Saturday, May 30, 2009

Is rape a sex act?

Here's a short response I wrote in THINK Issue 21 to a preceding piece in which Timothy Chambers argued that rape is not a sexual act (because a sex act requires consent).

Rape is a Sex act

In ‘No, You Can’t Steal a Kiss’, Timothy Chambers argues that rape is not a sexual act. But rape is a sexual act, and a violent one too. To say that rape is sexual is not to say, or imply, the woman enjoys it or consents to it in some way. It does not entail that the two individuals ‘have sex’ (which does suggest consent on both sides).

‘Rape is not a sex act’ is actually, I think, a rather silly thing to say. It involves redefining ‘sex act’. I take a sex act to be an act of a sexual nature, i.e. probably involving sexual organs, and certainly engaged in for the purpose of sexual gratification or titillation. That seems a pretty safe, standard definition of ‘sex act’ to me.

Rape - as performed by the man, is, then, such an act. The woman victim does not rape, so we do not have to say she is performing a sex act (which would imply consent).

Note that the sexual aspect of rape is typically why the man does it. He does not rape to be violent, and it just happens to be violence of a sexual nature (as if he would have been just as happy to, say, hit her). The sexual aspect is no accident. Refusing to call rape a sexual act obliterates this aspect – an aspect which usually makes it a more serious form of assault than mere physical, violent assault (in which, say, one man physically assaults another by forcing his fingers into the other’s mouth).

Yes, we can redefine ‘sex act’ so that, in order to qualify as a ‘sex act’, all involved parties must consent to it. Rape would then no longer qualify as a ‘sex act’. This redefinition would allow feminists to say, condescendingly, "Oh no, it's not a sex act!" to any man who has not yet bought into their redefinition, implying that somehow he is suggesting that women enjoy or consent to rape. "What a brute - he's saying rape is a sexual act!" But of course this veiled accusation relies on a cheap sleight of hand with words. Using the expression “sex act” with its usual meaning, “rape is a sex act” does not imply that the woman consents.

I think saying rape is not a sex act is an example of what the Philosopher C.L. Stevenson calls a "persuasive definition".

18 comments:

Brian said...

Rape may not be a violent act, but it's certainly an oppressive, or power act. Because, it's more demeaning, and thus more demonstrative of the power one holds over a women to violate her, instead of punching her in the nose. Which is why most men would rather be beaten into a pulp than raped I suspect.

Zembla said...

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 classifies rape as a 'sexual offence' (http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2003/ukpga_20030042_en_2#pt1-pb1-l1g1). And Section 78 defines the meaning of 'sexual': "For the purposes of this Part (except section 71), penetration, touching or any other activity is sexual if a reasonable person would consider that—

(a) whatever its circumstances or any person’s purpose in relation to it, it is because of its nature sexual, or

(b) because of its nature it may be sexual and because of its circumstances or the purpose of any person in relation to it (or both) it is sexual."

Andrew Louis said...

Not to cast sarcasm upon a serious subject, but if sex (or a sex act) requires consent and satisfaction on the part of the woman, than 90% of the time men have “sex” with their wives it should not actually be classified as “having sex”.

So men with healthy sex lives who are enjoying the act with their wives 3 days a week, are actually only having sex (on average) 15.6 times per year.

Jackie said...

One of the reasons rape is so terrible is because it perverts what should be an expression of love (or lust) into torture. The victim will be reminded of her/his rape every time she/he wants to have sex in the future. For me, redefining "sex act" to exclude rape downplays the horror, and I consider that a disservice to the victims.

Kyle said...

I think there's a poverty of language here.

It seems to me that those who wish to describe rape as a sex act are concerned with the biological definition, and want to use language to distinguish rape from other types of assault. I think that is quite right, as Stephen points out it is nothing like forcing your fingers into a person's mouth, so our language should reflect that.

However, there is also the relational aspect of the act. Rape and sex between a loving couple (despite their biological similarities) are not at all the same thing. The definitions that we currently have fail to reflect this.

We need some new words.

Kosh3 said...

What about the feminist claim: rape is about power and control, not sex.

anticant said...

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 is a legal, social, moral, and practical mess. Having worked for most of my life to bring greater realism and clarity into British laws and attitudes about sex, I am dismayed at the final outcome of years of debate about deirable reforms. Instead of the sensible liberal approach outlined in early discussion documents such as "Setting the Boundaries", parliament finally passed a complicated, illiberal, unworkable package including many new offences which virtually removed freedom of choice from consenting teenagers.

For once the feminists do have a point - yes, rape is an exercise of power and control that is indifferent to the wishes and feelings of the victim. It is also about the exercise of uncontrolled sexual urges by callous, inadequately socialised people, most of whom are perfectly capable of restraining themselves if they had the moral sense to do so.

In legal terms, the essence of the offence has to be lack of willing consent. This should be treated as a matter of fact rather than of legal definition. It is the failure of the 2003 Act to recognise that consent to sex is basically a matter of fact which should be proved or disproved in court, and not primarily a matter of complex legal definition, which makes that Act such an unsatisfactory piece of legislation.

Greg O said...

Having read the article to whch Stephen is responding (which is available free online at the Think website, incidentally) I have to say I think he's off-target.

Stephen accuses Chambers of denying that rape is a 'sexual act', or a 'sex act'. In fact, so far as I can see, what Chambers denies is just that rape is an 'act of sex'. This distinction isn't as subtle as it might look: it seems pretty clear that while a man could perform a 'sex act' or two with a carrot, say, he couldn't actually engage in an 'act of sex' with it - at least, not if 'sex' is here understood to mean what it usually means, i.e. sexual intercourse.

I think in the context of Chambers's article it's pretty clear that when he says 'act of sex', he does indeed mean 'act of sexual intercourse'. The whole thrust of his argument is that rape victims have not engaged in an act of sexual intercourse with their attackers (and that it's therefore wrong to think that someone could have their virginity 'taken' from them, say). I can't see anything in Chambers's article to suggest that he holds the disturbing and bizarre view that rape is in no way 'sexual'.

Stephen Law said...

Hmm, Greg O may be right that I have been a little uncharitable to Chambers. So I will post his piece in below so you can check.

The key line is from a quote, endorsed by Chambers: "‘Rape is not an act of sex,’ Stella booms. ‘Rape is an act of violence! Remember that.’"

Growing up in the 70's I did really hear "rape is not a sex act" a lot, along with "all men are rapists" written on the wall of a bridge near where I lived. This may have unfairly coloured my judgement of this quoted bit of 70's text somewhat.

There are many claims that might be made using these words "rape is an act of sex".

If the claim is that rape is not about sex, and that sex is not, at least in part, what motivates it, that's a psychological claim and I think it's highly unlikely to be true.

*That* is surely what's suggested in the quoted passage (check the context - the quote is prompted by the observation that the hitchhiker didn't seem interested in sex).

I am not sure I have ever come across the expression "rape is not an act of sex" before, whereas I have come across "rape is not a sex act" a lot (as I say). So I was kind of assuming it was a variant of that.

But if I am wrong. that Chambers piece boils down to the observation that women don't consent to rape.

But then who thought, or implied, that they did?

To say that sex is involved in rape is not to imply that - it is just to say that (contra the quoted passage) rape is, usually I guess, sexually motivated (if not only sexually motivated), and involves sexual penetration, etc.

It's only by adopting the rather more unusual form of words "rape is not an act of sex" where "act of sex" is defined as consensual, that we get an expression we can object to.

But then I have never come across that form of words before. But then I am not sure who are what is supposed to be the actual target of Chambers' piece.

Stephen Law said...

annoyingly, the chambers piece is too long to add as a comment. I will ask his permission to post it....

Stephen Law said...

apologies for gibberish comment above - text got deleted. hopefully you can make some sense of it....

Greg O said...

Stephen - thanks for your response to my comment.

I take your point regarding the possible interpretation of the phrase 'rape is not an act of sex' (or 'sex act') as a somewhat implausible psychological claim about the motivation of rapists.

Still, I'm not sure that if this *isn't* the sort of claim Chambers has in mind, his piece 'boils down to the observation that women don't consent to rape'.

Rather, I think Chambers is arguing that *since* women don't consent to rape, and since (in his view) 'having sex' is necessarily a consensual business, rape victims should not be thought of as having had sex with their attackers.

In that light, the question is not 'who ever implied that women consent to rape?' as such, but rather 'who ever implied that rape victims have had sex with their attackers?' Chambers makes the specific point that this is precisely what is implied when someone describes a rape victim as having had her virginity 'taken' by her attacker. More generally, it's surely fair to say that victims of rape have often been seen (by religious authorities, say) as morally tainted by that event - as being less chaste because of it; and here too, it seems as if they are being thought of as having had sex with their attackers. (No doubt all this reflects, to some degree, a tendency to regard rapists as the victims of temptation - decent men whose inner beasts have been coaxed into the open by dirty women who ought to know better than to wiggle their hips when they dance or leave their faces uncovered in the street.)

Even if we leave such warped views out of the picture, I think there is still a real confusion over the question of whether rape victims have had sex with their attackers. Swapping sexual histories round the kitchen table one night as undergraduates, one of my female housemates hesitantly told us that she'd had 'x and a half' sexual partners. She did so, it transpired, because it didn't seem quite right to her either to count the man who raped her as someone she'd had sex with, or not to do so. I think Chambers is just arguing that the confusion should be removed - she should have felt confident in saying that she had had sex with just x people.

I do have concerns over Chambers's argument, which I think relate to some of the points you make in your response. On his account, for instance, it is seemingly just impossible (conceptually) for a man to force a women to have sex with him (since having sex is necessarily a consensual act). That seems very odd on one level - almost like a denial that there is any such thing as rape. Still, though, it does seem right to say that a rapist and his victim do not do something *with* each other, but rather that he does something *to* her...

Anonymous said...

http://www.heraldtimesonline.com/stories/2000/01/11/news.000111_A4_MCW80871.sto

Scientists: Rape not about power, but sex
Scripps Howard News Service
January 11, 2000

Rape is not, typically, the crime of male domination it has been portrayed as by sociologists and feminists in recent ye ...
Please log in to read the rest of this story.

Gerri said...

You can give consent and still be raped. Most rapes are consenual, that is how the perp get close to you in the first place. My perp fits the description of a POWER ASSERTIVE RAPIST. He turned off the lights, got on top and "FORCED" himself in me. He didnt FORCE me to be there. then he started PULLING on my woman parts. This is how they legally get away with it!! Most of rapes are by people they are aquainted with. i need a mans opinion on this. these rape counselers are women and they dont help at all.

Anonymous said...

Rape is an act of sex AND violence. It's is sex taken violently. If it were just an act of violence why aren't men that walk alone at night or jog through a park grabbed the same way female rape victims are and just beaten up?

Anonymous said...

for me the violation is a physical attack! not a sexual act!

Bullet Sponge said...

Of course rape is sex. Not consensual, but sex nonetheless. I think the feminist definition is intended to take away the rapist's power by saying he didn't actually have sex with the victim, thus giving the power back to the victim. Unfortunately that's wishful thinking. A virgin who is raped is no longer a virginm no matter how you spin it. The whole power/control thing is also off base. Men rape for sex. The power/control/violence is a side effect. It's possible some men get stimulated by that aspect of it, but the main goal is sex, and that's what it is.

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