March 21, 2013

Rape Culture? A Catholic, Casuistic Approach

So, I believe it speaks volumes about the kinds of friends that I keep when my facebook feed has "rape culture" more often than "March madness" right now. I can't decide whether or not that's a good thing.

At any rate, the recent publicity gained by this Stuebenville case has caused wider cultural (read: my facebook feed) attention to the status of American culture as a "rape culture." What I take this to mean is the following: "The American public thinks that rape is an acceptable action, and that if anyone is to blame, it is the female." That is a harsh statement about American culture, and I feel it deserves more substantiation than I've seen. I don't want to believe it, because I know that I personally would never rape a woman, I know that I'm not a better person than anyone else, and therefore I don't like to think of my culture as one that condones rape. Rape is not something that can be condoned. However, I'm not here to talk about whether or not America has a "rape culture." I'm not qualified for that, and I haven't done enough research. Others, smarter than I, will have to debate that claim.

I am here to discuss the moral agent of rape, and to draw some conclusions from this discussion which can be used by members of both sexes to avoid and prevent any rape from ever happening again. I'll make my statement about rape's moral legitimacy again, for clarity's sake: I hold and assert that the action of rape - the act of sexually taking advantage of a woman who is unable to or does not provide her full and loving consent - cannot and should not ever be condoned, under any circumstances. Rape is not ok, and never will be.
First, I'll run through some (uncomfortable) definitions. A rape has two parties, the victim(s) and the rapist(s). This is a gendered issue, at least in the current public opinion: the victim(s) is normally a woman, and the rapist(s) is normally a man. As a result, in this discussion, when I refer to "a woman" in the context of rape I am referring to the victim, and when I refer to "a man" in a similar context I am referring to the rapist. The "moral agent" of the rape is the person who bears moral culpability for the sin, and also the person who could be put in jail. Speaking of sin and jail, legal and moral repercussions are separate, but for the current discussion I'll assume that they (for the most part) coincide: rape is currently illegal, as well as always being immoral.

Now, in answer to the question: "Which party, the victim or the rapist, is the moral agent?" some have put forward that the victim is morally at fault. They make such statements as "she's the village slut anyway," or "she was wearing really provocative clothing: she was asking for it." I disagree completely with this position. However, to give "slut shaming" the fairest chance possible for the sake of discussion, let's invent a hypothetical scenario where the woman does everything "wrong." Let's imagine a woman who has a notorious reputation for sleeping with every man she can find. Let's assume that she hears about a party: she knows that more than one sketchy guy will be there, that there will be copious amounts of alcohol and drunkenness, and that none of her friends who are going can protect her. Let's assume that as she dresses up for the party, she intentionally chooses the most provocative clothing she can find, for whatever reason. Let's assume that she willingly gives some sketchy guys a lot of attention at the party, sexually encouraging them, for whatever reason. And, finally, let's assume that she drinks enough to pass out. Then, the sketchy guys she was "hitting on" proceed to violate her in her unconscious state. In this scenario, the moral agent who is responsible for the act of rape, for the sexual violation of an unwilling victim, is still unquestionably the man. No amount of mitigating circumstances can cause the woman to be at fault for that man's action: he chose it. If, even in the case most unfavorable to the victim, she is still not at fault, then it follows that the moral agent of a rape is the rapist. This should seem obvious, and I'm kind of surprised that I have to say it. It becomes even more clear in a parallel case of bestiality: "The pig was acting so seductive!" is probably not going to sound like a legitimate excuse.

If we step back, and take a logical look at the statement "the victim is at fault in a rape," it's absurdity becomes apparent. Rape is "A sexual assault in which the victim does not give consent." To say that a person is morally at fault is to say that they give consent to the action. You have to want an action in order to be at fault for it. Thus, to say that the victim is at fault in a rape is to say that she consented to it, and thus the act was not a rape at all. The victim of a rape cannot be morally at fault by definition. (You could debate that the woman did imply or give consent, and that there was no rape. This, however, is a different argument. You cannot simultaneously hold that a woman was raped and at fault - that is contradictory by definition)

Thus, I have to conclude that in a case of rape, the rapist is morally at fault for the action. Therefore, saying that the girl wore provocative clothing or "asked for it" should not be enough to acquit a rapist. On the other hand, according to Catholic moral teaching, we cannot imply the state of the rapist's soul from his actions: there are many mitigating circumstances (his own intoxication, some external coercion, ignorance...) which could reduce his moral culpability. Moreover, we are called to love even rapists with perfect, divine love. Just as we cannot dismiss the victim as a slut, unworthy of love, we cannot dismiss the rapist as sub-human. He deserves as much rehabilitation and charity. These two caveats, of relative moral culpability and of the need for charity towards both victim and aggressor, do not change the conclusion: the moral agent of rape is always the rapist.

However, this is not the final conclusion. There is another side to the story. We have to ask ourselves, "Would it have been possible for our hypothetical victim to make different choices which could have prevented such a tragic crime being committed against her?" The honest answer to this question has to be yes. We assumed that she decided to attend a party she knew was unsafe: she could have chosen to stay home. She wore clothing which made her sexuality more obvious: she could have dressed with more dignity, and perhaps not inspired lust. She gave sexually charged attention to men she couldn't trust: she could have acted in a more chaste manner and intentionally avoided being thought of as a sexual object. She willingly placed herself, by drinking too much, in the vulnerable position of unconsciousness, where she was unable to consent or prevent a non-consensual assault: she could have practiced temperance and retained her sobriety and consciousness. All of these choices could have been made differently, and perhaps she could have saved herself. Once again, this does not mean she is morally or legally at fault for the rape. In order to be clear, I will restate my former conclusion: even though she could have made different choices, she is still not the moral agent of the rape. It is still the rapist's fault. However, it is absolutely the case that a woman should try and avoid putting herself in a position where she might get assaulted. Assault is a bad thing, and women should try and save themselves from bad situations by making prudent decisions.

Thus, I can come to some form of final conclusions: what should men do, what should the culture do, and what should women do to prevent and avoid rape in the future? We'll take these issues one at a time.

To men, I say this: it is absolutely never "alright," "permissible," or "good" to commit rape. Period, end of story. The human body, both male and female, is of such dignity that no sexual activity short of the blessed union of husband and wife is sufficiently sacred. Therefore, it is necessary to guard ourselves, "gird our loins," and form our consciences and virtues to be able to withstand the tempest of temptation. Practice self-control, daily, so that treating women correctly comes easily and naturally. Denying yourself that extra second helping of dessert or staying home and studying instead of going to a party every once in a while might seem bad, but the gradual practice of self-denial and accumulation of virtue can prevent you from doing something stupid and keep you out of jail. Do well in small things, and you will do well in big things.

To the culture: if it is true that we are a "rape culture," then we should raise awareness on the issue, form our children in virtue, and remove corrupt judges and officials so that our women's dignity can be preserved and defended. To this end, blog articles such as this one and facebook statuses can be an effective means of communication: someone who might make a statement which condones rape might see a facebook post and might, as a result, change their mind. This, however, isn't enough. If we are to drastically and radically change a culture, we need to universally accept a higher moral standard and a more complete formation in virtue in our own, individual lives. It's not enough to make a facebook post if you don't change the way you act. "The Culture" is a little beyond my individual reach: although I can affect it, I can't single-handed bring about a change. I am morally responsible for my own actions. We need to rend our hearts, and not our facebook walls. If everyone did that, there would be no "rape culture."

To women, I say this: you are able to choose your own way in life. You do not have to be a victim: you can make choices which limit your vulnerability, and you can also grow in virtue to the extent where even a violent assault cannot violate your purity. Allow me to elaborate on this point. I will assume that no one wants to be raped: it's a horrible thing, and, although I am not capable of firsthand experience or even direct sympathy, I can easily tell that it is psychologically, physically, and spiritually scarring, and can take many years and much grace to fully heal. Given that fact, it makes sense that if you want to avoid it, you should make choices which do not put you in a position of vulnerability. You hear there are going to be sketchy guys at that party? Don't go. You hear that a group of thugs is harassing people on that one street you normally use to go home? Find another way, or bring a friend with you. Afraid men will look lustfully at your body and objectify you visually? Cover yourself up. Forget what other people around you do, and focus on your own moral agency. Your body is a beautifully designed, sacred temple. You have both the moral obligation and the necessary ability to safeguard that temple. By habitual modesty in dress, action, and word; by purity of thought and of deed; and by keeping company with holy and like-minded people; you are able to accumulate virtue, through God's grace, to the same extent that men are. You can defend yourself by your actions, to the point even of heroic virtue. By judiciously and prudently choosing where you are and who you are with, you can drastically reduce your chance of getting abused. And, by God's grace and by a disciplined life of practiced virtue, should you nonetheless be ruthlessly assaulted, you can be given the grace of heroically rising above the evil inflicted upon you to forgive your transgressor, like St. Maria Goretti or like Christ on the cross.

In conclusion, we are all called to heroic sanctity. This means not only condemning rape, but forgiving the repentant sinner, and providing reconciliation in charity to both the victim and the rapist. Although the former may have made bad choices and made herself vulnerable, and the latter may have violated both human and divine law in his actions, both are in need of God's love.


Anonymous Katelyn said...

Overall I think this is pretty good - I have a few critiques, most of which are drawn from my experience working for a college Residence Life office. I think it's hard to walk the line between humanizing both rapist and victim, but it's what we're called to do.

Although it's true that most rape victims are female and rapists male, using general language that assumes victims are female tends to contribute to a culture that ignores male victims. I'd argue that the fact that rape culture assumes men are strong, lusty aggressors makes it even more difficult or shameful for a man to even admit that he was raped. But I assume you know that.

Second, many, many women in our society are already told from a young age how to act and dress to "protect" themselves. I myself gave my female freshmen residents a "talk" about personal safety during my first meeting with them. Some tips, I think, are quite good (especially for a college campus): don't go to a strange party alone, don't leave anyone behind, always watch your drink, etc. These are good for anyone, especially young adults in a brand new environment. But women are told things like "dress modestly" from a very young age, which leads me to my final point.

The idea that rape is about lust is a fallacy. I suppose that there are instances where rape is motivated by lust. But my experience talking with and getting help for survivors of assault has shown me that rape is most often about power and glory. A rapist gets a high from forcing himself (or herself, I know one case where this has happened) on the victim. A rapist gets a high from bragging about the conquest to other people. Either way, it's about dominating someone. The reality is that many, many rape victims don't wear provocative clothing. I can't tell you how many times I've been catcalled, called disgusting things and "asked" to do disgusting things while walking home from work in pants and a polo. The fact is if one of those people jumped out of their car, there's not much I can do.

It seems to me that as a culture we already place a pretty big emphasis on women engaging in "safe behaviors" - to the point where many of our first responses to hearing about a rape are "what was she wearing?" or "was she drunk?" This, I think, shows us that there's an over-emphasis on "safe behaviors" and not enough on "you need explicit consent." If we only focus on the "safe behaviors," we're tacitly enabling and affirming the idea that men are rapists. Does this mean I shouldn't have told my freshmen to be safe? No, but relying only on women to keep themselves out of dangerous situations is like putting a bandaid over an amputation. It's time to bring out the cultural tourniquet.

March 21, 2013 5:55 PM  

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