The morality of rape

December 5, 2005

"Ethical men have always been opposed to rape," declares Camille Paglia, the brilliant iconoclast who has herself been accused of being a rape apologist, in "Sex, Art and American Culture." But on what grounds have they done so, if this is indeed the case? I found myself considering this question after inadvertently sparking a minor eruption in the blogosphere with a post reflecting on what I consider to be the dubious nature of "date rape."

It is, I have been reliably informed, nauseating, vile and hateful to assert that women are capable of bearing responsibility for their actions - there are many individuals who sincerely believe that a woman must be allowed to behave however she likes without being forced to endure a word of criticism. This is called "blaming the victim" even when the woman has not yet managed to be victimized.

And yet, despite reading hundreds of missives featuring varying degrees of hysterics, it remains a mystery as to what grounds these rape mythomoralists have for objecting to rape in the first place.

The criminality of rape in this country is beyond question, but as I have pointed out with regard to other matters, legality is not morality. It is illegal to walk across the street when a specific light is red, but this is not an immoral act. It is immoral to seduce your friend's wife, but it is not illegal. Furthermore, there are no shortage of countries where rape is not only legal, but an established policy of the government authority, so the criminal aspect is obviously irrelevant with regard to questioning the fundamental morality or immorality of the act.

But which morality? The Judeo-Christian moral ethic is clear - rape is a sin, a willful pollution of a temple that rightly belongs to God. Neither the Jew nor the Christian need hesitate before asserting the act of rape to be evil and justly holding the rapist accountable. But this ethic does not offer a blanket excuse to victims, near victims and would-be victims either, since the element of consent - which today draws the dividing line between sex and rape - can also provide a contrarian condemnation of the woman's own actions.

(Here one must note the intellectual poverty of the rape mythologists. If rape concerns power, not sex, then how is it possible for the simple absence, or worse, withdrawal, of consent to immediately transform a "date rape" situation from an inherently sexual one to one where sex plays no role at all?)

To put it more clearly, if a woman consents to extramarital sex, she is committing a moral offense which is equal to that committed by the man who engages in consensual sex with her, or by the man who, in the absence of such consent, rapes her. Christianity knows no hierarchy of sins. Since only the woman who is not entertaining the possibility of sex with a man and is subsequently raped can truly be considered a wholly innocent victim under this ethic, it is no wonder that women who insist that internal consent is the sole determining factor of a woman's victimization find traditional Western morality to be inherently distasteful.

But what of the other moralities that one could insist are equally applicable? And what of other religions? The Quran does not mention rape per se, and while the hadith of Wa'il ibn Hujr appears to be even stricter than the Old Testament in relating the account of a death sentence passed upon a man who admitted to attacking his accuser, I suspect few mythomoralists would draw upon Islam for intellectual support. Nor upon Hinduism, as the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad eerily prefigures Nietzsche:

Surely, a woman who has changed her clothes at the end of her menstrual period is the most auspicious of women. When she has changed her clothes at the end of her menstrual period, therefore, one should approach that splendid woman and invite her to have sex. Should she refuse to consent, he should bribe her. If she still refuses, he should beat her with a stick or with his fists and overpower her, saying: "I take away the splendor from you with my virility and splendor" (6.4.9,21).

While they might find genuine solace in the wisdom of the Buddha, where rape, the rapist and the victim alike are naught but Mara, it leaves no material grounds for condemning the perpetrator. And the Taoist slogan might well be: If rape is inevitable, relax and accept it.

Drought burns basins to dust,
Light rain is a dew of mockery.
Receive without complaint,
Work with fate.

- Deng Ming-Dao

It is ironic that mythomoralists show a predilection for paganism, given the historical pagan approach to rape. For example, one of Rome's most important founding legends was the Rape of the Sabine Women, which one can see celebrated in stone by Giovanni Bologna in Florence. Ovid, too, commemorated the event, albeit in verse:

The ravished girls were led away to marriage;
Their very shame made them more beautiful.
And when one struggled hard against her captor,
He carried her away in eager arms,
And said: "Why spoil your pretty eyes by weeping?
Your father took your mother, I take you!"

As for Greece, the Greeks not only worshipped gods given to rapine, but as Nancy Baker Worman points out in her review of "Rape and the Politics of Consent in Classical Athens":

Omitowoju focuses primarily on the issue of consent, a central concern of modern discussions. She demonstrates that this concern is largely absent from the ancient discourse ...

Not only were the pagan Vikings notoriously enthusiastic about the concept of rape as sport - the historical account of a Viking chieftan's funeral makes for truly appalling reading - but a study of their increasingly post-Christian descendants offers some interesting points of analysis for anyone questioning mythomoralist rape dogma.

Despite being acknowledged as the most pro-feminist country in the world today, during the 50 years from 1950 to 2000, the rate of reported rapes in Sweden rose 356 percent. While the mythomoralist would assert that this is due to empowered women being increasingly willing to come forward and make complaints they previously failed to make out of shame, this baseless assertion is eviscerated by the fact that reports for all criminal offenses rose 424 percent over the same period and the increase in reported rapes is dwarfed by the concomitant increase in robberies reported, 3,604 percent.

As I have previously asserted, most atheist and agnostic morality is parasitical, the cultural residue of previous generations. Witnessing atheist mythomoralists attempt to articulate a reason for their nominal opposition to rape during the recent discussion was particularly amusing - while the more philosophically inclined appealed to basic utilitarianism or Kant's Categorical Imperative, one frustrated fellow finally threw up his hands and declared:

I swear to God, if you use the phrase "moral relativist" one more time, I'm gonna crush your teeth with a hammer.

And while "might makes right" is the true essence of atheist amorality, it is not exactly the most convincing means of attempting to assert the moral evil of the rapist. As for Utilitarians in a demographically declining West, it is quite easy to make numerous cases for the inherent common good of rape on societal and social Darwinist grounds that are more powerful than the comparatively nebulous cases to the contrary.

There may be a genuine moral argument against rape to be made outside of the Judeo-Christian ethic, but I have yet to hear it. And, more significantly, much finer minds than mine have reached similar conclusions in a broader sense, which nevertheless encompasses the moral question of rape considered here. In an article that recently appeared in the Telegraph, Umberto Eco quoted another lapsed Catholic, James Joyce, in condemning the moral and spiritual bankruptcy that pervades the West today:

What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?

When each does what is right in his own eyes, all distinctions between right and wrong become meaningless. Regardless of whether one believes in God or celebrates Christmas as the birth of one's Risen Lord and Savior, one would do well to seriously consider the likely implications of a world that rejects both.