Defining Rape II: Consent

George Will

George Will (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

In my previous essay, I presented some groundwork and stage setting for the discussion to follow. In this essay I will take a look at the matter of consent.

Intuitively, what makes some activities wrong (and often criminal) is the lack of consent on the part of the victim. Theft, for example, is taking property without the rightful owner’s consent. Kidnapping, as another example, is taking or transporting a person without consent. These misdeeds are similar to rape in regards to the lack of consent. In the case of rape, the activity is sexual in nature (to be deliberately vague) and occurs without the consent of the victim. While these simple definitions have appeal, the matter of sorting out what counts as consent and what constitutes acting without consent is rather more complex. To focus the discussion I will use a recent and controversial example.

Conservative intellectual George Will triggered a bit of a firestorm among liberal columnists and bloggers with his June 6 column about the alleged epidemic of campus rape. The claim that triggered the most outrage was his assertion that “when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”

Some of those attacking Will interpreted him as asserting that women want to be actual victims—that is, that women want to be raped. While some awful people do believe just that, this reading might not be Will’s actual position. Another interpretation, which seems supported by the rest of his column, is that some women will embrace a very broad definition of “rape” and interpret their experiences to match that definition. The motivation, at least as it seems to Will, is to gain a “coveted status” that “confers privileges.” My concern here is not with whether or not Will is correct in this matter. Rather, I want to examine what he takes as an example of how one becomes a member of this “privileged” class of rape victims.

Will uses an example taken from a report about Swarthmore College. In 2013, a woman was in her room with a man “with whom she’d been hooking up for three months”:

“They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. ‘I basically said, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.” And then he said, “OK, that’s fine” and stopped. . . . And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.’”

As Will notes, six weeks later the woman reported that she had been raped. Will seems to hold that the woman was not actually raped and that she decided to join the “privileged” class of victims by redefining her experience as rape. Others might claim that she had been “brainwashed” by feminist ideology or political correctness to regard her experience as rape. Setting aside the matter of motivation, there is an important question of whether the incident was or was not rape. Those embracing what some would regard as the ideology of leftist feminism would presumably regard it as rape. As Will shows, those embracing a specific form of conservative ideology presumably consider it to not be rape. Obviously, the adherents of the ideologies will regard their view as self-evident and the view of the other as not only in error but driven by vile and wicked motivations. Since I am not a prisoner of either ideology, I can examine the matter more objectively, looking for merits and flaws in the various accounts.

On the face of it, it is easy enough to contend that the incident is a case of rape. While the man did not threaten the woman or use force to have sex with her, he did engage in a sexual act after she had basically said that she did not want to have sex with him. Sex without consent is rape and thus she was raped.

To use an analogy, suppose for a few months I had allowed a friend to take money from my wallet, but then we decided (or so I think) that this money taking will no longer be part of our relationship. She reaches for my wallet and I basically say “No, I don’t want to give you money.” She stops, but then returns to my wallet and takes my money. She has, obviously enough, committed an act of theft: she has taken my property without my consent.

While this view has considerable merit, it is also worth considering an alternative. One obvious complication of the matter is that consent is a matter of communication and communication can be problematic. This creates the practical (and moral) problem of sorting out when consent has been given, when it has not been given, and when a person should know the difference.

In the specific case under discussion, the two parties had been having consensual sex (“hooking up”) for three months. On the face of it, once a relationship is established then it is not unreasonable to accept an assumption of consent. To use an analogy, I keep beer and snacks on hand for my Sunday Pathfinder game. My longstanding friends do not need to explicitly ask permission to get the beer or snacks, since there is a reasonable assumption that they have standing permission to do so. I would, in fact, have an obligation to tell them if certain beer or snacks were off limit—which would then obligate them to not take the specified beer or snacks.

In the case at hand, let it be assumed that the woman changed the relationship from “hooking up” to friends without benefits. This would legitimately remove the assumption of consent (unless otherwise informed). As such, the man could no longer assume that she was consenting unless he was told otherwise.

The woman also notes that she “basically” told him she didn’t want to have sex with him—which would clearly show a lack of consent. The man should have left it at that and not tried again.

However, a devil’s advocate might make certain claims. The first is that the brains of young people are different from adult brains, especially in areas of judgment and impulse control. The second is that the desire for sex is extremely strong and even the prospect of sex impedes rational judgment. The third is that people in general and young people in particular are bad at communication. The fourth is that communication is not merely a matter words—that consent or lack thereof can also be conveyed by actions. Such a devil’s advocate might allege, in his devilish way, that the young man, driven by basic biological desires and impeded judgment, decided to make another attempt at sex and wrongly interpreted, perhaps due to his immature brain and lack of communication skills, her lack of action as consent. That is, he honestly believed that he had consent and had not raped her. She might have also shared this belief for six weeks.

The obvious reply is that none of the devil’s advocate’s claims matter: what matters is that the woman said that she did not want to have sex and then the man had sex “with” her. Thus, it was sex without consent and hence the man is guilty of rape. While this view does have great appeal, it might be worth considering the following analogy.

Suppose I have a nice truck and that my friend Sally really likes driving around in nice trucks. She also prefers to not drive alone. After we have been friends a while, I agree to let her drive my truck and also agree to go with her on her drives. This goes on for three months and I find that I have gotten tired of this aspect of the relationship and tell her so. As far as I can tell, she agrees.

Then I invite her to come over and sit in my truck. After a while, she reaches for the keys in my pocket and I say “no, I am not letting you drive and I am not riding with you.” Rebuffed, she pulls her hand back. But, a few minutes later she is digging around in my pocket for the key. I do nothing. She takes the key and puts it in the ignition. I say and do nothing. She starts the truck and takes me along for the ride.  I am tired, so I just sit back and let her drive. When she gets back, I take the key out of the ignition. Six weeks later I call the police and accuse her of kidnapping me and stealing my truck.

This situation does seem parallel to the original situation. After all, theft is taking property without consent and kidnaping is transporting a person without consent. If the woman did not consent in the original situation, then I did not consent in the analogical situation. If the man was a rapist, then Sally was a thief and a kidnapper. However, I suspect that people would react to my claim that Sally kidnapped me and stole my truck by saying that I should have at the very least said something when she reached for the keys a second time—by letting her simply take them and drive away with me without even another word would seem to show that I consented to the trip. After all, her reaching for the key and so on could be seen as requests for consent—I could have easily replied by saying “no.” Of course, it could be countered that this view is wrong: Sally is now a kidnapper and truck thief because of my original statement which withheld consent.  After all, it might be argued, saying “no” once suffices—and until an explicit, verbal “yes” is given the original “no” is in place.

Naturally, some might want to reject the truck analogy while holding that the original case was one of rape. One obvious avenue of reply is to argue that sexual assault is a special matter and thus it is not analogous to the truck scenario. As such, the man is a rapist but Sally is not a kidnapper and thief.  I might even be accused of trivializing rape by presenting such an analogy. In regards to the first reply, the challenge is to spell out what breaks the analogy—what is the difference that renders the comparison untenable? In regards to the second, it is a mere ad homimen.

The example considered in this essay did not explicitly involve drinking—however, many sexual assaults on campus do. In the next essay the moral impact of intoxication will be considered.


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