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.