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.

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.