Susan Brownmiller

Rape As A Feminist Issue

VTR Date: June 8, 1985

Susan Brownmiller discusses rape and her new book "Femininity."


GUEST: Susan Brownmiller
VTR: 6/8/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Note the case of Kathy Webb and Gary Dodson. She says that she had lied years back, convicting him of raping her, and with a still-doubting legal system, he’s now free from prison. Well, that case more than anything else has now focused Americans’ attention once again on the matter of rape, for it fits so well the traditional male-oriented view that the female victim in rape cases can legitimately, routinely be doubted and demeaned. Now, I talked about this matter on another television series recently with feminist Susan Brownmiller, but much too briefly. And so I’ve invited her here to The Open Mind today. Ms. Brownmiller is, of course, the author of the groundbreaking history of rape of a decade ago, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. And her new book is entitled Femininity.

Thank you very much for joining me here. It’s good to have a half hour in which we can just talk about the subject that we started on the other day. You know, you had said at the beginning of Editor’s Desk that you were concerned that there would be an impact upon our attitudes toward rape of the Dodson/Kathy Webb case.

BROWNMILLER: Yeah. It fits the old myths that women lie, that women falsely accuse mean, yeah.

HEFFNER: Well, has it happened do you think?

BROWNMILLER: In this case?


BROWNMILLER: You want me to speculate on this case. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I want you to speculate.

BROWNMILLER: I don’t like to do that. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve not interviewed either person. I’m fascinated by the fact that her stepparents don’t believe her now, and her former boyfriend doesn’t believe her now. Those are people pretty close to her. I also worry a lot about the church, the fundamentalist church that has influenced her thinking in recent years, because I known that the Bible’s chief parable of rape is the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which is the story of a woman who falsely accuses a man.

HEFFNER: It sounds to me as though you want her not to be telling the truth at this point.

BROWNMILLER: Well, see, as a feminist I must say that it would make things easier for what I believe to be the truth most often if she would recant again and say, “No, no. I really was raped, but I felt so guilty that I sent this guy to jail for so many years that I chose this method to get him out”. I’d like that to happen. But I can live with the fact that this woman falsely accused a man and is now sorry for it. But I don’t understand her. And I don’t think that most people do understand her. How can someone lie like that for so many years? I mean, she had so many opportunities to change her story.

HEFFNER: You see, you want to deal with the facts of the matter or what you want to ascertain as the facts. Forgive me.

BROWNMILLER: Yeah, but you asked me to speculate.

HEFFNER: Well, but you see, I was really asking you to speculate once again on the impact of the story as it is now. Let’s say an end has been written to that story, to that chapter at least. You’re concerned that feminism…

BROWNMILLER: Until the next rape case that comes to court where the defense lawyer says, “Remember Kathy Crowell Webb ladies and gentlemen of the jury.” All right?

HEFFNER: And you think that that’s going to…

BROWNMILLER: I know it will happen.

HEFFNER: Well, you know it will happen and you fear that it will have the effect of that line destroying perhaps a case against the accused?

BROWNMILLER: I think men are sensitive to the fear of false accusation. You know, when I was in college, everyone seemed to believe that professors should leave the door open when the interview – you’re smiling; you know what I’m saying (laughter) – when they interview…

HEFFNER: I’m a professor. Or course.

BROWNMILLER: All right. All right. Remember how they used to say professors should leave the door open when they interview a female student because those female students sometimes charge rape. Right? Now, what is the truth of it all? The truth is, as now the Women’s Movement has shown, and we had cases at every major university, is that sexual harassment goes the other way. Professors have been known to try to seduce their female students, far more so than their female students charge them unfairly and falsely with trying to seduce them.

HEFFNER: You’re not suggesting that that’s something new? Seriously. Dead seriously.

BROWNMILLER: That what is new?

HEFFNER: That what has been ascertained now is that as frequently perhaps, perhaps more frequently…

BROWNMILLER: The belief is new. The belief is new. Because when I was at college we only heard about those hysterical female students who falsely accused their professors. You know, now we hear about the professors who are taking advantage, unfair advantage of their power to try to seduce their female students.

HEFFNER: You know, you said a moment ago to me, “You’re smiling”. And I was smiling, because I was thinking of situations in my own academic career that I’ve known about among my colleagues. But it reminds me, if I can be so infra dig, that when we did the program on Editor’s Desk just a couple of weeks ago, when I watched it I had the uneasy feeling that more than on any other program that I’d done in that series I was smiling, my guests were smiling. And I wondered if there is still just an uneasy-making quality to the discussion of rape in our society, something that perhaps moves it on a plane away from any other kind of discussion that one can have.

BROWNMILLER: It’s probably true. It’s also probably true – and I write about this in my book on femininity – that women out of this tremendous need to be liked, to be considered nice, tend to smile more often that it is appropriate. And I’m one of those women. I really, probably , on your program the other (laughter) evening was smiling inappropriately in a need to have you and the audience like me.

HEFFNER: You know the damned thing about it was I wasn’t concerned about your smiling; I was concerned about my smiling. And I’m not a smiler. Very seldom. My family tells me I’m very grim and glum. Again, very seriously, I wondered as I watched whether it isn’t such a charged subject still in our times that one has to, not giggle quite, but one has to take away some of the emotional charge about it by laughter perhaps.

BROWNMILLER: Well, it’s a charged subject, and the solutions are charged. I smiled and got a little giddy when Diane Campra said something very serious, when she said, “Perhaps we should give young men sensitivity training.” I happen to believe that would be a wonderful thing. I smiled because I couldn’t imagine society today getting ready to do that. And when I thought about it, I thought, what would it be like to take young boys who for centuries we’ve been training to be tough, you know, give them karate lessons, learn how to defend themselves, little boys don’t cry, get up there and hit him back if he hits you, don’t come running home to you, you know, take care of your own problems, and then reverse that and tell them to turn the other cheek, not to fight. That would be extraordinary. But I mean it’s so extraordinary that I couldn’t cope with it when she said it.

HEFFNER: But as I read the transcript I was wondering what the relationship was between that suggestion and the matter of rape. Are you suggesting that it is because we are macho men, are taught to be macho, that there is as much rape as there is?

BROWNMILLER: Yeah. I’d rather believe that than think that it was something hormonal. You know, in the animal studies that I look at closely, adolescent male animals in many species go through quite a long period of what we could call poor social adjustment to the herd, the group or whatever, and they have to be drummed out of the herd or the group, usually by the mothers, the matriarchal mothers, because they fight all the time. Now, you can look at that evidence which is, you know, no one questions it, and then look at human teenage boys and see the same kind of fighting and acting out. And it’s possible to conclude that there is something hormonal going on here in adolescents. And of course it is the adolescent male who does most of the raping.

HEFFNER: Let me ask this.

BROWNMILLER: But I’d rather believe it was cultural. I really would.

HEFFNER: Because you feel that can be changed?


HEFFNER: But you know, you say “hormonal” in reference to sexuality or in reference to violence?

BROWNMILLER: Well, some people have mad eth connection in the male psyche. I do not. I don’t think that it’s a natural connection. But it certainly is there today.

HEFFNER: But do you see rape, have you seen rape as an act of sexuality or an act of violence?

BROWNMILLER: Well, it’s both obviously. I mean, what we in the Women’s Movement said was that rape is not a crime of sex; it’s a crime of power. But as we said that, we never lost sight of the fact that it’s an act that takes the sexual organs to accomplish. Of course it’s a sexual act. But it’s a distortion, it seems to me, of what copulation should be.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, you know, I raise the question because when we did the other program together I was rather surprised looking back at the transcript that when we were talking about rape at some point you talked about women not wanting to be responsible for sending men to jail for a long period of time, that one of the reasons there was a reluctance to testify…


HEFFNER: …in rape cases, aside from wanting to be exposed by attorneys in terms of one’s sexual history. And you said, “And in this case that fellow was sentenced to 25 to 50 years. An excessive sentence”.


HEFFNER: And I said, “An excessive sentence for rape”. Said, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah”. And later on I picked it up. I puzzled, if it is an act of violence like murder, why did you think that that’s such an excessive sentence?

BROWNMILLER: Murderers mostly don’t get 25 to 50 year sentences today. They don’t.

HEFFNER: You think they shouldn’t?

BROWNMILLER: No! They don’t. They don’t get it. They’re out in six years, eight years, ten years, twenty years.

HEFFNER: But they get longer sentences. They get longer sentences.

BROWNMILLER: Twenty-five to fifty? That’s a second-degree murder kind of sentence. And hardly anyone is up on first-degree murder anymore.

HEFFNER: All right, then you…

BROWNMILLER: I think that’s a really excessively long sentence for a rape that does not take a life and that does not leave permanent physical injury. Yeah.

HEFFNER: Don’t you see it as an act of violence that does take something of a life, rape?

BROWNMILLER: “Something of a life”. Well, it’s…

HEFFNER: The damage that it does.

BROWNMILLER: Well, I prefer to have a system of penalties that is in line with other assaultive offenses so that we get rid of the old thinking that said that what rape was damaging the virgin, damaging the chastity, you know, damaging the property of the father. I mean, there used to be life sentences and death sentences for rape in this country, because the attitude was that the crime was worse than death. It destroyed – you’ll forgive me – the market value of the young woman. Now, to get away from that we want to have people consider rape not quite simply another assaultive offense, but pretty much another assaultive offense.

HEFFNER: I’ll be doggoned if, I see the logic, I see the web you spin…


HEFFNER: …but it surprises me.


HEFFNER: It does surprise me. It becomes so convoluted. I would think that one would consider this the most violent of all crimes short of murder. And I gather that you’re saying…

BROWNMILLER: Some rapes are and some are not. Some are accomplished…

HEFFNER: How could a rape not be? How could it not be violence unless you accept the notion…

BROWNMILLER: I certainly accept the notion that the act of rape itself is a violent act. But there is a violence beyond the act of rape, accompanying it. There is a brutal beating up, stabbing, hitting, you know, whatever. That’s additional violence and should have an additional penalty. Also, I have always said that some women acquiesce when they don’t need to. Every rape victim does not need to be a victim.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “acquiesce”?

BROWNMILLER: Well, as in all aspects of life, there are people who quit and give up and concede defeat faster than others. Many women are slow to perceive the danger in what sociologists call a rape situation. They don’t see the early warning signals. But once the offender is upon them, or once it becomes a hostile act, they give up and concede defeat and believe that it is better to suffer the trauma of rape than it is to be murdered. And that’s always a fear in women’s minds, that they could be murdered.

HEFFNER: Tell me what’s wrong with that thinking. I’m not supporting it. What’s wrong with that thinking?

BROWNMILLER: This quick concession of defeat?

HEFFNER: Concession of defeat. How quick is still another subject.

BROWNMILLER: I don’t think it’s a good survival tactic in life in general. And I think that femininity of course breeds that kind of defeatism. It’s all related.

HEFFNER: And yet a parent, remember when we talked about it on the other program, talking about what one would advise a child or what one would train a child to do, a girl child to do, there came the question of defensive tactics.

BROWNMILLER: Yes. Ara Kress suggested karate for young girls. And again I giggled and said I’d rather see the sensitivity training for young men. Yeah, probably nice to have both. But I think the main thing to do is to rid the culture of the idea that sex and violence are linked, and that they are linked inevitably.

HEFFNER: Linked in terms of that is the way the normal sexual procedure, that sex itself, normal sex is an act of violence?

BROWNMILLER: That’s the way…it’s sexy, yeah. I mean, the Hollywood movies tell us that, don’t they?

HEFFNER: Are you, have you joined the group that wants therefore, in television and film and posters and books etcetera, to limit the degree to which they can be shown?

BROWNMILLER: Well, I’m a founder of a group that seeks to limit pornography. As for Hollywood and television, I think we should give them a chance to monitor themselves. Not that they have. But it’s possible that moral suasion can work with responsible people, and responsible people who make legitimate movies. But pornographers, I don’t feel that moral suasion will matter.

HEFFNER: Well, when you talk about moral suasion or you talk about suasion of any kind, in the years since your book on rape came out, has there been any diminution, any decrease of the incidents of rape?

BROWNMILLER: The reported statistics show that the figures are rising. But I think that’s simply that more women are reporting their rapes and that they’re being treated more seriously at the police station. So I don’t think there’s been an increase in rape, although the figures show there’s been an increase. There’s been a change in awareness. Absolutely a change in awareness of what the crime means. And the rights of the victim are now perceived. And people don’t say, the way they used to say, “Well, what is rape? It’s a woman who falsely accuses a man.” Or, “She was asking for it anyway”, or “You can’t rape a woman against her will”. You don’t hear that at all.

HEFFNER: But you’re afraid that at this point, given this case that we began to talk about, there may be a resurgence of something akin to that: A woman asked for it. A woman lies. It’s not true, etcetera.

BROWNMILLER: Well, if there’s a second or a third recantation I’ll get worried, but I think we can all live with one.

HEFFNER: I wonder, given the dramatic impact in terms of the Feminist Movement that your book had, I wonder about this statistic that you mention that the incidence of at least reported rape, that the numbers have increased.

BROWNMILLER: Yeah? Why do you worry, wonder about it?

HEFFNER: Well, I wonder about it because I would have thought that the book which caused such a furor, was so well known, you became such an important figure in our society, would have dramatized sufficiently the relationship of men, women and rape to have worked to some better purpose than an increase of the statistics.

BROWNMILLER: Well, I’m just not sure that 19-year-old, violence-prone young men – and they are the raping population – I’m not so sure they’ve read my book. And I also think there are influences working on them that are far more compelling.

HEFFNER: The nature of our society.


HEFFNER: That’s what you’re saying.


HEFFNER: No change there? No sufficient change? I mean you…

BROWNMILLER: Not at all. It’s getting worse! It’s getting worse! Hollywood movies are getting more violent. Playboy and Penthouse increase their sadomasochistic content with ever issue.

HEFFNER: And you think it is for those reasons that the incidence of rape increased?

BROWNMILLER: I don’t know if it’s increased. I said the reported figures have increased. But I think that’s more women reporting.


BROWNMILLER: Well, it’s an important distinction to keep in mind.

HEFFNER: Okay, it’s an important distinction. But it’s one we always hear.


HEFFNER: There hasn’t been an increase in this or that or the other thing; people are just reporting it more.

BROWNMILLER: Yeah. Well, I don’t know. I just look around and say, “What can we do? What can we do?” I’ve suggested many things at the end of Against Our Will. I think that there should be more policewomen, more lawyers. I do mention defense training in the book. But I really feel that the one thing we can do is something that our society is not yet prepared to grapple with, and that is to acknowledge the fact that movies and porn magazines have a tremendous influence on young minds. And young minds in their formative stage, and not necessarily the most stable of minds, can be unduly influence by what they see and what they hear. And they then act on these messages in the name of masculinity.

HEFFNER: Okay. Talk about masculinity, macho. I’m puzzled then why the rise of feminism and the increase of the awareness of the Feminist Movement hasn’t worked in the other direction. Is this a failure of feminism?

BROWNMILLER: Well, it might have…No, no, no. There are failures of feminism, but that’s not one of them. It might have worked if in the last 15 years, because of Miller vs. California in 1973 the door was opened to this proliferation of pornography. And once there was hardcore porn, the movies followed and took in some softcore, right? And then television became increasingly more violent. So the only way it can be reversed, I feel, is to start by putting limits on the hardcore stuff.

HEFFNER: Do you see…

BROWNMILLER: Anyway, that was just such a counteraction to the Women’s Movement. And you know, it was understood.

HEFFNER: And overwhelmed it?

BROWNMILLER: Not overwhelmed the movement, but certainly muddied the values of people who were listening with one ear to what we were saying and then going to the movie theater Saturday night.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s talk about the Movement for a moment. What do you think its fate has been? We’re taping this show now in mid-1985. Where is it?

BROWNMILLER: Well, I think it’s in a holding pattern.

HEFFNER: Oh, that’s such a nice thing to say. What do you mean?


HEFFNER: A holding pattern? Holding down? Holding up? Where?

BROWNMILLER: (Laughter) I think it’s been a difficult time for movements in the last few years in America. Maybe part of it is the…

HEFFNER: There’s been a wonderful resurgence of conservatism. So movements haven’t done so poorly.

BROWNMILLER: That’s true. That’s true.

HEFFNER: Well what’s happened to feminism then?

BROWNMILLER: (Laughter) Oh dear.

HEFFNER: Come on. Just between the two of us.

BROWNMILLER: Yeah. I think that we created so many new ideas so fast that the majority of people whom we announced the ideas to and argued with are still chewing on them. I think it’s not so easy to digest all of this new thinking. There was a tremendous explosion of thinking in the late 1960s, early 1970s, ‘til around 1977. And it was thrilling to be there. I will never forget how wonderful it was to sit in a room with a group of women with no great intellectual credentials, right? But they were thinking new thoughts. We were thinking new thoughts together. It was very exciting. But I think part of the Reagan reaction of today is a response to all of this new thinking that changed everybody’s accepted ideas. It happened so fast, so swiftly. I mean, the media was a great help to us. But I think people just want to call a halt, you know, call a moratorium on all this new stuff.

HEFFNER: Now, there are two points of view there, of course. One, call a moratorium, as you suggest. Let us digest this. But another possible interpretation is that it’s not digestible.

BROWNMILLER: That we were all wrong in this. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I really don’t mean “wrong”. Just that it may not be digestible. And I wonder how you feel about that.

BROWNMILLER: I’d feel terrible about that.

HEFFNER: Again, very frankly.


HEFFNER: Do you think there is a large possibility that that’s the case?

BROWNMILLER: I don’t think that we were wrong in anything…well, I don’t think I was wrong in anything that I said. Of course it’s hard not to have doubts. You know, you mean rape isn’t a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear? (Laughter) But one can be right and still have people, the majority of people not want to hear you, not want to accept what you say. I really do believe that the Surgeon General’s report is right, and I continue to smoke cigarettes. I have a need to smoke cigarettes which overpowers my rational understanding that cigarettes are bad for my health. And I think that people have a need to continue in certain patterns that they are operating in, and that overwhelms what we have to say. Also, you know, giving up power is never easy. And why should men give up some power? It’s what we ask. And also working for a living, supporting yourself isn’t easy. And I think a lot of women found that out, to their surprise, to their surprise. You know, the job
market, it’s tough out there, particularly with the unemployment today. There’s a tremendous shortage of heterosexual men. Young women who listened to what feminists had to say never thought that it would also mean that they wouldn’t have a man in their life. And they have a right to have a good relationship with some one. But there are very few men around. I think that had a very large effect on decreasing the militancy of feminism.

HEFFNER: The picture that you are painting is a rather grim one for feminism.

BROWNMILLER: As a movement.

HEFFNER: As a movement.

BROWNMILLER: Yeah, but the ideas are holding. The ideas are holding. I just don’t see the movement that existed in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s when I would go to a meeting any night of the week if I wanted to and talk to women who were excited about what we were doing together. I don’t think I could get 50 people together tomorrow if I wanted to.

HEFFNER: That’s quite an admission.

BROWNMILLER: Uh hum. Well, I’ve been thinking about it a long time. So I am reluctant to say it, but I’ll say it. Yeah. This is not a time for movement feminism. But the ideas are holding. Everyone seems to accept equal pay for equal work now.

HEFFNER: When you say the ideas are holding…

BROWNMILLER: Or the right to a good job. But that’s not movement, yeah.

HEFFNER: But in the last presidential election there seemed to have been with a fairly good, fairly strong woman candidate on a ticket. By the polls – I’m not now talking about the electoral polls, but those who went around asking people what they thought and whom they were going to vote for and why they wanted to vote for them – found much less support, it seems to me, for the first major-party woman candidate for Vice President of the United States than one would have dreamed were these ideas holding.

BROWNMILLER: Well, first of all, no one ever votes for the vice president on a ticket when you’re voting for the president. I wouldn’t hold that against us or Geraldine Ferraro. And second of all, as that campaign developed, there were serious problems, namely her husband.

HEFFNER: You put it off on a man. And now I…

BROWNMILLER: (Laughter) Well…

HEFFNER: You make me smile again, too.

BROWNMILLER: Well, his financial dealings were no asset to her campaign. Both of them were naive. Zaccaro and Ferraro were naïve. So was Mondale.

HEFFNER: All right. Talking about the negative impact of men, and you want to pass it off to that. Do you still feel – and you, I won’t say giggled it away, but you almost tossed it off a moment ago – this notion that rape is really a part of the war of the sexes and…


HEFFNER: You still hold on to that.

BROWNMILLER: I was just talking about what happens if you articulate a new idea. I mean, you have to have a tremendous amount of ego to do that. I mean, why hasn’t anyone else said it? I mean, why did it fall to me to write the first big book on rape?

HEFFNER: Because you were there.

BROWNMILLER: Right, because I was there. But there are all these philosophers, you know, all of these social scientists, all these criminologists. So how come they didn’t do that? So I did proceed, during the four years I wrote the book, with a fair amount of terror. I mean, how come no one ever looked at rape in war before? Why did no one ever isolate that? You know? So it was a little scary. And I still sometimes wonder. You know, it was really nice. It’s been nice in the last several years as they have sociological study after sociological study that now seems to prove that rape is a crime of violence, not of, you know, not primarily of sex. That the rapists test out as average and normal. That’s welcoming. I’m very glad that’s holding. That’s holding. And also, when I talk about pornography in the book, I had an idea that pornography contributed to violence. It’s very nice now that psychologists at major universities are doing studies that confirm that. But suppose they hadn’t? It would have been embarrassing.

HEFFNER: I’m glad for you that the world caught up with you.


HEFFNER: And I think we are getting the signal that our time is over. Susan Brownmiller, thank you so much for joining me today.

BROWNMILLER: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: Good to see you.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you, too, will join us here again next time on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.