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Archive for May, 2008

Susan Brownmiller on statistics, stranger rape and acquaintance rape. From Against Our Will (1975)

Trigger warning: This passage, from Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking 1975 study Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, includes testimony from a rape survivor, describing her own experience of stranger rape.

Prior to the 1980s, most social science research on rape was concentrated on stranger rape — in which a man assaults a woman who is unknown to him, who is targeted at random or opportunistically, in the midst of another crime (such as mugging or burglary). At the time, there little reliable research on date rape and other forms of acquaintance rape. Later research found that acquaintance rape was far more prevalent than previously realized, and far more common than stranger rape — that 90% or more of all rapes were committed by a date, an intimate partner, or another man known to the victim. This passage, from New York radical feminist Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking 1975 study Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, summarizes the data that was available in the mid-1970s, and the limitations of that data, which feminists were beginning to investigate and reveal.

According to the task force of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, half of all rape victims (53 percent) were total strangers to their attackers; another 30 percent were slightly acquainted. Seven percent had a family relationship to their rapists (daughter, sister, niece or cousin) and 3 percent were not related but had a previous close association. (As with most percentage distributions concerning crime, there is always a category called unknown or other.) The task force concluded, If a woman is attacked, then, considerable justification does appear to exist for the fear that the offender will be a stranger.

As I mentioned in Chapter 6, The Police-Blotter Rapist, the statistical profile of rape falls midway between the profiles for assault and robbery. In keeping with this pattern, when interpersonal relationships in these three crimes of violence are compared side by side, we find that strangers commit 21 percent of all assaults, 53 percent of all rapes and 79 percent of all robberies.

Testimony: About five years ago when I lived in Chicago I awoke one night gagged with my hands pinned down by someone who was wearing leather gloves and holding a razor to my throat. I wasn’t quite sure I was awake. I thought I must be in the middle of a nightmare that seemed much more realistic than usual and I couldn’t break it up. I was trying to establish if there really was a person there. And then I did get my wrist cut slightly, so I realized it was real and that I was risking my life and that I’d better hold still and let the man have intercourse with me. He was very fast. He wasn’t wearing any clothes on the bottom half of his body and he ran out the window in that position, just like Romeo on the balcony, onto the fire escape and down.

I got up, turned on the lights and took a bath in alcohol. I was living alone. I had to get out of the apartment. I set off with my coat on and then I realized the man had gotten in my purse and left me without a penny. Apparently he had been in the apartment for some time before I woke up because I saw he had gagged me with my own dishtowel. It was then that I thought to call the police.

Stranger-rape has clearly been the preferred category from the point of view of the police precinct, the category most likely to win the determination of founded. When a woman is raped by a total stranger, her status as victim is clean and untranished in the station-house mentality. In Brenda Brown’s 1973 Memphis study, 73 percent of all founded rapes were committed by strangers, and Brown reported, The closeness of the relationship was a frequently used reason for categorizing cases as unfounded. According to the Uniform Crime Reports, unfounded cases are frequently complicated by a prior relationship between victim and offender.

For this reason it remains difficult to assess the true percentage of rapes committed by strangers. As the women’s movement continues to press a greater understanding of the crime of rape on the general public, women who have been assaulted by men they know will feel freer to report the crime and these reports will begin to be treated with the seriousness they deserve. At the present time, police precincts still operate from the assumption that a woman who has been raped by a man she knows is a woman who changed her mind afterwards.

Susan Brownmiller (1975), Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. 351–352.