The roots of sexual assault

June 16, 2011

How can we achieve a world without rape or any form of sexual violence? Elizabeth Schulte explains what socialists have to say about the question.

SLUTWALK MARCHES, organized in response to a Toronto police officer who told college students that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized," have spread to cities worldwide. The attention they have drawn to rape and sexual assault is a welcome development in a society that rarely takes violence against women seriously--and, when it does, shifts the blame onto the woman.

Take the recent acquittals of two New York City police officers accused of raping a woman in 2009. In court, the case revolved largely around the fact that the woman was drunk at the time, which supposedly made her story "less credible."

But the reason the woman came in contact with police in the first place was because she thought she had too much to drink, and sought their help in getting home. After they took her to her apartment, the officers raped her, according to the woman--a security camera recorded the cops returning several times over the course of the night.

The woman even managed to later record a conversation with one officer in which he said he used a condom that night. Yet the woman was supposed to be "less credible" because she had been drinking.

SlutWalk marchers protest victim-blaming and sexual assault
SlutWalk marchers protest victim-blaming and sexual assault (Nina Mashurova)

Clothing choices, how much she drinks, her behavior, her occupation, if she changed her mind about wanting to have sex--none of this should make any difference if a woman says she was raped. But in the U.S. justice system, all these things are regularly put on trial to smear a woman's credibility.

And that's not all. While lawyers and judges may not openly discuss it, a woman's race and class play a defining role in whether she is believed.

For example, in 2006, an exotic dancer hired by the Duke University lacrosse team as an entertainer for a party reported that she was beaten, raped, strangled and sodomized by three players in the bathroom during the party. In the media frenzy over the charges, the woman was forced to endure scrutiny of every detail in her life--while the accused were described as young men "with their whole lives ahead of them."

For the majority of victims of sexual assault, the justice system fails miserably. It also fails a number of men who are accused of rape, because the justice system is rigged to punish the poor, and the African American poor in particular.

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In several high-profile cases through history, the vilification and demonization of young Black men accused of sexual assault has been used to create an atmosphere of racist fear. For example, in 1989, when a white woman jogging in New York's Central Park was raped, the media frenzy led to a witch-that swept up five innocent teenage African Americans men, who were rounded up and charged.

With billionaire Donald Trump running ads in newspapers calling for the death penalty and politicians calling for more cops on the streets and tougher sentencing, the innocent men were useful scapegoats. They were later exonerated, but they lost years of their lives in prison. And their innocence didn't stop politicians in New York and elsewhere from passing tough-on-crime legislation that further scapegoated poor minorities.

So in the end, there was no justice for the rape victim--or for the innocent men accused of assaulting her. The only ones who benefited were the politicians responsible for whipping up a fear of monsters waiting to attack around every corner.

STATISTICS SHOW that most rapes and sexual assaults aren't committed by strangers, but by people women already know--including spouses and partners. Some two-thirds of reported rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Thirty-eight percent were a friend or an acquaintance, and 28 percent were an intimate.

According to some conservatives, incidents of sexual assault in which the woman knows her attacker or cannot prove that she fought off a violent attack should not be considered rape. Congressional Republicans made this clear when they tried to pass legislation that would narrow the definition of rape to apply only if it was "forcible," making the woman responsible for proving she fought back.

That conservatives would even try to get away with such anti-women legislation is a sign of their determination to reverse the gains of the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s--and to take us back to the days when a woman could not even accuse her husband of rape.

The women's liberation movement made public the fact that rape happened at home and at school, and wasn't always the stranger in the street at night. The movement raised the slogan "No means no, and yes means yes"--a sentiment that has, over the decades, been all but forgotten in the public discourse about rape and sexual assault.

The movement brought the issue of rape out of the shadows and began to create a climate in which women could insist on a different way of thinking about sexual relationships.

A small part of the movement furthered an idea that is still prevalent today--that rape is really about male power. For some today, this has come to mean that rape has nothing to do with sex, something that should be shared and enjoyed, but is instead about power and violence.

This conclusion is understandable considering the lack of seriousness that sexual assault is taken with in this society. But this characterization inaccurately describes the situation in which rape occurs--and does a disservice to those who want to locate the real source of sexual violence and act to get rid of it.

The idea that sexual assault is about male power can be traced back to such feminist writers as Susan Brownmiller, who argued that rape was the result of a patriarchal power structure in which all men keep all women in a state of fear and intimidation because of their ability to rape. In her 1975 book Against Our Will, Brownmiller argued, "Rape is a historical condition that underlies all aspects of male-female relationships."

While the concept of rape as a man's demonstration of power may strike a chord in cases like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund head who is, indeed, one of the most powerful men in the world, this isn't an accurate characterization for the majority of men, who don't possess such power.

If, as Brownmiller claimed, the power to rape underlines every relationship between a man and woman in society, why then is it the case that most men do not rape or commit sexual assault?

According to this view, all men are ticking time bombs who could rape at any moment--unless, in the best-case scenario, they are "fixed" through individual education or censorship of pornography. This analysis focuses the blame for rape and sexual assault on individual men--and leaves the real culprits off the hook.

The causes of rape and sexual assault go beyond the actions of individual men. They are rooted in a system that thrives on furthering sexist ideas that divide men against women.

UNDER CAPITALISM, women are primarily responsible for raising children, cooking meals in the home and other forms of domestic work. Put in more formal terms, they perform the majority of the labor required for raising the next generation of workers, without receiving a single cent for their work.

And at the same time, working-class women's labor outside the home is compensated, on average, at a lower pay than men.

Beyond this material inequality, society has furthered a set of false assumptions about the differences between men and women--men are portrayed as the "stronger" sex and women as "nurturers," men are the ones who "pursue" and women are the "pursued," men are portrayed as "sex-starved" while women are chaste or disinterested.

Violence against women is the outcome of such a society--a class society that has, for hundreds of years, been maintained in part by the material inequality between men and women, and by the furthering of sexist ideas that divide men and women. Without these divisions that pit workers against one another, it would be impossible for capitalism to maintain its rule.

Sexist ideology encourages men to view women as less than their equals. The conditions that working-class women endure--lower wages, inferior health insurance, an added burden of labor in the home--carries no benefit for working-class men. But the illusion is created for at least some men that they are better off than women. In this context, sexist ideas--that women are intellectually inferior or that they are simply sex objects to please men--will gain a hearing among some men, and play a powerful role in further dividing men and women.

Under capitalism, everything that can be transformed into a commodity is transformed into a commodity--including sex and women's bodies. This process warps the sexual interactions between men and women under capitalism, and our ability to be fulfilled as sexual people.

It is little surprise that in a society that places so little value on working-class women's lives, some men might not view a woman's consent as necessary for sex.

Sexual assault is also the product of a class society in which sexual relationships between men and women are shaped by alienation from their own bodies and emotions, and from one another.

Young men and women aren't provided with the information they need about their own bodies, much less how to communicate their desires. Instead, society gives them false information about what men and women "want"--men want sex and women do not, women should say no or they are "slutty," and men "can't take no for an answer." This leads to understandable confusion for both women and men about what they actually do want, and how they are supposed to act.

According to a National College Women Sexual Victimization Study, one in four women students experience completed or attempted rape during their college years. Forty-two percent of the women who were raped said they had sex again with the men who assaulted them. And 84 percent of college men who committed rape said that they didn't consider what they did rape.

These figures show the shocking frequency with which some young men and women consider rape as within the realm of "normal" sexual experience.

Sex is distorted by the alienation that permeates capitalism, and rape happens in that context. The confused view of male and female "roles" helps explain why three out of four rape victims in the U.S. report that they were raped by someone they know.

THERE ARE plenty of measures in the here and now that would go a long way toward changing all this. For instance, real sex education in schools--not the abstinence-only training so popular among politicians today--could provide the information that men and women need.

Plus, women and men have the power to shift the terms of the debate about sexism and women-blaming, and speak out against rape and sexual assault--coming together to create an atmosphere where women are valued and violence isn't tolerated.

At the SlutWalk demonstrations, for example, women have spoken out about their experiences of rape and sexual assault, making powerful stands on questions that are usually ignored or swept under the rug.

When Dominque Strauss-Kahn, who is accused of raping a housekeeper in a New York City hotel, returned to court for his hearing, he got a welcome he did not expect--from more than 100 housekeepers from several hotels who gathered to protest. "I felt as if I was defending myself, defending my own person," Lourdes Colón-Santos, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who has worked at the Hilton for seven years, told the Guardian. "It could just as easily have been me that this happened to."

The women, most of them immigrants, sent a clear message--we aren't taking it anymore. This is a message that has to be repeated in every city and town.

Ultimately, we need a completely different society. Capitalism is incapable of righting the wrong of rape and sexual assault. It thrives on sexism, violence and alienation, and it has no interest in changing the status quo.

A total transformation of society is needed, where the priorities of the powerful few at the top are replaced by the needs of the majority of the population, and where the complete liberation of men and women is the goal, and every resource of society is devoted toward fulfilling that goal.

Liberation can't be decreed into existence--the material conditions have to be created for it to flourish. As Alexandra Kollontai, a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, wrote:

The champions of bourgeois individualism say that we ought to destroy all the hypocritical restrictions of the obsolete code of sexual behavior. These unnecessary and repressive "rags" ought to be relegated to the archives--only the individual conscience...Socialists, on the other hand, assure us that sexual problems will only be settled when the basic reorganization of the social and economic structure of society has been tackled.

Under socialism, the highest priority of society would be to foster solidarity, liberation and equality for all--including free and accessible health care, child care and birth control, and everything else we need to liberate women from the burdens of household labor and every other shackle that keeps us from being equal participants in society.

With these conditions in place, one can imagine a world free of sexism, rape and sexual violence. Frederick Engels, who showed how the roots of women's oppression lay in the traditional family in his book the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, concluded:

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear.

But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman's surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences.

When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual--and that will be the end of it.

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