Rad Geek People's Daily

official state media for a secessionist republic of one

Posts tagged Cathy Young

She Said, She Said: the misinterpretation of Susan Brownmiller on anatomy and rape

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]

Or:

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.

photo: AGAINST OUR WILL: MEN, WOMEN, AND RAPE by Susan Brownmiller

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.

For further reading:

The Weird, Wild World of Anti-feminism

As a preface to this post, you might want to take a glance over a mostly complete but rather alleatory sampling of the books that I was assigned to read during my high-school English career, which occurred during the heady crest days of the feminist education movement in the 1990s.[1] (Note to English teachers: I am not complaining about this lineup in the least; the English program at AHS is one of the best parts of the school. This is intended merely as a counterpoint to certain claims made in the article being discussed.)

So, then, what have we here? Yet another heaping helping of Christina Hoff Sommers from Salon. I swear to God there must be some kind of law requiring Salon to publish one sloppy lovefest for media creation antifeminist Christina Hoff Sommers once every year (2/5/2002, 3/9/2001, 6/21/2000).

And it’s the same old thing they’ve been insisting in the last three articles: feminist education efforts in the 1990s have somehow slighted boys’ aspirations to a good education, and now it’s time to start tilting the balance back the other way or somesuch nonsense. At hand is boys’ lower performance in verbal / literary subjects, compared with the narrowing of the advantage they once enjoyed in science and mathematics classes.

In this article, at least, the author allows voices other than Christina Hoff Sommers to speak (not the case in Befner’s regrettable Battle of the Celebrity Gender Theorists, an article allegedly about Jane Fonda and Carol Gilligan, which nevertheless consisted entirely of a sympathetic interview with Christina Hoff Sommers). However, it just so happens that Hoff Sommers and those who agree with her are given the last word in every case; allowed to skewer interpretations of data by Gilligan and other feminists, but given a free pass on truly bizarre statements.

This, for example, is reported without any comment from an opposing voice:

Our English classes are strongly feminized, even in boys schools, says Hoff Sommers. We want literature to make boys more sensitive. But I’m not sure that we need to invest in literature as a form of therapy.

This claim is not just contentious; it’s downright bizarre. Look over my reading list[1] again and ask yourself how much it’s really feminized. The reading list is packed with literature of boys, by boys, and for boys. It used to be that learning from a reading list not very different from this one was expected to be part of the ritual of a boy growing up into manly adulthood in a civilized society.

She points out that a majority of English teachers still assign fiction in the classroom, while she believes that boys prefer nonfiction. (In the PISA study, girls and boys were asked to self-report on the kind of reading materials they preferred. Boys reported reading more comic books, Web pages and newspapers, while girls read more novels.)

Of course they primarily assign fiction. It’s an English literature class! If you want more nonfiction reading in schools, push to have more primary sources included in History, Science, Mathematics, etc. classes. That’s where it belongs. (And for God’s sake. Comic books? Please.)

Boys love adventure stories with male heroes, says Hoff Sommers. Many would love books by Stephen Ambrose and Tom Clancy. Since they are so far behind in reading, why not give them texts they enjoy? Some teachers are promoting political correctness at the expense of the basic literacy of their male students.

Hoff Sommers mistakenly assumes here that the reason for not including Tom Clancy pulp in the English class is because teachers are craven p.c. slaves. This is false. The reason Tom Clancy pulp is not included in English literature class is because it’s pulp fiction written on a third grade level. And no, encouraging Reading at all costs is not worth it–what in the world is developing an appreciation for Tom Clancy novels going to do for you, other than make you spend more money at the bestseller rack and get you a knowledge of military gadgetry? Similarly, boddice-rippers and Harlequin romance novels do not deserve to be, and are not, included in the English curriculum, either, even though they are intended for, and often written by, women.

My own son had to struggle through Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club when he was in the 10th grade, she adds. It has some attractive features, but it is full of annoying psychobabble about women and their self-esteem struggles. He disliked it. If teachers are going to assign books in popular literature, they should consider the needs and interests of boys.

Hoff Sommer’s vehemence about The Joy Luck Club makes it pretty clear that she just hates the book and is projecting her own feelings of distaste for it onto a generation of boys. If she hates the annoying psychobabble so much, then isn’t her real issue that it’s simply bad literature, not that it’s cutting against boys in particular?

Moreover, for Christ’s sake, in any English curriculum, there are going to be many books which you find absolutely dreadful and which bore you to tears. I, for example, was forced to wade through such dreary wank-a-thons as A Separate Peace and A Farewell to Arms. If the mere presence of some books you find boring is enough to turn you off to all literature, then you need to learn how to stop whining and get through to the next book.

Meanwhile, Tom Mortensen makes the astoundingly bad suggestion that

If I were teaching, says Mortenson, I would get boys out of the classroom. Take them to a swamp, dig through the muck, look for pollywogs. Then maybe take them back and have them look at pond water through slides and write up a lab report. They need hands-on activities. They get bored and distracted if you ask them to sit down and reading a chapter and writing up a paragraph — the kind of work that girls excel at.

Take them to a swamp? Dig through the muck? If I were subjected to this kind of treatment in school, I would have dropped out by fifth grade. You know what I love? Sedentary desk work. Reading a chapter and writing up a paragraph about it. Boring, dry textbooks. Who does he think he is teaching, the Lost Boys from Peter Pan? This is not a way to encourage serious education amongst boys; it’s a way to get a lot of boys goofing off and throwing mud at each other. Christ, man. Pollywogs?

(Furthermore, Mortensen’s proposal about how to change science education neglects the fact that boys are doing just fine in science education relative to girls. What hands-on activities does he propose we use to deal with disparities in literature? Take boys out to the moor to muck around and fetch wittles while they read Great Expectations?)

Meanwhile, Christina Hoff Sommers ridicules the perfectly reasonable hypothesis by Carol Gilligan that In American culture, says Gilligan, children learn to associate math and science with masculinity; knowledge of the human world and emotional lives are associated with femininity. Why should this be so surprising? It’s definitely true that English curricula are perceived as feminized. But this is not a matter of the reading list being somehow weighted heavily towards girl-power-chic titles, because, well, that’s crap. There is no such bias in English curricula. The issue, rather, is that in boy culture, reading literature and poetry is seen as a feminine activity, and it’s a good way to get yourself derided as a sissy, faggot,geek, dweeb, and otherwise un-manly boy. This, I think, is the only explanation that even remotely makes sense: why else would anyone think that, say, reading John Donne in English class is a feminized curriculum? And if this is the case, then jamming Tom Clancy pulp or comic books into the curriculum isn’t the way to solve the problem. The way to solve the problem is to address the boy culture nonsense which sees reading as girly, and sees being perceived as girly as a curse to be avoided.

Finally: let’s drop the crisis rhetoric, and let’s forget this nonsense about feminist educators being responsible for the situation. Why? Because the disparity in literature education has existed as long as the Department of Education has records, since 1969 (when the organized feminist movement barely existed in politics, let alone in education). The gap has not opened out or widened in the past 10 years; there is no new crisis of boys’ verbal / literary education from feminist educators in the 1990s. There’s merely a disparity which was there before and which has not been addressed yet.

But, of course, Salon has a long history of providing an uncritical platform for media-created anti-feminists including Christina Hoff Sommers, Cathy Young (a regular columnist), Camille Paglia, and Warren Farrell. I can’t put it better than Jennifer Pozner of FAIR did, in her letter to the editor of Salon (located at the bottom of the page):

After listing worthy topics from drug law imbalances to welfare policy to educational and workplace biases, Sweeney asks, Where is a feminist when you need one? On a beach somewhere, apparently … With all due respect, it is easy to find feminists working on those issues and a wide range of others if you look beyond what is represented in carping book reviews and academic arguments. But it is unsurprising that Sweeney or Salon readers in general might believe feminists missing in action: Salon provides a regular platform for anti-feminist pit bull Camille Paglia and feminist ankle-biter Cathy Young, but has no feminist columnists addressing the many ways in which women’s rights advocates are tackling violence against women, poverty, health care, child care, reproductive rights, media representation, workplace issues, sweatshops, trafficking in women and a host of other issues on a national and international stage (from a variety of sometimes opposing liberal, progressive and radical perspectives).

I couldn’t agree more with Sweeney’s assertion that neurotic rationalizing and self-conscious crowing is a profound waste of time in the face of the continued biases women (especially women of color and low-income women) face. To that end, I’d encourage Salon to publish fewer hit pieces on feminists, more articles about sexism in Life and in the news sections, and to balance columnists like Paglia, Young and Horowitz with a few progressive feminist writers like Molly Ivins, Laura Flanders, Katha Pollitt, Farai Chideya, Barbara Ehrenreich or Julianne Malveaux. Salon, which is often a valuable resource for perspectives not found elsewhere (Greg Palast’s election pieces were a great example), could benefit from broadening its approach to gender politics.

— Jennifer L. Pozner, Women’s Desk Director, FAIR

P.S.: While women are excelling boys at verbal and literary subjects, and now make up the majority of college students (college students being, in the majority, liberal arts students), engineering and science departments are still about 80-90% male, and men still make more money than women for equal work (the gap has widened in at least some fields, despite Salon’s claims to the contrary) and still make up the overwhelming majority of high-paid executives — whereas women still make up the overwhelming majority of low-wage service workers. So, something tells me that this educational crisis is perhaps not the biggest gender equity issue on the table right now.

For further reading:

  1. [1]Sidebar: An aleatory sampling of my high school reading list

    • The Odyssey (abridged) – male author, male protagonist
    • Great Expectations – male author, male protagonist
    • The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet – male author, male and female protagonists
    • Mutiny on the Bounty – male author, male protagonists
    • Animal Farm – male author, male protagonists
    • To Kill a Mockingbirdfemale author, female and male protagonists
    • A Separate Peace – male author, male protagonists, all male school, boy culture coming-of-age wank-a-thon
    • The Tragedy of Julius Caesar – male author, male protagonists
    • Oedipus the King – male author, male protagonists
    • Antigone – male author, female protagonist
    • Edith Hamilton’s Mythologyfemale author, but from all male sources, male protagonists
    • excerpts from Sundiata and Ramayana – male authors, male protagonists
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude – male author, mostly male protagonists
    • Ficciones – male author, male protagonists
    • The Lost Steps – male author, male protagonist
    • Ethan Fromefemale author, male protagonist
    • A Farewell to Arms – male author, male protagonist, same old swaggering Hemingway crap
    • The Awakeningfemale author, female protagonist, proto-feminist
    • The Cherry Orchard – male author, male and female protagonists
    • The Great Gatsby – male author, male protagonist
    • Death in Venice – male author, male protagonist
    • A Streetcar Named Desire – male author, female protagonists
    • The Crucible – male author, male protagonist
    • Native Son – male author, male protagonist, overly apologetic for brutal violence against women
    • The Inferno – male author, male protagonist
    • The Taming of the Shrew – male author, male protagonist, ragingly misogynistic
    • Hamlet – male author, male protagonist
    • The Bachelor of Arts – male author, male protagonist
    • Heart of Darkness – male author, male protagonist
    • Pygmalion – male author, female protagonist
    • The Importance of Being Earnest – male author, male protagonist, strong female characters
    • Their Eyes Were Watching Godfemale author, female protagonist, proto-feminist
    • Things Fall Apart – male author, male protagonist
    • Bread and Wine – male author, male protagonist
    • The Metamorphosis – male author, male protagonist
    • Richard III – male author, male protagonist
    • Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead – male author, male protagonists
    • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – male author, male protagonist

Salon’s Favorite Anti-feminist and the Frilly Pink Mantle

Beth Sundheim of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics would have made me laugh out loud if I weren’t in a public computer lab with her perfect response to Cathy Young’s latest article in Salon.com’s on-going love affair with every trendy antifeminist they can find:

How comforting it is to know that when Phyllis Schlafly’s reactionary carcass is finally laid to rest, Cathy Young will be poised to assume her frilly pink mantle.

Anticopyright. All pages written 1996–2021 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.