The Feminist Triumph Over Sexual Violence

A quarter century or so ago, when I was volunteering as a counselor to sexual assault victims in East Lansing, Michigan, the police force in the neighboring city of Lansing was so dismissive of rape accusations that an activist friend said in the newspaper: “My advice to women is that if you get raped in Lansing, crawl to East Lansing to report it”.

But Lansing was not that much of an outlier. Police chiefs and other public officials in many cities made unfunny jokes about rape victims (e.g., “If it happens to you, just lie back and enjoy it”) and suffered no consequence. The women’s movement had become influential in some parts of the country, but many women didn’t bother to report rape because they assumed correctly that the police would not investigate adequately and a jury would be as likely to blame the victim as the perpetrator. This will sound like one of those “In my day…” stories with which the old endlessly bore the young…nevertheless, if you are a young American man or woman you really can’t imagine how widely sexual assault was tolerated in your country.

I am overjoyed to say that I can hardly recognize the world I live in today when it comes to sexual violence. The rate of sexual assault has dropped dramatically. One of the most powerful men in the world is arrested for rape and held at Riker’s island upon the word of a hotel maid. After a British cabinet minister fumbles his words and seems to say that some rapes are not serious, The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition spend question time trying to out-do each other in their public condemnation of sexual assault.

No one factor can explain such sweeping cultural change, but there is no doubt that the redoubtable women of the feminist movement were an essential part of the revolution. They were screamed at, bullied, spat upon and oppressed but they simply refused to relent. They rallied, they spoke out, they comforted the victims and they held perpetrators and their enablers to account. And, of course, they were right.

There are still sexual atrocities committed against women every day, and the work is by no means finished. But that in no way diminishes the extraordinary transformation of the past 30 years. Every woman, everyone who loves a woman, everyone who is raising a little girl or for that matter a little boy, owes feminists a debt for the better, safer and more equal society that we are blessed with today.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “The Feminist Triumph Over Sexual Violence”

  1. This does not count as evidence that the feminist movement had any role in the decline of sexual violence. Without further analysis, it is only speculation to tie this remarkable drop in rape to feminism. I believe there is a stronger case to be made that the feminist movement has had detrimental effects in leading to overall increasing criminal participation among females, as evidenced by their much faster growth in both arrest rates and incarceration rates when compared to males. Then there are strong statistics showing that the general happiness among women has declined in both absolute and relative terms compared to men (see “The Paradox Of Declining Female Happiness” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers). In fact according to the General Social Survey, women had higher levels of overall happiness compared to men in 1970, but that has since eroded to the point where now men consistently show higher levels of overall happiness. I think it is a marvelous finding that rape has decline so dramatically and for such a significant period of time now. I see no convincing case that this has resulted from feminism, however. When I look at the feminist movement’s full range of costs and benefits to not just women but to society generally, I have to conclude it has been a devistating failure for both women and our society as a whole. I have three daughters, who will be taught to have no parts of feminism.

  2. Ah, but Bux, no matter what you teach your daughters, the important thing is that they will have more opportunities and be safer because of the work other people have done. Indeed, they may well end up concluding that women are fully human no matter what you teach them. Your refusal to acknowledge it is a piffle, beneath notice. That’s the beauty of the situation.

  3. Bux, if your daughters ever go to work and want to be paid the same as their male colleagues, they will be feminists. Sorry.

    This was a wonderful piece, Keith, thanks.

  4. It might also be worth noting to Bux that greater male happiness might be related to increased family participation instead of the stylized remote-father mode of the past. Feminism can take some credit for that as well.

  5. Bux: rape is one of those issues, like domestic violence, that just was not taken seriously before feminism. People didn’t talk about it. Filing charges was not a normal thing to do in the wake of an assault, it was a puzzling decision to draw attention to something that ought to remain hidden. People who were raped were thought to have deserved it. You might want to think that the enormous change in attitudes about rape has nothing to do with the concerted effort on the part of feminists in the 70s and 80s to treat rape as a kind of assault, not a source of shame to its victim. Maybe you also think that the fact that domestic violence is (in this country) no longer seen as a family affair that the police should stay out of has nothing to do with feminists’ having started the first battered women’s shelters, and that the fact that sexual harassment is now seen as unacceptable has nothing to do with feminists either.

    All three views are about as plausible as the idea that the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr. had nothing to do with the change in attitudes towards African-Americans that took place in the 60s. Who knows? Maybe that change just happened to occur at the same time as the civil rights movement, *but was caused by something else entirely!* Maybe things would have changed even faster if the civil rights movement hadn’t existed! Maybe Dr. King and Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall actually prolonged racial segregation in this country! Maybe if Strom Thurmand had won in 1948, we wouldn’t have had all these problems!

    Man: counterfactuals sure are hard …

  6. “I have three daughters, who will be taught to have no parts of feminism.” Hard to believe that sentence isn’t the tell that this is a parody post.

    And AMEN, hilzoy and Keith.

  7. Bux is raising his daughters to be housewives? But that has such low utility. I guess college really is too expensive for many Americans these days.

  8. Thanks, Keith Humphreys. It’s been tough work, and the recognition of our work means a lot! Will carry on with my best efforts!

  9. Good news is worth celebrating. Understanding and explaining how good news gets created is worth celebrating even more. Thanks Keith and hilzoy. And thanks to all the “second-wave” feminists who made it happen.

  10. Feminism is a basic component of egalitarianism. Since I see it that way, I can’t imagine being anti-feminism. That’s before I even get to thinking about my mother, my wife, my daughter, my friends… why on Earth would I want those people to be treated like lesser people? Boxed in, shut up, etc.?

    It seems like such a no-brainer to me. I was fortunate, I suppose, to be raised in a house where my father stressed – incessantly – respect for women (and demonstrated such for my mother). Oh, and was raised by said father who had retired early, while mom worked. Dad’s not what I’d describe as a progessive, but the man was born in 1925.

    Anyway, bravo to the feminists who had/have the guts to stand up and demand to be treated equally.

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