Sexual violence and capitalism
«Break the silence on sexual violence!» was a slogan often heard on Victorian campuses at the end of 1991 as students organised campaigns to force university administrations to provide a safer environment. The annual Reclaim the Night demonstration in Melbourne is one of the largest and liveliest rallies of the year. Whether it be a rape at a club or a sexist judge pronouncing that prostitutes suffer less from rape than «chaste» women, hundreds immediately protest with letters to the papers and street demonstrations. At Queensland University a campaign for improved parking took up the question of safety. Governments have been forced to at least appear to take the issue of violence against women seriously, running TV ads against sexual violence and even providing some funding for refuges. During the eighties governments, police forces and official bodies held an unprecedented number of enquiries and conferences into violence against women, increasingly concentrating on domestic violence.
This reflects the importance of violence against women as a recurring political issue. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, the sexism all women endure in their everyday lives, and the violence and rape suffered by a minority. Secondly, the increasing emphasis placed on the issue of violence by feminists. And thirdly, changes in attitudes to sexuality and women’s lives under twentieth century capitalism. As they have been drawn into waged work in increasing numbers this century, women have come to see themselves more as persons in their own right with their own needs and demands. This contradicts the continuing pressure to be the loving wife and mother with few rights in marriage. In Australia the Second World War had an important impact on women’s sexuality and identity which was never completely eliminated. Their entry into previously male jobs in large numbers brought unheard of economic independence. The dislocation caused by war, along with the presence of large numbers of US servicemen alongside Australian soldiers either on leave or waiting to be sent into battle, loosened the traditional ties by which sexuality was controlled. The «sexual revolution» of the sixties brought the contradictions of women’s new position in society into stark relief. On the one hand, the impact of waged work, the availability of contraception and limited, but increasing access to abortion meant that women began to be seen as sexual beings with real needs and desires. This was a step forward on the image of them as simply passive housewives.
On the other hand, this emergence of women as sexual beings made it easier for their bodies to be exploited even more blatantly as sex objects. Increasingly society measures good relationships in terms of sex, yet the use of women’s bodies to sell commodities or in pornography reinforces the old idea that women do not have equal rights and needs with men.
In this article I examine the themes, analysis and solutions raised by feminists over the last decade or so, with particular reference to recent Australian work, and outline a Marxist analysis of violence against women.
Fundamental changes in women’s lives were made possible by capitalist development. The industrial revolution and the rise of capitalist production disrupted the old feudal family. The new industry drew people from the countryside into new cities where men, women and children were exploited in the factories, mines and mills. This brought about the separation of work and family life. For workers in the industrial slums, the family ceased to exist as an economic unit (though it partially existed as a social unit). But for the ruling class the family remained an important institution for organising their class power and wealth. When they looked for a way to reduce the mortality rates among workers, they naturally turned to the family as a way of having each generation cared for and reared ready for exploitation. Marx and Engels thought the family would die away in the working class, but their prognosis proved to be wrong.
The reality is that women’s and men’s lives are structured by the family. And the family structures and maintains the oppression of women. While relations are entered «freely» by both partners, they are not equal. Women do most of the housework and child care, even when they work outside the home. Women are expected to provide nurturing, love and support. Men, who provide the greater part of family income, are seen as the «bread winners». This is backed up by unequal wages which make it difficult for any individual family to redress this inequality even if they wanted to. This division of labour in the family is often seen as simply the result of male dominance, and benefiting individual men. Actually, it benefits the ruling class because the present and future generations of workers are cared for out of workers’ wages and by women’s double burden of waged work and home responsibilities. Women experience inequality with their husbands in the family, and at work they suffer both sexual oppression and exploitation as workers. Men suffer exploitation, but not sexual inequality.
The gender roles associated with the capitalist family – strong, aggressive male and nurturing, passive female – pervade all of society through the education system, the mass media, entertainment and so on. No individual can escape them, even if they do not live in the so-called nuclear family, whether they marry and have children or not. It is the inequality between men and women, the contradiction between the ideal life of happiness and bliss the family seems to hold out and the reality of long hours of work, the struggle to make ends meet, the constraints on social life because of the lack of decent child care facilities and so on which make the family a site of frustration and oppression. The use of women’s bodies as sex objects reinforces old ideas of women’s responsibility to satisfy men’s needs. And it is not just men who view women this way. All studies of attitudes show how women internalise this view of their role, causing feelings of guilt and inadequacy if they do not come up to their husbands’ demands.
Throughout the history of class society, women have suffered violence at the hands of men. Capitalism completely re-ordered women and men’s lives, but it maintained women’s oppression as well as class oppression. While the family is separate from production, it is not unaffected by changes in the workplace. That is why the changes this century have given rise to contradictions which affect women’s lives in the family. The rise of the women’s liberation movement in the sixties was underpinned by the increasing numbers of women in waged work, giving rise to the demand for control over our sexuality, improved contraception and abortion rights. This made it possible for sexual activity to be separated from marriage and procreation. In spite of the ideology of family life, in most industrialised countries today, only about one third of households consist of a man and woman with their children. Attitudes to motherhood have changed dramatically. In the eighties fewer than half the women surveyed in Australia thought motherhood was a career. The number of children born outside marriage was up to 18 per cent by 1997. The number of people living alone in 1986–87 was 20 per cent of households. It is the continuing contradiction between the promise of these developments and the reality of life under capitalism and women’s continuing oppression which gave rise to concerns first about violence against women generally and then about domestic violence and rape in marriage.
Early writings which influenced the modem wave of feminism did not deal with violence against women in any systematic way. But Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex argued that virtually all sexual relations between men and women constituted violence. A woman’s first sexual encounter is «an act of violence which changes a girl into a woman». She uses all the language of unequal relationships: the woman is «taken», she is «invaded», she «yields» to men’s sexual advances. Susan Brownmiller was influential in promoting this kind of analysis with her book Against Our Will published in 1975. For de Beauvoir «this has always been a man’s world.» And «the female … is the prey of the species». Brownmiller argued that rape «is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.» This theme has become prominent, at times blurring all sexism into the category of violence. It is the case that the everyday sexism of the wolf whistle, anti-women jokes, put-downs, etc create the environment in which violence from a minor nature to forcible rape and battering can occur. But to blur all these situations into one is to ignore the specificity of each and to lessen our understanding of the social relations between the sexes which lead to violence against women.
Brownmiller’s book, apart from its serious theoretical problems, has a weakness which has become increasingly apparent: its concentration on «stranger danger», rape as a violent attack by strangers. It is now recognised that most violence against women occurs within the walls of the family home. Today, with so much emphasis on sexual violence, especially in the family, it is hard to imagine that only fifteen to twenty years ago, even feminists were reluctant to discuss the issue and accepted ideas that are now recognised as part of the ideology which minimises women’s access to support and defence against violence. Brownmiller states that until a discussion of rape she attended in 1970 she thought «rape wasn’t a feminist issue», that «the women’s movement had nothing in common with rape victims».
She continues by talking of the pressure for women to «draw the line», and while these women may actually want sex, they do not always know how or where to draw the line, «by which time the men concerned may feel that they have dues to collect». Diana Russell writes that even in the eighties, feminists in the US were reluctant to take up the question of rape in marriage. It is worth reminding ourselves of this incredible shift in attitude even by feminists who today would correctly insist however we dress, wherever we go, yes means yes, and no means no. In student newspapers it is asserted over and over again, echoing Brownmiller, that sexual violence, and in particular rape, is a means of social control of women by all men. Unless we want to argue that earlier feminists were complicit in this violence, their ideas require some explanation. We can only do this by developing an analysis of such violence as a consequence of class society, the ideas of which affect us all.
A major reason why violence in the home was covered up was the ideology of the family as a sanctuary of love and private life, not to be invaded by public scrutiny. Of course this sanctuary is «the man’s castle» and women feel pressured to be available for sex at all times. The law did not recognise marital rape in most states until the late seventies or even into the eighties. So it is not surprising that common sense folklore denied it. Russell found, in developing interviewing techniques for her study of just under 1,000 women, that it was extremely difficult to ensure women would report rape by their husbands. The interviewers were eventually told not to use the word rape, but to ask if they had experienced unwanted sexual activity with their husband. Only six of the eighty-seven women raped by their husbands mentioned it when first asked «at any time in your life, have you ever been the victim of rape, or attempted rape?» Virtually all thought they had been sexually abused, but not raped, although some later described the experience as «like rape». Rape is a specific question, and marital rape was not recognised in most US states at the time of the survey. Nevertheless, what constitutes «abuse» is also a subjective assessment. Many women who expect to be at their husband’s beck and call may not regard as abuse behaviour which would be so regarded from other men. This hidden violence in the family was masked even more by the lack of welfare or divorce laws which enabled women to leave abusive relationships easily. Part of the explanation has to be that it is a minority of women who suffer abuse. Russell, whose survey is one of the most methodologically rigorous and therefore more reliable as a pointer to the extent of violence, found that 21 per cent said they had suffered violence from their husband and 26 per cent unwanted sexual experience. Given that violence is most prevalent in less privileged, less well-off families many middle class women in the women’s movement are not likely to have had personal experience of such abuse.
This quote also takes up a theme which is revealed in studies where women voice their feelings: that you can’t really expect much from marriage – it may even be «disgusting» – but it must be endured. This novel is an answer to the mythology widely accepted among feminists and most of the left today that only feminists have been able to deal with women’s oppression. Clearly, Prichard, a leading Communist Party member from the time of its formation in the early 1920s, was far in advance