariy to write like this at the time becasue nobody wanted to listen. Like shouting when its noisy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I am convinced that to some extent rape has been used to oppress and control women during revolutions, by criminal organizations, by oppressive regimes. Brownmiller makes a strong case for this and it does to some extent fit with my understanding of history. As I alluded to however, I thing that Brownmiller overstates how much.

I do believe that Brownmiller was convinced that her theory concerning all men benefitting from rape was correct and that she did not make it for attention only. She does make a detailed and organized argument for it. That contention did however get a lot of attention.

Maria Behar said...

Bravo, Brian! Another EXCELLENT post about this very important book!!

As you have stated, the development of our society cannot be viewed simplistically; there are many factors influencing it. This is especially the csse where the institution of marriage is concerned. Since I read this book quite a while back, I didn't remember that the author had put forth the theory that monogamous relationships came about because women wanted protection from rape. You know, it's SO ironic that she should have made such an assertion! Marriages in Muslim societies, for instance, offer absolutely NO protection from rape! This is especially true in the case of arranged marriages. The husband of the poor woman (or young girl, in many cases)who has been forced to marry him is considered to have the right to rape her. And it would have to be that way, unfortunately, since she didn't want to marry him in the first place!

At the time Brownmiller published her book, the Islamic world, and its brutality toward women, were not as much in the news as they are nowadays. I seriously doubt that Brownmiller would have made such a contention had she been aware of the situation of these Muslim women who are forced into arranged marriages.

Marriage is a beautiful thing, and the factors that contributed to its development are several. I haven't read enough literature on the subject to venture any opinion regarding this. However, I can state the following: married women STILL, for the most part, take on their husband's last name. In many cases, the husband is still considered the head of the household. And, in spite of the feminist movement, men are still expected to pay for dinner whether on dates with a girlfriend, or with the wife. Also, career moves still favor men. A woman is expected to move with her husband if his company decides that he has to transfer to another city. So in many ways, marriage actually curtails a woman's freedom to be herself, to strive to achieve her own goals.

True, women do derive some benefits from marriage, not least of which is a man's protection. Also, it can be very tempting for some women to just stay at home, keep house, and raise the kids while the man goes out to work. There are indeed women who prefer to do this.

However, I, too, agree that Brownmiller goes too far in stating that the PRIMARY or SOLE reason for the development of monogamous relationships was women's need to be protected from rape. Even in prehistoric times, love must have existed, as well as the desire to have one's mate all to oneself.

I do think, though, that the threat of rape is a very real factor in the subjugation of women. Even if not ALL men are rapists, this threat is a very real one. It can and does keep women from moving from place to place freely. For instance, no sane or decent woman would walk alone at night, no matter how "nice" the area she lives in. This is particularly true the later the hour. Let's say, for instance, that I wanted to walk two blocks -- two blocks, mind you, which isn't much -- to my neighborhood Burger King at 11:00 PM, just because I suddenly got a craving for a Whopper. I wouldn't do it. My husband, though, would stroll out the door, just as calm as you please, and get himself a Whopper. I would have to rely on him to get me one, at that hour.

Heck, even the very fact of living alone can be dangerous for a woman! A friend of mine, years ago, almost got raped by a guy she had gone out on a first date with, when he dropped her off at her front door. He didn't, though, because she calmly told him he had no need to use violence, as she would be a willing partner! Stunned, the guy then jut ran out of her apartment. This proves that rape is a crime of power and control, although there might be an element of lust present. These sick guys get their kicks out of FORCING a woman to submit to sex.

I think I'll present the martial arts law idea to one of my state's legislators....

Thanks for the great post!! : )

Maria Behar said...

P.S. I have just read The Bookworm's comment. It's true that, unfortunately, sometimes a woman has to be out alone at night. This happens with women who work a night shift. I work a night shift myself, but luckily, my husband takes me to and from work. Also, i work in a school, and the area is not that bad. Women who live alone, and must work at night, have to be EXTRA careful in going to work and getting back home. I should be praying for these women on a daily basis, as they are my sisters.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for another super comment.

In regards on what goes on within certain cultures and marriage I do think that this fits in to Brownmiller's view and to the extent that I agree with her my views. Even the issues of the "protectors" is complicated. Sometimes the "protectors" are brutal and also rape.

Women not having the freedom of movement that men do is a common these of mine on twitter. I talk lot how I run fearless;y run in places with all the time that women never run alone. When I think about it women have all kinds of restrictions on their movements that I do not have.

I also think about about women in the predicament that you describe. This really is the core reason that I have been become so involved in these issues.