Sunday, May 20, 2007

Some Disjointed Thoughts about Rape

Via the new Feminist Philosophers blog I came across this appreciation of Andrea Dworkin. There are things with which I disagree; for instance, I think the point, surely correct, that there is an overlap between rape and consensual intercourse, suggests that even a revised notion of consent will not be an adequate means for dividing the two. In part this is because consent already has the tones that Trigani wants it to have. That's part of the problem; it flips back and forth between them, so that the more ideal valence, in which consent is an expression of a woman's power and authority over herself, serves as a cover for the valence in which consent expresses an evacuation of the woman's power. The two are actually complementary, and affirming one doesn't eliminate its shadow. As long as consent is the foundation of the discussion, it will always be possible to flip the valence from positive to negative, and sex will always harbor this ambivalence about woman's power and authority.

Other problems with consent are highlighted in cases of fraud-based rape, where the sex is consensual but rape certain occurs (despite its not being recognized as rape in the state of Massachusetts and elsewhere). Such cases show that, at the very least, the notion of 'consent' involved in distinguishing rape from sex that is not rape involves complicated counterfactual conditionals and all the problems that arise with making such conditionals tractable. I think it actually goes further and shows that consent is useless for distinguishing rape from other sexual interactions. Absence of consent is an identifier of rape, but consent is not an identifier of the absence of rape.

On a related issue, this Salon article on virtual rape raises a number of questions. The answer to the question of the article -- Is virtual rape a crime? -- is, I think, that it depends; for something to be a crime it must be made such by law. The serious question is more like, "Is virtual rape wicked?" or "Is virtual rape an injustice?" or "Is virtual rape repulsive to a properly developed moral sense?" Since the answer, I take it, to all three questions is Yes, this allows us to address the questions, "Should virtual rape be a crime (whether it currently is or is not) and in what ways should we treat it as one? And whether or not we can do so, what as a society should we do about it?" To focus purely on the legal aspect is to have a purely reactive view to it: to identify something as a crime and leave it at that is simply to set up a system in which one waits for it to be committed and then punishes it. But surely this should be the last bulwark against it, when everything else has failed, and not the first? I'm inclined to think the real questions, here as elsewhere, have to do with our moral education, and it is our failure to engage problems like this at that level that guarantees systemic oppression and injustice.

One thing, incidentally, that worries me about the reasoning of the article is the attempt to parallel sex with violence in this context. In fact, the two are not even remotely parallel. Virtual violence is not violence; but virtual violation is violation. There is a legitimate question about whether virtual rape is rape given that virtual murder is not murder (I think it's quite right to say that it is not, and that trying to make 'rape' stretch that far causes more problems for the fight against rape than it could possibly solve); but this is an entirely different question. The disanalogy between violence and sex arises from the fact that violence is a physical activity whereas sex is a physically expressible mental activity. This is perhaps another reason why nothing short of a focus on how human beings are educated morally can deal with rape properly.

In any case, I do recommend that you read the Feminist Philosophers blog I linked to above; it has just barely started, but as it stands so far it looks to be very promising.

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