Thursday, February 26, 2015

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller Part II - Theories on Society

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.

I wrote about some of the basic points made by Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape here. In that post, I only alluded to some of the author’s social and philosophical theories. To this day, these concepts are controversial and have even angered some.

The most famous controversial sentences of the book are as follows,

"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."

Brownmiller spends many words elaborating and clarifying this statement.

Her first assertion is that the act of rape, and its ensuring fear, have been used intentionally by some men to oppress and control women. Up until this point, this theory of dominance and oppression is very convincing to me. I wrote about it in more detail in my previous post.

First, some clarification is in order. The author is not saying that all men intentionally rape; she is just saying that all men benefit from rape.  Brownmiller contends that throughout human history, the threat and fear of rape is the primary mechanism used to oppress women. Thus, based upon her reasoning, all men benefit.

The author goes on to say,

"A world without rapists would be a world in which women moved freely without fear of men. That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation, forever conscious of the knowledge that the biological tool must be held in awe for it may turn to weapon with sudden swiftness borne of harmful intent."

Though I think that there is an important underlying point in the above, in my opinion, Brownmiller goes too far. Gender roles, including those that have oppressed women, are rooted in multiple and complex factors. Such factors include actual reproductive differences, intimidation through the use of physical strength in ways other than rape, etc. The author does make a convincing argument that the threat and fear of rape has been one of these factors, perhaps a very important one. I am not so sure that I agree that rape is the primary factor in the historic oppression of women.

Brownmiller goes further. If I understand her reasoning, and there is the possibility that I may not be, she contends that rape and fear of rape have played so great a part in gender related social structures that they are the causes of people’s tendency to form monogamous relationships. She writes of our ancestors, who were women,

"among those creatures who were her predators, some might serve as her chosen protectors. Perhaps it was thus that the risky bargain was struck. Female fear of an open season of rape, and not a natural inclination toward monogamy, motherhood or love, was probably the single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man, the most important key to her historic dependence, her domestication by protective mating."

This is, indeed, a very controversial opinion about society. If I comprehend this correctly, Brownmiller seems to be contending that monogamous relationships, and thus marriage, came about in human history primarily due to women’s need to be protected from rape. Furthermore, such monogamous relationships led to the subjugation of women. This also supports her conclusion that all men benefit from rape.

Once again, I believe that Brownmiller is turning insight into dogma here. It seems to me that human social structures, culture and values are likely the result of a combination of biology (Brownmiller rejects most evolutionary causes of human behavior) and the evolution of society over time. These structures, culture and values, particularly those revolving around monogamous relationships and marriage, did indeed partially arise out of the need for mutual protection, including, but not exclusive to, protection from rape. Monogamous relationships also arose as a result of other reasons; there are all sorts of survival benefits to them. For instance: it is a helpful for one person to go out and hunt, while another stays close to home to process food, care for children, etc.

I must be clear about my beliefs in this case. I am not contending that love, the desire for companionship, the genuine desire to form monogamous relationships, etc. do not drive us. Instead, I am saying that such positive (I am labeling the theme as positive) human emotions and drives are the result of biological and cultural evolution because they benefit human survival for a host of complicated reasons. I think that Brownmiller is contending that these desires and structures evolved primarily because men wish to subjugate women and that women sought protection from rape.

Once again Brownmiller makes a convincing case that rape and the threat of rape played a part in the formation of these social structures and values. However, it seems to me that attributing so much to rape is oversimplifying something that is obviously much more complicated. Thus, I do not believe that all men benefit from women’s fear of rape, no more than all people who benefit from marriage are benefiting from the violence that may have prompted humans and nature to develop the concept of marriage.

I have quoted only a few sentences here. Brownmiller goes on for many pages elaborating, refining and attempting to support her contentions.  I devoted an entire blog to these hypotheses for two reasons. First, though I disagree with Brownmiller’s ultimate conclusions, I do think that she is on to something very important. That is, rape has played a big part in the formation of human social structures as well as in the oppression of women down through the millennia. I believe she errs in contending that it has played the primary part.

Second, I find Brownmiller’s chain of reasoning to be fascinating. She is a bold thinker who challenges our perceptions by looking at human history, culture and society in different ways. Though I do not think that she arrives at exactly the correct destination, she has discovered some valuable roads as a result of the trip.

This book is bursting with opinions, theory, analyses and philosophy about rape and gender issues that I have not even touched upon. I agree with many, but by no means all, of the author’s contentions.

I must note that Brownmiller makes several unsupported, generalized statements about men’s beliefs and perceptions. This is an unfortunate flaw in what is otherwise a work of intellectual and historical distinction.

The author’s beliefs as laid out in this work still cause a lot of controversy. She has been accused of misandry. This is unfounded. Her theories are intellectually based and rarely disparage men’s actions as an entire group. In terms of her generalizations about men that sometimes seem a little unfair, while they detract a little from her arguments, I will personally reserve any negative emotional response for those who have perpetuated the horror that is rape throughout the centuries and who still do so today.

Brownmiller is also very moderate in her views on most of her other subjects, at least from the perspective of someone looking back 40 years. Though I did not look into every one of her statistics regarding rape, most rang true or fit into what I know about the world. She has avoided some seemingly exaggerated statistics that I have seen on the subject. Many of her suggestions involving legal reform have already come about in much of the Western world. Her suggestions on sentencing for people convicted of rape are actually less severe then I would like to see. Finally, I cannot help mention that, like other feminists, she helped bring to light the issue of, and advocated for justice and protections for men who are rape survivors.

Regardless of what one thinks of Brownmiller’s arguments, for reasons that I outlined in my two posts, this is a brilliant and valuable work. I cannot recommend it to everyone, as it is full of descriptions of monstrous sexual brutality. However, if one can get through that horror, this book is highly recommended for all men and women.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller Part I

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.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life, The Universe, and Spirituality

Like many people, I tend to mentally divide my life into periods. There are different classifications involving mental, social and physical phases, with some overlap. One such classification, something that I never really had a name for before, but for the purpose of this post I will call it my view of the big picture. It has gone through a couple of different stages. What I mean by my view of the big picture is a combination of my views on the Universe in terms of the materialistic, rationalistic and spiritual. It also includes how I think about what the rest of humanity, both historically and currently, has to say about these things.

Definitions are important here, so for the purposes of this post, when I use the term “spiritual,” I am referring to beliefs and feelings indicating that there are forces in operation within the Universe that are beyond the realm of the scientific method and that these forces exhibit a tangible and noticeable effect upon our everyday lives and/or our fate after we are deceased. I know that there are much more expansive definitions of this word. In fact, I often use these more expansive definitions myself, but for clarity I will stick to this limited definition here.

What I would call the first step in my path to my current view of the big picture was reached more or less as follows: I grew up in a household that espoused the Catholic religion. Furthermore, many of our friends were members of various Christian denominations or were Jews, who espoused a belief in God in various intensities. In addition, a significant percentage of adults around me expressed a belief in other supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, premonitions of the future, etc.  Most of these adults did not generally attempt to justify their belief systems through reasoned discourse. Instead, they were generally uncomfortable by the act of questioning. I was exposed to some dissenters, however. There were several adults who questioned the existence of God as well as of supernatural phenomena.

Very early on, I began to gravitate towards the skeptics, and I began to read books and watch television programs that advocated scientific and analytical thinking. I began to question religion as a spiritual basis underlying the Universe and eventually settled into what I would call strong agnosticism trending towards atheism. As time went by, I moved closer to an atheistic worldview. This is what I like to think about as my first major step in formulating my view of the big picture.

Like many people I know, I settled into what I would call a rationalistic and scientific thought system. This was not the cold and mechanistic viewpoint that Western popular culture all too often painted as caricatures. Instead, I was, and still am, bursting with awe at the wonders of the Universe and strive to find my place in it. Furthermore, I always held to the firm conviction that the things that make life worth living were human values such as kindness, love, morality, dignity, etc. and that human beings needed to be valued.

However, like many adherents of similar worldviews, I held, if not with contempt, a lack of respect and a wariness for views of reality that tended towards the spiritual and that relied heavily on faith. Occasionally, I was even downright hostile.  Unfortunately, for myself and for others with similar mindsets, this led to a kind of “us verses them” mentality. I, of course, identified with the rationalists. “Them” were the folks who were more spiritually inclined.

My view of human history was common with non-believers.  It was the story of rational people being mercilessly persecuted by religious fanatics. I saw religion and spirituality constantly at war with the truth and those who sought it.  Throughout history, skeptics were persecuted, murdered and tortured by religious people. Religious texts were, at best, benign fairy tales and, at worst, guideposts to a horrendous morality.

Then, there came the second big intellectual step for me. No, I did not convert; nor did I surrender my firm beliefs. Instead, I realized that the world was not such a simple place after all. The state of things is not so black and white.

My moving into this next level did not displace my core beliefs, though it did eliminate some of their sharp edges. I am still a rationalist, and I do not believe that any kind of spirituality can describe any of the hard facts underlying the Universe. Nor do I believe that a balance between science and spirituality can tell us anything about the nature of reality. I do, however, despite my disagreement with a good portion of the various worldviews, know that I can learn a lot when interacting with people who have a more spiritual outlook than myself. Of course, examining our history and culture in terms of religion and spirituality is also a valuable endeavor.

 One of main things that led to my changed outlook was my realization of just how complex the world is. An illustration of such complexity as it relates to this topic is best drawn by a series of examples. Below are more or less random thoughts that I believe will illustrate my point.

For instance, though I find that some of the moral systems espoused in some revered religious texts to be reprehensible, other moral teachings have represented in vital ways posts and cornerstones of human ethics. Though I find some of what is advocated in the Old Testament and in the Koran abominable, to their credit, modern believers almost universally, consciously or unconsciously, reject such immorality. Personally, I know folks whose faith has helped spur them into very noble acts. While religion has often repressed science and rationality, during the Dark Ages the Catholic Church was instrumental in preserving knowledge and culture.

Friedrich Nietzsche, with some justification, grouped Christianity and other religions in with liberal democracy as well as as with the human tendencies for pity and the desire for equality. The famous philosopher and some thinkers who came after him were contemptuous of these beliefs and rejected them, labeling them as a “slave morality.” I find myself siding with the adherents of religion on this one.

 My fellow secularists are very quick to point out how war, murder, rape, torture, etc. have been perpetuated in the name of religion throughout history. They have, but we often forget that at other times, particularly during the French Revolution and under Communist regimes, folks who claimed to be adherents of a rational worldview carried on all sorts of oppression with just as much ferocity and barbarity as the religious fanatics. I still believe that, generally, the path to a better world leads down the path of secular humanism, but as the above illustrates, it is not so simple.

 While such folks seemed to be sparse during my childhood and adolescence, the world is full of believers of various faiths or thought systems who think a lot about their beliefs and who argue for them using logic and reason. Some of these people are a lot smarter than I am. In addition, there are also many out-of-the-box thinkers out there that do not easily fall into any one category or another in regards to these beliefs.

 Of course, as a person who prides himself on being open minded, I must also leave the door open to the possibility that I may be wrong about a lot this. When I look at people with contrary views, I see a lot of compelling arguments being made by very bright people.

 So exactly what is my modified view of the big picture? I believe that the reality of the Universe, as well as our lives, can only be explained by using scientific methods. I strongly doubt the existence of God, but I acknowledge the possibility.  However, while it has spurred plenty of horrific acts, religion and spirituality have at other times done plenty of good. Adherents of reason and rationality, while having a net positive effect on humanity, have also done terrible things. People of faith and believers in spiritualism, just like non-believers, represent the spectrum of intellect that ranges from the unthinking to the brilliant.

Human history, culture and our systems of thought are rich and vast. Engaging in too much overt hostility and being closed-minded about such a great part of this aspect of the world and humanity is not the path to personal enrichment. I am in no way advocating that anyone give up his or her personal beliefs, convictions or morals. I am advocating that people learn and strive to interact with the portions of the world and culture that we fundamentally disagree with.

The above represents personal observations. Many of my readers have very different beliefs and may thus conclude that I have reached the wrong conclusions. However, I hope, at the very least, to impart the sense that the world is a complicated place. Those who stand on opposite sides of the fence have a lot to learn from one another. Generalized opinions of religious, agnostic or atheist folks, as well as the histories and cultures that accompany such beliefs, are often too simplistic. While our core beliefs are important to us, they need not stop us from understanding the nuance and complexity inherent in the world. By looking at other worldviews from time to time, we can all be exposed to a more comprehensive view of the Universe in which we inhabit.

Dedicated to my sister Olivia, one of the skeptical bright lights of my childhood.