The Dialectic of Rape

Chicago Women's Graphic Collective/

Rape keeps insinuating itself into our reality, by way of women’s protests and publicized stories. Emma Sulkowicz carries a mattress identical to the one on which she says she was anally raped by a classmate at Columbia University in order to prod the administration into punishing her perpetrator. Stories of gang rapes and assaults by male athletes, fraternity brothers, and high-profile entertainers pepper the weekly news. But rape is not a new problem or story. It has been an anchor issue of feminism for half a century, and it is on today’s news agenda because feminists put it there.

Women began to rise up angrily against widespread, largely unrecognized, and certainly unpunished crimes of sexual violence in the early 1970s. New York Radical Feminists held a widely publicized public “speak out” on rape in 1971, and similar events followed across the country. The anti-rape movement built quickly, with women protesting police treatment of rape victims and the failure of prosecutors to prosecute accused rapists. Rape crisis centers formed, where volunteers listened to women’s stories and accompanied them to police stations to report 

By the late 1970s, rape-crisis groups expanded their work to include preventive education in schools and trainings for police and prosecutors. In large cities first, and then smaller communities, feminists instigated “special victim units” within police departments and the placement of “legal advocates” in prosecutors’ offices. State level networks grew across the country, and, by 1979, the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault formed and began holding annual conferences. Women would never again be silent about their assaults, and they had stopped letting men get away with it.

Women of that period faced antiquated rape laws that made it more difficult for prosecutors to build a case. They hesitated to report their assaults, fearing that no one would believe them and that they would be stigmatized, both by the criminal justice system and among those close to them. In 1974, the National Organization for Women’s legal team organized a state-by-state rape-law campaign, with NOW leaders using media kits to educate reporters about the issues. The campaign paid off with increased (and better informed) reporting. By the 1980s, news stories incorporated new feminist terminology—sexual assault, violence against women, acquaintance rape, sexual harassment, and so on—and often carried a feminist analysis. Statutes were revised in one state after another. By 1993, for instance, marital rape was illegal in all 50 states.

Socialist Feminists on Rape

The most far-reaching feminist analysis of the problem came from socialist feminists, who situated violence against women at the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism. Sociologist Laura Kramer states that “under patriarchy, women were viewed simply as the property of men and not as individuals in society.” Therefore, socialist feminists reasoned, when it came to the issue of rape, men felt that women were simply subordinates who had no rights of their own. For men, rape did not exist. While socialist feminists viewed rape as a form of oppression that was used by men to keep women in their place in society, they struggled at first to find its more specific connections to capitalism.

Most male Marxists and socialists had been silent on whether and how class and sexual oppression coincided. Those few sources that addressed this—for example, Engels’s Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Trotsky’s statements about women in Problems of Life, The Revolution Betrayed, and eventually Women and the Family—were all focused on women’s subordination within the family. None addressed sexual violence. Socialist feminists of the 1970s thought in bigger terms than their male comrades about women in society and questioned the ways that sexual violence (and women’s fear of it) extended into other institutions, such as the workplace, education, and political life.

Socialist feminists saw women as exploited not only at home (through labor and nurturance associated with the reproduction of the species), but as lower-waged, less powerful laborers in the workplace, and as absent from legislative bodies where public policies were adopted. Rape and other forms of sexual violence figured into the dynamics underlying these forms of subordination. According to Marxist feminist Nancy Hartsock, “we are dealing with a gendered power of relations based in what our culture has defined as sexuality . . . which must be understood to express the experience of the ruling gender.”

Hartsock’s theory of feminist historical materialism remains one of the clearest expressions of how capitalism and patriarchy work together to suppress women’s power. The masculine cultural hegemony that Hartsock referred to came not only through men’s outright coercion (sexual assault and implied threats) but also women’s efforts to conform to masculine expectation to better assure their safety and well-being.

Socialist feminists helped to factor race and sexual orientation into their analysis of rape. The more complex articulations of rape by socialist feminists remain with us today but are little spoken about in public discourse, particularly in rape stories carried in the mainstream corporate media. In fact, feminist voices of any stripe are less heard from today than in the earlier days of the movement, even as one rape scandal after another has emerged to consume the public imagination. The 2010 round of Who Makes the News, conducted by the Global Media Monitoring Project, showed women were subjects in only 27% of the news stories examined, and of those, they were most likely to be cast as the victims of violence, rather than as survivors with agency. Few of those stories had a gender analysis.

Men Still Control the News

The muting of feminist voices in mainstream media is in no small way the result of shifts in communications policies over the last two decades that have allowed media ownership to concentrate in the hands of a few wealthy male-dominated conglomerates. Women (and people of color) have been largely squeezed out in these years. The Federal Communication Commission’s ownership report of 2014 showed women owning 6.3% of the nation’s 1,662 full-power television stations and 6.7% of 5,611 full-powered FM stations. Women also serve in low numbers on boards of the largest diversified media companies (for example, 30% on Disney’s and 31% on Viacom’s, but only 8% on Comcast’s board, and 14% on NBC’s), according to company websites. They own few newspapers and hold limited numbers of decision-making roles in newsrooms.

Yes, the Internet, with its myriad websites, blog sites and social media sites, opens new spaces for feminists to speak and be heard, but when they do, they are 72% more likely than men to receive hostile comments, according to one recent Guardian article. Speaking publicly about men’s violence in any place or format may subject women to backlash. The Huffington Post and other alternative news sites report men stalking women online after “trolling” for those who write about rape or other personal subjects in chat rooms and other Internet venues.

Even so, the anti-rape movement has been an international phenomenon. The movement has produced a new language and analysis of rape, which has enabled the reform and/or adoption of new laws, and motivated changes in gender relations. This dialectical process has been slow but productive and continues to demand the leadership of socialists who understand that women remain the majority of the victims of men’s violence as well as the poorest members of capitalist societies.

CarolByerlyAID.png Carolyn M. Byerly, a longtime DSA member, is chair of the Howard University Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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