The hardest books to read are often the best.
Well, "wanted" may be too strong a way to put it. I'm not sure that anyone, or at least anyone I'm interested in knowing, really "wants" to read about rape. Still, I have long wanted to sit down with Ms. Brownmiller's book despite its unpleasant content. My interest, not in the subject itself but in this particular book, was fostered by an ex-girlfriend of mine from many years ago. I won't go into that story in any depth, save to say that I cared about her very deeply, and she became a survivor of rape when she was 13. Though I did not meet her until some years later, that event impacted our relationship in many ways, and I was there both as a witness and as an active participant in her struggle to define herself as a woman in the aftermath. And if you've never been that close to such a thing, know that the aftermath can be lengthy and traumatic.
In any case, my ex-girlfriend was at one point reading Against Our Will as part of an effort to understand the phenomenon of sexual assault. I can remember one particular passage I happened to read at the time, when the book was left open in my bedroom, a passage that went like this (and, of course, I'm quoting from the book now because my memory isn't quite this good):
Hubert Selby did a brilliant fictional treatment of gang rape in "Last Exit to Brooklyn." Tralala, a young bar hooker down on her luck, returns to her old familiar stamping grounds in Brooklyn where she tries to hustle a customer away from two regulars. She is very drunk and more out of a spirit of competition than anything else, she offers to take on the entire bar. Set up in the back of a wrecked car on a vacant lot, Tralala is at first a willing participant in a gang bang as she swills her beer and the guys in line fight over who is going to be first. Soon the Greeks from the luncheonette come over, and then someone puts in a call to the Navy base and the seamen join the swelling ranks. Someone complains that the car is beginning to smell and Tralala, car seat and all, is placed on the ground. Beer is passed down the line and somebody shoves a can against Tralala's mouth. It splits her lip and Tralala spits out a piece of tooth. Everybody laughs. Guys who have had their turn join the end of the line for seconds. Tralala passes out.
"...they slapped her a few times and she mumbled and turned her head but they couldn't revive her so the continued to fuck her as she lay unconscious on the seat in the lot and soon they tired of the dead piece and the diasychain brokeup and they went back to Willies the Greeks and the base and the kids who were watching and waiting to take a turn took out their disappointment on Tralala and tore her clothes to small scraps put out their cigarettes on her nipples pissed on her jerkedoff on her jammed a broomstick up her snatch then bored they left her lying amongst the broken bottles rusty cans and rubble of the lot and Jack and Freddy and Ruthy and Annie stumbled into a cab still laughing and they leaned toward the window as they passed the lot and got a good look at Tralala lying naked covered with blood urine and semen and a small blot forming on the seat between her legs as blood seeped from her crotch..."
[Editorial Note: It would appear from the above, and this is a trivial comment, that Hubert Selby is rather poorly acquainted with periods and commas.]
As I discovered during my research into wartime rape, the ramming of a stick, a bottle or some other object into a woman's vagina is a not uncommon coup de grace. Just how frequently this occurs statistically remains a mystery, for it has never been studied. Police department m.o. sheets in Los Angeles and Denver provide blanks to be checked off next to "inserts object in vagina." The Denver form lists "inserts foreign object into rectum" as well.
Needless to say, such is a passage that stays with you, particularly when it conjures up images of such events happening to someone you know and care about, as opposed to some faceless stranger or non-existent charatcer. For those readers who think, perhaps, I am being overly-sensitive about a retelling of what is a fictional account, I remind you that events such as the one described above are hardly unheard of. A well-respected movie was even made dealing with one somewhat-similar case.
So, leaving aside my motivations for reading this book as well as my sordid past, what would I say about this effort?
Well, first off, it's really good. By that I mean that it is gripping, powerful, and meticulously well researched. Susan Brownmiller manages to provide an examination of rape that is historical, mythical, criminological, sociologicial, epidemiological, and feminst all in a single work. Such an achievement is remarkable in its own right, and becomes all the moreso when we realize that it was published in 1975 (I have a copy of the 1993 large format softcover edition). To accomplish such a dramatic work of scholarship at such an early point in the Women's Movement is truly outstanding. Susan Brownmiller deserves every ounce of fame this book has brought her.
In more specific terms, I was impressed by her honest treatment of horrific incidents from recent American conflicts (pg. 102), her detailed treatment of previous work in the field (see particularly page 180), and her attempts to situate rape within the larger context of male/female, black/white, and elite/non-elite relations. In her way of thinking, the bodies of women become a sort of battleground used by the men in different groups in order to establish dominance. Her recasting of rape, not as a crime of passion committed for purposes of sexual gratification, but as a crime of power, committed by men against specific women, women as a group, and rival men, represents a tremendous improvement over previous conceptions of the crime.
At the same time, I cannot say that I whole-heartedly approved of everything in the book. It is, of course, somewhat dated, particularly in terms of its references to popular culture. Such an issue is trivial, however, and could be easily solved with some discreet editorial additions or footnotes in later printings. On a more serious level, Ms. Brownmiller makes relatively crude arguments against statistical analysis (For example a concluding remark that, "Statistical analysis is a valuable tool when it deals with reported crime. Unreported crime, however, remains beyond the magic of computers." pg. 173), her speculations on the origins of rape in pre-historic periods which she then treats essentially as fact (see the excerpt from her book located here for an example.), factual errors about biology (Contrary to Brownmiller's statements, recent research suggests that humans are far from the only primates, or even animals, in which sex and power are linked in a variety of ways. Indeed, Frans de Waal of Emory University explains, "The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power; the bonobo resolves power issues with sex."), and a feminist rhetoric that often overpowers her argument. In all cases but the last, I think this is clearly a reflection of the time in which the book was written, and thus the criticisms are not severe.
The last criticism, however, can only partially be written off as an excess of the time in which the book was penned. I can, of course, thoroughly understand how the time had an impact. During this era in the mobilization of women, particularly given that the book itself would have been started considerably before 1975, the need for a strident voice was overpowering. Susan Brownmiller quite ably stepped into that gap, providing a strong rallying point for women and, more broadly, all opponents of rape. However, in doing this job so well, the book unfortunately hamstrings itself with wider audiences. A reader who is not even as liberal as myself will find the feminist philosophy that underlies and informs the narrative to be strange and quite probably repellent. Further, it opens the book to a multitude of accusations of bias and prejudgement which, in perfect honesty, are not entirely without merit. That our preconceptions of rape and sexual violence, particularly at the time when the book was written, were also terribly biased will not provide an adequate defense.
The simple truth is that, for all of its scholarship, this was not intended to be a scientific work. It does not adhere to standards of evidence we would find adequate, it does not restrict itself to assertions that can be solidly backed up, and it does not couch its arguments in the dispassionate and, more important, non-threatening language that characterizes a scientific discipline. It is, for all intents and purposes, a sort of feminist-propaganda. That being said, it is a provocative and inflammatory look into a social phenomenon that deserves further study. This book provides rich fodder for theorizing, and challenges liberals to provide empirical evidence in support of it, and conservatives to dare to refute it.
So, in the final analysis, I would recommend this book for individuals already in advanced sociology classes, or who have political leanings of a moderate or left-of-center variety. For individuals of a more conservative bent, however, this book may act more as a pollarizing force, driving them to adhere even more tenaciously to their positions than they did previously, rather than swaying them to a new point of view.
If you want a book to subtly corrode your opponents' views this isn't it. On the other hand, if you want a book that challenges the status quo powerfully and vocally, if not necessarily effectively, this is your huckleberry.
Or, to use the badger-scale, I'd give it a negative 30.