Mailvox: the ethics of rape

In which questions are asked about one of my critics’ favorite columns:

I’m a 24 year old young woman and a Christian. I happened to have stumbled across your article “The Morality of Rape” and from there I found your blog. Needless to say, you have some very interesting thoughts about rape, feminism, and other issues. I admit, they got me thinking.

I understand your opinion that “date-rape” doesn’t exist (rape is rape no matter what circumstance). The thing is, I think it’s just another example of our need to categorize things, case in point “acquaintance rape”. Also, I do believe that there are precautions that women and girls need to take to protect themselves, especially when going out to parties and clubs. But when you say the women can be partially blamed for their rape, in what situations are you talking about in general. Know the whole “getting drunk” or “walking alone at night in a secluded area when you didn’t have to” one, but what about a girl who was just hanging out with someone who she thought of as a friend? I know personally I hung out in a friend’s room who was male. We weren’t dating, no fooling around, and I trusted him. The only thing we did was lay on his bed for a bit and watched TV (fully clothed).

Furthermore, what about a girl on a date who made it clear that she doesn’t want sex whether during the date or before? The guy just simply over-powered her. I also remember a scenario from one of your posts in which a woman changed her mind during or when she was about to have sex. Do you think that a woman has no room to change her mind and that she should just go along with it?

First of all, I think it’s important for everyone, particularly women, to step back, take a deep breath, and turn on their brains before contemplating such an emotionally charged issue. Shrieking about the immorality and criminality of rape being universally axiomatic and declaring that every man accused by any woman of anything should be immediately hung, drawn, and fifthed is not only pointless, it combines near-complete irrationality with an embarrassing degree of historical ignorance.

Let me answer your questions, which as near as I can tell boil down to two, very briefly, then explain my thinking in more detail. 1. Caveat Emptor. Any woman who voluntarily places herself in a position where rape is possible bears precisely the same responsibility for any subsequent rape that the defrauded victims of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scam bear for the loss of their investment funds. Are they to blame for the fact that Madoff was a fraud? Absolutely not. Are they to blame for the fact that they trusted him? Of course, for who else made the decision to place their trust in him? Responsibility is not a zero-sum game. While one cannot blame a victim for being victimized, one can, indeed, one must, hold a victim responsible for any decisions that rendered that victimization possible. 2. In most circumstances, once given, consent is not easily revoked. This is a nebulous area, especially since explicit consent is seldom given in intimate matters. However, I would say that from a Judeo-Christian moral perspective the question of withdrawn consent is irrelevant, because if obtaining consent is an issue, in most cases the act is already determined to be immoral. (One could also raise the scriptural direction to let your yes be yes and your no be no.) From a legal perspective, the question should also be irrelevant given the probable absence of witnesses. And from the non-Christian moral perspective, well, that completely depends upon the particular morality and the individual conscience. Or lack thereof.

The first serious question, then, is whether we are talking about morality or legality. These are two completely different questions. As to the question of morality, there is no question that every form of rape, including the various forms of non-rape sometimes errantly described as “date rape” or “acquaintance rape”, are immoral under the Judeo-Christian ethic, with the possible exception of “marital rape”. (Forget the latter for now, however, since it can be dealt with as part of the legality question for reasons that will eventually become clear.)

Now, it’s important to understand that rape was not considered to be immoral under most historical non-Christian ethical systems. To the extent it was frowned upon, it was more akin to a property-related crime with compensation due to the offended property owner. Consider, for example, the pagan sacrament of burial among the Rus, as told by Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rašīd ibn Hammād, secretary to the ambassador from the Caliph of Baghdad to the Bulgars in 922:

“The tenth day, they brought the deceased out of the ground and put him inside the pavilion and put around him different kinds of flowers and fragrant plants. Many men and women gathered and played musical instruments, and each of his kinsman built a pavilion around his pavilion at some distance. The slave girl arrayed herself and went to the pavilions of the kinsmen of the dead man, and the master of each had sexual intercourse once with her, saying in a loud voice, ‘Tell your master that I have exercised the right of love and friendship.’ And so, as she went to all the pavilions to the last one, all the men had intercourse with her. When this was over, they cut a dog in two halves and put in into the boat, then, having cut the head off a rooster, they threw it, head and body, to the right and left of the ship…. Then the old woman sized her head and made her enter the pavilion and entered with her. Thereupon the men began to strike with sticks on the shields so that her cries would not be heard and the other slave girls would not be frightened and seek to escape death with their masters. Then six men went into the pavilion and each had intercourse with the girl. Then they laid her at the side of her master; two held her feet and two her hands; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.”

It was only after the violent religious festivities had ended that the famous ship-burning took place. They usually seem to leave out the preceding parts in the movies and medieval fantasies, don’t they…. In defense of the Rus, it must be noted that the girl is a nominal volunteer. On the other hand, she is a slave who is guarded closely after her “volunteering”, she’s forcibly intoxicated, and steps are taken to prevent her screams from being heard prior to her murder. But whether she volunteers for her death or not, the casual way in which she is passed from one man to another makes it readily apparent that the Rus had no ethical problem with a failure to obtain consent prior to intimate relations. It’s a bit much to imagine one hard-bitten pagan warrior after another politely offering variants on this theme: “Oh, ah, I know you’re drunk off your skull and a mad old woman is going to strangle you in a moment, but I say, you don’t object if I have a go first, do you, my dear?”

The Rus were hardly alone in this either, as from a purely materialist perspective there is no logical reason to raise any moral objection to rape, because the specific location of various collections of atoms at any one point in time are simply not a moral matter. In order to construct any objection, it’s first necessary to elevate the discussion beyond the purely material or the scientific.

– more later –