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Ann Cahill has
written an important and well-balanced book on a subject that is known to fuel
passions and not much clear thinking. The book merits the more praise for such
qualities since it is written from a feminist perspective, which some
may consider off-putting. The militant and extremist tones that feminist
writing has often adopted regarding rape, albeit comprehensible, certainly
havent always contributed to a better understanding of its harms and wrongs.
Ann Cahills Rethinking Rape stands out for its unruffled approach, as
well as it careful argumentation.
The book starts
off with a critical examination of the two most influential schools of feminist
thought on rape (one exemplified by Brownmiller and the other by Catherine
MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin), and considers both their strengths and
weaknesses. Put briefly, Cahills rejection of these approaches rests on their
failure to account sufficiently for the intricate interplay of social and
political power, sexual hierarchization [sic], and embodiment. (p. 3)
Brownmillers excessive focus on the violence attending rape ignores the
specific sexual character of the attack, and MacKinnons claim that
heterosexuality is in all instances for the benefit of men renders
impossible the exercise of feminine sexual agency or even resistance. As Cahill
sees it, previous feminist approaches are no doubt to be applauded for their
pioneering and legitimate questioning of the victims share of culpability in
the crime of rape. Yet, if we are to understand rape both in its
all-encompassing harms and ethical wrongs, we need to rethink rape as a
pervasive, sustained, and repetitive, but not ultimately defining, element of
the development of womens experience. (pp. 4-5). This is precisely what the
rest of the book attempts to do. Chapters 2 and 3 develop Cahills main themes
in the book: feminine subjectivity, agency and the significance of embodiment.
In particular, the author is concerned to analyse the implications of the
historical construction of the female body as inherently inferior and lacking
the typical characteristics that define human beings (i.e., rationality). On
the overall plan of the book, these chapters build up to Cahills main thesis
(expounded in Chapter 4): that rape needs to be theorized fundamentally as an
embodied experience, as an affront to an embodied subject. (p.13) Only thus
looked at can we fully understand rape for what it is and what is ethically
blameworthy in it: a sexually specific act that destroys (if only temporarily)
the intersubjective, embodied agency and therefore personhood of a woman.
(p.13) As Cahill rightly points out, it is not incidental to the specific
nature and wrongness of rape that it is a sexual attack. To see this,
one only has to be reminded (and this book shows that there is need to be
reminded) how central our sexual lives are in the details of our personal and
social identities, and consequently how it is precisely the specific sexual
nature of the attack that so violently shatters (even if only temporarily) a
womans physical and psychological integrity. In Chapter 5, Cahill takes
further her reflections on the sexual nature of the crime of rape, this time to
focus on the role that rape plays in the construction of feminine subjectivity.
Most importantly, Cahill calls attention to the fact that the threat of rape
as persistent and pervasive as it is in womens lives not only limits the
space and time women can safely move in (a constraint from which men are
exempt), it marks from the very beginning their experience as women. Put more
clearly, because women are seen, and see themselves as rapable, the
threat of rape will inevitably influence the behaviour and mannerisms usually
associated with being a woman. In Chapter 6, Cahill takes direct issue with
what is ethically blameworthy about the crime of rape. As mentioned before, her
position is that since the integrity and identity of a person are necessarily
connected to the facts of embodiment, to violate the sexed body of a woman
to attack the integrity of her person (p. 14) The book closes with some
reflections on the possibility of resisting the threat of rape not only by
legal reform but also by womens self-defence training, a proposal that
attempts to contradict the idea of women as weak and, thus, easy to subdue.
All in all, I
would vividly recommend this book to a wide audience. It is full of insightful
reflections, and certainly talks to womens experience of the fear and facts of
sexual violence. From the point of view of philosophical analysis and rigorous
articulation of its claims, this is one of the best books to come out in the
last few years on rape. From my point of view, its only weakness lies in the
assumption that rape is made possible and perpetuated by a patriarchal order.
For all the truth that this assumption may carry (and I have little doubt that
there is some truth in it), the phenomenon of rape seems to me more
complex than that. However, the reader will certainly judge for himself as this
is a book to make one think.
© 2002 Isabel Gois
Isabel Gois is a PhD student at Kings
College London working on Consciousness. Her research interests include
Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology, and Mental Disorder. She has articles
published on Emotions, Computationalism, and Consciousness.
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