She Said, She Said: the misinterpretation of Susan Brownmiller on anatomy and rape
Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 19 years ago, in 2004, on the World Wide Web.
Feminism — and I mean radical feminism here, although much of what I’ll mention has been inflicted on socialist and liberal feminists too — is not a matter of little-known historical arcana. It’s a vibrant movement that has had world-shaking consequences within the living memory of most adults. So it’s sad, to say the least, that the history of feminism over the past 35 years has been almost entirely enveloped in a fog of historical amnesia; that the recent history of the movement is simply not discussed in schools or the press, and that legions of blowhard self-proclaimed
experts (take Nicholas Kristof — please!) feel free to weigh in periodically on feminist works and feminist organizing without actually bothering to find out what the feminists they are attacking actually said or did.
Now, I don’t care very much about setting straight the Kristofs of the world; but one unfortunate result of the memory-hole treatment of radical feminism is that there are a lot of distorted critiques of particular radical feminists running around, which seep into the writing even of those who want to give fair and sympathetic historical accounts. It’s understandable that this should happen: if you’re trying to give a survey view of feminist history, you couldn’t possibly read every single feminist work that will be touched on; you’re inevitably going to rely on some glosses from other sources, and if those glosses are inaccurate then those inaccuracies will creep into your work without you realizing it. Nevertheless, understandable errors are still errors; and I hope that they can be set straight.
Consider the case of Susan Brownmiller, the New York radical feminist journalist who is best known for her landmark work on rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. Her work is remarkable, ground-breaking, vitally important, and also, at times, flawed. There are, to be sure, reasons to disagree with Brownmiller; but this is not one of them:
Of course, there have been a number of feminists who, disturbed by what they saw as an assimilationist tendency in feminism, asserted a more positive notion of femininity that was, at times, undoubtedly essentialist. Susan Brownmiller, in her important book Against Our Wills, suggested that men may be genetically predisposed to rape, a notion that has been echoed by Andrea Dworkin.
— Pendleton Vandiver, Feminism: A Male Anarchist’s Perspective [Infoshop.org]
Against Our Will was controversial from the moment it was published. In it Brownmiller advances the theory that rape is biologically determined. Because she called attention to anatomy as the basis of rape, she was accused of letting men off the hook, and, more recently, her work has been picked up by conservatives to undermine the antirape movement.
–Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, Second Wave Soundings [The Nation]
But the criticism here is a bit off-base, because, well, Susan Brownmiller never said anything of the sort.
Brownmiller has argued at length against biologistic accounts of rape. She argues against them in Against Our Will; she argued against them again in her smack-down review of Craig Palmer and Randy Thornhill’s A Natural History of Rape.
Where did this misunderstanding of Brownmiller come about? It seems to be based on a brief passage toward the end of the first chapter of Against Our Will, where she says:
Man’s structural capacity to rape and woman’s corresponding structural vulnerability are as basic to the physiology of both our sexes as the primal act of sex itself. Had it not been for this accident of biology, an accomodation requiring the locking together of two separate parts, penis into vagina, there would be neither copulation nor rape as we know it. Anatomically one might want to improve on the design of nature, but such speculation appears to my mind as unrealistic. The human sex act accomplishes its historic purpose of generation of the species and it also affords some intimacy and pleasure. I have no basic quarrel with the procedure. But, nevertheless, we cannot work around the fact that in terms of human anatomy the possibliity of forcible intercourse incontrovertibly exists. This single factor may have been sufficient to have caused the creation of a male ideology of rape. When men discovered they could rape, they proceeded to do it.
–Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will pp. 13–14
But all that Brownmiller is saying here is that it is a fact of physiology that it is anatomically possible for men to rape women; and that is obviously true, since anatomically impossible things don’t usually happen. She goes on to argue throughout Against Our Will that rape is not a biologically foreordained fact; it is a political choice that men use against women because they benefit from the power that it gives them. As she writes just a few paragraphs later:
Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe. 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.
–Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will pp. 14–15
That is a straightforwardly materialist theory: rape and the threat of rape are taken to be instruments of power that men choose to use against women because men benefit from it at women’s expense. Whether it is the correct theory or an incorrect theory, it is certainly not a biological determinist theory about rape (much less a specifically genetic theory).
These inaccurate criticisms of Brownmiller aren’t coming from Cathy Young-style charlatans. Vandiver is well-versed in feminist history, and trying to give a sympathetic survey of recent feminist history for anarchists; Baxandall and Gordon are the editors of Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement, an absolutely indispensible compilation of historical material from radical and socialist feminists in the first decade of the Second Wave. Unfortunately the patina of distortions spread over the real history of feminism by uncharitable critics sometimes also trips up those of us who are sympathetic and want to get a clearer understanding of it. Here’s hoping this post has helped us get a step forward towards clarity.
Martin Striz /#
Susan Brownmiller’s comments are interesting. Although she finds the possibility of radical biological re-engineering “unrealistic,” it is precisely these kinds of morphological liberties that transhumanists like myself seek to develop. As a doctoral student in molecular biology, I’m confident that I have more knowledge about our underlying genetics and physiology, and I think it’s definitely possible — and quite likely in the long term. The possibility of morphological liberty, and of freedom from the constraints of our particularly human ways of thinking (full of anger, jealousy, fear, and tendencies toward violence, and even rape perhaps) should be embraced by the radical feminist movement.
As to what the underlying causes of rape are, I would have to say that a blanket claim like “ALL men keep ALL women in a state of fear” for political purposes is undoubtably wrong for its shear simplicity. Human behavior is rarely that simple, and it is usually social scientists, and unfortunately even more commonly, lay critics, who whittle down the variety and richness of human life with simple hypotheses. The reasons for rape are undoubtably numerous: some caused by this kind of calculated conspiracy, some caused by overactive sex drives and weak wills, some caused by psychopathologies, and some caused by factors that we haven’t yet considered.
Rad Geek /#
Thanks, Martin, for your comments. I should point out that the short excerpts from Brownmiller here are intended only as a rebuttal to a common misconception about her work (a misconception unfortunately repeated even by very smart people self-consciously trying to give an accurate and charitable account of the history of feminism — such as Baxandall and Gordon). But this is mostly to point out what Brownmiller does NOT say, not what she DOES; to get a good picture of that the best thing to do is to read the whole book, since her case is based, in no small part, of her long historical survey of information about rape and the cultures and situations in which it has occurred. Brownmiller’s book is, I think, brilliant — though flawed at many points. It is, in any case, eminently worth your time to read.
As for the bits of Brownmiller I’ve excerpted here: her throwaway comments modification of the human anatomy have to be taken in light of a bit of context. AGAINST OUR WILL was written at the height of radical feminism: Brownmiller began work in 1971 and the book was published in 1975. Although it’s not explicit, my guess here is that Brownmiller is responding, tongue somewhat in cheek (“I have no basic quarrel with the procedure,” etc.) to some of her contemporaries in the movement. Shulamith Firestone, in particular, offered a lot of groundbreaking insight into the structure of patriarchy in early works such as THE DIALECTIC OF SEX (1970); but she also ended up proposing a number of things which seemed to Brownmiller (rightly, I think) to be counterproductive and, well, a bit silly — such as the claim that some degree of male tyranny over women is inevitable, and women’s liberation cannot be complete, unless and until women have control over their own anatomical role in reproduction through technological up to and including the development of artificial wombs and parthenogenesis (!).
If Brownmiller is ribbing Firestone a bit here, I think she’s perfectly right to do so. Of course, that doesn’t mean that in an advanced feminist society women SHOULDN’T have technological control over their own anatomy, or that things like parthenogenesis or artificial wombs shouldn’t be developed, or that individual women shouldn’t be able, if they desire, to change the facts of their anatomy in such a way that rape is impossible. They should. But they shouldn’t NEED to, either; Brownmiller argues throughout her book that rape is not an anatomical inevitability but rather a political act, and that it can be stopped, just as slavery and Jim Crow were stopped, by organizing to fight back against it. That’s nothing in the way of a criticism against transhumanism; it’s just a reminder that politics without transhumanism is still a valuable endeavor in its own right.
Brownmiller’s thesis that rape “is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” also needs a bit of context. Brownmiller is neither saying that all men are rapists or that men who are not rapists are engaged in some kind of calculated conspiracy with those who are. She’s primarily making a statement about rape’s political effects, not its causes: the effect of rape is that all men keep all women in a state of fear (not a state of pereptual incapacitating terror, of course; but rather a state of living with a certain sort of constant threat that most men simply don’t have to deal with). Is that true? It seems like a pretty fair statement to me — just as it is fair to say that under lynch law in the South, even though not all Blacks were lynched and not all white people engaged in lynchings, Black people had to be servile towards, and be afraid of, all white people, because any violation of the racial code might end up in a lynching. One way to gloss Brownmiller’s thesis is to say that the threat of rape is not very different from that.)