College Rape and Radical Feminism: The Forgotten Feminist Roots of Today's Anti-Rape Activism

The fact that this conversation about rape can happen so openly on campuses and in the press is a testament to the tremendous successes of the radical feminist anti-rape movement of the early 1970s.
11/25/2014 04:06 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

The focus on rape on college campuses has, of late, received much and well-deserved attention. There is a debate at Harvard about whether rules proscribing "Yes Means Yes" as the standard for sexual consent among students misses the point of how young people actually have sex. Rolling Stone just covered the deeply unsympathetic attitude towards rape at the University of Virginia. There is a Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, carrying her dorm room mattress around campus as part of a performance art piece meant to bring attention to what she claims was the administration's nerveless response to her rape.

The fact that this conversation about rape can happen so openly on campuses and in the press is a testament to the tremendous successes of the radical feminist anti-rape movement of the early 1970s. And although they get scant recognition (I'm guessing you've probably never even heard of the radical feminist anti-rape movement), this current campaign against rape is the legacy of a small group of feminists who changed the way that society and the law conceived of and responded to rape. The women of the New York Radical Feminists (NYRF) and the Women's Anti-Rape Group (later the New York Women Against Rape), started the anti-rape movement at a time when the political and legal institutions in this country regarded rape victims with something between indifference and contempt. (For instance, as one New York Police Lieutenant put it to a 1973 meeting of the New York Women Against Rape, while women could report rapes by boyfriends to the police, those complaints "would not have priority.") Although many radical feminist groups, including the Redstockings, Cell 16, and WITCH, tackled rape at some point, the women of the anti-rape movement understood that women would never really have a chance at equality if society didn't get right on rape. Many years ago I had the opportunity to pour through the New York Women Against Rape Papers at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University and to interview a group of women who were involved in the movement. I discovered that the rape activism I saw among college students had deep roots in the work of a group of radical feminists who pushed the system until the conversation about rape changed.

In 1971 the NYRF held the first "Rape Speak Out" in New York City. The forum allowed women to share stories of being raped, not just in dark allies by strangers, but by family members, therapists, boyfriends and classmates. The NYRF published a manifesto that year, which asked: "Is it possible that the average male is programmed to be a rapist?" At the end of the Speak Out, one of the women suggested that castration might be the appropriate punishment for rapists. The audience broke into applause.

The palpable anger that night sprung from a realization among women that their victimization meant little to society, and particularly little to the legal system. Until the 1970s, in New York and several other states, in order for a man to be convicted of rape the prosecution had to corroborate the testimony of the victim with respect to penetration, force and identity of the rapist. A rape victim's word was simply not enough. The corroboration requirements meant that a woman had to prove vaginal penetration (anal and oral penetration were still considered sodomy, not rape, at that time), "force" -- both that she had not consented and that she had resisted, and, finally, the identity of her rapist (yes, even if her rapist was a stranger to her). The consequences of this ludicrously high standard were clear. In 1969 there were over 2,000 rape complaints in New York City, 1,085 arrests and just 18 convictions. A few years later, Martha Weinman wrote in The New York Times Magazine: "Q: If You Rape a Woman and Steal Her TV, What Can They Get You For In New York? A: Stealing her TV."

To make rape a priority in the law, the two groups created the first anti-rape agenda. At a time when crime in New York and across the country was soaring, they took advantage of the "law and order" fervor running high among citizens and law enforcement and pushed politicians, police departments and district attorneys to take rape more seriously. They insisted that rape be treated as a crime, not the unfortunate result of women's "wrong" behavior -- like wearing the wrong clothes or dating the wrong guy or sending the wrong message. They created a program called "courtwatchers," where women would pack the audience during rape trials, putting silent pressure on judges and lawyers to recognize the gravity of the charge. By 1972, they saw the creation of a Rape Task Force in the New York City Police Department. They also demanded the creation of a Sex Crimes Unit in the District Attorney's Office. In 1974 the first Sex Crimes Unit was formed in New York City and became a model for similar units across the country. Most importantly, that year the corroboration requirements for rape were repealed.

But they didn't just make waves in the legal world, they also brought a new consciousness about rape to society. They ran the Rape Speak-Outs where victims could freely discuss their rapes in a safe environment. They created Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women (which you can still get on Amazon today) that served as an unofficial guide for the movement. They gave rape education talks at colleges and high schools, educating thousands of students about rape. By 1973, members of the movement found themselves in nationally televised sit-downs with Bill Moyers, Phil Donahue and Dick Cavett (where members of the movement went head to head with Hugh Hefner).

The lifespan of anti-rape feminism was brief. By 1975, infighting about the scope and methods of the movements had torn the groups apart. But their message has been woven so seamlessly into the anti-rape conversation and activities happening on campuses that today we forget where it all started. Take Back the Night events, on-campus safety escorts, rape awareness education, and even the wildly popular Law & Order spinoff, SVU, all flow from the successes of the anti-rape movement. The young women on college campuses today who are shouting to be heard about rape culture are standing on the invisible shoulders of some fearless and farsighted women, who talked about rape when no one else would.