Sunday, February 22, 2009

Douchebaggery, or Rape?

(via Pandagon1) I just finished reading a long post at Bitch Ph.D. which asserts a definition of "rape" that requires closer examination. Here are the relevant bits:

Instead, my rape took the form of withholding and control. I will admit that I have not wanted to call it rape. I still do not want to call it rape, and am forcing myself to do so right now, and it is painful.

You see, a few years after me and my first love, from Texas, got together, the sex dropped off precipitously. My boyfriend was very attractive to me, and I was constantly horny. I wanted to have boring sex, kinky sex, and everything in between. But he withheld. He withheld sex and most forms of physical affection from me until it made me crazy. I don't know why he did it. But it became a constant form of negotiation, with me trying to get affection and sex, and him finding all kinds of reasons to decline. The nascent body-acceptance that I had formed before went off a cliff.

And then one night, after months of this, I awoke in the middle of the night to find him rubbing up against me with a hard-on. I was in that bizarre zone between wake and sleep, where everything seemed blurry and confused and it was difficult to identify reality. And before I could get out of that in-between zone, he was on top of me and penetrating me. I, of course, was not wet, having just been asleep, and not otherwise aroused. But this was what I wanted. I wanted sex and physical closeness so badly--how could I say no? Even in my diminished state, a "take-it-while-I-can-get-it" mentality took over, and I did not protest. I winced in a little pain. After he was done he kissed me and went back to sleep. I was left lying there, confused, upset. What about me? I was just starting to get aroused at the very end of the thing, and now, what was I supposed to do?

I went to the living room and cried my eyes out.

How do I frame this kind of experience? How do I call this rape in a discourse where only violence, only strangeness, only force and unwillingness begets rape? There was no violence. It was someone I knew and loved, and wanted to have sex with so badly it hurt. But he had to find the only moments where I wasn't willing, where I wasn't wanting, and fuck me then. Withhold from me and put me in a position where I didn't want to say no. Where I felt I couldn't.

I'm not going to debate her decision to call the above "rape"; whether such a term is applicable is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. What I will point out is that, by her own admission, many of the elements that are commonly understood to constitute rape (violence, coercion, etc.) are missing from her experience. If we accept the label she has applied then we may have broadened the term to the point where it ceases to be useful.

I've talked about this in the past w.r.t the defintion of "racist"; the same idea holds true here. Eventually the definition has expanded so much that it loses its power as a term of condemnation. M. LeBlanc's boyfriend sounds like a dick and a douchebag (though, in fairness to the alleged douchebag, we only have M. LeBlanc's side of the story), but its far from clear that his behavior represents a violation of Ms. LeBlanc's human rights. There is a substantive difference, from a human rights standpoint, between being in a really shitty relationship and having your bodily autonomy violated (e.g. rape where violence, coercion, etc. are present). But if you accept that both types of behavior can be described using the term "rape" then its really no longer such a big deal to call someone a "rapist"; saying "he's a rapist" becomes equivalent to saying "he's a really big douchebag with whom you wouldn't want to have a long-term relationship". In order to maintain the utility of language we must then invent another term strictly reserved for people who violate other's fundamental rights.

There are several obvious rebuttals to the above. One is that I've miscategorized the actions of Ms. LeBlanc's boyfriend and that his actions really do represent a violation of her human rights. Sure, but if you say that then we just end up playing the same game all over with the term "human rights" since it now covers violations of personal autonomy and non-violations of personal autonomy.

A second, and more substantial critique, is that the actions of Ms. LeBlanc's boyfriend represent a genuine violation of her autonomy. I don't believe that they do; see this post at The Volokh Conspiracy for some thoughts on the subject from David Post which largely mirror my own. If we label his actions coercive then its hard to imagine a relationship that doesn't involved coercion in one form or another; if follows from there that all sex in the context of a relationship constitutes rape. Obviously there's disagreement on the subject; no doubt many of Ms. LeBlanc's readers would disagree with me. But at that point you're no longer arguing about the defintion of rape but rather about definitions such as "autonomy" and "choice" which are damn near axiomatic; it's really hard to have a constructive discussion if you disagree about the fundamentals.

1 For the love of Ceiling Cat put the picture below the fold. I was browsing the front page in class and got definite reactions from the people sitting behind me.


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