Taken from Mariangela Di Domenico, La violence faite aux femmes: à travers les agressions à caractère sexuel, (Quebec City: Conseil du statut de la femme, 1995)
This paper will discuss some of the theoretical foundations of various feminists’ analysis on male violence against women. These feminists were the first to analyze sexual violence against women from a socio-political perspective. They alerted the public to a problem which, prior to their work, had received scant attention. What little information there had been, was presented through the lens of psycho-biological determinism. Due to the theoretical nature and complexity of the analysis found in the feminist literature, we have had to limit ourselves to the key events. Also, we have chosen to focus on certain authors we judged to be particularly significant. Because feminism is a practice as well as a theory, it is clear that a study of the writing on its own will provide only a glimpse of the scope and richness of the analysis developed by this movement.
This paper is divided into sections that group authors representing the major currents of feminist analysis of male violence. During the 70s, for example, writers accorded a predominant role to socio-political structures; since the 80s, a more global vision has emerged, in which sexuality, the construction of heterosexuality and the social control of women constitute the main elements.
1. Feminist analysis based on a study of socio-political structures
Generally speaking, analysis produced by feminists during the 70s—a period that has come to be known as the second wave of feminism—accorded little place to the direct as opposed to cultural means of oppressing women. The use of force was not as a rule understood as a direct means of coercion employed by men as a group to dominate and oppress women as a group.
The source of male power and domination over women was located rather in the socio-economic and ideological structures of modern capitalism. According to Millet (1971),1 Mitchell (1971)2 and Rowbotham (1973),3 for example, it is economic and political institutions such as the family, marriage, military-industrial complex, technology, finance and universities that ensure male domination over women. In their view, since these structures guarantee and legitimize the unequal power relations between men and women, men would have little need to resort to physical violence, coercion and repression to subordinate women.
This perception of women’s oppression was generally shared by many feminist authors of the time. Firestone (1971),4 however, while not minimizing the importance of socio-political factors as an explanation of women’s inferior status, also raised certain psychological and physical dimensions. Her work, often somewhat tinged with biological determinism, suggests that physical force is a structuring element in the antagonistic relations between men and women.
Millet, in her book, Sexual Politics (1971), moreover, also states that in the end, all power resides in the use of force.5 She recognizes that physical force plays a determining role in contemporary patriarchy.
This initial theoretical work on the legitimizing of violence in patriarchal society was followed closely by the work of authors such as Griffin (1971),6 Brownmiller (1975),7 and Daly (1973)8 who launched the debate on sexual violence. Male violence was, in fact the focal point of these authors’ analysis. The first articles on rape appeared in feminist publications in the 70s, and rape, at least in the United States, became the feminist issue of the day.
Rape: the All-American Crime (1971)9 was the first piece of feminist writing to identify the essential components of rape. First, it showed that the construction of femininity makes women fragile and vulnerable, and consequently, less able to defend themselves from attack. Griffin’s analysis then showed that power is constituted by, develops, and is exercised through the interconnection of sexuality, aggression, violence and masculinity. Finally, the article highlighted the contradiction inherent in men’s social roles of the “hunter” and the “defender” of women.
It is clear, according to the author of this important article, that rape must not be understood as a sexual act, but as an act of domination over women. The fear of rape, and consequently the fear inspired by men in general, structures women’s lives, resulting in increased physical and psychological vulnerability and a diminished capacity for self-affirmation and participation in society. Rape is perhaps the most efficient form of social exclusion.
Important contributions to the discussion were subsequently made by Brownmiller (1975)10 in the United States and Clark and Lewis (1977)11 in Canada, who elaborated on the various aspects of this crime. Brownmiller’s book is without a doubt the best known of all the radical feminist works. Confronted with a virtual absence of writing on the subject, Brownmiller researched for four years to come up with a description of rape, including its existence in law and culture. The study also covers the role of rape in literature, the media and in wartime. Brownmiller demonstrated that this crime is more than an individual act committed by one man against one woman; it is a powerful mechanism of male control over women. She defined rape as an exercise of power and intimidation through which men maintain women in a state of fear. In Against Our Will, the phenomenon of rape is understood as being as much about the threat of rape as about an individual woman’s actual experience of it. Rape is revealed as having a teaching function: to instruct all women to fear male violence.
Brownmiller is one of the first authors to redefine rape in terms of women’s consent. Later on, in Canada and the United States, a key element of feminist demands would be to include a legal definition of consent in legislation concerning sexual assault. At that period (1975) Brownmiller had already proposed the following definition:
A sexual invasion of the body by force, an incursion into the private, personal inner space without consent. . . . constitutes a deliberate violation of emotional, physical and rational integrity and is a hostile, degrading act of violence that deserves the name of rape.12
Against Our Will, by Brownmiller, was recognized as a turning point in the status of women. Not surprisingly, it was controversial. The most significant criticisms13 accused Brownmiller of over generalization and a lack of historical perspective. In portraying rape as transcending cultures and history, they considered Brownmiller to be relying on essentialist arguments rather on the material conditions of social relations.
The trajectory of Mary Daly, beginning with the egalitarian feminism of Beyond God the Father (1973)14 and evolving into the feminism of “gynergy” in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978)15 led many to perceive her as a pivotal theoretician at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. She analyzed sadomasochistic rituals and other forms of male violence, concluding that, fundamentally, all these acts—regardless of the diversity of form—were different facets of male power, their sole aim being the subjection of women.
Throughout the decade of the 70s, feminist theoreticians sought to understand patriarchy in all its complex dimensions. Liberal feminists, for their part, paid little attention to the issue of violence; they focussed more on social conditioning as the cause of women’s social inferiority, calling for a variety of reforms aimed at preventing sexual discrimination in social and political institutions. For this current of feminism,16 the solution to inequality lay in a transformation of mentality where personal qualities such as courage, self-affirmation and new mental attitudes would play a decisive role. Characterized as idealistic, the liberal approach was criticized17 for not dealing with the material constraints inherent in male-female relations.
Taken as a whole, the investigations of feminists in this area, together with the analysis of socio-economic structures, enabled them to reveal the diverse facets of patriarchal social organization.
2. Feminist analysis based on a overall vision and regarding the control of women
Neither in France, nor in England, was there the proliferation of writing on rape and male violence that occurred in the United States in the 70s. However, the trend toward understanding violence and women’s oppression through a comprehensive perspective was most marked in the European writing. The works we consulted show a striking shift in that direction between the end of the 70s and the 80s. During these years, both American and French feminists analyzed sexuality and the construction of heterosexuality as factors in male violence against women.
Guillaumin’s concept of appropriation18 was by far the most influential notion to emerge from the wave of French materialist feminists. In her theory, the object of appropriation is not women’s labour function, but their bodies themselves. There can be no appropriation unless there is first a physical appropriation. Guillaumin defines the physical appropriation of women as:
[Translation] A relationship where the material unit that produces the labour is acquired, and not simply the labour function. Labelled “slavery” and “debt bondage” in land economics, this type of relationship may be designated by the term “sexage” when it concerns relations between the gender classes.19
For this author, sexage is a broad definition of class relations where all women belong to all men.
Men’s use of sexual force should be understood as a means of coercion and appropriation employed by the class of men in order to subdue by fear the class of women; at the same time, it is the expression of male property rights over women.
The concept of appropriation was, and continues to be, the foundation stone for defining the material conditions of women’s oppression. The theory of sexage, of which it is a part, assumes, rather than explicitly states, the essential role of violence in the hegemony of one class over the other. As Juteau and Laurin comment:
[Translation] Class domination must include the creation and the preservation, by force and consent, of conditions that ensure the identity and the interest of the hegemonic class and the interest of the collectivity. The processes in play with respect to dominant social classes are well known; now we must understand how men, as a gender class, enact their domination.20
Generally speaking, French feminists of this period did not focus on the theme of sexual violence. Many of them attempted to articulate and comprehend the various material manifestations of patriarchal and capitalist exploitation.21
However, several writings focussed on the legislative changes needed to assure the rights of women who had been sexually assaulted. Other more theoretical works examined the consequences for women of making the distinction between what is specifically sexual and what is violence in the act of rape.
In fact, one section of the Left in France mobilized around the notion that rape should not be punished as a sexual crime, but as a crime of violence. In the violence/sexuality/rape debate, Plaza introduced the following definition of rape:
What is rape, precisely? Is it, or is it not a ‘sexual’ practice? We must agree on the definition of sexuality. Rape is an oppressive practice exercised by a man (social) against a women (social). . . . It is very sexual in the sense that it is frequently a reality of sexual activity, but mainly in the sense that it opposes men and women: rape is rooted in socially constructed sexual roles. Men rape women precisely because socially they are women, because they embody “sex,” or in other words, they are the bodies men have appropriated using a “local tactic” [penetration]of an anonymous violence. Rape is sexual essentially because it is rooted in the profoundly social difference between the sexes.22
In England, while socialist and materialist feminism dominated theoretical writing, some authors made violence a key focus of their analysis. For example, Hanmer23 wrote that the role of violence was to constantly remind the dominated of her place. She considered that violence was an essential ingredient of social control. From the beginning of the 70s, this author argued that force and threats were not merely the consequence of social organization but were in fact the building blocks of power relations. Hanmer is one of the first authors to name the State as an agent of male power and of the control and subjection of women, maintaining social cohesion.
In the United States, research was influenced by analysis issuing from the anti-rape and battered women’s shelter movements that saw social control as an inherent function of violence. For most American feminists24 social control was maintained, not by the actual experience of rape, but by the internalization of the threat of rape. All men did not have to be rapists to benefit from and maintain the privilege conferred on them by violence, namely the preservation of their position of dominance. Similarly, only some women needed to be sexually assaulted for all women to experience the effects of that violence¾ being kept among the ranks of the dominated. Finally, there was a common understanding that everyone’s condition was inextricably linked with that of everyone else.
In the 80s, the theoretical work of many feminists consisted of dismantling the pervading views in law enforcement and the courts, where the main response to battered and sexually assaulted women was justification, or to excuse men’s violence:
[Translation] “If a woman has been raped, it is because she shouldn’t have (spoken to that man, been in that area, at that time, been dressed like that) and most of all, she shouldn’t have allowed herself to be raped. . . . Moreover, if a woman is raped in “normal” circumstances¾ by her husband, at home, in her room¾ she shouldn’t have upset the poor working man, or the executive with a heart condition…she shouldn’t have complained of exhaustion or the children; she shouldn’t have refused or resisted his sexual needs. Should she resist, he will rape, threaten, or kill her.”25
Mathieu goes further to say that the most important and disastrous consequence of male violence is the colonization of women’s minds and imagination:
The most serious violence of domination is the restraint on the range of action and thought of the oppressed, in terms of physical self-determination, access to independent and sophisticated means of production and defence . . . to knowledge, values, self-expression …including the portrayal of domination.26
In this respect, the issue of women’s consent comes into question, because consent freely given requires that a person be self-aware and enjoy complete freedom of thought. Mathieu considers that consent is manufactured through violence. Furthermore, she demonstrates that “When the notion of consent is applied to someone living in a context of domination, the oppressor is relieved of almost all culpability. Because the oppressed person “consents,” one cannot qualify the “dominator’s” conduct as immoral.”27 The oppressor can then affirm that the oppressed are not in fact oppressed, but rather enjoy the unfettered exercise of their free will.
During the 80s, one of the aims of feminist research was to uncover the material conditions put in place by patriarchal ideology to maintain the social inferiority of women. Some feminists considered pornography, maternity and compulsory heterosexuality as the cornerstones of patriarchal ideology. Without a doubt, the most interesting development of feminism during the 80s was the move towards a perspective that would unite all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation of women and link them to the unceasing efforts of men to maintain and reinforce their dominant position as a group. The patriarchy, concerned with maintaining its power, has to control women, and for this, it has a variety of techniques at its disposal, force and violence being the most explicit.
3. Feminist Practice in Quebec
A review of the collected editions of the feminist newspapers Québécoises Deboutte28 and Têtes de pioche29 reveals that the editorial collectives of these newspapers helped to publicize the work of American feminists by translating and disseminating their ideas. O’Leary and Toupin of Québécoises Deboutte remark that in Quebec, analysis on women’s social condition did not develop in a radical direction in the sense of an examination of the causes of women’s social inferiority.
Generally speaking, little theoretical writing was produced in Quebec on male violence against women. This subject was rarely researched until social service practitioners began writing on the subject in the context of their work with assaulted women. Their frame of reference was more psycho-social than socio-political; although they espoused a critical and feminist vision of social roles and of the effects of socialization in the private and public lives of women, few analyzed sexual violence in terms of male-female domination. Also, while they did analyze violence as an abuse of power, the solutions they called for were the reform of social and political institutions to make them more inclusive of women.
4. Conclusion
In summarizing these examples of feminist analysis on violence against women, we could say that from the beginning to the end of the 70s, feminists struggled primarily with the notion of self-determination; their research mainly illustrated how social, political, economic and ideological structures legitimized male power by maintaining and reinforcing the social concept of gender. This analysis allowed them to observe the similarities in the different forms of social organization, where men constituted the dominant group and women, the dominated group. In these writings, violence was not analyzed in great depth, not yet being recognized as the source of male power over women. When it was discussed, it was examined in its separate forms, and not as a whole. Rape, incest, wife assault, sexual harassment were described separately as though they were distinct phenomena.
The change in focus that occurred during the 80s can be summarized by the following questions Edwards identifies as being the focus of the work of this period.30
  • Are force and violence primordial to the preservation of male power?
  • According to those for whom violence is central to male supremacy and the oppression of women, should the diverse manifestations of violence be considered as separate or as different parts of a whole?
  • What role does violence play in the construction of sexuality and heterosexuality?
Clearly, the present research trend adheres to an overarching theory of the role of male violence against women. McKinnon31 is one author who upholds this comprehensive point of view. She developed analysis of the interconnection of violence and sexuality, in particular heterosexuality. She believes these elements to be the foundations of male power. Rape, according to her, is the paradigm of male power and the eroticization of domination. The legal system is complicit in conserving and maintaining men’s interests and rights while proclaiming its neutrality and objectivity in rape proceedings.

1 Kate Millet. Sexual Politics. (New York: Avon, 1971).
2 J. Mitchell. Woman’s Estate. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971).
3 Sheila Rowbotham. Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World. (Harmondsworth Penguin. 1973).
4 Shulamith Firestone. The Dialectic of Sex. (London: Paladin. 1971).
5 K. Millet. Op.cit. p. 57.
6 Susan Griffin. “Rape : The All-American Crime” Ramparts. September 1971.
7 Susan Brownmiller. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).
8 Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father. (Boston : Beacon, 1973).
9 S. Griffin. Op.cit.
10 S. Brownmiller. Op.cit.
11 Lorenne Clark and Debra Lewis. Rape: The Price ofCoercive Sexuality. (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1977).
12 S. Brownmiller. Op.cit. p. 377.
13 See among others: C. MacKinnon. “Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence,” Signs, Vol. 8, No. 4. Chicago: UP, 1983. 635-658.
14 Mary Daly. (1973). Op.cit.
15 Mary Daly. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press. 1978.
16 Represented, among others, by: Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique. (New York: Dell, 1961).
17 For a criticism of the liberal approach, see among others: P. Armstrong and H. Armstrong. The Double Ghetto, Canadian Women and their Segregated Work. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981) and N.J.Sokoloff, Between Money and Love. (New York: Praeger, 1980).
18 Collete Guillaumin. Pratique du pouvoir et idée de nature : l’appropriation des femmes. Questions féministes, no. 2. Paris, 1978.
19 Colette Guillaumin. Pratique du pouvoir et idée de nature : le discours de la nature. Questions féministes, no. 3. Paris, 1978.
20 Danielle Juteau and Nicole Laurin. “L’évolution des formes de l’appropriation des femmes : des religieuses aux ‘mères porteuses’”. CRSA/RCSA Toronto.May 1988. P. 194.
21 Refer in particular to Christine Delphy, “The Main Enemy,” “A Materialist Feminism is Possible” and “For a Materialist Feminism” in Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression. (Amherst: University of Massachussetts Press, 1984).
22 Monique Plaza. “Nos hommages et leurs intérêts” Questions féministes. No. 3. Paris, 1978. 93-103.
23 Jalna Hanmer. “Violence and the Social Control of Women,” Power and the State. (London: Croom Helm, 1978).
24 Refer to, among others: C. Smart and B. Smart, Women, Sexuality and Social Control. (London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).
25 Nicole-Claude Mathieu. “De la conscience dominée,” L’arraisonnement des femmes. (Paris: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en sciences sociales. Cahiers de l’homme, 1985). 182.
26 Ibid. P. 231.
27 Ibid. P. 236 [Translation]..
28 Véronique O’Leary and Louise Toupin. Québécoises Deboutte! Vol. 2. (Montréal: Éditions du Remue-Ménage, 1982).
29 Les têtes de pioche. Complete collection. (Montréal : Éditions du Remue-Ménage, 1980).
30 A. Edwards. “Male Violence in Feminist Theory,” Women, Violence, and Social Control. J. Hanmer and M. Maynard, Eds. (New Jersey, 1987). 13-29.
31 C. MacKinnon. Op.cit.1983.