The number of reported rapes in Britain rose last year by 29 per cent (Home Office Statistical Bulletin on Notifiable Offences) and the National Society for the Protection of Children estimates that reported cases of child sex abuse rose by 90 per cent in the same period. As with all crime statistics, such figures should be treated cautiously — some of the increase in the rape statistics is likely to be due to a greater willingness among women to report sexual attacks. However, given the widely accepted fact that reported rape and sexual attack is only the tip of the iceberg, it seems reasonable to assume that the incidence of sexual violence is alarmingly high.
The response of the government and the judiciary has been to advocate harsher penalties for rapists and to suggest measures that will afford greater protection to rape victims. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, recently issued sentencing guidelines to judges which are intended to result in more uniformly severe sentences for convicted rapists. Such measures may lead to more women reporting rape; they will almost certainly lead to more rapists being imprisoned. But they will almost certainly not lead to fewer rapes or sexual assaults. The call for tougher measures represents little more than a knee-jerk response to the problem — the need to be seen to be doing something — and reflects a lack of understanding of the causes of sexual violence. Despite the ritual cries of the right, moralists of all political hues and the law and order lobby, rape is not a new phenomenon. It is neither a consequence of a “decline in moral standards” nor a result of the so-called permissive society. Rape has been a feature of most societies throughout history, but what constitutes rape has changed with time, as have the attitudes to both rapist and victim.
Women’s bodies — men’s property
The idea that women are (or ought to be) independent and autonomous individuals is a relatively recent one, that is still far from being accepted among much of the world’s population. In general women are economically, legally and socially inferior to men. In many parts of the world women have no legal title to property — they themselves are the property of their fathers or husbands. In such situations rape is likely since there is little respect for women, who have no real rights over their own bodies. But the “victim” of a rape is seen to be the father or husband, since it is their goods that have been stolen or damaged by the rapist.
In feudal times peasant women were subject to the rule of both their fathers or husbands and of the feudal lord. The practice of jus primae noctis (the right of the first night) was common in much of Europe. The feudal lord had the right to take the virginity of the bride of any of his vassals or serfs unless the couple paid a certain amount of produce in redemption dues. This practice must have amounted to rape in many instances but was not treated as such because of the nature of the prevailing property relations. More recently in the American South a similar practice was common among white slave owners. Black women were often forced by their masters into sexual relations against their will. Such rapes must have been common knowledge and yet no action was taken against the rapists. In Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries domestic servants were frequently the victims of the unwanted sexual attentions of their employers. There was no direct ownership relationship between the servant and the employer — she was in theory free, an employee not a slave. And yet to refuse her employer might mean the loss of her livelihood. (To agree and risk pregnancy would also effectively mean the loss of her job. Pregnant maids were usually sent packing, many were forced into prostitution as the only alternative means of earning a living.)
The idea of women as property to be sexually exploited continues to the present even though the law in most modern westernised nations formally recognises women as independent. Sexual harassment of female employees by their male employers is commonplace. Again women are faced with the choice of suffering in silence or risking losing their jobs. The idea of women as men’s property is reflected in the fact that in many countries rape within marriage is not a crime. The marriage contract is such that it is considered to effectively represent permanent consent of the wife to her husband for sexual relations. In the recent Ealing vicarage rape case the tabloid press seemed to regard the offence as especially despicable (and hence newsworthy) for a number of reasons. Firstly, the woman who was raped was a clergyman’s daughter and therefore “respectable”; and secondly the rape took place in front of her boyfriend and father an affront not only to her but to them. Implicit in the reporting was the idea that they had suffered an injury not just because they were forced to witness a despicable act and themselves suffered physical injury, but because the rapists were taking something that rightfully belonged to them.
A weapon of war
Throughout history rape has featured significantly in war. Although in recent times rape of women by an occupying army has been officially outlawed, it is often unofficially ignored, condoned or even encouraged. The examples are numerous and provide a ghastly indictment of the brutalising effects of war.
During the First World War. as the Germans advanced through Belgium and France in 1914, their progress was accompanied by a deliberately mounted campaign of terror: looting and burning of houses and rape. If these tactics were intended to cow the “enemy” into submission then they partly backfired since the Allied powers used the rumours of the “depraved Boche” as a useful propaganda tool to stir up nationalistic sentiment among workers and encourage them to enlist in defence of “their women” against the Germans. During the Second World War the ideology of fascism led more directly to an acceptance of rape: the exaggeration of masculine values, the frequent depiction by the Nazis of Jews (and also Slavs) as weak and effeminate and the denial of humanity to these racial groups, made rape almost inevitable. Mob rape of Jewish women made its first appearance during Kristallnacht in November 1938 but as the German army moved through Europe, homes were looted and women raped despite the fact that sexual relations between Germans and Jews were officially prohibited on grounds of racial defilement. For some German soldiers a conflict was created as a result of their acceptance of the ideology of racial superiority: on the one hand it dictated that they remained separate from Jews and on the other it dictated that since Jews were sub-human they were fair game for all sorts of brutal behaviour including sexual humiliation and rape. A woman survivor from Bergen-Belsen describes the consequences of such conflict. Held at a police station in her German-occupied Polish village, she was forced to strip in front of the Gestapo, was knocked about and then dragged by one man into an adjoining room:
I was in a small office and the German had a long heavy whip in his hand. “You don’t know how to obey. I’ll show you. But I can’t have you. scum, because you’re Jewish, and filthy. What a shame! He swung the whip across my breasts. “Here’s what you can have for being a dirty Jew — instead of me — this!” He lashed the whip again and again and I fainted. (Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will, Penguin, p.51)
Sexual humiliation and violence of this kind was commonplace to men and women. Jewish and non-Jewish, both inside the concentration camps and outside.
But it was not only the Axis armies that raped during the Second World War. When the Allied forces moved into Europe driving back the Germans, women were again raped, but most especially in Germany. As the Allies occupied Berlin rape was so common that one commentator wrote: The fear of sexual attack lay over the city like a pall” (Brownmiller. p.66), and there are accounts of German women who dressed in army uniforms since they felt it would be safer to be mistaken for a German soldier than a German woman.
The use of rape as a weapon of war combined with the traditional view of women’s bodies as man’s property in the war in Bangladesh — with tragic consequences for the women concerned. During the nine month conflict an estimated 200,000 Bengali women were raped by Pakistani soldiers. Husbands and fathers in village societies frequently ostracised the raped women — they were now defiled and regarded as damaged property and therefore unmanageable. Many were pregnant as a result of their attack and were forced to leave their villages.
During the war in Vietnam the South Vietnamese army did rape but fewer attacks took place while they were fighting in “their” country than occurred during the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. Among the Viet Cong there were both stern injunctions against rape and severe reprimands for those who did. The reason was that as a guerilla army the Viet Cong were dependent on villagers for food and protection. They could not risk alienating villagers by raping the women.
For the American army in Vietnam rape and prostitution were inextricably linked. Most US army bases had military brothels nearby, set up in the full knowledge and with the full support of the officers. The women who worked in them were South Vietnamese for whom prostitution was an economic necessity. (Economic need is almost as effective as physical coercion in forcing women to have sex with men against their will). Brownmiller writes:
. . . as the American presence in Vietnam multiplied, the unspoken military theory of women’s bodies as not only a reward of war but as a necessary provision like soda pop and ice cream, to keep our boys healthy and happy turned into routine practice. And if monetary access to women’s bodies did not promote an ideology of rape in Vietnam, neither did it thwart it. (ibid. p.92)
Rape then has been, and continues to be. a horrifying aspect of war. The maleness of the military, the total environment of violence and the brutalising effects of that violence are breeding grounds for rape. But rape in war has an important symbolic quality too: it is a symbolic occupation, a forced humiliation and imposition of subordinate status. Rape is the act of a conqueror and women’s bodies merely part of the spoils of victory.
A culture of rape
Most men see rape as an offence committed by other men — sick, pathological deviants. But rape is at one end of a continuum of sexual behaviour much of which is characterised by, at best, insensitivity and at worst brutality and coercion, and forms part of a masculine sexual culture. Sexual success measured in terms of the number of “conquests” and the frequency of the act, rather than the quality of the experience, is an important element of what it is to be “a man” in our society. Most men don’t live up to the macho image and hide their own fears and insecurities about their sexual relations behind a mask of sexual bravado. To admit to fears or anxieties about their sexual relations would only compound the feelings of inadequacy: the expression of emotion is considered a sign of weakness for men.
For most men this may have no more effect than to make them unhappy or anxious. For others sexual relationships become less risky if the emotional content is removed — the aim of relations with women then becomes a quick screw rather than a relationship which recognises that a woman is a person, not just a vehicle for sexual pleasure. For some men pornography serves a similar purpose — safe sex from a distance. Not only emotions are removed from the experience but women themselves are disembodied passive objects available for men’s use. But for some men the conflicting feelings about sexuality and their emotional response to women will be acted out through sexual violence or abuse of women (or children). Rape represents the end of this continuum of impersonal sex — the emotional content of the sexual relationship removed entirely or distorted into something like hate, the feelings (and indeed, in many cases, the identity) of the woman irrelevant; the woman herself dehumanised. This is not to say that there is a necessary causal relationship between, say, pornography and rape, but that they form part of a total sexual culture which encourages rape.
In a society where relationships between people in general are dehumanised — employer and worker, buyer and seller it is not surprising that sexual relations too are so often dehumanised. Sex becomes just one more arena for the expression of conflict or the exercise of power. In certain situations like that produced by war; in societies where women are still regarded as inferior to men, in cultures where racial superiority is part of the dominant ideology, then rape is likely to be prevalent. But in our society too. rape is an implicit part of our sexual culture. Think of the language used to describe sexual relations (men talk of “having” a woman); the depictions of women in tabloid newspapers (sexually available and passive objects for male pleasure); the jokes that are told which are demeaning to women and glorify aggressive masculinity; the popular wisdom that is handed down — that women say “no” when they really mean “yes”, or that women play hard to get; the comments made by judges hearing rape cases (that women contribute to the offence by wearing certain clothes or by being in a certain place at a certain time); and finally the stereotypes that we are brought up on — the passive, yielding female and the aggressive male driven by uncontrollable sexual desire. All these factors contribute to a cultural environment in which rape and other forms of sexual abuse and violence are likely to occur.
It is not only rape that we should be concerned about but the whole spectrum of sexual behaviour. And we cannot begin to understand that until we understand the nature of the wider society from which it is derived. Sexuality is natural but there is nothing natural about the ways in which we express that sexuality: it is shaped and conditioned by the society in which we live and the kinds of sexual expression that are considered acceptable are a product of particular cultures at particular times. The fact that so many people in our society express their sexuality in ways that are twisted, coercive, violent and brutal should make us very concerned about the nature of the society that produced that sexuality.