Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape
Rape: The Bait and the Trap
Rape and Its Victims: A Report for Citizens, Health Facilities and Criminal Justice Agencies Enforcement Assistance Administration, Washington, DC. Criminal Justice Reference Service, PO Box 24036, Southwest Post Office, Washington, DC 20024
No other subject, it seems, is experienced so differently by men and women as rape. Women deeply dread and resent it to an extent which men apparently cannot recognize; it is perhaps the ultimate and essential complaint that women have to make against men. Of course men may recognize that it is wrong to use physical force against another person, and that rape laws are not prosecuted fairly and so on, but at a certain point they are apt to say, “But what was she doing there at that hour anyway?” or “Luckily he didn’t really hurt her,” and serious discussion ceases.
Women sense—indeed are carefully taught to feel—that the institution of rape is mysteriously protected by an armor of folk lore, Bible tales, legal precedents, specious psychological theories. Most of all it seems protected by a rooted and implacable male belief that women want to be raped—which most women, conscientiously examining their motives, maintain they do not—or deserve to be raped, for violation of certain customs governing dress or behavior, a strange proposition to which women are more likely to accede.
While women can all imagine themselves as rape victims, most men know they are not rapists. So incidents that would be resented on personal grounds if happening to their “own” women do not have even the intrinsic interest for them of arguments on principle against military intervention in the political destiny of foreign nations, as in Vietnam, where the “rape” of that country was referred to in the peace movement and meant defoliation of crops. But unlike the interest in the political destiny of Vietnam, which greatly diminished when the danger to American males, via the draft, was eliminated, rape is an abiding concern to women.
Even if they don’t think about it very much, most have incorporated into their lives routine precautions along lines prescribed by the general culture. From a woman’s earliest days she is attended by injunctions about strangers, and warnings about dark streets, locks, escorts, and provocative behavior. She internalizes the lessons contained therein, that to break certain rules is to invite or deserve rape. Her fears, if not entirely conscious, are at least readily accessible, and are continually activated by a vast body of exemplary literature, both traditional and in the daily paper. To test this, ask yourself, if you are a woman, or ask any woman, what she knows about Richard Speck, the Boston Strangler, and “that thing that happened over on—street last week,” and you will find that she has considerable rape literature by heart.
It seems important, in attempting to assess the value or seriousness of Susan Brownmiller’s polemic on rape, to understand that there are really two audiences for it, one which will know much of what she has to say already, and another which is ill-equipped by training or sympathy to understand it at all. This likely accounts for a certain unevenness of tone, veering from indignation to the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.