The horrible reality of domestic violence and rape isn’t new, of course — Freud originally reported the emotional trauma which ensues in girls and women who cannot prevent persistent sexual abuse or incest. Unfortunately the sheer number of abused women and children in this condition, throughout all levels of society — along with public outrage and pressure from other male doctors — seems to have scared Freud away from truly calling out this sickening situation. Consequently he did a psychological flip-flop of astonishing perversity, coming up with a form of blaming the victim which he called “conversion.” According to Freud, these neurotic women were so incredibly sexually repressed that they could find relief only in fantasies — “and even that they could permit only by imagining themselves passive recipients of violence. Turning their sexual longings into fantasies of rape and incest supposedly relieved them of intolerable guilt” (235-236).
This damagingly misogynistic state of affairs was allowed to continue unabated until shortly after the Vietnam War — when post-traumatic stress disorder in the veterans was recognized as a real medical issue (237). Women “experience rape as life threatening and often fear mutilation and death while they are being assaulted” (238); it is therefore unsurprising that the symptoms exhibited by the combat veterans matched those of women rape victims. As one doctor noted while pushing to have the connection between these symptoms in women and the violence done to them recognized, “Hysteria is the combat neurosis of the sex war” (238).
Perhaps most horrible, “[b]ecause the use of force against women and children has been so deeply embedded in our culture, it has only recently been recognized as a basic violation of human rights” (239). What does this tell women and children? It tells them they are not human. This is, quite simply, unfathomably sick to me. What perverse kind of society simply ignores the consistently threatened violence and oppression of over half its members (230-231)? What sort of sociopath tries to tell all children and women that living in constant low-level fear is normal?
There is one small ray of hope in this horrible morass of culturally condoned sexual abuse, however. Physical development in women does not just increase their strength and confidence — it can also literally reprogram the brain’s neural pathways in a healing manner for victims of violence (241). Admittedly, women are repeatedly told they are too incompetent to defend themselves adequately from a rapist (243-244) — who hasn’t heard that creepy old saw that a woman’s best bet is to not antagonize her attacker? However, studies repeatedly show that trying to be meek and unassuming actually makes you look more like a viable victim to rapists (248) — you are far better to go full out aggressive and try to scare them off in search of easier prey (243, 248). As Dowling notes,
Rape is a learned behavior. It’s been mythologized as a drive rooted in natural sex differences… but rape doesn’t require superior size or strength so much as the fantasy that men are capable of physically dominating women. This fantasy allows both men and women to see women as viable targets for abuse. The rape mystique encourages women to believe that any effort they might make to defend themselves would be futile. … Most violence against women has a point: to reaffirm that women are incapable of responding. A batterer or rapist is basically enforcing his authority by causing pain… violent assault[s are] ‘scripted interactions’ that women are capable of interrupting. (252-253; italics hers)
Perhaps most interesting, the emphasis on women just quietly submitting to rapists is new as of the 70s or so — when women were starting to once more reach for social parity with men. Previous to then — such as around WWII — self-defense manuals were written by military men for civilian women, encouraging them to be strong and confident in order to “increase their ‘value to the war effort'” (242). Further, it was strangely amusing to read the author’s realization, after accidentally and non-confrontationally meeting an adult black bear: “I felt safer … with a 600-pound male bear on a desolate stretch of road than I would a 150-pound man. I’d been conditioned to fear men more than bears! … Something is wrong with this picture” (251). This just goes along with all the other data to show the pervasive myth about men being stronger than women isn’t truth. It’s nothing more than social conditioning — and we don’t have to believe it anymore!
I do agree with a great deal of what Dowling says, and I’m really glad I saw all this data together, so its true significance is clear. I’m not entirely sure I agree with all of her conclusions, however. For example, she states: “Physical equality… puts an end to domination. This, it has become increasingly clear, is the final stage of women’s liberation. By making themselves physically equal, women can at last make themselves free” (259; italics hers). To a point, I’m completely with her — but then I smack up against the wall of my beliefs on personal responsibility.
Women do indeed have a responsibility to become confident and powerful and self-sufficient, this I strongly agree. However, I also strongly believe men have a responsibility too: to rationally handle women as their peers; to lose this socially and personally damaging form of masculinity which requires them to oppress others in order to feel like “real” men. Domination requires at least two: an oppressor and an oppressed. It’s time for not just the oppressed, but for both sides of that equation to eschew domination for a healthier form of egalitarianism. If society is to change, all its members must do so. The onus is not solely upon women to make everything better for everyone else; men need to act as well and start policing their own.