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Diana E. H. Russell, Ph.D.
Politicizing Sexual Violence: A Voice In the Wilderness  


(Women and Therapy: Feminist Foremothers, Revised 5/6/95)


From South African Revolutionary To Radical Feminist

It is hard to imagine less fertile ground for political activism than my family of origin.  White, upper-class, and South African, my parents subscribed whole-heartedly to the racist and patriarchal code that separated Blacks and whites, men and women.  Nor was my immediate environment any less hidebound.  I attended an elite Anglican boarding school for girls, whose motto was “Manners maketh man.”  I stumbled into college by accident after dropping out of the cooking and sewing classes recommended by my mother.  I was raised to be a useless appendage to some rich white man, and to carry on the exploitive tradition of my family.

The dormant rebel in me made her debut during my college years.  At the age of 23 I joined an underground revolutionary movement called the African Resistance Movement that sabotaged government property as a form of protest.  Ten years was the typical prison sentence at that time for members of such organizations who were apprehended by the police.  By the time most members of the ARM had been arrested or escaped in 1964, I was in my second year of graduate school at Harvard University.  My dissertation was on revolution, an unlikely topic for a Ph.D. in Social Psychology (a mistaken choice), but accepted nevertheless by that bastion of patriarchy.   

Anti-apartheid politics remained my primary political commitment until I moved from Princeton University where I was hired as a Research Associate, to San Francisco to live with my husband.  The extreme misogyny at Princeton started me on my feminist path, but it was child's play compared to the crash course in sexism I received when incarcerated in my three-year marriage.  Divorce heralded the beginning of my creative life as an active feminist and researcher.  When deciding on what research to do, I always tried to choose topics that I believed to be potentially ground-breaking for feminism. 

My own experiences of sexual abuse as a child and an adolescent have undoubtedly been vital motivators for my enduring commitment to the study of sexual violence against women.  My research and activism exemplify how personal trauma can inform and inspire creative work.  I believe these personal experiences have also contributed to my unwavering rejection of all victim-blaming explanations of sexual violence.

Revolutionizing Our Understanding Of Sexual Violence

Documenting the High Prevalence of Sexual Violence

In 1977 I received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to study the prevalence of rape and attempted rape.  Personal interviews were conducted with a multi-ethnic probability sample of 930 women 18 years and older who resided in San Francisco.  In order to be able to compare my findings with those of the official statistics, I applied the legal definition of rape in California in 1978, i.e., penile-vaginal intercourse achieved by force, threat of force, or when the woman/girl was unable to consent because she was totally physically helpless in some way, as well as attempts at these acts.

Following this very conservative definition, 41‰ of the women in this sample reported being the victims of rape and/or attempted rape at least once in their lives.  When wife rape (still legal in California in 1978) was included in the definition, 44‰ of the sample reported being victimized by rape/attempted rape, and 24‰ by completed rape. 

Using conservative definitions of incestuous and extrafamilial child sexual abuse limited to contact or attempted contact experiences, and further limited for extrafamilial child sexual abuse to rape or attempted rape between the ages of 14 and 17, 38‰ of this sample of 930 women disclosed at least one experience of child sexual abuse (either extrafamilial or intrafamilial), while 16‰ disclosed at least one experience of incestuous abuse before the age of 18.

My survey was the first to thoroughly and rigorously document the fact that rape and child sexual abuse have directly affected the lives of so many women in a major U.S. city. 

The Scope of My Research

My research has spanned many different forms of misogynist violence against women and girls and illuminated the connections between them.  Aside from rape (including wife rape and lover rape), incestuous abuse and extrafamilial child sexual abuse, I have conducted research on woman battering, sexual harassment, sexual torture, femicide (the misogynist killing of females), pornography and its relationship to violence against women, male violence and the threat of nuclear war, and sexual and nonsexual forms of violence against women detained in prison.

Looking back on the work I have done, I have made many contributions of which I feel proud.  I have been the first, or among the first, to provide a feminist analysis of several different forms of sexual violence against females.  For example: my book, The Politics of Rape (1975), was among the first to provide a feminist analysis of rape.  After presenting the poignant stories of over twenty rape survivors, I argued that rape is not a deviant act, but one that is inherently sexist and which conforms to patriarchal notions of masculinity.

The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women (1986) was based on the first study to obtain knowledge about incest from a large-scale probability sample of women.  The prevalence rates of incestuous abuse and extrafamilial child sexual abuse that emerged from this study have become the most widely accepted prevalence statistics on child sexual abuse in the United States.  The Secret Trauma received the 1986 C. Wright Mills Award— the most prestigious award in sociology in the United States — for "exemplifying outstanding social science research on a significant social problem."  I'm told that it is still considered to be the definitive work on incest internationally. 

Rape in Marriage (1982), based on the same probability sample as my incest research, was the first book ever published on marital rape.  For a while it provided the only scientific data available to many of the campaigns organized to criminalize rape in marriage in different states.

Sexual Exploitation: Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, and Workplace Harassment(1984) was the first book to document the widespread prevalence of rape and child sexual abuse, as well as to emphasize the causal connections between these three different forms of sexual violation and sexual harassment. 

Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis (1982), which I co-edited with three other women, was the first feminist book to offer numerous critical perspectives on this phenomenon, particularly as it has manifested in the lesbian community. 

My edited anthology, Exposing Nuclear Phallacies (1989), was named as anoutstanding book on human rights by the Gustavus Myers Center in 1990.  It was among the first to analyze the role of patriarchy in the development of a nuclear world, in the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and in the threat of nuclear war.

"Femicide" is a new concept that I first used in Crimes Against Women (1976) to distinguish misogynist killing of women from other types of homicide. Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing (1992), a co-edited anthology on femicide in the United States, Britain, and India, is among the first feminist books on woman-killing to illuminate the misogynist motivation in many murders of women by men — a reality that is obliterated by the gender-neutral term "homicide."

I was also among the first to provide a new feminist analysis of pornography that emphasizes the particularly potent sexism and woman-hatred embedded in this medium (my first essay on pornography was published in 1977).  My first book on pornography, Making Violence Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography (1993), was followed by my self-published book entitled Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm (1994).  Against Pornography is the first book to present a large number of visual examples of pornography (over 100) in a critical and scholarly context.  This book also includes a review of the scientific literature on pornography's harmful effects and a comprehensive explication of my own theory of how pornography causes rape.  The pornographic pictures in this book were reprinted without obtaining permission.  This placed me at risk of being sued by the pornographers for breach of copyright laws.    

My book, Lives of Courage: Women for a New South Africa (1989), is among the first feminist books to be published in South Africa.  Although the focus of this book is on women's many unsung contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle, many of the 22 women whose personal stories are included, also condemned sexism, including male violence.  Because the majority of the women in Lives of Courage are black, this book served to undermine the prevalent South African myth that only white, middle-class women are concerned about women's oppression, including violence against women. 

Despite these accomplishments, the price I have paid for my radical feminism has been high.  Most academics in the U.S. who are considered high achievers are rewarded with money, grants, job offers, fellowships, and the like.  I have rarely been rewarded in any of these ways.  I did not receive a single academic job offer during my 22 years on the faculty at Mills College.  I was also shabbily treated by key members of the Mills administration, which contributed to my early retirement in 1991 at the age of 53.  Although I have applied for research grants many times, I have received only two substantial grants to date.  Once out of graduate school, I have been turned down for every fellowship I ever applied for.  In order to do my research and writing, I had to teach half-time and fund my work on my half-time salary.  In general, far from earning me money, my research and writing have cost me.  I sometimes wonder what I might have accomplished had I received the rewards that a man with my curriculum vita would have enjoyed.

Despite the many penalties I have undergone for failing to serve the patriarchy, I don't regret my choices most of the time, particularly when I remember that my work has been helpful to many women.  I have received many wonderful accolades over the years, the most gratifying of which comes from feminist law professor, Catharine MacKinnon (1993), which I cannot resist citing here.

"Professor Russell is the recognized academic expert on the empirical study of sexual violence against women in the United States, and a leading authority on this subject throughout the world.  None of the conceptual, factual, political, or legal advances in understanding, documenting, and opposing violence against women in this country, including my own work, would have been possible without her ground-breaking studies and scholarly publications."

Radical Feminist Activism

Although most of my time is spent at my desk, I have also engaged in a variety of feminist actions to combat violence against women.  For example:

I was arrested in London in 1974 for protesting the 20-year sentence handed out by a U.S. court to Inez Garcia for killing one of her rapists.

I was one of the founding members in 1976 of Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) — the first feminist anti-pornography organization in the United States.

I was arrested and jailed in 1990 for tearing up pornography in a porn store in Bellingham, Washington.

In 1993 I started Women United Against Incest — an action group in Cape Town, South Africa — to try to improve the treatment of incest survivors in that country.

In 1974 I conceived the idea of an "International Tribunal on Crimes against Women" — a global speak-out on all forms of oppression and discrimination against females.  I became a major organizer of this international women-only conference, which took place in Brussels, Belgium, in 1976.  About 2,000 women from all over the world participated in this event, many of them testifying about violence against women.  Referring to the International Tribunal as "a great historic event," Simone de Beauvoir concluded her opening statement with an unforgettable tribute: "I salute this Tribunal as being the start of a radical decolonization of women."  Of all my activities, I feel the greatest sense of accomplishment for my role in this action, not least because I consider myself a rather inept organizer.

A Voice In The Wilderness

I was very surprised to be selected as a foremother of feminist therapy/psychology/mental health because my attempts to communicate about my work to mental health professionals have often been very poorly received.  The interest of many of these women appears to be limited to improving their skills as therapists. 

I certainly believe in the importance of trying to help incest survivors to heal (I will focus here on this form of sexual violence).  I'm a particularly enthusiastic advocate of self-help survivor groups like those developed in Norway that are free, therapist-less, and run according to principles that have been worked out over several years.  However, I get extremely disturbed when therapists ignore the political context of incestuous abuse and other problems that they treat.

Mental health professionals must take responsibility for their shameful history of victim-blaming.  Despite being privileged to learn about sexual abuse directly from the mouths of victims and survivors, most of them remained trapped in the sexist myopia of their victim-blaming predecessors, of whom Sigmund Freud is the most notorious example.  Although many women therapists, particularly feminist therapists, finally learned to see incest victims/survivors in a new way, they learned their new perspective from the feminist movement — not their clients.  It took survivors speaking out about their experiences inside and outside the feminist movement to start to revolutionize our understanding of incestuous abuse.  Women in the mental health profession must learn from this failure, not repeat it.

As long as therapists confine themselves to treating the relative handful of casualties of the patriarchal system who can afford therapy, they will contribute little or nothing to changing the male-dominated family structure and other social institutions that place so many female children at risk of sexual violence.  As long as they work within a narrow psychopathological framework — even though it may be a revised one — they may succeed in enjoying an affluent life-style, but they won't succeed in diminishing the prevalence of incestuous abuse.  

Individualizing sexual victimization depoliticizes it.  It also disempowers survivors by encouraging them to focus on their problems rather than their strengths, and motivating them to seek solutions within themselves.  Many therapists of the family dynamics persuasion even insist on "helping" their clients to see the role they played in becoming victims.  This is victim-blaming in modern dress.

The widespread overemphasis on the importance of personal healing — the excessive "therapizing" of sexual assault — has also deflected many survivors from being at the forefront of the struggle to change the conditions that caused or contributed to their victimization in the first place.

The psychological health of many women was greatly improved when the feminist theory that accompanied the rise of the second wave of feminism in the United States provided us with an understanding of how sexism had contributed to our personal problems.  Many middle-class women walked out of their therapists' offices and into the feminist movement.  The often modest achievements of therapy were greatly surpassed for many of these women by the healing that occurred from their involvement in this movement. 

Similarly, survivors are likely to benefit greatly from understanding incest as a socio-political issue, not merely a problem that existed in their own family and a few other equally unfortunate families.  Some may also benefit from understanding that they can empower themselves by taking action to combat incestuous abuse.  Becoming an activist can be therapeutic in a very different way than having individual sessions with a therapist, as well as contributing to the social healing of this traumatic experience.  

While there are movements against rape and woman battery in the United States, there is no comparable movement against incestuous abuse.  I believe the responsibility for this fact falls squarely on the shoulders of the mental health profession — for individualizing, pathologizing and "therapizing" the widespread problem of incestuous abuse.  Unless therapists spend time on prevention efforts, they must face the fact that they are financial beneficiaries of incestuous abuse.  The more incest there is, the more in demand they will be, and the higher they can set their fees.  Effective prevention requires understanding the social and cultural causes and context of incestuous abuse and getting beyond a tunnel-vision preoccupation with how best to treat victims and survivors.

After delivering two speeches to mental health professionals, most of whom were treating adult incest survivors, a therapist and I were asked to answer any questions the audience wished to ask us.  The next hour went by without a single question being directed to me.  It appeared that my ideas were of no interest to these women compared to the opportunity to get tips from a therapist on how to improve their survivor-treatment skills.  When I told them why I deplored their narrow-mindedness and launched into some version of the critique explicated above, the angry organizers reprimanded me for being rude (echoes of "manners maketh man").

I'll end with an offer: I'm willing to accept being labelled a disagreeable rude foremother if the indictment of the mental health profession that I have articulated here will help to bring about some of the much-needed changes in this profession.

*Many thanks to Marny Hall for her editorial assistance with this article.


                     Selected Books by the Author

Radford, J., and Russell, D.E.H.  (Eds.).  Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing.  New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. 

Russell, D.E.H.  Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm.  Berkeley, California: Russell Publications, 1994.

Russell, D.E.H.  (Ed.).  Making Violence Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography.  New York: Teachers College Press, 1993. 

Russell, D.E.H.  Lives of Courage: Women for a New South Africa.  New York: Basic Books, 1989.

Russell, D.E.H. (Ed.).  Exposing Nuclear Phallacies.  New York: Teachers College Press, 1989. 

Russell, D.E.H.  The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Basic Books, 1986. 

Russell, D.E.H.  Sexual Exploitation: Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, and Workplace Harassment.  Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications, 1984. 

Russell, D.E.H.  Rape in Marriage.  Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990.  First edition, 1982.

Russell, D.E.H., with R. Linden, D. Pagano, L. Star (Eds.).  Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis.  San Francisco, California: Frog in the Well, 1982. 

Russell, D.E.H., and N. Van de Ven.  Crimes Against Women: The Proceedings of the International Tribunal.  East Palo Alto, California: Frog in the Well, 1984.  First edition, 1976.

Russell, D.E.H.  The Politics of Rape.  Chelsea, Michigan: Scarborough House, 1989.  First edition, 1975.

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