'Rape Is a Crime Not of Lust, but Power,' Argues Susan Brownmiller
Five years ago, journalist and feminine activist Susan Brownmiller began to explore a grisly subject: rape. In Against Our Will, published last month by Simon and Schuster, Brownmiller states her conclusion: that rape can be not only physical, but psychological as well. “Rape is an historical condition that underlies all aspects of male-female relationships,” says Brownmiller. “It is a crime not of lust but of violence and power. The threat, use and cultural acceptance of sexual force is a pervasive process of intimidation that affects all women.” Author Brownmiller, 40, who attended Cornell and was a onetime actress, Newsweek researcher and TV reporter, discussed her controversial findings with Sally Moore of PEOPLE.
Why did you write Against Our Will?
First, to provide rape with a history. It’s a part of women’s experience that hasn’t been considered important enough for the history books. I also wanted to show that attitudes can be changed: for example, when Southern communities turned against their own lynchers, lynching became an indefensible crime. I want rape to become that kind of crime.
Were you ever raped?
No. If I had, I don’t think I would have had the emotional stamina to complete the book.
You have been accused by some critics of being anti-male. One man who read the book suggested you must be a lesbian.
I’m only anti the male ideology of rape. I don’t see that writing a book outlining male hostility has much to do with my hating men. My personal life is markedly free of any kind of hatred. Far from being a lesbian, my record on heterosexuality is quite public.
What first interested you in rape?
The subject came up at my consciousness-raising group: until then I had never spoken about it. I was shocked to find women I knew who’d been raped. I realized how many misconceptions I had and thought, if I was that wrong, it was worth studying.
What were some of your major misconceptions?
Those of anyone growing up in the liberal New York City milieu. To me, rape was a screaming vindictive white woman and a framed black man. I had no sympathy or identification with rape victims. It was all the fault of women who led men on.
What do statistics show?
That most rape is black on black, that it is basically an intraclass, intraracial crime because of opportunity. But there is a definite rise in the percentage of interracial rape.
Why is it increasing?
It’s part and parcel of increasing violence rather than sex, partly because the criminal population is rising and becoming more adventurous. I think writers like Eldridge Cleaver and Franz Fanon, who tried to give rape an ideological justification, didn’t help. They tried to justify interracial rape as some sort of political act. It’s typical of the left to make a convicted rapist a hero.
What is the worst myth about rape?
That a woman cannot be raped against her will. It is bad because many women believe it. I was one of them. It kept me from understanding the pain and anguish of other women. It was comforting to think it would never happen to me, only to bad girls—women looking for it. That kind of idea keeps women separated from one another.
Why does the myth persist?
Men perpetuate it because they would like to believe it. They had me believing it for years. The story of Potiphar’s wife—a man unjustly accused by a vengeful woman—is the Bible’s major rape parable. Every society has a similar one.
Are police attitudes toward rape victims changing?
Yes, but not fast enough. Recently I addressed a group of lieutenants at the NY Police Academy who jeered me. I’d have thought I was addressing a bunch of convicts. How can a policeman who doesn’t believe there is a crime such as rape help a victim? The worst is their lack of receptivity to black women because of the stereotype of black women as sexually promiscuous.
What is rape, legally speaking?
Rape is defined as forcible entry by the male penis at least one inch into the vagina, against the woman’s will and without her consent. Force is the question the law debates.
Can a woman rape a man?
I think it’s a biological impossibility.
Can a man rape a man?
Rape is strictly a crime of men against women. In prison, when men “rape” men, it is oral or anal, and technically sodomy. But it is a prime reflection of the same male aggression and anger: they womanize the object.
Who is the average police-blotter rapist?
Not the Freudian stereotype with a domineering mother or frigid wife. He’s young, under 19, a violence-prone punk out of the general criminal population.
What impels him to rape?
A basic anger and hostility towards women, particularly if he’s in a group. Forty percent of all rapes are gang rapes. It’s a progression from stealing hubcaps to purses to rape—to murder.
But most rapists don’t murder victims?
No. A rapist is usually working up his courage as he goes along. Which is why I think women should resist more. But not only are women initially terrorized; they have been raised to think of themselves subconsciously as victims. We’re raised to trust men, to be submissive sexually. We’re programmed to be gentle and passive—and then suddenly it’s too late.
What can women do to avoid rape?
Learn to see the warning signs earlier. Learn to resist unwelcome advances and not to put themselves into situations that can turn dangerous. They have to become strong, not only physically through sports and training in self-defense, but also emotionally strong.
Are most women not wary enough?
Not nearly enough. They should learn to say no at the door, although it’s depressing to think one can’t ask a man in without it turning into a physical battle. I don’t like to advise, but I would never bring a stranger into my home at night unless I wanted to have sex with him. A lot of women make mistakes out of loneliness.
What percentage of victims know their attackers?
Fifty-three percent, in the middle between assault (20 percent) and robbery (78 percent). Those are rape cases recognized by the police. I think a larger percentage of victims know the guy but don’t bother to report it out of fear or because they feel culpable.
What about the theory that most women subconsciously want to be raped?
Most women live in fear of rape. In my research I found there is less provocation on the part of rape victims than any other crime of violence.
Do you believe most women see themselves as victims?
Yes. Rape is just one form of victimization. We are trained to view our sexuality as submitting to male aggression. There’s a lot of cultural conditioning that makes women vulnerable, and 99 percent of men don’t understand it. It was only with the women’s movement and the book that I began to see women’s weakness and terror.
What was the most shocking part of your research?
The wartime rapes that never make it into the history books. Gang rape is infinitely horrifying. My stomach physically turned at the mutilation that went along with it.
Do sexually liberated men and women react differently to rape?
I’ve talked to lots of young girls, victims of hitchhike and date rape, and many were totally immobilized by terror. What does impress me is the new gentility in young men. They’re getting rid of jock notions of masculinity. They have a gentleness I’m charmed by.
Are most states’ rape laws too lax?
No. The problem is getting rape convictions. Many jurors are reluctant to convict for death or life imprisonment for a crime that doesn’t take a life or maim permanently or damage a victim mentally beyond recovery. I recommend penalties from six months to 20 years, more closely in line with robbery and assault-the two crimes with which rape is most closely allied. I want rapists off the streets and in jail.
What can be done to change men’s attitudes?
That’s the hardest part. To start with, I’d like to see women make up 50 percent of police forces, as well as the military. I am unalterably opposed to both pornography and legal prostitution: the theory underlying both is that man has an inalienable right to a woman’s body. I don’t buy that.
Is there less rape in states where prostitution is legal?
It has never been proven.
What do you hope that Against Our Will accomplishes?
I’d like to see its implications go beyond rape: to help get rid of the male ideology of machismo-that men must always be sexually aggressive. I’d hope that the women’s movement launches a frontal attack on all kinds of criminality and all forcible acts of violence. As long as any culture encourages violence, much of it inevitably is directed toward women.