In India, a 23-year-old student takes a bus home from a movie and is gang-raped and assaulted so viciously that she dies two weeks later.
In Liberia, in West Africa, an aid group called More Than Me rescues a 10-year-old orphan who has been trading oral sex for clean water to survive.
In Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players are accused of repeatedly raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl who was either drunk or rendered helpless by a date-rape drug and was apparently lugged like a sack of potatoes from party to party.
And in Washington, our members of Congress show their concern for sexual violence by failing to renew the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark law first passed in 1994 that has now expired.
Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses. Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.
Whether or not a rapist acts from free will, whether or not he pathologically if sincerely believes a woman wants forced, coerced, or manipulated sex or is fully aware of the evil of the tactics he uses, the prevalence of rape in our society raises the question, then, of how we are to arrive at a model of a preferable society for the future, one where rape and any kind of sexual aggression towards women, and towards more vulnerable men, is eradicated.
Rape is a weapon of war. Establishing this now common claim has been an achievement of feminist scholarship and activism and reveals wartime sexual violence as a social act marked by gendered power. But the consensus that rape is a weapon of war obscures important, and frequently unacknowledged, differences in ways of understanding and explaining it.
There are times in the highly civilized reality of the West when the legal system ostensibly set up for the protection of all citizens seems designed rather to protect the deeply immoral and pathological at the expense of the weak, foolish and/or trusting. Even more galling, it ties the hands of those who would exact some type of retribution for offenses deserving, in other times and cultures, of a good beating, imprisonment, and/or public humiliation.
Rape and its more dissembling cousins, sexual assault and so-called date rape, are offenses the prosecution of which in the United States today fall into the category of crimes which leave victims more often than not humiliated, isolated, and psychologically and emotionally scarred, but for which victims have very little recourse to justice. This is a staggering reality when one considers the vast numbers of mostly women who report having at some time or another in their lives been the object of forced, coerced or seduced but unwanted sex.
Although the proper definition of ‘rape’ is itself a matter of some dispute, rape is generally understood to involve sexual penetration of a person by force and/or without that person’s consent. Rape is committed overwhelmingly by men and boys, usually against women and girls, and sometimes against other men and boys. (For the most part, this entry will assume male perpetrators and female victims.)
That violent rape, like murder, is morally evil may require no defense, but that so- called date or acquaintance rape constitutes serious injury to the victim and is not simply sex, does. Rape, even when unaccompanied by visible signs of physical force, raises a whole range of philosophical questions from the epistemological to the ethical, the ontological to the metaphysical.
A philosophical examination of rape requires an exploration of memory, truth and meaning, of subjective interpretation and objective fact; of free will, choice, consent and volition versus determinism and natural selection; of identity, the self and the other; and of good and evil, morality and society. That rape flourishes in our own culture forces us to analyze that which is dysfunctional in our conceptual framework and moral behavior, and casts doubt on the validity of the often arrogant claims to having arrived at the proverbial “good society.”
The epistemological uncertainties that arise from rape – consent, volition, will, subjective interpretation versus objective fact, and the difficulty of knowing the truth of what happened – often translate into the legal defense of the accused. Another way to come at some justification, if not excuse, for rape is to consider the evolutionary biological and sociobiological explanations that Larry May and Robert Strikwerda explore in their article, “Men in Groups: Collective Responsibility for Rape.”
The biological argument is that rape is an adaptive response to different sexual development in males and females (543) and the sociobiological, owing much to the work of Lionel Tiger, argues that men are predisposed to engage in aggression to achieve their own ends, which include violent aggression to get sex. The authors argue that it is the socialization of men in their bonding groups and the view of women that is engendered that provides the strongest cues for rape (544.) Steven Pinker makes a similar argument in his controversial book, The Blank Slate, frequently citing Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer’s ground-breaking work, A Natural History of Rape.
“The conception of sexual intercourse in our culture is antithetical to the conception of women as human beings, as persons rather than objects (508). Not only does our language reveal how women are objectified, but it also demonstrates that we conceive of sexual roles in such a way that only females are thought to be taken advantage of in intercourse while males are presented as the agents of harm. Neither case is a viable or desirable model for men and women in a good society that must include among its primary values gender equity and mutual respect.”
As Baker so convincingly argues, “We need to redefine our conceptions not only of fucking, but also of the fucker and the fucked”
The violence of war rape is also enacted through the possibility of pregnancy. A thirty-nine-year-old Croatian women from the town of Prijedor, who was raped by a reserve captain of the “Serbian Army, was told “that I needed to give birth to a Serb — that I would then be different.” Women are often convinced that the offspring they bear as a result of war rape are also the enemy, leading many survivers to attempt third-trimester abortions or to commit suicide, or to remove themselves from any contact with the infant after birth.
In the view of the Helsinki Watch, the forcible impregnation of women constitutes an abuse separate from the rape and should be denounced as such. It is also noted that the failure to punish rapists is as widespread as the act of rape itself.
Although there is a long tradition in philosophy which reflects on the nature of good and evil, there is a much smaller range of philosophers who reflect on particular phenomenon of good and evil. Here Hannah Arendt is a notable exception, in her studies, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmanna in Jerusalem. And an even narrower range of philosophers have taken up the question of evil in the form of sexual violence.
But, feminist philosophers are beginning to demarcate a path here, notably Claudia Card’s essays “Rape Terrorism” in The Unnatural Lottery; Character and Moral Luck and “Rape as a Weapon of War.”
For a feminist philosopher, one of the most compelling questions in the present age is how to understand the evil enacted by war rape, and in what ways understanding such violence might contribute to its reduction.
Is such an analysis adequate to deal with the form of evil manifest in mass war-rape? Or does sexual violence pose a special challenge to philosophical thinking, requiring a theory that explicitly thematizes the body and its cultural symbolics?
Hannah Arendt is one of the few philosophers of this century who has seriously considered the problem of evil in the context of the political affairs of the world. Her book on Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963/1992), as well as the final work before she died, focused on the problem of judgment.
Judgment seemed to her the crucial issue in the trial of the man who facilitated the mass destruction of the Jews, faced both with the need to arrive at a moral judgment of Eichmann and at Eichmann’s own evident failure of judgement (see Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, 1996).
In her book on the Eichmann trial, she sought the lesson of “this long course in human wickedness” and found it in the “fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” By this phrase she did not mean to minimize or trivialize evil, to treat it as an everyday affair of no import. Rather, her point was to show that the greatest wickedness in human history – beyond the scope of comprehensions – could occur because of the failure of judgment amongst individuals responsible for these acts.
When the legal order is no longer that of a civilized country, but where law becomes the enactment of Hitler’s command “Thou shalt kill,” when there is no guidance but one’s one judgment, then it is judgment to which we must turn to tell right from wrong.
The diagnosis of “failure of judgment” seems a compelling one in the case of Eichmann, since his responsibility in carrying out the Final Solution was primarily in terms of decisions, that is, his decision to follow all orders from his superiors. But can Arendt’s analysis of the failure of judgment apply to the cruelty committed during war rape?
Can one also say, as she does in reference to Eichmann and his contemporaries, that war rape was committed by people whose judgment failed them, when there were no other guideposts to follow?
And that this failure of judgment was a sign of their inability to achieve impartiality, an ability to take the viewpoints of others into account in order to achieve “enlarged thought”?
There is of course some sense in which this seems to be true. Had a Serbian soldier raping a Bosnian Muslim woman old enough to be his mother sought to take her viewpoint into account, it is hard to imagine that such an act could have occurred. Aggression in war requires an ability to dehumanize those who are defined as enemies.
What specifically characterizes war-rape is that a man uses his own body as a weapon of war: his hands, his mouth, his genitals are used to inflict pain and injury and degradation and often death.
The distancing from seeing the actual results of evil.
In this context, to speak of the act of evil as a failure of judgment would be grossly inadequate to describe this crime. It is not adequate to ask: why did soldiers follow orders (and orders to rape there were)? But rather, how is it possible to radically alter one’s physical comportment so that relations of ordinary cordiality in peace time can be turned into sexual violence?
Had Arendt thematized more explicitly the concrete dimensions of the human body, instead of it figuring as a blind spot in her thinking, she might have been able to think about evil acts that involved bodily engagement, and not the bodily disengagement that characterized Eichmann’s crimes.
But in focusing on judgment, and not the corporeal involvement in evil, Arendt focuses on the possibility of evil as an affair of the intellect (thoughtlessness, or the failure to judge), and not of the transgression of bodily sensibilities.
Although many philosophers would argue that the philosophical task with regard to evil should be the rational justification of universal norms, it seems to me that the need for philosophical reflection lies elsewhere. (Is it really necessary to justify the judgment that murder and rape is wrong?)
Faced with acts of mass-scale evil in the contemporary world, the task faced by philosophers is that of diagnosing the conditions for moral breakdown – of how people come to commit acts that they themselves initially believe are wrong – and of the possibility of altering these conditions. And if moral reflection is to be able to deal adequately with the crises of sexual violence, then it must include an understanding of the symbolics of the body as a central moral concern.
Otherwise moral thinking shows itself to be incapable of addressing the corporality of evil — of how bodily comportment and sensibilities are radically transformed through the infliction/suffering of violence. In this context, it is also crucial to examine the particular symbolic meaning of the mother’s body, since this is the site of vulnerability in war-rape.
Rape violates the autonomy of the victim. She is denied the right to determine an important area of her life. Alternatively, she is treated as merely a means for the rapist. Rape violates a person’s sexual self-determination. Sexuality is an important area in the formation of an individual’s personality. An individual has a right to control his or her own body (or a right to bodily integrity). Rape violates that right.
Rape alienates an important aspect of a person, reducing her to a fragment of her being. Rape violates an important part of a person’s domain. Rape causes unhappiness to the victim and others for no justifiable reason.
The line between rape and intercourse centers on an assessment of the woman’s will. How, we might ask, is the law or the accused for that matter to know what the woman’s will is? Notwithstanding the number of myths that undermine the woman’s credibility (women are socialized to be coy about sex and really want it when they say they don’t, for example,) and given the total disregard for the reasonableness of a woman’s argument that she did not consent to sex under various circumstances in which any reasonable woman would not consent to sex, we should question whether the very concept of consent has any meaning in societies where women are socialized to passive receptivity.
“God’s messenger gave an example of people sailing on a boat having an upper deck and a lower deck. The people from the lower deck require water and request water from the people of the upper deck. The people from the upper deck refuse water, so the people from the lower deck decide to make a hole in the floor of the ship and get water from the sea. God’s messenger said, ‘If the people from the upper deck don’t stop the people at the bottom from making a hole, the ship will sink and all the people travelling will drown.”
This tradition presents the view that individuals are part of society and the society is part of the individual. It highlights the need for a symbiotic relationship between society and the individual. Certain actions, values and behaviors of individuals in a society can affect it in negative way, especially if these actions and values are non cohesive. Hence, Islam propagates cohesive values in its society to prevent the ‘boat from sinking’, in other words preventing social ills like the crime of rape.
We could go a step further and encourage men to take responsibility for resocializing themselves and their fellow men. I would add that women need to resocialize themselves as well and find the courage to break out of the passive role they have been socialized to accept.
It is only when both sexes move beyond what Riane Eisler, in her book, Sacred Pleasure, calls the dominator mentality to a partnership model where men and women have equal status, and build relationships based on mutual respect and cooperation rather than domination and submission, that human society can begin to overcome not only problems like rape, but environmental, political and other social problems as well. What a brave new world that would be, a world without rape.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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