In her essay Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words, Sharon Marcus argues for a post-modernist view of “understanding rape to be a language” (Marcus 1992, p. 387), that it is the narrative of female victimhood and male aggression that makes women vulnerable to rape and is itself reinforced by rape and the way we think about it. The prevailing view of rape, she says, is that it cannot be prevented, “only postrape events offer possible occasions for intervention” (Marcus 1992, p. 388).
Her argument centres on the cultural view of women as “endangered, violable, and fearful” (Marcus 1992, p. 390), an assumption that is internalised by women and makes them unwilling or unable to resist; the rapist “strives to imprint the gender identity of 'feminine victim' on the target” (Marcus 1992, p. 391) and it is her acquiescence to this role rather than a physical fact of superior strength or power that allows him to impose his will. She suggests that a woman who refuses to take on this role robs the would-be rapist of his power – a power that existed only within the narrative of rapist and victim and does not arise from the reality of conflict between two self-determining actors.
This narrative role of feminine victim “excludes [women's] agency, and capacity for violence” (Marcus 1992, p. 395) – a woman who has accepted this role will feel herself incapable of defending herself, and therefore will not attempt to do so, and it is this lack of defence that makes the rape possible. An active defence is useful not merely because of the increased difficulty for the attacker but because it disrupts the script and therefore disrupts the potential rapist's view of his own role; if the woman is not a powerless victim, then the story cannot play out as expected. Rather than being simply an exercise of will over a passive object it has become a struggle for dominance between two wills, two people. “Verbal self-defense can successfully disrupt the rape script by [asserting] a woman's agency” (Marcus 1992, p. 396).
She also argues that the legal response to rape supports the positioning of women as passive victims, “[viewing] them as objects which have been violated” (Marcus 1992, p. 397) (rather than conceptualising the attack as a violent struggle between two persons) and thus rape as “the invasion and destruction of property” (Marcus 1992, p. 397) and not a direct assault on a person. More than that, “adherents of rape culture see female sexuality as a property which only men can truly own [and] rape thus becomes the theft or violation of one man's property rights by another” (Marcus 1992, p. 398). In this view the woman is not even the true victim any more than a house is the victim of a burglary.
The solution she proposes is to “revise the idea of female sexuality as an object” as “the horror of rape is not that it steals something from us but that it makes us into things to be taken” (Marcus 1992, p. 399), and so to simply position a woman's sexuality as her own property fails to address the underlying problem, that rape is characterised as a property crime. To effectively fight rape it is essential to undermine the idea that it is closer in nature to theft than to battery, to see it as a violation not of property rights but of bodily integrity.
Such a re-characterisation is, of course, a threat to traditional patriarchal power structures that position girls as the property of their fathers until such time as they are given away to a another man who becomes their husband, and has broader implications for all interactions between men and women, but most particularly in issues such as domestic violence and so-called “men's rights”.
“Antifeminist men's groups developed alongside [and as a reaction to] feminism [and] tapped into mainstream efforts touting the reinforcement of the heterosexual, patriarchal family as the cure of social ills” to give a veneer of legitimacy to their support for “the pillars of patriarchal control of women: violence against women, reproduction, and economics” (Dragiewicz 2010, p. 202).
This fits with Marcus's idea that rape is not only caused by the cultural assumption of male aggression but reinforces that assumption; violence against women is not simply a product of patriarchy but an essential element to maintaining it. As antifeminist groups cannot openly advocate for a man's right to assault a woman, they must cast themselves as victims, and their most common strategy is to claim that issues such as rape and domestic violence are “not [gendered phenomena]”, supporting such claims with “decontextualized statistics produced by criminologists who … collaborate with [antifeminist groups]” (Dragiewicz 2010, p. 203).
Their status as victims is further established by the argument that they have been inappropriately targeted “as potentially dangerous men who are suspect because they might harbor intense resentment over the dissolution of their families” (Crowley 2009, pp. 725). The impression they hope to give is that innocent men (such as themselves) are suffering due to a malicious campaign by man-hating feminists. As it is unpopular to argue against equality, those who wish to fight against it must convince us that their opponents are pushing not for equality but for female supremacy (Crowley 2009, pp. 726).
In particular, “fathers' rights” groups claim that groups supposedly dedicated to protecting women from domestic violence are actually engaged is a campaign to deprive fathers of their parental rights and to “[extract] money from fathers in order to promote profiteering” (Crowley 2009, pp. 734). Often this stems from a feeling that their actions were justified, or that domestic violence services “[refuse] to even consider … a male point of view … accounting for intra-family violence” (Crowley 2009, pp. 739).
But the motivation underlying this rhetoric is these men's experience of losing control over women, and women being able to assert their own independence and agency - “the arrangement removes abused mothers' accountability to abusive fathers” and “redistributes economic resources from men to women who are no longer providing productive or reproductive service to them” (Dragiewicz 2010, pp. 205-206). It is this desire to maintain control over women that is the true core of the men's rights movement, and the real reason for their opposition to any campaign for women's human rights.
Crowley, JE 2009, “Fathers' Rights Groups, Domestic Violence and Political Countermobilization”, Social Forces 88, no. 2, December, pp. 723-755.
Dragiewicz, M 2010, “A Left Realist Approach to Antifeminist Fathers’ Rights Groups”, Crime, Law and Social Change 54, no. 2, July, pp. 197-212.
Marcus, S 1992, “Fighting bodies, fighting words: A theory and politics of rape prevention”, in J Butler & JW Scott (eds), Feminists Theorize the Political, Routledge.