Saturday, October 07, 2006

Defining 'Rape'

Seems like today is a day for definitions. Maia at Alas writes about her proposed definition of rape:
Now as I’ve said before I draw a strict line about consent. If a man is using any form of coercion* to make a woman sleep with him, then she cannot give meaningful consent, therefore if there’s any coercion then the sex is rape. * The important point about my definition of coercion is that it involves power - you can’t coerce someone to do anything unless you have some form of power over them.
This is a truly bad definition of rape for a number of reasons. For starters, rapes can occur in same-sex relationships, and rape victims can be men, so her definition should focus on the use of coercion by one (gender neutral) party to obtain sexual favors from another. But that's mostly nitpicking. The primary problem is that her re-definition hasn't removed any of the ambiguity, its merely postponed its appearance by a degree. When you look at her definition of "coercion" you find that it revolves around the concept of "power", as slippery and ambiguous a concept as you're likely to find. Power comes in a number of guises: overt, subtle, physical, emotional, financial; the examples which Maia gives seem to indicate her agreement in this regard. But her definition criminalizes any sexual activity which is not absolutely pristine of motive. For example, what if one partner has sex to make the other partner happy, or to protect the integrity of the relationship? In some circles this is laudable behavior; but it nevertheless will often fit Maia's definition of rape. A partner who fears a withdrawal of affection for failing to be GGG is being coerced, which makes the activity rape. How do we define our way out of this dilemma? It seems to me that the flaw in Maia's definition of rape is its absolutist attitude towards consent and coercion. In the example above we can recognize that a person may not want to engage in sexual activity at one level, but may still choose to do so for other reasons. Does this make them coerced? When answering this question you have inquire as to what alternative options are available? If a person is being threatened with violence as the alternative then coercion seems clear; physical harm is never an acceptable consequence of declining sexual activity. This example highlights what seems to be a much better heuristic for deciding whether sexual activity is being coerced: Would a rational person find the consequences of declining sexual activity to be reasonable?* If "yes" then the activity isn't coerced; if "no", then the activity is coerced. Let's apply this to the GGG question above: Is withdrawal of affection a reasonable consequence of failure to be GGG? I'd answer "yes", but y'all are welcome to quibble. The important thing is that we now have a much better heuristic than "power=coercion=rape".
* This heuristic relies on the "rational person" test, which is slippery in its own right, but there doesn't seem to be an alternative in this case.

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