Friday, 11 October 2013

How you know it’s rape culture: this is still an argument

Content note: rape, victim-blaming, misogyny, child abuse
Most of the time, I have the tremendous privilege of being able to go through life without having to think about rape or sexual assault. Lately, several things have happened that have brought it to my attention. I’m not a rape survivor, though I have experienced some very minor indecent assault as I’ll discuss below. I’m not claiming to speak on behalf of rape survivors. But I’m disgusted to the point I can no longer not say anything.
In particular, I need to speak up about one of the things that have happened because, a year ago, I wrote a pair of Facebook Notes about patriarchy, which I copied over to this blog here and here; and in the first one, I drew on an article by Michael Shermer (who, if you can’t be bothered Googling, is a well-known writer in the atheist community) for ideas on how to break male domination at the corporate executive level. And the thing that has happened is that Michael Shermer has been credibly accused of rape. I don’t want to take the patriarchy articles down, but I can’t just leave them there like nothing’s happened either, not without condemning the crime Shermer is alleged to have committed. I would love to believe he never did such a thing, but that’s frankly pretty implausible.
Another major thing is that here in New Zealand a man attacked two young women. At trial he was convicted of aggravated robbery but acquitted of indecent assault despite his lawyer agreeing that he had, in fact, indecently assaulted them. The sentencing judge speculated that “the foolishness of [the] two victims, venturing out alone at night in a park in a strange city, dressed as they were” had contributed to the jury’s decision. Put together, the verdict of a jury and the words of a judge make what we call “legal authority” – think about that. Then neoliberal icon Bob Jones wrote a grossly offensive commentary on the incident in the New Zealand Herald, which I’m not going to link you to and give him page hits, but here is a rewrite correcting Jones’ hatefulness, courtesy Marama Davidson at The Daily Blog.
And just so as not to be totally negative, a third thing was that I was in the crowd to hear this inspiring speech at the Dunedin SlutWalk.

Starting with the Shermer one, then. As you saw if you clicked the link, PZ Myers, another well-known atheist writer (noted for his rudeness to religion, whereas Shermer is known for his politeness), says he received the following e-mail from a woman he knows:
At a conference, Mr. Shermer coerced me into a position where I could not consent, and then had sex with me. I can’t give more details than that, as it would reveal my identity, and I am very scared that he will come after me in some way. But I wanted to share this story in case it helps anyone else ward off a similar situation from happening. I reached out to one organization that was involved in the event at which I was raped, and they refused to take my concerns seriously. Ever since, I’ve heard stories about him doing things (5 different people have directly told me they did the same to them) and wanted to just say something and warn people, and I didn’t know how. I hope this protects someone.
Another woman’s response confirmed that this was not out of character for Shermer.
Michael Shermer was the guest of honour at an atheist event I attended in Fall 2006; I was on the Board of the group who hosted it. It’s a very short story: I got my book signed, then at the post-speech party, Shermer chatted with me at great length while refilling my wine glass repeatedly. I lost count of how many drinks I had. He was flirting with me and I am non-confrontational and unwilling to be rude, so I just laughed it off. He made sure my wine glass stayed full. And that’s the entirety of my story: Michael Shermer helped get me drunker than I normally get, and was a bit flirty. I can’t recall the details because I was intoxicated. I don’t remember how I left, but I am told that a friend took me away from the situation and home from the party. Note, I’d never gotten drunk at any atheist event before; I was humiliated by having gotten so drunk and even more ashamed that my friends had to cart me off before anything happened to me.
But I had a bad taste in my mouth about Shermer’s flirtatiousness, because I’m married, and I thought he was kind of a pig. I didn’t even keep his signed book, I didn’t want it near me.
Over the years as rumours have flown about atheist women warning each other about a lecherous author/speaker, I thought of all the authors and speakers I had met during my time as an atheist activist, and I guessed that Shermer was the one being warned against.
Re-reading my patriarchy posts I find I was a bit vague about intoxicant-facilitated rape, which is what’s at issue here. So let me spell it out. Whether a sexual encounter is rape or not depends on whether everyone involved consents to it. Consent is meaningless unless the consenting party is able to withhold consent and trust the other party to affirm that choice. If a person is not in a position to make choices, they are not in a position to consent; hence, if their capacity to assess their own interests is impaired, so is their consent. To the extent that alcohol impairs a person’s ability to assess their own interests, therefore, alcohol cancels consent.
Since this is a topic on which people frequently creatively misunderstand one another, I want to clarify still further. In my mid-20s I had a few hookups after drinking, which I consider to have been consensual. Arguably, since I have a social disability which (among other things) makes me anxious around people, I would not have had those encounters without the disinhibiting effect of the alcohol. That’s not where I’m drawing the line. In no case did I regret it when sober. What if I had? It depends. The guy who wakes up, to his horror, next to a woman he doesn’t find attractive, after a night’s boozing, is a staple of misogynistic “humour”. I wouldn’t call that guy a rape survivor. If he was capable of saying either “yes” or “no” and chose to say “yes”, he consented. He may have relaxed his personal criteria of attraction due to the beer, but he knew what he was doing and could have stopped doing it. If on the other hand he wasn’t capable, if he was so out of it that he needed all his mental powers just to stand up without passing out, then that does cross the line.
There is a legend, by the way, that many rape cases arise when women find themselves in a similar position. This is false. The suggestion that badly-worded questionnaires, intended to measure the incidence of rape in society, may generate false positives from “yes” answers that actually refer to this kind of experience, does leave room enough for doubt that I’m wary of some of the commonly-repeated statistics on rape and sexual assault. Wary, not dismissive. The proportion of men who admit (anonymously) to having sex with people who they knew didn’t want it, while the latter were too drunk or high to resist, is too high for complacency.
While I’m pre-empting nitpickers, there are further nuances on those nuances. Consent is relational; you consent, or not, to what somebody else wants to do with you. Whether your consent is meaningful depends not just on your own state of mind but on how much control the other person has over it – especially if they can exercise that control without you realizing it. That’s why we frown on sexual contact between people when one holds authority over the other. So whether the drunk guy in our example consented to the sexual encounter is not just a question of how drunk he was but of how sober the other person was, and how much they were exploiting his drunkenness to get what they wanted.
And what Shermer is alleged to have done is way beyond the boundary where these issues are disputable. If the two women quoted above are telling the truth about him, and it’s hard to see why they would lie, then his modus operandi is to ply women with alcohol until they can’t say no, and then take what he wants. Contrary to Richard Carrier’s commentary on the allegations, it makes no difference whether the victim “responds in kind” (even “enthusiastically”) while being too drunk to think. The sex act is not merely “sleazy and reprehensible”, it is railroading over the victim’s power to withhold consent, and that makes it rape.

Now the Bob Jones opinion piece. First, notice that Jones is quite as contemptuous of the convicted attacker, Troy Clement, as any feminist would be, calling him a “cowardly piece of garbage”, and I’d bet good money “garbage” is self-censorship so the Herald can publish it. Indeed he goes much further than any feminist I know would, in hoping that “some awful fate will befall him” (I presume he means rape by physical force) in prison. Nevertheless, Jones’ article is rape apologetics. I expect he would snort derisively at anyone who tried to tell him that, but most of what I’ve seen of Bob Jones is him snorting derisively at people anyway.
By far the silliest criticism of Justice Priestley came from barrister and feminist television series presenter Catriona MacLennan, whose comments devalued her credibility on other fronts... she asked why shouldn’t women be able to walk safely through an unlit park at night? Grow up, girl. The answer is because you might be raped, or, alternatively, assaulted, robbed or murdered...
She then descended into childishness. “Why should we women remain imprisoned in our homes at night?” she wailed, as if going out to dinner, to functions, the theatre or whatever, can be equated to walking alone in the dark through an unlit park in an unfamiliar country...
Rape is as old as humankind and marches, etc, will not stop it. In Saudi Arabia rapists are beheaded, in Singapore they’re hanged, in China shot and in Texas, electrocuted, but rapes still occur. Furthermore it happens with most species, whether sparrows or gorillas. But although the offenders are male, 99.999 per cent of men are not rapists and feel just as outraged as women do about it.
Those young German girls were very silly... Life is full of risks, which is why we buy insurance, wear safety belts, lock our doors, don’t holiday in Somalia, or, as plainly needs to be said, walk alone through dark parks at night.
The percentage Jones has pulled out of his hat here vastly underestimates the number of rapists. A couple of now-classic surveys found that roughly 6% of young American men admit to coercing people into sex through force, threats, or intoxication, as long as the surveyors don’t call it “rape”, and 4% admit to doing so repeatedly. New Zealand’s rate is unlikely to be over three orders of magnitude lower.
Jones’s factual error is minor, however, compared to his logic fail. If 0.001% of New Zealand men rape, that’s a national total of about 17 – in which case you would be at more risk, while walking through a dark park at night, of tripping over a hedgehog and twisting your ankle than of being raped. Even if we suppose that each of these 17 men is committing 200 rapes a year (3,512 sexual assaults and related offences were recorded in New Zealand in 2012), there are a damn sight more than 17 inadequately-lighted parks in the country, and our 17 rapists could hardly get round to more than two or three each per night. Jones could have plucked any number out of the air; why pick one that undermines his central point so thoroughly?
Because only by such a contradiction can his central point be maintained in the first place. If lots of men are attacking people, that would be something men should look at doing something about. On the other hand, if a vanishing fraction of men are attacking people, then even by the logic of victim-blaming there is nothing foolish about walking through a park at night. Neither possibility fits the analogy that Jones draws here – and note his choice of words.
“Perhaps it’s time for more Reclaim the Night marches,” [MacLennan] then threatened. God save us from the quixotic spectacle of drowning wet parsons and large banner-wielding women, in both cases implausible rape victims, despoiling our streets with such futility. They might just as well march coatless without umbrellas in the rain, complaining about the weather.
Threatened. Bob Jones finds Reclaim the Night marches so personally offensive that the mere suggestion of them is a threat. “Despoiling” means “looting”; I presume Jones means something more like “cluttering up” or “defacing”. He deplores their “futility”, and indeed they would be “futile” if the aim was to achieve a reduction in violence by magic. But it isn’t, it’s to raise people’s consciousness and change attitudes. I suspect Jones’ revulsion arises from an inner reluctance to have his attitude changed.
Most rapists don’t skulk around in dark parks. Most rapists force themselves on women they know. Most of them favour alcohol or drugs as weapons to weaken their victims’ resistance, though still often in conjunction with violence or threats. They aren’t “cowardly pieces of garbage”, at least not the subhuman thug types Jones seems to have in mind. They’re our colleagues, friends, family, leaders, public figures. They may be respectable, they may be funny, they may be charismatic. What they have in common is that they don’t take no for an answer.
The jury should never have acquitted the offender on the indecent assault charges (presuming he did what he was accused of, of course, but no-one seems to be arguing that he didn’t), no matter how inadvisable they may have thought the young women’s behaviour was. If you point a gun at me and say “Give me your wallet or I’ll kill you,” and I reply with an epithet undermining your sexual identity and follow it up with “—and you haven’t got the guts to pull the trigger,” you are liable for murder if you do pull the trigger regardless of how unwise my actions were. But if you indecently assault someone, “she was scantily dressed in an isolated place at night” is now a defence at common law thanks to the combined thoughtlessness of this jury and judge. We urgently need a higher court to over-rule the decision, but since the two victims here were young and just visiting the country, I’m guessing they won’t have the money, the institutional knowledge, or the time to go through with an appeal. Alternatively Parliament needs to amend the Crimes Act and eliminate that defence through statute.

The appalling verdict does refute a claim I’ve heard fairly often: that when authorities warn women to dress conservatively and stay indoors so as not to be raped, that doesn’t mean they’re blaming the victims any more than if they were warning people to keep their car doors locked because of thefts in the area. No jury or judge in New Zealand would acquit someone of theft on the grounds that the victim foolishly left their property unsecured.
Here again we enter an area open to nitpicking and creative misunderstanding. Obviously, if the two young women had not been in that particular park at that particular moment, they would not have crossed Clement’s path and the assault would not have occurred. In a philosophically-defensible sense of the word “causal”, their actions were part of the causal chain of what happened. And if you start denouncing victim-blaming, some people will turn to that sense of the word and draw the conclusion “But it was kind of partly in a way their fault.” Let me argue out what’s wrong with this.
In New Zealand law (I’m taking notes in a couple of Law papers, can you tell?) you are deemed to have killed someone if you “caused their death” through any act or failure to act. If the act or failure to act was a criminal one, you have committed culpable homicide, either murder or manslaughter. Indirectly causing their death counts – if you swerve your car into their lane to spook them, and they skid, crash into a truck, and die, that’s manslaughter, unless you meant it to happen in which case it’s murder. But at some points the actions of others are so far outside our ken as to “break the chain of causation”. The example we were given in class was: if I hit someone and they have to go to hospital, and then a terrorist group bombs the hospital and they die, I am liable for assault but not for homicide. The terrorist group’s act is said to “break the chain of causation” from my action to the end result. It doesn’t, in the philosophical sense above, which just goes to show that we don’t use that sense to determine responsibility.
To which Bob Jones or someone like him will presumably retort: but you couldn’t have expected the terrorist attack, whereas women surely can expect trouble if they venture into dark parks at night. Indeed they can. They can also expect trouble in pubs, on beaches, in gyms, on campuses, and at parties. Anywhere men go, women are not safe. When they try to tell men that, they’re met with a deluge of whinging, much of it with a threatening undertone. Google the phrase “Schrödinger’s rapist” and see it for yourself. And they’re especially not safe at home if a man lives there. So it’s not as if the two young tourists went from a place where they were safe to a place where they were not safe. They were navigating a dicey terrain, and they rolled snake eyes. They couldn’t reasonably have expected that they would meet their attacker precisely there. They could have met an attacker anywhere.
Schrödinger’s Rapist” means that a woman going about her daily business has to assume that any unknown man she meets might be a sexual predator. Since I’ve mentioned it, I should probably take a moment to knock down the counter-argument many men raise, that being “You’re more likely to be raped by someone you know, therefore you shouldn’t fear strangers.” Women are more often raped by men they know because they spend more time interacting with men they know than with strangers, and consequently the former have more opportunity to rape them. If a woman is already in close proximity to a stranger, that alters the probabilities. I know full well how annoying that is for men. I’m large, male, socially withdrawn, and funny-looking – I tick most of the “avoid” boxes. It gets wearing, being avoided. But I can’t go around telling women not to take necessary precautions on the basis that I know I’m not a threat.

Similar logic applies to the suggestion that the young tourists should have worn different clothes if they didn’t want to be assaulted. I don’t know of any systematic evidence for clothing being a risk factor for rape. Some particular sexual predators have been known to move in only when the victim was dressed a certain way, which I’ll get to in a moment. In this case, Troy Clement robbed them. He was prepared to take their property by force based on the mere fact that it was in front of him and he wanted it; he was prepared to touch their bodies without consent based on the mere fact that they were in front of him and he wanted to. Are we to believe he wouldn’t have realized they had female bodies if they’d been dressed more warmly?
In other situations it might be different. Let me tell you about my piano teacher. I went to piano lessons when I was a child. (They didn’t take.) My teacher, from about age nine to twelve or so I think, was a man we’d first met as a Christian youth camp “uncle”. Like most New Zealand kids, I started intermediate school at age eleven, and intermediate schools have uniforms and for boys, back then, the uniform was shorts all year round. My house and my piano teacher’s house were both within easy distance of the school; my lessons were in the afternoon, before I went home.
Sometimes the lesson would go fine. I would practise my pieces, he would correct me, he would play things on the piano himself, everything you’d expect. There might be other kids there, and I would sit reading things from his bookshelf while they had their lessons, though often he would send me out of the room so they could concentrate. He had quite a collection of Christian fundamentalist books, mostly about the End Times and the Rapture, and a stack of comics by Jack Chick and associates. But sometimes he would ask me embarrassing questions about my progress through puberty – once he said outright “Have you started growing pubic hair yet?” and repeated the question until I said I didn’t want to answer. And sometimes he would reach over and touch my leg or my belly. Once I pulled away from him and he said “My, you’re touchy today!”
That was all he did to me. He never reached inside my clothes or anything, though I do remember that at the youth camps he was quite casual about undressing in front of us boys and walking in on us in the shower, but that didn’t bother me the way the touching and the personal questions did. I never told anybody until years later when the police were doing a ring-around of his former students. We spotted his name in the court news shortly after that. Evidently some other kid did tell somebody. Writing this has got my anxiety levels popping, which surprises me a little, because thinking about him doesn’t normally do that to me. I don’t think I took much harm from the experience (obviously I’m speaking for myself here, not his other victims). I don’t have a traumatic response to pianos or camps or Christian fundamentalist books. I am anxious in the company of men I don’t know well, but I think that has more to do with being bullied by my peers at school, because it’s triggered by aggressive masculinity and especially sports gear, and my piano teacher was not particularly masculine and didn’t go for sports much even at camp. Apart from wrestling with the boys.
I coped with the experience mainly by denying it. When my parents asked if I liked piano lessons and wanted to keep going I would hastily say “Yes, it’s fine,” and stop talking about it, because if I had told them I didn’t like the lessons they would surely have asked what was wrong, and I didn’t want to have to talk about the touching and the personal questions. And I didn’t want to confront the issue because that would make it be happening and not just, somehow, please, some kind of innocent misunderstanding on my part. Because it had to be a misunderstanding, because he was a Christian and Christians didn’t do that. And besides, I learned what would make him not do that, and this is where this personal anecdote returns to relevance: he only did these things if I turned up at his house wearing shorts. As long as I took care to change into trackpants or jeans before I went to piano, nothing happened.
Should that responsibility have been on me?
Should someone have warned his other pupils – which included both my siblings – to cover their legs when they went to piano lessons with him?
I don’t know whether he was doing the same things to his female pupils. One girl told me she found him “weird”. Stuck in denial mode, I pretended I didn’t know what she meant. Supposing he had been, should they have been warned to cover up so as not to tempt him?
Supposing instead of offering piano lessons he’d been picking children off the streets, should there have been a warning put out advising children aged 9–12 in North East Valley to wear long trousers when going to the dairy for some milk and bread?
A mere firm “no” is not sufficiently negative to answer those questions. The appropriate response is revulsion, outrage, abhorrence. Why is it any different when there’s a predator targeting women?

And that is the message of the SlutWalk. For those who came in late, a Canadian police officer in 2011 told a campus safety forum at York University in Toronto that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. Since then the SlutWalk has gone global. The action is to march publicly in “slutty” clothing; the idea is that clothing is not consent. In Dunedin there was a cold wind that day, as there often is, and most of the marchers wore what (I imagine) they would usually wear in public. But the reactions of passers-by, both supportive and hostile, showed the banners and placards were getting the message across.
Why hostile? Some feminists have legitimate objections to the SlutWalk concept, but I really don’t think the guys who drove around the Octagon yelling out of their car windows were coming from there. I think they were coming from a position much like Bob Jones’ response to Reclaim the Night. I think they didn’t like the idea that they, not women, might be responsible for their own sexuality. I didn’t catch their actual words, they weren’t being especially coherent and it was windy, but I think the way they might have verbalized it was that women shouldn’t be skanky unless they were prepared to put out, that it was false advertising otherwise. Guys, if you’re old enough to drive, you’re old enough to grasp the concept that what other people do is about them, not you. And I say that as someone diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition.
Or they might have been saying that women shouldn’t be skanky because promiscuous sex is a sin and tempting someone to commit sin is also a sin. You never know, they might. It’s the kind of thing my piano teacher would have said about the SlutWalk. I have been almost-directly asked “If sex outside marriage is OK, what’s wrong with rape?” Not quite that baldly; the “if” clause was worded “If there’s no sexual morality...” and the question was implied from context. Not quite the most honest argument ever argued. It’s not a matter of sexual morality vs. no sexual morality, it’s a matter of a purity ethic vs. a consent ethic.
I’m convinced that the consent ethic is correct. My moral philosophy is based on trust, as you know. If you do things to people that they don’t want you to, they cannot trust you. There’s room for fuzziness in the vague phrase “do things they don’t want you to” but the fuzziness ends before you touch the surface of their body. Sexual morality is pretty much the same as surgical morality, only with fewer loopholes because sex is never medically necessary. Because one of the peculiarities of Homo sapiens is that we feel repulsed merely contemplating sex acts we wouldn’t personally want to participate in, consent has to come from everyone present – in other words, sex is private.
While the consent ethic does take account of that repulsion, the purity ethic makes it central. Thus you cannot perform any sex act which your culture deems “impure” even in private with the consent of all involved. Many of the cultural standards in question will be pretty much arbitrary. Thus nowadays, oral sex is deemed less serious than genital intercourse, just an expected part of foreplay, whereas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was considered the very depth of perversion. In pop culture, sex between two women is titillating and sex between two men is don’t-go-there; in classical Graeco-Roman culture, vice versa. But a couple of ideas do reliably turn up. Women are always judged by their virginity before marriage and their fidelity after, and a man’s sexual attraction to a woman is always the woman’s responsibility.
Most of this post has been about what’s wrong with the second of those ideas. The first is also, if less obviously, dangerous from a consent perspective. Patriarchies have always been dead set against rape – remember Bob Jones calling Troy Clement “garbage” – but not because it breaches consent. The purity ethic says that once a woman has had sex, she is used, like someone else’s chewing gum. And chewing gum that’s been used against its will is still used. Abstinence advocates (the Christian ones, at least) are a bit quiet on whether being raped has the same effect on one’s purity as willful fornication, but that doesn’t mean rape victims from purity-culture backgrounds can’t make the connection themselves. Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped as a teenager in 2002 and raped repeatedly for almost a year, did not try to escape for precisely that reason.
So while there may be legitimate criticisms of the SlutWalk, “Those women are making themselves look like cheap whores” isn’t one. Clothes have meanings, like words and images, but unlike words they cannot be used to convey consent, because they can’t be modulated quickly or freely enough to communicate its withdrawal. Granted that the meaning of signals or symbols, including clothes (or their absence), is culturally determined, the way to change the meaning of a signal is to use it with the new meaning as explicitly and as widely as possible.

One thing bothered me slightly, I must admit. No, not anything specific to the SlutWalk. One of the speakers repeated the familiar line: “Rape is about power, not sex.” The problem is the vague phrase “is about”. There is a good sense in which it is entirely true, but also an easily-mistaken sense in which it is, I believe, dangerously false.
The latter sense is “Rapists are (always) motivated by a desire to assert power over their victims.” I see two dangers here. One is the conclusion that if men rape to assert their power over women, then to prevent rape we should stop challenging men’s power over women and thereby provoking them to assert it. I used to think that was a mere pedant’s quibble; in fact it has been proposed in all seriousness.
The more serious danger I see is someone saying to themselves My feelings for Person X are sexual, and rape “is not about” sex, therefore what I do to Person X by definition can’t be rape. Project Unbreakable is a blog of rape survivors quoting what their rapists said to them. There are quite a few in this vein:
“If you scream, I’ll make it hurt more than the last time.”

“Tell anyone and I’ll kill you.”

“I will kill you and your family if you don’t do what I say.”

“If you try to scream again, you won’t leave this room alive.”

“If you cry more I will hit you more.”
but also many like this:
“Is this OK? Do you like this? You’re lying.”

“Oh come on you like it, it feels good.”

“Don’t cry, it’s not that bad – you’ll like it!”

“I love you. I know it’s early, but I know I’ll marry you.”

“I just want to please you because I love you so much.”

“I’ll treat you better than anyone ever has before. I’ll treat you like a queen.”

“Don’t be selfish. Love is about sharing.”

“Don’t lie you didn’t like it, because your body told us the truth.”

“I just want you to know that you are beautiful.”

“I need sex to feel loved.”

“You’re such a pretty girl.”
The rapist’s feelings are irrelevant. Sex is rape if one party does not consent. Unconscious or very drunk people cannot consent, nor can children. Consent must be conveyed in words or else in gestures as explicit and voluntary as your partner taking your out-reached hand and guiding it to their body. Skin flushes and facial expressions are not consent. Moving in rhythm so that it hurts less is not consent. Arousal is not consent.
Power is being able to make other people do what you want, without negotiating with them and without it also being what they want. Every language in the world has a way to use verbs to command people to do things. Every language in the world also has long, polite circumlocutions so you can communicate what you want someone to do for you without it being a command. Compare the following three utterances.
“Hey, I was wondering, would I be able to get you to do something for me? If you’re getting up for a snack, can you please bring me a sandwich as well? That would be great.”

“I am in charge; you must do what I say. Now make me a sandwich.”

“Make me a sandwich.”
The second and third utterances both convey the message “I am in charge; you must do what I say”. I would argue the third one does so more strongly than the second, because the second one conveys the further message “...but you might well dispute that, so let me spell it out explicitly”. The second one is a conscious assertion of power, the third a thoughtless assumption of power. Quite likely the person who snaps “Make me a sandwich” is not thinking of the other person at all. They’re thinking of their sandwich. That the other person’s convenience or feelings or intentions might need to be taken into account, has not even crossed their mind. That’s just the point. The fact that they can so totally ignore the other person except as a means to their own physical pleasure is precisely what makes it about power.
Now if most rapes are performed not as an assertion of power but as an assumption of power, then the political conclusion is quite the opposite of the one we saw just above. If men rape because they assume they have power over women, then challenging that assumption is probably one of the best things we can do to reduce rape. The struggle against rape is not separate from the struggle for economic and political equality.
And it’s working. Studies measuring the rate of rape by force or threat show it has fallen 80% since the 1970s – I haven’t seen figures for rape by intoxication. Recent research suggests that feminist movements in the community are the single biggest factor in the decline of violence against women. So Bob Jones is wrong as well as offensive. Rape may well be as old as humanity, but we are not gorillas or sparrows. We are humans; we are the species that changes itself. The consent ethic is one of our greatest discoveries, and the technology for reaping its benefits is feminism.


  1. Loved it. Good read and thought provoking, cheers.

  2. “Rape is about power, not sex.”

    I find this statement more convincing when it is formulated as 'rape is about power and control, using sex as the weapon'

    1. It can be used as a weapon, of course; anything that does massive harm can. However, I'm given to understand that it's more often a matter of the rapist totally objectifying the victim -- their body is to him merely a piece of equipment to get the sensations he wants.

  3. I have a different reframing of the question about a lack of sexual morality. If the sexual act has no meaning beyond fulfilling a biological need, then why is rape so much worse than any other kind of assault? IS it worse than any other kind of assault?

    1. I'd say yes, because if I beat the crap out of a person their negative response to that is fairly clear and entirely justified. In the case of rape those feelings are often far more complicated because the sexual arousal subsystems are involuntary so it's not uncommon for those to fire off in the course of a rape - and it's not as though rape doesn't have the direct physical consequences of any other kind of assault as well.

      That said, I think trying to rate different kinds of assault as inherently better or worse than one another is a) kind of pointless and b) leads to some pretty unpleasant and dehumanising calculus if taken to its logical extreme. Even legal systems (which are all about "hard" rules) take context into consideration when sentencing.

    2. The "if" clause is still dodgy. "If the sexual act has no meaning beyond fulfilling a biological need..." -- who said it didn't? "Biological" and "meaning" are both fairly polysemous words. What are you using them for here? By what argument would having "meaning", whatever that means, beyond the "biological", whatever that means, justify a purity ethic?

  4. What does polysemous mean? What do you mean by "what are you using them for here"? What is a purity ethic? I didn't mention one.

    1. Wolfboy, I was not talking about a rational or legal ranking of assault but an intuitive one. Why does rape _seem_ worse than assault? (Another example might be cannibalism - why does it seem "worse" for someone to cut off someone's hand and then eat it, than for them to merely cut it off?) Repeatedly stabbing someone is a similar physical violation to rape. Why does it (intuitively) make a difference that it is a vagina being stabbed by a penis? I ask because I would really like to know.

    2. "Polysemous" = many meanings. What I originally wrote was: "'Biological' and 'meaning' can both mean a range of different things. What do you mean by them here?" -- but I get superstitious about using particular words, in this case "mean", too many times in short succession, so I rephrased myself.
      You opened by announcing a "reframing of the question about a lack of sexual morality". I understood you to be alluding to this part of the blog post:
      { I have been almost-directly asked “If sex outside marriage is OK, what’s wrong with rape?” Not quite that baldly; the “if” clause was worded “If there’s no sexual morality...” and the question was implied from context. }
      --which introduced the section about purity ethics. I thought it was moderately clear there what I was talking about, but let me try again.
      There are a number of considerations by which one might rationally deem a sexual act to be immoral. If it's non-consensual, it's immoral. If it seriously endangers someone, it's immoral. If it betrays someone's trust, it's immoral. There are fuzzy edges around privacy (how loud do you have to be before you need your next-door neighbours' consent?) and power (is it wrong for a tutor to have sex with a student who's at their college but not in their class?) and safety (what if there's a 50% chance you have a non-life-threatening STI, and your partner knows that?) and third party trust (suppose someone promised their Protestant parents they'd never marry a Catholic...) but the point is, these are the same kind of considerations that govern non-sexual acts. Hence one can apply general moral principles like empathy, honesty, tolerance, and so on.
      By contrast, in a purity ethic certain sexual acts are wrong Just Because. Most attempts to justify why you mustn't have sex with someone of your own gender, mustn't have brief flings or casual hookups even if that's what both of you want, mustn't have sex with the love of your life before you get married, must never get divorced no matter how clear it becomes that you can't live together peacefully, mustn't employ this or that body part or this or that kind of fantasy, mustn't approach your partner from their left-hand side (I think that's in the Kama Sutra)... most attempts to justify that kind of moral pronouncement rely on conveniently unverifiable "spiritual truths", such as that you remain "one flesh" forever with every partner you ever sleep with, or that your body belongs to your future spouse before you've met them. Or that it's "unnatural" -- ironically people who say that are slightly more likely than average to be wearing clothes as they say it.
      Few people integrate these "spiritual truths" into a coherent moral philosophy. Mostly the sentiment behind purity ethics is disgust. They're called "purity" ethics because they invariably use dirt (filth, slime, pollution, etc.) as a metaphor for the sexual practices they forbid, so that the prohibition becomes a means of staying clean. "Dirty" is a built-in object property in the human mind, because we evolved in an environment where certain substances spread disease. And unfortunately part of the instinct is that if someone does something "dirty", we think of them as a "dirty" person. Every degrading sexual epithet you can think of is the direct expression of a purity ethic.
      So you can see why the phrase "If the sexual act has no meaning beyond fulfilling a biological need..." looks like it might be the intro paragraph of a purity ethic. Perhaps you could clarify what you did mean?

  5. "There are a number of considerations by which one might rationally deem a sexual act to be immoral. If it's non-consensual, it's immoral. If it seriously endangers someone, it's immoral. If it betrays someone's trust, it's immoral."

    The same thing goes for any kind of touching, though, doesn't it? Like assault? If touching causes harm, or is non-consensual, or betrays someone's trust, it's immoral. Can you explain how the sexual act _is_ different from any other kind of physical touching, which explains why it is _seen_ so very differently?

    Is it just because it can lead to pregnancy?

    Do I need to argue that it _is_ seen differently, or can we accept that as a given?

    When I said what I said about "fulfilling a biological need" I was quoting what someone once said to me. I'm afraid that's not very scientific, but it seemed to me to be an effective, though brief, summing-up of generally-held current thought. The sex act has evolved to produce species-continuing children, and men have this drive to do it a lot, and women have this drive to do it with men who would probably be safe fathers to said children, and that's it. I'm not sure where non-heterosexual sex fits in there. It's enjoyable. There's no further "meaning", as in a "spiritual" dimension or even necessarily any psychological, emotional connection between partners (as in "casual" sex). If I had sex with you, it just means I had sex with you, not that we have any connection for life or that I even particularly like you and want to see you again, and it's no-one's business but our own, including any other past, future or present partners.

    Here's another question. Why is women's standard work wear so much more physically revealing than men's standard work wear, at least in non-Muslim developed culture? Why is this okay? Is this okay? Should it be acceptable for men to wear shirts unbuttoned to just above the level of their nipples and knee-length shorts at law offices?

    1. There are things I don't understand about the psychology of sex, and not only do I not understand them but I haven't found anyone addressing them. High among them would be the fact referred to in the post, that we humans feel disgust at the thought, let alone the sight, of a sex act we don't want to be personally involved in. This is universal among human cultures but separates us sharply from most other species. Part of the problem is that any question beginning "Why do people...?" or "Why don't people...?" is taken, by default, to mean "I do not feel the impulse to / not to (whatever), can you help me empathize?" And I do feel this particular revulsion; that's not the question I want answered -- I want to know its evolutionary purpose. As of now, I don't know, and so I can't give a full answer.
      Actually I have to leave for choir pretty shortly, so I shall just address your first couple of questions now and come back to the others later.
      I think one can make a distinction without adopting a purity ethic. You mentioned cannibalism above; I would add organ theft to the list. It comes down to the inferred aim of the attacker, and the consequences of that aim for the victim's ability to make themselves safe. If someone mugs me for my wallet or my keys, I can just hand them over and run. If someone beats me up so as to make themselves look tough, I can act submissive so that they have won without hitting me. If someone attacks me pre-emptively because they're afraid I might attack them, I can demonstrate that I am not dangerous. If someone comes after me for vengeance for something I've done, I can apologize and offer to make amends. But if they're attacking because they want to use my body for something, be it sex, food, or organ transplants, I have no way of deflecting their hostility before they violate my bodily integrity. An assault made with the intention of appropriating someone's body is especially worthy of fear -- that is to say, untrustworthy. And in my view trustworthiness is the basis of all morality.
      OK, I've got to go now. I'll come back to your other points later.

    2. Trust me to run over the character limit in a comment on my own post... OK, an answer with all the interesting asides cut out.
      As a generalization about most animal species, it is true that males are adapted to mate with multiple females because that's how they will best maximize their number of offspring, while females are adapted to mate with high-quality males because that's how they will best maximize their number of *surviving* offspring. However, there are multiple considerations that can alter that calculation in particular species. In humans, our long period of childhood dependency means that mothers cannot raise children without help. Even in our materially prosperous and automated society, single parents are at a serious disadvantage (albeit in large part because people tend to be stingy about helping them out, which in turn is in large part due to our culture's purity ethic). Without modern social and technological conveniences, it couldn't be done.
      Morally, this means that if a man has caused or helped cause a pregnancy, he is obliged to contribute. Biologically, it's clear that humans are adapted to form long-term, if not necessarily life-long, sexual partnerships. Not always, not exclusively, not from every sex act, but we do form attachments.
      So human sexual partners certainly do form psychological, emotional connections -- for thoroughly biological reasons. I don't think they've figured out the whole neurochemistry of the phenomenon but oxytocin is known to play a big part. I'm not an expert on brain chemistry (are you?) but I gather oxytocin contributes to feelings of comfort, peace, and attachment. I believe in most mammals it's secreted in a mother's brain as she breast-feeds. In humans it's also released during sex, in both males and females.
      Attachment is not always and in all circumstances a good thing. When it's accompanied by respect it's one of the best things there is, but when it isn't it can manifest as possessiveness -- patriarchy, ahoy. And of course one can also have sex with someone one respects and not form any attachment. Emotions are not uncontrollable psychic pressures that boil up from within, they are strategic responses to situations -- so, for instance, the idea that men "can't help themselves" sexually exploiting women is bullshit -- and they have as much to do with expectations as with biology. Of course it's painful if one person forms an attachment and the other does not, I've learned that one first-hand, but mutual clarity and honesty about expectations is the way to work past that problem.
      As to how non-heterosexual couplings fit in, well, it would be the same way that non-reproductive hetero sex practices fit in. Sex exists because it's how we replicate our genes, but genes are not intelligent entities and aren't able to anticipate what's going to be useful and what's not. They can only go by what's been useful in their past, and every gene has a very long past of being transmitted by heterosexual sex. The genes that induce a sexual desire for male bodies have been passed on because of their effect on female behaviour; if they happen to become active in a male, well, that's just how the cookie has crumbled. Analogously, I am a male and yet I have nipples, because half my ancestors going back to the late Jurassic or early Cretaceous -- namely, the female half -- used nipples to feed their infants. Nipples in males are evidently not enough of a liability to be eliminated by natural selection.
      I don't know a heck of a lot about fashion, so any answer to your final question would be pretty speculative. I guess if you could clarify what your concerns are and how you connect it with the subject at hand I'd be better placed to start doing that speculation.