Apparently there’s something called ‘rape culture’. I wouldn’t have guessed that. Having specialized in the Philosophy of War, I’d have thought rape was pretty much endemic to the human species. In fact isn’t there a biologist, Randy Thornhill, and an anthropologist. Craig Palmer, who co-wrote an entire book on the subject? A Natural History of Rape is pretty much a corollary of Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene hypothesis. What am I? I’m just a portable platform for my sperm. In my current dotage I’ve been pretty much gutted down there; but I do remember earlier days when, yep, that was pretty much the phenomenology of it.
So if by ‘culture’ is meant something that has to be taught, I suspect it’s the other way around. We live in a culture that’s had to train us out of our ‘natural’ inclinations, and infused us with what must surely be an unnatural respect for female reproductive autonomy.
Well, maybe not so fast. It probably wasn’t the reproductive choices of the females that we were taught to respect. It was that of the other males who ‘owned’ them. The idea that women might own themselves was a much more recent development, and one by no means encouraged everywhere on the planet, even today.
Still, let it be granted that, here and now at least, the dominant culture is a ‘don’t rape’ one, and so the suggestion is that there’s a sub-culture within the dominant culture in which young men are being taught that rape is okay after all. Or if not okay then at least tolerable. Or if not tolerable then at least understandable.
Okay, tolerable, and understandable are three very different judgments. And momentarily we’ll look at each in turn. But first let’s disambiguate between a woman’s reproductive autonomy – which both our distant ancestors and our current pro-Life advocates would deny her – and her sexual autonomy, the denial of which would require a very different rationale. The selfish gene hypothesis applies to reproductivity, and to sex only insofar as, for most of our history, sex has been one of the leading causes of pregnancy. Since that’s no longer the case, at least not here and now, and since it never was the case vis a vis lesbian relations, we need a supplementary account for our ‘discomfort’ with lesbians back then, and for that discomfort that persists, at least among the Christian right, today.
To which all I can say is, “Beats me!” Especially when the most popular pornographic sites among heterosexual males, be they secular or Christian, is hardcore lesbian S&M.
Theories abound, as they always do. But they needn’t delay us here. Here we need simply note that though it was for reproductivity that sex was either divinely or naturally selected for, it was and is seldom about reproductivity in the minds of its participants. It was and is about the giving and/or receiving of pleasure and/or affection. So now that reproductivty, at least here and now, is no longer even an autonomous effect of sex, we can redirect our attention to women’s sexual autonomy, by which is meant, presumably, their right to control with whom they exchange either or both of these desiderata.
That said, let’s return to our three disparate judgments on rape: okay, tolerable, and understandable. Are there any circumstances under which rape is okay? As I’ve written elsewhere, arguably yes: if a plague rendered all but a half dozen women in the world infertile. But now, since we’re no longer talking about reproductivity, the example would have to be if a plague wiped out all but a half dozen women in the world, and, as it turned out, all six of them were strictly lesbian.
This is a tougher question, the answer to which hangs, I suspect, on whether one is a positivist – in which case the answer could be yes – or a natural law advocate – in which case the answer would depend on what the natural law says. It could declare the inviolability of one’s sexual autonomy. But it could just as readily insist that we attend not just to the other’s physical needs, but to the other’s psychological needs as well. (Though I’m guessing it’s unlikely that rape will satisfy the rapist’s need for affection.)
Of course this plague scenario is just a typical philosopher’s thought-experiment. What it purports to show is that our moral judgments are contingent on the material conditions in which they’re embedded. But, you’ll rightly observe, such a plague is not the condition in which we’re embedded in the here and now. So what about the here and now?
Some people think rape is intolerable. Well, some people think abortion is intolerable. If there is such a thing as a rape sub-culture, then I guess that means some people think rape is tolerable. Well, some people think so is abortion. There’s a tendency to think that certain combinations – for example the tolerability of both abortion and rape – are incoherent. And at first glance this one certainly appears to be. But to be certain of this would require an ethical theory. And what might that theory look like?
My suspicion is that it would look pretty ad hoc. Of course that doesn’t immediately disqualify it. Rawls’ theory of justice is self-consciously ad hoc, and yet it’s pretty much the gold standard within all western liberal democracies. So no theory need die the death of a thousand qualifications. It’s just that beyond a couple hundred we’re hard pressed to call it a ‘theory’.
And, finally, is rape understandable? Of course it is. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be outraged by it. We’d simply be baffled. But we’re not. Quod erat demonstrandum.
So, is there a rape culture? I’m told there is, so I guess there must be. But only if it’s embedded, as it is, in a don’t-rape culture.
Does the analysis I’ve just provided promote this rape culture? This is an old saw, which we’ve encountered before. An analysis of pedophilia promotes it. An analysis of terrorism justifies it. And so on. The technical name for people who think this is ‘dumb fucks’. I used to try to disabuse dumb fucks of their dumbfuckedness. It can’t be done. So now I just tell them to fuck off!