Q&A: How Susan Brownmiller fought the media on rape in war, and won

By — April 6, 2012

Back when the media was writing about the rape of a woman in war by describing the shape of her buttocks, Susan Brownmiller was busy preparing her offensive to change how we talk about this atrocity. The first major book to dissect sexualized violence and chronicle its use throughout centuries of war, Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975) was named one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century by the New York Public Library alongside works by Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, and the Women’s Media Center’s own co-founder, Robin Morgan. Here she shares how the women’s movement led her to research rape in war, and how attitudes on the subject have changed over the last 40 years.

Michele Lent Hirsch: What propelled you to research rape in war when nobody else was covering it in-depth?

Susan Brownmiller: I was in a consciousness-raising group of New York radical feminists that decided to hold a speak-out and a conference on rape [in 1971]. And the speak-out was extraordinary because it was the first time in history that women had ever talked openly about being raped. It was just utterly eye opening. Because what women were saying was not what men were saying for centuries.

I put in workshops like “The Psychology of Male Rapists,” and a workshop on rape in war. I put in the workshop on rape in war because the Vietnam War was raging and there were scattered reports of U.S. soldiers raping Vietnamese. I knew Vietnam couldn’t be the first war with rape.

MLH: And you discovered a lot while researching earlier wars?

SB: When I decided to look at rape in World War I, it was certainly not categorized in the New York Public Library system as “World War I Rape.” A librarian knew: She said you have to look up “World War I/Atrocities.” So I looked up World War I atrocities, and I found an extraordinary amount of information. I mean city by city, as the German army advanced…there were reports of rape.

They did fall off as the war progressed, but then I realized by reading a lot about World War I that the method of warfare changed in that war, from the German army advancing into Belgium to trench warfare. In that situation, there were fewer rapes, later in the war. Because the men were just killing each other across a field where they had dug trenches. So that was a big revelation.

But I also found this book—I found that in 1927 this Freudian-oriented psychologist, Howard Lasswell, wrote a book on propaganda techniques in the war. And he concluded that this was just Belgian and French propaganda to get people's sympathy with the Allied cause. That was his conclusion. He dismissed all these reports of rape.

When my book was published, somebody wrote an op-ed that The New York Times happily printed, and said, “Miss Brownmiller is wrong. Howard Lasswell did this study: it was all just propaganda.” So the Lasswell theory [that rape in war was made up for propaganda purposes] had a very popular hold on what I call the “male imagination.”

MLH: What other attitudes toward the subject of rape did you encounter?

SB: While I was [reporting on rape in the Bangladesh War], I had to call a guy named Al Siegel who I think was the chief copy editor at The Times, thinking maybe I had missed this story in The Times. I had seen something, a little mention in the New York Post, but I hadn't seen it in The Times, about rape in Bangladesh. So I called my friend Al. And he said, “Rape in war? That doesn't sound like a Times story.” Which is really funny in retrospect now.

I also discovered that quite often it was a woman reporter who thought it important enough to put in her book. Men didn't. Except sometimes for color or to exploit it sensationally. Aubrey Menen had written an article about a rape in Bangladesh, and he sexualized it totally. He described the “half melons” of the woman's buttocks. It was unbelievable. But that's how men talked about rape.

MLH: Wow. What’s the most surprising thing you uncovered?

SB: The real sexual atrocities that sometimes accompany rape and murder—you know, the rape that doesn’t end up leaving the woman alive—like hacking off the women’s breasts. That definitely has corollaries in reported cases in many conflicts, where the assailant kills the opponent and chops off his penis and puts it in his mouth.

The gratuitous violence afterwards, you know I played that down in Against Our Will. I played down so much stuff that I had heard and read. You know, like rape by priests, which I didn't know whether to believe. Now we could have a whole chapter: All these people came forward. I thought that nobody would believe me. I was afraid to go too far with some this reports and stories because I thought they would seem totally ridiculous. So certainly we’ve come a long way.

MLH: How can we keep making progress?

SB: [We] have to keep the rapist in mind. It’s great to have programs to help the victims—it’s great. Most people who look at rape are more comfortable looking at what can we do about the victims. How do we make some leeway here? How do we get into these men’s heads that rape is a violent crime? It should not be part of their masculinity.