Sexual violence and capitalism

The themes, analysis and solutions raised by feminists with reference to Australian work, and outline a Marxist analysis of violence against women. The importance of violence against women as a political issue. The emergence of women as sexual beings.

20.06.2010
91,4 K

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Brownmiller has been very important in establishing the idea that men have always been violent towards women. It is therefore worth looking at her argument at some length. The striking thing about the book is its complete lack of knowledge of anthropological studies and complete lack of scientific enquiry in support of her sweeping generalisations. How do we know rape is used by all men to intimidate all women? Brownmiller believes it.

It was women's fear of an open season of rape which led them to strike the risky bargain of conjugal relationship and was the single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man. Since Brownmiller wrote, there has been a wealth of anthropological studies which throw serious doubt on the assertion that women have always been oppressed and therefore have suffered male violence. She cannot be blamed for ignorance of these (although those who continue to propagate her ideas can), however she was not ignorant of evidence which contradicted her statements, and even included it in the book.

For instance, some attempts to understand what the earliest human societies would look like have been based on studies of non-human primates, extrapolating from them to build a picture of human evolution. Brownmiller quotes Jane Goodall, who studied wild chimpanzees and found the female did not accept every male who approached her. Even persistent males were not known to rape. Brownmiller also quotes Leonard Williams' Man and Monkey which concluded in monkey society there is no such thing as rape, prostitution, or even passive consent. Brownmiller claims that because human females are sexually active any time, unlike other primates, men are capable of rape. The implication is that monkeys and chimps are physically incapable of rape. However Sally Slocum found that non-human primates appear not to attempt coitus (when the female is unreceptive), regardless of physiological ability.

This might seem an esoteric discussion in an article about violence against women today. However, the idea that men are violent by nature and women passive and nurturing, always an idea of the right wing, is now widely held in feminist circles. So we need to be aware there are two quite distinct strands of feminist thought on the question. The right wing argument was backed up by the anthropological theory that the dawn of humanity was made possible by man the hunter. From the mid-sixties there were challenges to this interpretation. New research - much of it, but not all, by feminists - shows that there is the possibility of humans living in harmony and that violence towards women is explained by social and material developments rather than by biology.

The other strand, to which de Beauvoir and Brownmiller contributed, can sound radical because it criticises men's violence and stereotypes of masculine aggression rather than glorifying them. But let's be clear, their ideas are just as reactionary as the old man the hunter myth because fundamentally they accept the same premise: men are naturally predatory and violent, more capable of dominating than women. Some of Brownmiller's argument is simply dishonest. She quotes the anthropologist Margaret Mead about a society where rape was unknown; the Arapesh (do not) have any conception of male nature that might make rape understandable to them. This clearly raises the concept of rape as a social phenomenon and not simply the result of men's physiological attributes, apart from the fact that it proves rape has not always been a feature of society. But Brownmiller blithely skips over this inconvenient fact to go on to societies where violence towards women is extreme with no attempt to explain the differences.

When she does attempt an explanation of the absence of rape, Brownmiller is not beyond repeating sexist, elitist attitudes to women's experiences. Mrs Rowlandson, wife of an ordained minister, was taken captive by American Indians in 1676.

She did well to add the last sentence, but it does not save her from the feminist author three centuries later. Brownmiller admits this story was not atypical; she quotes a historian of 1842 who concluded the Indians only learnt to mistreat women by contact with whites. But to admit that Indian men did not rape and abuse women, even those from an invading, pillaging society, would be to admit rape may not be explained by the fact that man discovered at the dawn of time that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear. Instead, she dismisses the evidence by an appeal to the prejudice Mrs Rowlandson foresaw: the natural reluctance on the part of women to admit that sexual abuse has occurred. She does not attempt to explain why women were less reluctant in the later period. She even upholds the old wowserist idea that women do not seek sexual activity, they only have it thrust on them by disgusting males: she dismisses Fanny Kelly's description of several braves who went out of their way to do her favours as apparent innocence.

Rape in warfare (says Brownmiller) is not bounded by definitions of which wars are `just' or `unjust'. The examples she gives are the German Hun (presumably it is acceptable to be racist about men) in Belgium during World War I, the Russians in World War II, the Pakistani army in Bangladesh in 1971, and the American GI's in Vietnam - none of which could be called a just war from a left wing perspective. The Vietcong (who were fighting a just anti-imperialist war), according to news correspondent Peter Arnett and not disputed by Brownmiller, were prohibited from looting, stealing food or rape We heard very little of VC rape. Arnett thought their (extraordinary by his experience) behaviour needed some explanation which he attempted by reference to the fact they had women fighting as equals among their men. Brownmiller offers none.

Brownmiller and de Beauvoir could claim credibility because anthropologists until the 1960s almost universally agreed women had always been oppressed. Anthropology, because of its claim to scientific research, was difficult to challenge. However a key starting point for assessing anthropological evidence is a recognition that it is nothing more than collected observations of academics from the more developed world who visited pre-capitalist societies. Their observations cannot be read at face value. Firstly, they took with them the cultural and social views of capitalist society which distorted their interpretation of what they saw. Anthropologists such as Eleanor Burke Leacock, Karen Sacks and others have convincingly shown how male-oriented and prejudiced influential anthropologists such as Malinowsky and Levi Strauss were.

Western anthropologists and other observers, imposing their view of the world on the societies they studied, assumed the nuclear family of modern capitalism to be a universal feature of human organisation of reproduction and sexuality. Society was assumed to be divided into the public, male sphere and the private, female sphere, a concept clearly associated historically with the rise of capitalism and completely useless in understanding the co-operative, collective nature of gatherer-hunters' lives. In many societies there was a sexual division of labour in which women took most responsibility for children and gathering, while men did most of the hunting. Because women's responsibility for child care in our society contributes to their inferior status and oppression, it was erroneously assumed this could be read into the meaning of their work in all societies. Even many feminist anthropologists assume low status for maternity, which they see as constraining activities, hindering personality development, and reducing women's symbolic value. They project the values of our culture onto other cultures. Judith Brown, writing about the division of labour by sex, assumes that women's reproductive role determines their existence as gatherer-hunters, and that women's tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt concentration; and the work, is not dangerous, can be performed in spite of interruptions (by children). This ignores evidence from many societies where women's work is very skilled and varied, providing, the bulk of food. Sacks shows that in some societies women adapt the number of pregnancies to the needs of production. She showed that! Kung women do not take a break from gathering while nursing their infants, which attests to the cultural centrality of women's productive roles, as well as countering a simple minded reproductive determinism.


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