Monday, 22 June 2009

The Ethics Of Rape.


Last Sunday I happened to catch the topical debate show, The Big Questions on BBC. One of the issues being discussed was the contentious issue of whether or not a woman could be responsible for being raped. I enjoy watching a lot of these shows, not generally for their informed debate, but, for their ability to give me a good metal work out. Many times, around contentious issues, there is a real lack of clarity, important distinctions, and a inability to come to a clear understanding of words and meanings. In short, a lot of heat is generated without the corresponding benefit of light.

So I will attempt to clarify the issue, and make firm distinctions between the many confusions that people on the show made. It cannot, of course, be overestimated how much emotion and feeling entered into the debate, here I will attempt to reason as coolly and dispassionately as possible.

Here is the link to the programme.

Here is the question;

Can date rape be a woman's fault?

I intend to analyse this question through two categories. 1. Risk and Responsibility. 2 Legality. After discussing the issue through these two categories I will be able to make important definitions and distinctions in regard to the word “fault”

Risk and Responsibility

Firstly, let me ask two questions and see what answers we get. “can a woman’s behaviour or actions contribute to a greater risk of being raped?” and “are there ways of behaving responsibly that, all things being equal, limit the possibility of being raped?” Before answering these questions let me give an analogy that will prove instructive. Lets consider a scenario that is used many times in these debates. Suppose you are a man, well dressed, walking in a poor, crime ridden, unfamiliar neighbourhood, perhaps even, in a neighbourhood that is ethnically different. You are walking with an expensive phone, talking imperviously to your friend. Now ask the question: Is his behaviour contributing to a greater risk of being mugged? Is he acting responsibly? Now, I want you to hang on a moment, I think I might know what your thinking and feeling about what this seems to imply, wait, I am not implying that at all.

So, now I turn to the issue and ask, can a woman’s behaviour contribute to a greater risk of being raped? And are there ways of acting that would, as best as possible limit the chance of being raped? The answer is of course yes, one would only have to consider the amount of stay safe advertising and material promoted to raise awareness in women to stay vigilant and be safe.

Now, there is a gigantic fallacy that people fall into when seeing this conclusion. The fallacy is this, if a woman acts irresponsibly then this means that the rapist is absolved of the legal and moral consequences of the crime, or that it somehow mitigates the crime. This is TOTALLY false. Even if a well dressed man with an expensive phone is mugged in a crime ridden area, the legal and largely the moral responsibility lies with the perpetrator.


I think the source of this problem is twofold. The historical injustice around women and rape in particular, and the fallacy of equating morality with legality. I should not need to say anything on the first problem. I will say a few things on the second. Simply put, in legal proceedings there is either the reality that a crime has taken place or it has not. This is for a jury to decide. The legal consequences or to put it another way the agency lies with the accused, the causal reasons for the rape or murder or theft are in legal proceedings irrelevant.

What this means, is that legally, a woman can act as irresponsibly as she wishes and should not expect to be raped or abused, it does not diminish the criminal culpability of the offender, it gives a man no right to take advantage of a drunken woman. This naturally, should go without saying.

However, legal rights are one thing, safety and security in the real world are another.
In a perfect world, everyone should be able to act as they please provided they do harm to no one. However, this is not a perfect world, and there are many inconvenient things we have to do to ensure that we are safe.

Now I come to one final important distinction. Lets now consider fault. Legally, as I have noted, the rapist bares total legal responsibility for the crime committed. Now what about morally? Morally, once again the rapist bares the majority of the moral responsibility, but I believe the woman does, in some, but not all or most circumstances bares some moral responsibility.

Let me qualify this. Morality is not the same as legality. I believe telling lies to hurt someone immoral but it is not illegal. Some people consider sex outside of marriage immoral but again it is not illegal. The standard secular liberal definition of morality would be actions concerning the health and wellbeing of sentient creatures, hence, moral actions result in a increase or preservation of health and wellbeing while decreasing or avoiding the bringing about of harm and suffering. Two conclusions would follow from this. 1. That, as I have said the majority of the moral responsibility would rest with the rapist, as he is bringing about a huge increase in suffering and harm to someone. 2. That, in some way, if the woman has put herself at risk and behaved irresponsibly, then she has acted, in some way, immorally, in that she has brought about a unnecessary and unwelcome state of suffering through her actions.

Though I believe, these conclusions are sound, I understand that the use of the term immoral has connotations that are very much open to misinterpretation, so I think that using such words are unhelpful. To conclude, even though this has tidied up a few confusions, there is still many practical problems (ensuring more rape convictions for example) that I cannot explore fully here. In short, what is needed is greater public awareness, both among men and women, especially when it comes to the murky issue of date rape. The issue of whether or not a person is competent to give consent is a ambiguous issue, one that really needs explored with sound information disseminated to the public.



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