The Rape Issue in Crisis
Government cutbacks. Legislative foot dragging. Recalcitrant cops. Public indifference. All these have frustrated the work of the anti-rape movement which continues to slog away at this particular issue of the social violence done women long after media attention has been directed elsewhere. (At incest, for example, this year’s hot item).
Nevertheless, there is one achievement of the movement which cannot be withdrawn: the work of the rape crisis centres. Their activities are by now familiar: from St. John’s to Nanaimo, from Yellowknife to Windsor, round the clock telephone lines are open to women who, having been raped, seek succor. They may or may not wish to report the rape to the police, may or may not decide to commit themselves to self-help or self-defense groups, may be in a white hot rage or in the ominous cool of perfect self-control; but they all have the same thing in mind, to make life-saving contact with the one institution in the community that will hear them out without Judgement or bureaucratization.
It is this last quality of the centres- their accessibility which has, over the years, gained for them a ‘clientele’ far broader than the victims of a recent rape. Of the more than six hundred calls the Toronto centre received last year, ‘many are from formerly middle-class women who have been institutionalized, half are financially insecure and with few resources – we deal with the after effects,’ a crisis worker told me. The Edmonton centre has reported a forty five per cent increase in calls related to sexual assault, the biggest jump coming from callers reporting a ‘past rape’ (more than two weeks old). All centres report an overall increase in calls relating to incest, child abuse, battery, sexual harassment, indecent assault, gross indecency and even alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide, so much so that there is a trend now away from the designation ‘rape crisis’ to ‘sexual assault’ centres.
At last count there are forty centres in Canada, most of which are organized into provincial coalitions and in the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres. If one is to take the measure of women’s pain, one could start here, with a telephone. This much cannot be withdrawn. But, as the centres have expanded and become more sophisticated in the services they provide and in their internal structures, as they have embraced more and more supporters and volunteers, as they have come up against and weathered the perennial crisis of funding, they have begun to show that classic sign of institutional maturation: internal political disagreement.
The very first rape crisis centre (a phone line, in Vancouver, in 1973, operated with a LIP grant) was unambiguously a project of a flutist women’s liberation movement not yet riven by sectarian anguish. As anti-rape activities grew and sustained them-selves, the work of the centres themselves was properly situated in that sub movement – the anti-rape movement – which was still part of a larger whole. But in 1981 there is no more such coherence. Just as the women’s movement’ itself has separated into constituencies (from the Feminist Party of Canada to SORWUC (Service Office Retail Workers Union of Canada], from the YWCA to Lesbians Fighting the Right, and so on) so has the anti-rape movement.
Put another way, an individual rape crisis centre may or may not be a feminist project. For example. A rape victim in contact with a centre may ask for counselling. Volunteer counsellors, trained within the centre itself, take on this responsibility, but they are by no means necessarily self identified feminists. In fact, the ideal in most centres seems to be ‘non directive’ counselling: the counsellor is not a feminist professional, rather it is her natural Sensitivity, her caring, her empathetic, respectful and ‘authentic’ responses to this ‘life crisis’ in another woman which are cultivated. The counselling experience: the victim is heard, she is confirmed, yes, this rape has happened to her, yes, she will get strong again,
Clearly, this approach has much to do with the movement around alternative therapies rather than with feminist analysis (which would not call rape a ‘life crisis’ but a vicious, criminal power play) or feminist re-education (which would take the strengthened woman the next step into political activity). For example. On the face of it, the centres are more or less stable and increasingly acceptable to a public which has overcome its initial shock at the idea of women organizing around what had been a taboo. Take the Calgary Sexual Assault Centre. It occupies a cheerful suite just north of downtown in a lorries building also housing federal government offices. Big plants, UNICEF posters, wall-to-wall carpeting, a new couch and filing cabinets, an IBM typewriter. Soft rock from the portable radio. They’ve been here since 1979, a long way from the basement of a bank next door to a downtown dance studio, a long way from the old YWCA basement, leaky’ pipes, cramped and windowless, rent going up. It was in 1976 they became a United Way agency and the United Way still funds four fifths ($53,000) of their operating budget. The other fifth, for their public education projects, comes from Preventive Social Services of the city of Calgary. Three people, a director, a co-ordinator and an office manager, are full-time paid staff. They have a board of directors; police, hospital administrators, social workers, teachers, an accountant. Fifty volunteers: students, housewives, professionals, and even three men. They’ve been out to the schools, the service clubs, hospitals, police stations, talking about their programs. Three or four times a month the media contact them, usually in response to a sensational story of rape or pornography. In 1980 they started up an interdisciplinary committee on child sexual abuse. As self-help institutions go, this is a success story. But they are operating on a ‘bare minimum’ budget. Up in Edmonton, where things are also apparently cheerful, the plenipotentiaries of the government of Alberta have coughed up exactly one Social Services grant, back in 1979. To make up the shortfall that is not covered by the United Way and City of Edmonton grants, crisis centre volunteers work at the ‘sleazy and sordid’ city-run casino once a year: in two nights the centre can rake in thirty thousand dollars. The Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, five years old, spends $325 a month for a three bedroom suite in a building which should be condemned: fires have started from the faulty wiring and the day I visited, fumigation was under way against the roaches From a high of $110,000 from Health and Welfare Canada two years ago the centre is now into the nitty gritty trying to sustain itself on municipal and provincial grants. (There is a widespread assumption that volunteer agencies don’t need money.) Toronto reports no on-going government support nor any United Way funding . Vancouver Rape Relief’s collective is sustained by a combination of provincial and municipal funds and money raised from the sympathetic community. Montreal rape crisis centre (now known as Le Mouvement Contre le Viol) has survived on small, short term summer project grants from the secretary of state. The fact is that the rape crisis centres are in jeopardy. Time and again rape crisis workers complain of sporadic and unreliable funding, red tape, suspicious landlords and flak from groups hostile to the centres association with the related issues of birth control, sex education and abortion.
Internally, debates rage among the crisis workers themselves as to the efficacy of taking government money at all, or, once having taken it, whether they are then beholden to government policy. The Montreal centre is an instruction. In February, 1980, the Coalition of Quebec Rape Crisis Centres applied to the provincial government for one very large grant for their combined work, trying in this way to get away from perpetual applications for the short-term project grants available from the federal government. The province responded with a decision to integrate the crisis centres with the transition houses (for battered women) that have also sprung up. We had been making a lot of noise,’ Anne Michaud, co-rep of the Quebec Coalition, told me, ‘so the government tried to get rid of us by telling us to make a deal with the transition houses. They complained we were duplicating services, blah, blah.’ What the government had in mind was for one specific transition house in Montreal to accept a twenty thousand dollar grant on behalf of all rape crisis work, a ‘deal’ the coalition turned down, refusing to put itself under the authority of the board of the transition house. ‘The transition house women don’t want us any more than we want them. So last August, after a meeting with us, the five transition houses in Montreal appealed to the government to keep on funding the rape crisis centres as independent groups. Nothing more has been heard from the province nor have we had any grants since then.’ Given that the transition houses are newer institutions without as yet an explicitly feminist program or analysis, it seems clear that their absorption of the rape crisis centres would effectively de-politicize the latter; would, in Michaud’s words, ‘silence us as too-loud feminist women’.
By the same token, some anti-rape activists wonder if the acceptance of United Way funding compromises the work the centres do within the women’s movement as a whole. Take the abortion rights campaign, for example, an issue not unrelated to rape: at least five per cent of rapes result in pregnancy and the percentage rises as all forms of sexual abuse are taken into account. As is well-known, anti-abortionists have been successful recently in inhibiting the work of pro-choice groups and of hospitals performing abortions. In Edmonton, for instance, it is almost impossible to get an abortion after the eighth week of pregnancy and, it is alleged, word has come down to hospital committees that they are doing ‘too many abortions. (This, in spite of the fact that the one hospital that performs most of the abortions is doing one fifth the number of five years ago.) In Ontario in 1978 an anti-abortion group, Action Life, distributed material which claimed pregnancy through rape was ‘impossible’ because the trauma suppresses ovulation. (This is not true.) The rape crisis centres, then, are in a very delicate position, balancing between their basic feminist principles regarding women’s right to reproductive self-determination and the nervousness of the agencies on whose largesse they depend. As a result, most centres are not officially represented in the pro-choice movement. As centres become larger and more successful,’ they eschew the feminist organizational model of the collective in favour of the traditional hierarchy.
Some disillusioned crisis workers point to the conservative influence of the boards of directors on which representatives of the community-at-large sit. Lawyers, policemen, accountants and the like may be genuinely committed to support the programmes of any given centre without, of course, necessarily supporting the feminist analysis which underlies them. As one crisis worker expressed it: ‘The board is a hierarchical structure which works hard to raise money and maintain harmonious relations with the community. The board is not involved in the daily processes of the centre’s work. They don’t want to hear about collectives, feminist therapy or, heaven forbid, lesbians.’
How often has it been claimed that a ‘too feminist’ organization lacks credibility? In 1976 Vancouver Rape Relief and the BC Police Commission co-sponsored a film, ‘This Film Is About Rape,’ by the feminist film-maker Bonnie Kreps, which was to be a part of a package of educational materials both sponsors would use. The police refuse to use the film. They are ‘infuriated,’ according to a member of the film committee, by the film’s endorsement of self-defense. (A sequence shows women training in a martial arts class.) ‘The police line is that you risk death if you resist. They love the film “How To Say No To A Rapist And Survive”, a film which has been banned by some BC school boards as dangerous to women. Can men ever be credible allies of the anti-rape activists? What is their appropriate role? “What effect does their participation have on policy? These questions have been vigorously debated in Vancouver where a group, Men Against Rape, has been actively involved in fund-raising for Rape Relief. Those who call them allies point out it is not men’s involvement per se which is problematic, it is the control of that involvement which is the issue.
Men have always been on funding committees and in charge of government money. A Rape Relief activist: ‘Working with men is not new. What is new is that now we are setting the terms and deciding which men to work with.’ But other activists have not been reassured. Tentatively, treading carefully, they wonder if there is a connection between men’s involvement in the internal structure of Rape Relief and Rape Relief’s increasing reluctance to call for incarceration of rapists. Rapists, after all, are men.
In Austin, Texas, summer of 1980, the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault held a conference to which Britt Griffin of the Edmonton Sexual Assault Centre was the only Canadian representative. (No other centre could afford to go.) According to Griffin the conference split rather neatly along two lines: ‘humanist’ and ‘feminist.’ Humanist: rape is a human problem. Feminist: rape is war. There’s been no overt split in Canada but the question is in the air have the rape crisis centres been co-opted? Those who say not are, like the director of the Edmonton centre, convinced that the primary role of the centre should be ‘care and service for the large majority of raped women who, she contends, ‘would not come to a place they thought was being run by a bunch of man-hating bra-burners.’ Inasmuch as the Edmonton centre grew out of the YWCA, it has tended to reflect ‘community concerns’ about rape rather than demands of the women’s movement. Which isn’t to say she does not consider the centre an integral component of the movement. But I see part of the movement moving towards exclusion of men while our focus is on victims of sexual violence male as well as female.
The issue is much more complex than just what men are doing to women. Such humanist arguments – the concern to be ‘fair’ to men – drive the feminists crazy. ‘Feminism has become a dirty word, lately,’ says one and the rape crisis centres are scrambling to dissociate themselves.’ She might have been thinking of Calgary for instance, which prior to receiving United Way funding was known as AWARE (Association of Women Against Rape and Exploitation), an avowedly feminist group. Now, some Calgary feminists told me, the centre refuses to link itself publicly any more with such feminist activities as Take Back the Night marches and anti- pornography agitation. As I’ve indicated, feminists are unhappy with the ‘non directive’ mode of counselling which does not assert any explicit ideology in the therapy process.
Vancouver Rape Relief argues that a rape victim has the right to ‘honest information’ that will prove to her that she’s not abnormal in her response to the rape, she’s angry: ‘She must be given ways to use her anger to fight back against a system she has every right to be horrifically angry about.’ This is decidedly more than ‘crisis intervention.’ There is a clue here to the phenomenon of volunteer burn-out. Volunteers whose role it is to absorb the abuse and tension that traumatize the victim, to manage that trauma and, in many cases, to deliver it to the rnedico-legal system may be forgiven if they become exhausted and demoralized. Not only do they see little structural change in the institutions they’ve broken their backs to ‘sensitize’ – the police, the hospitals, the courts – not only do they see rape statistics escalate in spite of their best and unpaid efforts, not only are they swamped by the needs of hundreds of women whose pain and need stretch to the snapping point the centre’s meagre resources, they also begin to see themselves as part of the problem. Beth Blackmore of Montreal: ‘We very quickly became involved in accompaniment of the victim to the doctor, the police, the courts. Then the police started working with us rather than with the victim. So the rape crisis worker became one more person who took power away from her.’ Without feminist analysis, “without collective action shaped by feminist consciousness, without awareness that the women’s movement is in fact a force for revolutionary social change (not just a band aid operation), the centres might as well fold their tents and merge with existing social service agencies. They’re doing half their work anyway, at half the price.
The rape crisis centres have become ‘institutionalized’; they have retreated from their original feminism in order to get along with the criminal justice and social services systems. They are at a crossroad. What’ll it be: the System, or the Movement? It may be that each centre and each activist in effect answers that question by answering another: to go to court, or not to go? For to ‘go to court’ (court accompaniment, liaison with police and court workers, representation on law reform committees and so on) is to say that reform and litigation of institutional abuses are desirable and possible, that the more rapists convicted and incarcerated the better for women, that in any case who are the rape crisis centres to turn down any woman who want public justice done? To ‘go to court’ is to hang on to some hope that the gears of society can be made to mesh with women’s interests. Not to go to court is to say: ‘We’ve gone to court for six years and it still stinks, bits of reform aren’t doing enough, the entire structure has to change. At this point we can either fall apart, or find alternatives.’
In a way, the centres have become victims of their own success: the ‘horror story’ that is the police and court experience of the raped woman has become so well publicized that more and more women are refusing that route altogether. Out of 474 crisis calls made to Vancouver Rape Relief in 1977-78 only 164 reported to police. The 176 reported rapes in the city of Toronto in 1980 are a decline from the year before. Most of those who call in fact do not go through the criminal justice process. In any case, too much can be made of the importance of going; how much change can be provoked by a handful of trials? Add to this a backlash even among liberal thinkers that courts are ‘too easy’ on rape victims and that the rights of the accused have to be reasserted – as Britt Griffin’s criminal law professor argued in class – and the concerns of the prisoners’ rights movement that prisons do not rehabilitate, they debase, and you have almost insupportable pressure on feminists to back off from demands for criminal prosecution of rapists. (Never mind that precious few get anywhere near a courtroom.) Jim Robb, Edmonton criminal lawyer: ‘Generally speaking, I don’t like the criminal law system. It doesn’t alter people’s perceptions of women or deal with issues of poverty and violence. It reduces the social problem of rape to an individual problem and does not allow for a confrontation by a woman of her oppressor. It’s a confrontation instead of the accused by the state and for that reason is not an appropriate forum for feminist politics.’ If, as court critics maintain, the court room experience is ‘another rape’ because it does not allow the woman herself to control what is happening to her, then the solution is to reverse that process. ‘
Fighting like hell for our own politics’ in the memorable phrase of Vancouver Rape Relief. Roots. Remember consciousness raising groups, radical therapy collectives, praxis: the idea, back at the beginning of the women’s movement, that women, to recover power, must be prepared to go out there and confront institutions, then regroup to evaluate , then go out for more? Remember back at the beginning of rape crisis centres that the objective was nothing short of the eradication of all sexual violence against women. Put these two memories together and you get the regrouping of anti-rape activists as movement politicians. Bye bye United Way. In 1979 the Montreal Rape Crisis Centre closed down for almost a year. The number of volunteers was dwindling, money had run out, those remaining were burned out from delivering social services, they wanted to take action. When they finished discussing- cussing, they had decided that when they re-opened it would be as an alternative to social service work. It would be, in the words of volunteer Linda Bujold, as a ‘catalyst,’ an energy centre that, rather than taking on all anti-rape political and organizational work itself, would link up with the other components of the movement, the health collectives, battered women’s shelters, abortion rights campaign, and share the load.
In Vancouver they refer to this process as getting away from treating women as victims to seeing them as feminist activists, from the raped women to the ones who call in ‘mad as hell’ to the ones who want to ‘do something.’ ‘There are no victims counsellors,’ says Rape Relief, ‘only women trying to live, learn and fight back for all our lives.’ After all, their original name was the Vancouver Rape Action Group. Action. Here and now. Confronting that which is the source of your pain and humiliation. Taking back what is yours. Putting your life back together on your own terms.In Montreal Le Mouvement is at the beginning of this process. This much they have determined: when a woman contacts them, the question is not when does she want to go to the police and the hospital, it is what does she say she needs to do? If she needs to take a bath (a no-no if you want evidence for the prosecution) then she should take a bath. Does she want counselling? The point is that she is one of the ninety out of one hundred who do not report their rapes, and it’s time the centre addressed itself to this majority of its constituency.
They have also decided not to apply for any grant which takes more energy than it is worth, which is to say not to apply for any grant at all. The ten core people and the five new recruits sustain themselves and their east end office with fees from self-defense classes, button sales, community dances and benefits. When you walk into the offices of Vancouver Rape Relief, you feel you have entered the nerve centre of a guerilla army: shabby and makeshift but animated, excited, lots of comings and goings, jangling telephones, women in circles on the floor behind closed doors, shelves full of information, walls festooned with posters of a defiant and conspiratorial tone: suddenly I was back in the rooms of the archetypal Women’s Centre of ten years ago and I wanted to shout with appreciation.
A woman who contacts Rape Relief wanting to to do something or wanting help is introduced to the Support, Education and Action groups, groups of about a dozen women each who meet to provide emotional support for each other, to do court accompaniments if requested, to protest porn films and sexist ads, to bring out the masses for International Women’s Day. From the SEA group, a woman may go into ‘training sessions’ which prepare her for participation in the Rape Relief Collective, a group of about fifteen women who function without benefit of hierarchy.
From the collective has evolved the tactic of ‘direct action.’ Three years ago, forty-three calls came in from women who had been molested by the same ophthalmologist; these were reduced to four charges of indecent assault that ended in a guilty plea and a sentence of nine months probation. It was argued, successfully, that a jail term would hurt the doctor’s business. ‘All our energy had gone into what the Crown wanted for the case, not what the forty-three women wanted.’ Direct action, by contrast, expresses vividly what women want.
Community meetings of a rape victim and the women in her neighbourhood have been called to set up a program like Block Parents among women. Women who call in complaining of assaults by the same man are put in touch with each other. One caller, raped downtown, provided a clear description of her rapist. Rape Relief ran an ad in the classifieds describing him and invited women who recognized him to call in. They’ve run two more such ads, including the man’s first name and information about where he hangs out. A man posing as a jogger assaulted women leaving a bus stop in one area of the city. Rape Relief postered the area. YOU RAPIST JOGGER, YOU WHO WEAR A GREY JOGGER’S SUIT! – informing the man they knew all about him. Calls came in thanking Rape Relief for the information: a number of women had successfully thwarted attacks. Then the calls stopped altogether. ‘For ten dollars and four woman-hours, we exposed the rapist’s anonymity’.
All our tactics depend on women refusing to stay silent and alone, waiting for some authority to confirm what has happened to them. Each rape is meant to terrorize all women. Well, we fight back. The whole basis of direct action is that men not only can change, they must change. We have the power to make that happen. And we’re not “special” women, you know. Perfectly ordinary women are doing all this. ‘In spite of the reservations that some crisis centre workers have about direct action (that it borders on the confrontational and, if it includes threats, the illegal) and about explicit feminist politics (that outrage is not a therapeutic response to the trauma of rape) I have been in a court room during a rape trial, and I have been in the offices of Vancouver Rape Relief. And I know where I would go if, shaken, frightened, desolated, I wanted to be healed. And then to fight on another day.
For five months I lived with my fattening files, with the data of women’s suffering and of their resistance, and with conversations larded with indignation, dread, satire and hilarity. I did not know, or rather I had forgotten, how deeply the fact of rape – of this sudden, arbitrary violence committed on our flesh by our partners – has burrowed into our minds and how it hides there, corroding our intelligence and our imagination.
How do we understand what is happening to us? We may begin with sex. We may begin with women who wish to make love not so much for penetration and orgasm as for strokes and caresses: for intimacy. And with men who desire sex that will culminate in penetration and ejaculation: for power. In this sense, it has been argued many times within the women’s movement, every “woman is a potential rape victim and every man her potential rapist, for within women are honed the attributes of the victim (delicacy, gentleness, passivity, submissiveness) and within men those of the assailant (egoism, dominance, aggressiveness, belligerence). Two different, mutually exclusive program for one event male-female coupling. The attributes are loaded with meaning and significance. That the male sexual drive is urgent, for instance and impulsive and difficult to control: it requires the immediate gratification of arousal by a contact it will inevitable initiate. The female sex drive, on the other hand, is understood to be less intense and more di diffuse. It does not exist for its own sake, for its own purposes, but to receive the impulses of the male. This is the meaning of the words, ‘sexual object. Add to this our culture’s woeful ambivalence about sexuality and ways and means, an ambivalence projected onto the passive and receptive body of woman, and we come close to that moment when a rapist read in the very sexuality of the woman invitation to seize her body and plunder it, which is both to desire her and to loathe her.
The very existence of our bodies is provocation to violence American feminist Susan Griffen writes. ‘Our bodies become things which we must hide. How does one move about the world in this body which has the power to invoke malevolence against oneself?’ It is a body which in the imagination of men is now that of the Madonna, now that of the Whore now nurturing and inviting, now ridiculing and rejecting. Because men have social power over women, they have the power to define the nature of the sexual transactions between us to define whether they will take us as Madonnas or Whores. Such transactions can be only coercive and manipulative. As Lorenne Clark and Debra Lewis put it in their book Rape: the Price of Coercive Sexuality, ‘women must withhold sex from men, and must pay a price for it,’ for it has been determined in history that a woman’s sexuality is the only thing about her that will be transacted for gain. It is therefore the social and cultural norm that sexual relations between men and women are between those of the bully and the trickster. And that they will fear and despise each other.
While it may still be argued with some evidence that our society thinks it ‘unreasonable’ for a man to give into his desire to assault, terrorize or bash to death a woman, to assert his identity, potency and mastery over our dead bodies, it can no longer be argued that society finds the desire itself unreasonable.
The evidence is everywhere about us. The glamorization of rape in advertising images of bondage and menace: a man with a gun stands over the body of a woman in a racer’s position. This advertises shoes. In movies: the camera in ‘Dressed to Kill’ sneaks up and spies on women from the point of view of the killer; the audience sees the victims the way the killer-camera does, as silly and wanton creatures who deserve what they get. The engineering students at the University of Alberta having fun, put on a skit featuring homosexual rapes and publish a fantasy in which a young girl is hit over the head by an ‘enterprising engineer, shackled to a wall, tortured and then ‘you may slit her throat (further mutilation optional) and partake of the combined pleasures of fucking a little girl and fucking a little dead girl.’ For which the enterprising engineers got their wrists slapped by the Dean.
We may call this woman-hating propaganda. We may call it the tolerance of the idea of femicide, the killing of women because we are women. We may at this point recite certain statistics: that in Sweden, where pornography is pervasive, there has been a sixty per cent increase in rapes since 1960. We may recite certain news items: victim age thirteen, beaten, ‘stripped, raped, drowned; victim age nineteen, beaten, raped with altar candles, strangled; victim age twenty-three, stabbed eighteen times by her boyfriend. We may sit down with Linda Halliday and her research in a coffee shop in Campbell River: forty-eight female victims of family-related sexual assault, the youngest at three months; ten fathers, ten step-fathers, six uncles, two grandfathers, five family friends and four baby-sitters. And hear the story of the seven year old girl, beaten and sexually abused since three years of age, who is gangrened by neighbourhood boys eight, eleven and twelve years old. (Eight year old rapists. I want to cry, to scream, to kill.)
WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?
Dr. John Brooks, Edmonton psychiatrist: ‘Most men are extremely disturbed by women who step out of line.’ Step out of line? ‘They find sexual advances from women very threatening. They see women these days as much less loving with their bodies than they used to be, they see them adopting male attitudes toward marriage and commitment, they see such women as very heartless. Men are vulnerable and they’re taking it pretty hard.’ Break my heart.
Backed up against the wall, a man strikes out at the creature through whose debasement and even death he may triumphantly resurrect his flagging manhood. Who or what is to gainsay him? From what moral position can his victim appeal for redress against him in an age of moral relativism?
She may, of course, make appeal from feminist morality, which grounds her protest in the absolute conviction that men’s dominion over women is an abomination and that justice demands that women overthrow it. Feminist contributions to theories of rape are consistent in this. It is feminists who have described the threat of rape as a form of social control of women, have made the connection between rape and the status of women as chattel, have dispelled the myths by which rape has been justified, and have linked it up with all the other modes of our chastisement. But feminist analysis has not yet, alas, become popular enough to mount a decisive challenge to the socialization of men and women. Until then ‘we are breeding more and more anti-social personalities,’ says Dr. Brooks, ‘and rape in their context is no more extraordinary than blowing their nose.’
While this is not the way anti-rape activists would put it, they would, and do, acknowledge there is a debate among them as to just how ‘extraordinary.’ or special rape is. Not in the sense of its frequency but of its meaning in social terms to women. When activists first analyzed the implications of rape, they argued, against prevailing mythologies, that rape was an instance not of sexual behavior but of political behavior of men toward women. This was an important and necessary argument for it rescued the discussion from categories of ‘sexuality,’ ‘permissiveness,’ ‘human nature’ and so on and situated it in considerations of the over-all status of women in male dominant society. In these new terms, rape was analyzed as a form of ‘power trip’ (but not necessarily the worst) by which men have maintained their authority over women. It is on a continuum of exploitive and abusive behaviors -from harassment and sex role stereotyping to unequal pay and inadequate childcare facilities to rape-murder – and is not an ‘ultimate’ act among them. Women who experience it as ‘special’ humiliation are those who have accepted the sexist taunt that they are now ‘damaged goods.’ As Vancouver Rape Relief argues, ‘it is ‘ the courts which have separated the acts of rape and assault but the experience of most women is that they are one and the same.’ Perhaps the most extreme expression of this point of view is Clark’s and Lewis’: ‘Rape is merely one form of unprovoked attack on the physical person, whether it is perpetrated by a male or a female, on a male or a female,’ a statement which comes very close to emptying the notion of rape of its sexual political content altogether who is doing what to whom.
Many anti-rape activists are rethinking this position. They argue that there is a danger in so diluting the content of rape that it becomes just another issue for humanists, no more urgent and remarkable than, say, employment rights for the handicapped. To stress its assault aspects is to miss the specifically sexual aspects of the crime: presumably every rapist has choice between merely beating up his victim and sexually hurting her. For that matter, if it is just a question of his expressing general resentment and aggression, any appropriate victim will do (children, weaker men, men of other races). Yet he choose to rape a woman and in that choice are concentrated the millennia of men’s dominance over women through sexual violence.
For sexual violence is more than just an illegal act, and more than an extreme expression of male role behavior. It is a vicious attack on some thing specific to women: our sex. It is our sexuality itself which is the focus of the rapist’s desire to ridicule, humiliate and overwhelm. ‘The urge to act viciously, brutishly and contemptuously toward women is very common in men.’ Why is this so, Dr. Pasco? ‘I don’t know.’ Why have our sexual organs, our breasts, our bellies become the place where a man carves the notch of his manhood? Why does he hate us in just this way? To be unknown and hated, writes Susan Griffen; to be made, by our rapist, to cover our face as he vents his rage between our legs. For him it may very well be a ‘pseudo sexual’ act, in the jargon of psychology, but for us is an act which insults the most fundamental feature of our identity: our femaleness.
If we were not women, this would not be happening to us.
This article was published in THIS Magazine, January 1982