To the Editor:
The Nut of the Year award goes to Michael Novak for his review of Against Our Will [Books in Review, February]. As for the rest of you at COMMENTARY, tsk tsk.
New York City
To the Editor:
Susan Brownmiller devoted four years of her life to researching the history, psychology, and sociology of rape for her nearly 500-page book, Against Our Will—all of which Michael Novak dismisses in two rather hysterical columns of COMMENTARY.
What makes Mr. Novak’s review one of the shoddiest ever to appear in COMMENTARY is that he seems not so much to have read Miss Brownmiller’s book as to have read into it. His very first sentence gives him away: “The manifest thesis of this book may be simply stated: it is that the basic sexual relation between men and women is rape.” Having read Against Our Will, I know that Miss Brownmiller neither states nor implies anything of the kind. Rather, she does correlate the incidence of rape to such factors as patriarchal legal codes, war, slavery, racism, poverty, prisons, etc. It may well be true that Miss Brownmiller overstates her case in the one full sentence from the book which Mr. Novak does quote, which describes rape as “a continuous process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (emphasis hers), but that hardly justifies Mr. Novak’s verbal caricature.
An example of such caricature is the reviewer’s conclusion that Against Our Will is “‘nothing more or less’ [quoting Brownmiller out of context] than a propagandistic attack on heterosexuality and marriage (and by extension the family)” whose “militant logic makes it a tract in celebration of lesbianism and/or masturbation.” Perhaps Mr. Novak will explain precisely what he means by “implicit logic”; I sense the phrase conveniently serves to mask his own fears and prejudices. Revealingly, the reviewer cites not a mite of evidence in support of his contention. Understandably so, for he would be hard put to do so: lesbianism is mentioned once in passing—in connection with women inmates; the nuclear family is only very sporadically dealt with (and at least once, in the Vietnamese context,. as a deterrent to rape); and “masturbation” isn’t even listed in the index (what is so horrendous about masturbation, and why it should be linked with lesbianism, Mr. Novak never bothers to explain).
Finally, Mr. Novak argues that the rejection of the Equal Rights Amendment in New York this past November signified a broad-based rejection of “radical feminism,” whatever that is. Anyway, if the prevalence of “radical feminism” can be measured by the success of the ERA, Mr. Novak really does have a great deal to fear. For the national ERA has, after all, passed both houses of Congress by well over two-thirds margins (and 517 of the 535 members of Congress are men), as well as 34 state legislatures. And the state ERA in New York, while losing, won the support of nearly 40 per cent of the voters, including a great many men. There must be a great many more “radical feminists” around than meet the eye.
In a more serious vein, once COMMENTARY made the decision to review Against Our Will, it had an obligation to assign it to someone who would respond to the book with an open mind. In contrast, Mr. Novak’s review is fundamentally not serious: it is more of an anti-feminist diatribe. Intending perhaps to give Miss Brownmiller a verbal thrashing, the reviewer only wound up thrashing about in his own rhetoric, most of which had very little if anything to do with the multi-dimensional perspective on rape found in Against Our Will. How disappointing, how exasperating, to see such a normally intelligent writer as Michael Novak read so badly, analyze so little, and snap so much.
David M. Szonyi
New York City
To the Editor:
Michael Novak’s attack on Susan Brownmiller is an incredible ad feminam assault. Book reviewers who do not trouble to read beyond the first chapter of a work usually do not make their negligence so glaringly apparent. In this instance it is not even clear that Mr. Novak read the first chapter of the right book, however, since Miss Brown-miller never makes any mention of masturbation, and hating rapists surely ought not to be equated with hating men!
Of course Miss Brownmiller may be said to exaggerate her position. She is trying to make a point. In this day and age you have to say something outrageous in order to attract any attention at all. And maybe she even believes some of the nonsense about “exploitation” with which the book begins. But the main thrust of the argument in the book is not anti-sex, much less anti-family or lesbian. Mr. Novak’s accusations . . . are as crude as the sexual abuse against which Miss Brownmiller is protesting.
The principal argument of the book is that rape has nothing to do with sex. It is simply disgustingly aggravated assault. . . . The perpetrators are not mentally ill, just mean, and they ought to be jailed until they are too old to furnish any grist for the recidivism mill. This is the book’s message. . . .
Miss Brownmiller goes on to discuss the high incidence of sexual abuse of children, male and female, and its unthinkable cost to the victims in trauma and guilt. She makes specific recommendations for legal reform which would make it possible to prosecute those who molest children sexually, whether the perpetrators are blood kin or not. To assert that this concern with the psychological health and welfare of babes in arms constitutes an assault on the family is both absurd and outrageous.
Rape amounts to an assault on the family, as well as on the victim. If Miss Brownmiller is too narrowly focused to see that, Mr. Novak ought not to be. Miss Brownmiller attacks prostitution and pornography, both of which degrade women and bestialize men. Only Mr. Novak sees prostitution and pornography as pillars of the family in our tradition. I know of no one who would agree with him on this point. Most of us believe prostitution and pornography to be at least highly objectionable. Even if Miss Brownmiller opposed the family in her heart, which I think is highly doubtful, following her recommendations could only work to strengthen the family. . .
I am shocked that the editors would publish . . . what is so obviously a broadside attack against all “those feminists” lumped together without any investigation whatsoever. Maybe the women are right who say they are the new “niggers” in American society.
S. G. Sanders
Providence, Rhode Island
To the Editor:
The review of Against Our Will is a combination of distortion and pretense, a prime example of the latter being the pretense that Michael Novak read any part of the book besides the short introduction. Mr. Novak’s contention that to examine Miss Brownmiller’s arguments is to involve oneself in “intellectual corruption” is laughable: it is of Mr. Novak’s “intellectual corruption” one should be wary. His is the sort which manifests itself in a deliberate misstatement of the views of one’s ideological opponents.
Miss Brownmiller does not equate the primal act of intercourse with an act of rape. Her definition of rape is contained on page 18, a page Mr. Novak either forgot about, deliberately ignored, or never read: “If a woman chooses not to have intercourse with a specific man and the man chooses to proceed against her will, that is a criminal act of rape.”
Miss Brownmiller does not propagandize against heterosexuality and marriage. She objects to a certain form of both: one in which women are regarded as things to be conquered, won, or sold, as prey to be captured, or as chattels to be claimed and owned. As for Mr. Novak’s assertion that Miss Brownmiller is celebrating lesbianism, I think that she would find no more merit in a female’s possessing a certain attitude toward women than in a male’s possessing that attitude. That Mr. Novak believes Miss Brownmiller stupid enough to assert, even implicitly, that the practices of lesbianism and masturbation are preventatives of rape or solutions to the problem, is evidence of Mr. Novak’s attitude toward women, particularly toward those who question the role men like Mr. Novak have assigned them. Mr. Novak’s further contention that women who voted against the ERA in New York were casting a vote against everything radical feminism stands for is a testament to his own misunderstanding of the radical feminist position and his willingness to promulgate and to perpetuate the misunderstanding.
Miss Brownmiller does not have contempt for women as victims. She herself describes the change in her attitude toward victims of rape from one of contempt to one of compassion and activist concern. Her contempt is for the attitude that women have been, are, and always will be, unable to protect themselves and thus are meant, in some strangely deterministic sense of that word, to be victims, to be possessed by men, to be dependent upon men for their personal, physical safety. She is intent upon showing just how prevalent this attitude is. . . .
Mr. Novak seems to think that a valid indication of the acceptability of Miss Brownmiller’s thesis is the number of volumes she has sold. If he is consistent and if he judges his own work on the same basis, then he must acknowledge the unacceptability of his own views: I haven’t noticed his name on any best-seller lists this year either. He attributes the selection of the book by the New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best of the year, and the selection of its author by Time as one of the persons of the year, to the paranoia of the media in regard to feminism. I think it interesting that Mr. Novak received neither sort of recognition. As his review is replete with those ideas which are the bastion of male priggery and domination (that radical feminists hate men, sex, and the family, that radical feminists are advocates of masturbation and lesbianism), it would not surprise me to find out that the vindictiveness and malicious distortion found in this review are due to Mr. Novak’s anger at being bested by a woman.
C. H. Siegel
To the Editor:
Michael Novak seems to have lost not only his masculinity but also (which is worse) his ability to read; after this second impotence, there is no other. Miss Brownmiller’s thesis is not that “the basic sexual relation between men and women is rape” nor does she, even implicitly, argue for masturbation and lesbianism as “an ideal way of life”—whatever this criticism, which appears to confound life and technique, is supposed to mean. She argues rather that the crime of rape is an archaic legal institution, originally designed to protect male property in women, not to protect women (or anyone else) from sexual violation; and her very plain thesis is that the crime should be redefined as a form of aggravated assault, whether committed on man, woman, or child. . . . She explicitly states, indeed, that masturbation is preferable to rape and I think she would agree that a lesbian relationship between consenting adults has much, by comparison, to recommend it—but who would not?
Having thus totally distorted Miss Brownmiller’s findings and thesis, Mr. Novak appeals for proof of his interpretation to the “ideological mushiness” of New York critics and to his own belief that Against Our Will has not made “the major lists” (unnamed) because (pseudo-fact?) women will not buy it. The hopeless obtuseness of this review might be safely ignored, but when Mr. Novak preens himself on his insight and intellectual courage in standing up for Mom and the kids, I protest.
To the Editor:
. . . Michael Novak tells us that the vote against the Equal Rights Amendment was not a vote against its particulars; it was a vote against lesbianism and on behalf of the family. He may be right. There are unfortunate associations in the public mind and terribly confused messages from the media. But why doesn’t he lament that result; why does he regard the vote as courageous? . . . Why doesn’t he separate the issues for us? . . . Why does he cement his confusion in a review of a book which is only tentatively connected to the Equal Rights Amendment?
New York City
Michael Novak writes:
Letters on my review would, I knew, make assault on virtually every quality—sensibility, intelligence, morality, sanity. They would be deep in the grip of high moral intentions, stuck tight in that grip by outrage at criminal rape. Their writers would, some of them, assume that radical feminism is a humanistic, liberating, and moral force in our society; and that to stand with it is virtuous, against it villainous. They would give Miss Brownmiller’s book a favorable reading by failing to take seriously the strong language in which she couches the ideology and logic of her argument; they would lightly brush aside her “exaggerations” and “overstatements” and find in her words, instead, the book that they would have written. These letters are worse than my expectations.
I also dreaded the necessity of opening that corrupting book again. I had read it at least three times. (My correspondents seem to wish testimonials on such matters.) The first draft of my review exceeded thirty pages; the second draft twenty pages. I still feel dirty from the exercise.
Here again the key words: “From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (emphasis Brownmiller’s). That makes me and all men conscious agents of rape. Miss Brown-miller calls the male genitalia “a weapon to generate fear.” Again: “By anatomical fiat—the inescapable construction of their genital organs—the human male was a natural predator. . . .” Again: “One possibility, and one possibility only, was available to women. . . . Female fear of an open season of rape, and not a natural inclination toward monogamy, motherhood, or love, was probably the single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man, the most important key to her historic dependence, her domestication by protective mating.” Thus Miss Brownmiller’s vision of the life of our two sexes. The texts are easily multiplied.
When did you last rape a woman? It is unworthy of any male reviewer to reply to the accusations made in this book. The view of sex involved in it is among the most corrupt in the annals of any literature. It is especially corrupt because it attempts to manipulate our natural revulsion against rape. We who are not rapists are supposed to assume the guilt of rapists. We are led to think in the reading, as Miss Brownmiller did in the writing (according to her words in the Washington Post): “You get deep into your work and you get so involved that you begin to think rape is the basis of the sex act.” The book will not allow us merely to study criminal rape and learn how to reduce its frequency. It demands far more of us than that. That extra ideological load is its corruption, and it is basic to the book’s intention and execution.
Thinking clearly is one way to distinguish excess ideology from limited and clear issues. Radical feminists—they call themselves by that name, David M. Szonyi might note, should he examine their published writings—prosper by public confusion. Miss Brownmiller’s book is an excellent case in point. Who could disagree with the thesis that criminal rape is criminal and should be reduced as much as possible? But her thesis implicates us in far more than that. For example, that rapists are agents of all other men; that on rapists “rests an age-old burden that amounts to an historic mission: the perpetuation of male domination over women by force”; and that “men who commit rape have served in effect as front-line masculine shock troops, terrorist guerrillas” in the service of all other men.
S. G. Sanders notes that Miss Brownmiller “exaggerates,” “says something outrageous in order to attract attention,” and champions “nonsense.” So said I. Sanders then reads “the main thrust of the argument of the book” as though Miss Brownmiller has disowned what she earlier wrote. She does not. It is integral to her vision. Sanders does not take her seriously.
Far more men suffer under aggravated assault than women under rape, so, contrary to S. G. Sanders, rape must have something to do with sex. Is it necessary to say that I believe rapists should be jailed (did I need Miss Brownmiller for that?), or that I believe prostitution and pornography to be “at least highly objectionable”? I detest being forced into such platitudes when my assent is really being sought for other ends.
C. H. Siegel doesn’t grasp the shortcut provided by masturbation and lesbianism; but radical thinkers must be supposed to intend radical interpretations: “Had it not been for this act of biology, an accommodation requiring the locking together [Brownmiller's image] of two separate parts, penis into vagina, there would be neither copulation nor rape as we know it. . . . This single factor may have been sufficient to have caused the creation of the male ideology of rape.” Remove men, remove rape. Has C. H. Siegel not been reading radical feminist literature or not attending to the recent public arguments of NOW? Miss Brownmiller’s book fills a significant gap in radical feminist ideology; it is not an isolated book, or without an intellectual and sociological context.
What does Hugh Amory mean by “masculinity”? Owning “a weapon to generate fear”? He is condescending to Miss Brownmiller, accepting from the complex tissue of her confusions only what was well known before she “devoted four years of her life” (Szonyi) to her subject. But “the crime of rape” is not “an archaic legal institution,” even to Miss Brownmiller.
“There are,” Colin Greer writes, “unfortunate associations in the public mind and terribly confused messages from the media.” By lamenting these in Miss Brownmiller, whose book was itself one of the great “media events” of last year, I was of course lamenting them in the general case. By taking one clear analytic step with Miss Brownmiller, I hoped to clarify the general atmosphere, so that, indeed, issues like equal pay for equal work might become separated in the public mind from the fog created both by Miss Brownmiller and the sisters she explicitly thanks for her conversion: “Something important and frightening to contemplate had been left out of my education—a way of looking at male-female relations, at sex, at strength, and at power. . . . I found myself forced by my sisters in feminism to look it squarely in the eye.” To note that a widely publicized writer was forced, somehow, to look at life crookedly and in unbelievably distorted ways is one function, is it not, of social criticism concerned with social policy?
Miss Brownmiller’s tsk-tsk makes me recall third grade, and so does her idiom. But these are adult issues, and what she has written she is saddled with until she has another “revelation.”