The XX Factor

Former Feminist Hero Somehow Thinks That Victim-Blaming Can Stop Rape

Women on a Slut Walk do not cause rape. Men who rape cause rape. 

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Today’s case study in the importance of not having heroes: Susan Brownmiller. She was instrumental in making rape a political issue with her landmark 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, but now she’s let a “kids these days” urge overtake her feminist sensibilities. In an interview with The Cut’s Katie Van Syckle, Brownmiller gets downright victim-blame-y, sneering at girls today with their booze and their clothes and their asking-for-it. Here’s a sampler:

Culture may tell you, “You can drink as much as men,” but you can’t. People think they can have it all ways. The slut marches bothered me, too, when they said you can wear whatever you want. Well sure, but you look like a hooker. They say, “That doesn’t matter,” but it matters to the man who wants to rape.

Brownmiller also boasts about taking “a hard line with victims of domestic violence, too”—I mean, finally, am I right? Someone had to put those victims of domestic violence in their place!—by blaming them for not being strong or wealthy enough to walk away.

By the time Brownmiller wanders back to rape, opining, “It is a little late, after you are both undressed, to say ‘I don’t want this,’” Van Syckle tosses in a bit of shade-y editorializing:

I guess the hope is that young men would respect that.

That would be nice. There is not much attention on them is there?

Goodness, it sure would be nice to talk about the people who actually commit these crimes and how they are choice-making individuals, instead of acting like rapists and abusers are like the weather and it’s the victim’s fault for not bringing an umbrella. Instead, everything is forever about how women need to stop dating, drinking, or wearing anything but a muumuu. (Of course overdrinking isn’t a good idea. But it’s also true that feminists don’t promote getting blackout drunk.)

There’s a real irony here, because our cultural allergy to focusing on men who actually rape also prevents us from having a productive conversation: one that should be had with both men and women—ideally starting when they are boys and girls—about why rapists rape. We would talk about how our culture valorizes male domination. How some men learn to feel big by putting women down. How both men and women often stand aside and let some men express toxic views about women without being challenged.

Consider, for instance, the notorious Steubenville case. The victim did drink too much, which is unfortunate, but the boys around her had the choice to gently put her to bed instead of attacking her. If you want to see the cause, you have to look at the culture around the assault: the guys who made a video laughing about it, the spreading of the images, the unwillingness of anyone to interfere, the congratulations for domineering, abusive behavior. That is why assault happens, not because some girls drink too much. We need to help young people, both men and women, spot predatory behavior for what it is, and to push against it instead of laughing it off. 

But having that conversation requires talking with and about men. As the Brownmiller interview shows, even for feminists, policing women and talking about their choices is just a lot easier to do. It’s comfortable, like an old nightgown (one that hopefully doesn’t show off too much thigh!). We’ve tried the woman-policing route for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years now. It’s time to switch it up and start focusing on male choices instead.