Men, monsters and the women who 'ask for it'


December 7, 2007

Lynne Segal embarks on a survey of a culturally endorsed crime.

Feminists possess a particularly strong unconscious desire to be raped," Californian psychiatrist Sheldon Kardener argued back in 1975. Dressing provocatively, calling all men rapists, the feminist actively seeks her own violation, "demanding that the man force his attentions on her" so that she can "self-righteously scream 'rape'".

Perhaps in publishing such provocative articles, Kardener was actively seeking physical assault from feminists. Sadly, though, such absurdities merely mirror misogynist views that down the ages have tolerated, even encouraged, rapists' illusions, which feminists were determined to confront. This and other skirmishes between rape apologists and feminist challengers appear in Joanna Bourke's impressive book Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present , which provides a meticulously researched historical overview of the shifting nature of rape, focusing primarily on the figure of the sexual predator. Although confining her scholarship to Australia, Britain and the US, Bourke's book will surely be a new milestone in research on the complexities of sexual violence.

From the outset, Bourke confronts a mass of contradictory beliefs. The jumbled incoherence of rape myths, so often dismissing or disparaging the female victim, collide with equally muddled mythologies denouncing rapists in our midst. Until recently, the public heard time and again that no woman could be raped against her will, the earlier juridical platitude that it was impossible to "sheath a sword into a vibrating scabbard" evolving into the pop-Freudian banality that female rape victims invite their own violation. Yet even as the world was warned of countless women falsely crying "rape", the same chauvinistic imagination broadcast the ubiquitous dangers women faced from "the lecherous brute that leaps forth out of the darkness and drags defenceless woman to her ruin". There were underlying continuities in these clashing mythologies, at least in the location of putative innocence and guilt. Bourke provides abundant details on the fate of women with little power or protection, those inviting "their own rape", while also delineating the true rapist, those "monsters" paraded before us, infused "with fears of blacks, immigrants and racial 'outsiders'".

Rape ideologies often arrive packaged in respectable scholarly wraps. Bourke critically surveys dominant theoretical frameworks - biological, sociological, Darwinian, psychoanalytic, feminist - that, to differing degrees, have all been used to oversimplify or misrepresent the complexity of sexual assaults. Most angrily, she deplores our abysmal failure to prevent or punish rape perpetrators, a situation that has deteriorated over the past 30 years: the higher the incidence of reported rape, the lower the conviction rate, falling from one in three in the 1970s to one in 20 today. Despite so much dismal news, however, Bourke insists that there is nothing natural or inevitable about sexual violence. It exists, in the form and magnitude we know it, because rape is culturally incubated, enacted and tolerated.

Entering the institutions that have spawned or sheltered rapists, Bourke begins with marriage. In different surveys, 8 per cent to 14 per cent of wives report instances of spousal rape, with some studies, contrary to received belief, reporting wives sustaining more physical damage than other rape victims. Marital rape was finally accepted as a crime throughout Britain in 1992, but despite media scaremongering it remains one of the hardest forms to prosecute. A better-known site of sexual torment is located within military cultures. Mass sexual mutilations in the fields of Vietnam have been replayed in Hollywood, but there is less awareness of the systemic cementing of manliness to sexual coerciveness in routine military training. It is not just the incitement to aggression in times of battle that explains the gang rapes in zones of conflict, Bourke suggests, but also men's sense of their own vulnerabilities and weakness, in particular the fear of being labelled "chicken" or "queer". Those sexually abused bodies of women in wartime find their echo in the fate of many men in prison, especially in the US, where male-on-male rape is not only endemic but often involves prisoners "repeatedly raped by gangs of inmates". Not all men are rapists. But the downplaying of the sexual violation of men helps conceal the reality that all men are rapeable. They can be quite as vulnerable as any woman, at least inside prison cultures that instill, Bourke suggests, that "to be a man meant to act a rapist". That this is primarily a cultural affair is confirmed by British prison surveys, which suggest far lower levels of male rape victims.

The reticence in acknowledging men as victims accompanies discomfort over defining women as rapists. Lynndie England, sexually abusing men in Abu Ghraib, is not the only woman who might teach us that some women enjoy sexually abusing men (or women). Only 1 per cent of incarcerated rapists are women. But lesbian gang rape and individual assault is reported from prisons in the US, while female sexual abusers emerge in surveys of boys and men reporting sexual molestation in the range of 6 per cent to 24 per cent of cases in differing studies. Whatever the incidence rates, Bourke points out that women's methods of abuse do not merely mimic those of men but are distinctive, with female perpetrators living out "feminine fantasies about power and sexuality".

Bourke's comprehensive survey of the diverse methods, victims, perpetrators and locations of bodily violation is itself exemplary of the ways in which the meanings of "rape" itself have shifted, leaving it a far more open and contested category. Notions of rape as enforced penile penetration of the vagina always misconstrued much that took place even in the most standard rape scenario. The hybrid nature of sexual abuse suggests that it serves many purposes: release of sexual excitation; forms of identity maintenance and fears of weakness; expressions of anger, aggression and revenge; desires for power and control; differing combinations of any or all of these, and more. Certainly, the overwhelming predominance of male perpetrators tells us that sexual coercion has something to do with particular men's obsessions with manliness, even as it undermines other men's narratives of manhood in terms of self-control, responsibility and concern for others' wishes.

Understanding the gendered complexities of violence means, first of all, challenging the symbolic ties of "masculinity" to power, dominance and sexual assertiveness. As Bourke argues, this means rejecting myths about male "biology" or evolutionary inheritance that construct men as inevitable sexual predators, along with the radical feminist endorsement of the idea that all men are "rapists, rape-fantasists or beneficiaries of rape culture". Manifestations of sexual violence vary hugely across time and place. But before Bourke's optimism that understanding rape's historical contingencies can help us to end it, men everywhere will need to join those feminists struggling to forge futures free from sexual violence.

Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present

Author - Joanna Bourke
Publisher - Virago
Pages - 576
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 97871844081547

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