Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Tim Chambers on rape and sex

NO, YOU CAN’T STEAL A KISS

Timothy Chambers


Here, Timothy Chambers argues that rape is not a sex act. In a piece further down, I suggest that it is.

I guess my first feminist role-model was Marilyn Sokol. She played ‘Stella,’ the boisterous best friend to Goldie Hawn’s ‘Gloria,’ in the 1978 blockbuster, Foul Play.
I first saw it when I was eight or nine years old.

There’s a scene where Gloria reveals that she gave a ride to a hitchhiker.

Stella is incredulous. ‘Really, Gloria! Do you know the percentages of rapes from hitchhikers?!...And look at you, with no protection.’ (By ‘protection,’ Stella means mace or brass knuckles, both of which she owns.)

‘Well,’ Gloria considers, the hitchhiker ‘didn’t seem to be after sex.’

‘Rape is not an act of sex,’ Stella booms. ‘Rape is an act of violence! Remember that.’

I can’t speak for Gloria, but I surely remembered it. I’m reminded of it every so often. In her tantalizing attempt to define sex (entitled, ‘Are We Having Sex Now Or What?’),

Greta Christina declares what should be a deal-breaker for any candidate definition. ‘Even the conventional standby—sex equals intercourse—has a serious flaw,’ she writes. ‘[I]t includes rape, which is something I emphatically refuse to accept. As far as I’m concerned, if there’s no consent, it ain’t sex.’

And yet, I’m unsure whether this truth has percolated into society at large. I’m reminded of this every so often, too. Sometimes it’s a careless phrasing, which I spotted in the New York Daily News in 2005 (‘…who lost her virginity at gunpoint in 1991 when a gang of thugs…’). Or else it’s a potentially misleading headline, compliments of a 2007 article in the London Daily Mail (‘Doctor rejects evidence of patient who says that he hypnotized her and took her virginity’). And then there was the Aug. 17, 1999 story in the New York Times, citing a rising demand for ‘virginity tests’ in South Africa. The article never notes the obvious: if a woman had been assaulted, then the ‘test’ would yield a false negative. The list goes on and on.

All of these cases, which describe rape survivors as having had their virginity ‘taken,’ get matters dead wrong. To me, it’s axiomatic: a survivor who was raped didn’t thereby ‘have sex’; a person is not a virgin only if they have ‘had sex’; ergo, it’s conceptually impossible for a rapist to ‘take’ or ‘rob’ his target’s virginity.

Now, I’m an academic philosopher by training and temperament. This means I can only tolerate cognitive dissonance and mixed messages for just so long. At last, I find myself needing to sit somewhere comfy, put some jottings on paper, and sort out the truth once and for all.

II

Why does Stella find it obvious that rape is not an act of sex? And why has society been so slow on the uptake of this obvious truth?

It helped me to notice how many amorous activities require reciprocity before we credit the act as happening. Take holding hands. It’s not enough that my hand comes into contact with another’s hand—otherwise, I’ve held hands with everyone whose hands I’ve shaken.

Hand-holding also seems to preclude coercion, however subtle. Suppose I spot my friend, Grace, on a date at an uptown bistro. The next day, I remark to her, ‘It looks like your date went swimmingly.’

Grace scowls. ‘As if.’

‘But you were holding hands,’ I protest.

‘We weren’t ‘holding hands,’’ Grace corrects. ‘He took my hand—practically grabbed it. The feeling wasn’t mutual. I didn’t pull away because I already sensed the guy was a jerk, and I didn’t want him making a scene in my favorite restaurant.’

Dancing provides another activity with links to reciprocity. I once witnessed a friend of mine, Cerrisa, at a dance-party. Some young guy, dripping with desperation, approached her. She declined, politely.

Then the man starts to dance in front of her.

My friend was unmoved. ‘I’m not dancing with you,’ she said, and stalked off.

Did Cerrisa and her wannabe suitor dance? Obviously not. He danced for her. But since she didn’t join his motions, it would be false to say they danced. (Just curious: would it be possible for two people to dance for one another, simultaneously, without thereby dancing with each other? With mirrors, maybe?)

The situation grows more nuanced with kissing, though. I’m reminded of the 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons. There’s a scene where the villain, Valmont, calls upon a young woman, Cecile, very late at night. She asks him to leave.

Valmont promises to go on one condition: ‘I just want you to give me a kiss.’

Afterward, the villain still refuses to leave. ‘I promised to go when you gave me a kiss,’ he explains. ‘You didn’t give me a kiss. I gave you a kiss. Not the same thing at all.’

Valmont’s dastardly designs aside, his semantics ring true. If I kiss you on the lips, but you don’t ‘kiss me back’ (as we say), then we didn’t kiss.

At the same time, we do have phrases like ‘stole a kiss,’ as in ‘Valmont stole a kiss from Cecile when she was distracted.’ This sends a different message: the coercive or deceptive kisser got a kiss from the victim. After all, I can’t very well ‘steal’ something unless I somehow take possession of it.

This is most unfortunate. One wants to protest that speaking of ‘stolen kisses’ sins against the very institution. Kisses are meant to be tokens of shared affection—between parents and children, buzzes between friends, linkings of lovers. The very idea that someone could ‘steal a kiss’ seems a contradiction in terms. Yes, a man can extort certain bodily movements from a woman. But this cuts completely against the freedom of choice implied in saying, ‘We kissed.’

In other words, you can speak of coercing (or deceiving) a woman into kissing, but only if you turn a blind eye to the woman’s autonomy and consciousness. ‘Stolen kisses’ can only make sense if you view the woman’s participation as purely passive—as if ‘she acquiesced and allowed him to kiss her’ still means ‘they kissed.’ But the image this suggests is eerily asymmetric. Eerie, too, is how the myth of the ‘stolen kiss’ commodifies a woman’s gestures of intimacy, parsing them as if they were property which could be ‘stolen.’

III

All of this helped me illuminate the two questions which puzzled me at the outset.

Why isn’t rape an act of sex? Because, as Stella knew well, having sex (like holding hands or dancing together) presumes reciprocity. A rapist coerces a person into certain bodily motions. But to term these forced motions as ‘having sex’ adds insult to the initial assault. It only makes sense if, as we saw with ‘stolen kisses,’ our image of sex is seriously stunted: an image which renders irrelevant a woman’s state of mind and whether she exercised her autonomy. But that’s just obscene.

Why hasn’t society grasped this fact yet? I’m not sure. Call it the Inertia of Unchallenged Falsehoods. The very idea that a rape-survivor thereby had sex, or that virginity can be ‘stolen,’ seems to stem from a deeply-entrenched myth which casts women as ‘passive recipients’ in intimate transactions. In her insightful essay, ‘Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis’, Lois Pineau points to ‘a number of mutually supportive mythologies which see sexual assault as masterful seduction, and silent submission as sexual enjoyment,’ including ‘belief [in] the natural aggression of men and natural reluctance of women’ in intimate encounters.

How might we correct this marred image? For starters, we’ll need to call out the false picture when it makes media-appearances (which, as Lexis-Nexus assures me, is quite often). We would also do well to replace the image of sex which deserves discarding with an image of sex we can cherish. Towards this goal, Pineau makes excellent strides: ‘In honest sexual encounters,’ she writes, ‘this much is required. Assuming that each person enters the encounter in order to seek sexual satisfaction, each person…has an obligation to help the other seek his or her ends….But the requirement of mutuality means that we must take a communicative approach to discovering the ends of the other, and this entails that we respect the dialectics of desire.’

Sex, in this sense of the word, is a dialogue. It doesn’t happen when I only care about raising the points I want raised. It doesn’t happen when I ignore the points you want treated. It happens when we invite one another to perceive our most personal perspectives, with the hope that it will enhance the empathy we share.

Timothy Chambers teaches philosophy at the University of Hartford.

12 comments:

Zembla said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zembla said...

To summarise Chamber's argument: rape shouldn't be considered sexual because sex involves consent and rape doesn't involve consent.

This is wrong in the following sense: sex is a purely physical act, and sex does not need to be consensual to be considered sex. For example, if I raped Jill, it would be true for me to say, 'I had sex with Jill', even though I had sex with her against her will.

Chamber's argument is right in the following sense: if my friend said to me 'I had sex with Jill', I would assume he meant consensually (unless there was a good reason not to: my friend's criminal record e.g.).

So it depends on how one defines sex: as purely physical or as requiring consent. If you define it as a wholly physical act, then Chambers is wrong; rape is a sexual act. If you define sex as an act requiring consent, then Chambers is right; rape is not a sexual act.

The dictionaries don't agree with Chambers. According to them, sex is a purely physical act, and rape is sex against a person's will.

Not very exciting, really.

Ryan said...

All I can say is wow, who gave this twat his diploma?

Sorry, I had to get that out of the way. But it seems to me that he applies emotions where they are not needed. Its not rape because he didn't consider her feelings, didn't ask her for permission? Zembla, as well as the dictionary are correct sex is purely physical. The penis enters the vagina, thats called sex. The dominance of a man over a women for the purpose of "his" sexual gratification is called rape. Both in valve the penis entering the vagina. What is important is the ACT, not the EMOTIONS involved, not to seem cruel of course.

Please correct me if I am wrong.

Ryan said...

Oh, I have to ask this question as well.

What the hell is he doing appealing to the authority of a movie character? Very unbecoming a philosopher, in opinion!

faithlessgod said...

It is not possible for a woman to (naturally) conceive unless one has had an act of sex.
Women have conceived as a result of rape.
Rape is an act of sex

Similarly

It is not possible to (naturally) conceive without losing one's virginity
Women have conceived as a result of rape.
Rape is can be a means to lose virginity.

The implication of Chambers argument is that a woman who has not had sex and is still a virgin can still conceive and give birth to a child. Wonder what this says about the Immaculate Conception and rape ;-)

CAPTCHA: incest

Anonymous said...

Yes, his argument simply involves asserting that sex involves consent. If, like everyone else, you believe it doesn't, his argument is not convincing.

This is not very interesting. It's just an argument over the definition of a word. Answer: fine, call it what you like.

In human biology class, the words "sex" and "intercourse" are used synonymously. Consent might be considered in law or philosophy classes, but not in biology. (Unless you're studying social interaction/bioanthropology, of course.)

Chambers' does try to justify his assertion that sex involves consent, by analogy with kissing or dancing. But the analogy fails to convince someone who does not believe sex involves consent, because we just deny the analogy is valid.

Greg O said...

This is interesting. Stephen agrees (I think?)with Chambers that to say that a couple 'have sex' is to imply consent on both sides, and that it is therefore wrong to think of rape victims as having 'had sex' with their attackers. I take that to be the thesis for which Chambers is arguing in this piece; Stephen takes him to be arguing for the stronger thesis that rape is not a sexual act at all.

Part of the reason Stephen takes Chambers to be arguing for that stronger thesis, I think, is that he takes the weaker thesis (that rape victims have not had sex with their attackers) to be just obvious and can't see who or what would be the intended target of Chambers's piece if that was all he was arguing for.

Well - now we have some candidates. The people who've commented on this post so far think it's just obvious that rape victims have had sex with their attackers.

I'd be curious to hear whether in the light of these comments, Stephen finds it more plausible that the weaker thesis mentioned above is *not* too obvious and uncontroversial to be worth arguing for, and that that is just what Chambers is doing in this piece?

Stephen Law said...

I agree that to say a couple have sex (both do) suggests consent on both sides. I think saying rape is an "act of sex" is (only slightly) slightly ambiguous. If it is suggested the woman is involved in performing the act, it suggests consent on her part. However, that's not how I would actually interpret that phrase. The man rapes. The man performs an act of sex (act of a sexual nature - surely he does). The woman does not. No one else here seems to have interpreted the phrase the way you have Greg O. But still, it's worth clarifying these things.

Stephen Law said...

ps. Greg O can point out that perhaps faithless god's first argument to entails the woman performs ("has") an "act of sex". Which she doesn't. So there is perhaps a misunderstanding there. Though obviously faithless God doesn't think she consents.

It does seem a largely trivial semantic dispute on which rather little hangs. Those who think women secretly enjoy rape, or mean "yes" when they say "no" or whatever, are not, I think, even partly led to that view by any such semantic misunderstandings (though perhaps there is value in clarity, nevertheless).

The main point of saying "rape is not a sex act/act of sex" seems, in most cases (if not this one) to be:

(i) to suggest a psychological thesis - it is not motivated by sex at all (highly implausible, I think).

(ii) to allow for a bit of outrageous indignation (by implying ones opponent is implying women consent by saying rape is a sex act/act of sex): "Rape is NOT a sex act/act of sex, you sexist brute!"

faithlessgod said...

Stephen

I phrased it "one has had an act of sex" deliberately passively not implying that she was neither active or consenting and made it an act to emphasize that it is not about psychological states.

Maybe I was pedantic in the wrong way, regardless it is a sad fact that rape in the past and the present has on top of its immediate deleterious effects on the victim also led to pregnancies.

Of course by somewhat similar type of reasoning to Chambers here, Clinton did not lie when he said he did not have sex with Lewinsky - well he did'nt did he, since there was no procreative act involved or "act of sex" as I used it in my previous comment.

Greg O said...

Stephen - you're right that no-one so far seems to agree with me that 'act of sex' is used by Chambers as shorthand for 'act of *having* sex' - i.e. that Chambers is taking an 'act of sex' to be something that occurs only when two people have sex.

I suppose it could be, of course, that people's reading of the Chambers piece is being coloured by their earlier reading of your piece, in which you take 'act of sex' to be interchangeable with 'sex act' or 'sexual act'. (Such acts, I take it, might or might not involve two people having sex).

In any case, I'd like to make a couple of points in support of my reading of Chambers:

1.) Chambers entitles his piece 'No, You Can't Steal a Kiss', and offers the following brief argument in support of his central, analogous claim that you can't 'steal' someone's virginity: "a survivor who was raped didn’t thereby ‘have sex’; a person is not a virgin only if they have ‘had sex’; ergo, it’s conceptually impossible for a rapist to ‘take’ or ‘rob’ his target’s virginity". Surely, then, it's clear enough that Chambers is concerned quite specifically with the question of whether rape victims can be said to have had sex with their attackers (and not with some other, perhaps more general, question about whether rape is in some sense a 'sexual' thing.)

2.) Consider the following: "Why isn’t rape an act of sex? Because... having sex (like holding hands or dancing together) presumes reciprocity. A rapist coerces a person into certain bodily motions. But to term these forced motions as ‘having sex’ adds insult to the initial assault."

Again, it surely couldn't be clearer that Chambers is concerned specifically with the question of whether a woman who is raped thereby 'has sex' with her attacker. Thus it's surely reasonable to think that when he uses the phrase 'act of sex' here, he is (not unreasonably, in my view!)taking such acts to involve two people's having sex.

I could go on quoting Chambers, but it's a short article and easy enough to re-read as a whole. Anyone who does so will find plenty of material which tends to support the thesis that a woman who is raped does not thereby have sex with her attacker; material supporting other theses one might be thought of as advancing in claiming that rape is not an act of sex - the thesis that the motivation of rapists is not sexual, for instance - is, on the other hand, conspicuous by its absence. In fairness to Chambers, then, I think we should take him to be advancing the former thesis (or something very much like it).

Incidentally, on the question of whether all this boils down to a trivial semantic dispute: yes, if we all understand that women don't secretly enjoy rape, that there's no sense in which they 'consent' to it, that it's a form of violent assault involving a particularly terrible kind of violation, it might seem pretty irrelevant whether we choose to call it an 'act of sex' or not, or to say that women have had (non-consensual) sex with their attacker or not, or to talk about rape victims having had their virginity stolen or not.

But 'having sex' is a big deal; it matters to us who we have sex with and when. In an earlier post, I mentioned an old housemate of mine who told us one night she'd had 'x and a half' sexual partners because, it transpired, 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. Chambers is just arguing that we should remove that confusion by insisting that rape victims *have not* had sex wih their attackers; my housemate should have felt absolutely confident in saying that she'd had just x sexual partners. That seems right to me. Why should any rape victim have to think of herself as having 'sort of', 'depends what you mean', 'yes, but', had sex with the man who ruined her life for one second? Why should the rest of us talk in such a way as to make her feel she has to?

Greg O said...

One more point and then I'll shut up.

Stephen suggests that one of "[T]he main point[s] of saying "rape is not a sex act/act of sex" seems, in most cases (if not this one) to be... to allow for a bit of outrageous indignation (by implying ones opponent is implying women consent by saying rape is a sex act/act of sex): "Rape is NOT a sex act/act of sex, you sexist brute!"

If that's true (as it may very well be), it would indeed seem misguided and unfair if that sort of indignation were directed at reasonable people who understand perfectly well that women who are raped are the victims of an assault - yes, a *sexual* sort of assault - and not morally culpable 'participants' in an immoral act.

But what if that indignation were directed at someone who seems to think rape victims are guilty of transgressions against a code of sexual ethics - e.g. a priest who thinks rape victims should be sent to corrective institutions? Isn't it then easier to understand why someone might want to insist that there is just no question of a rape victim's having transgressed against a code of sexual ethics, since they haven't *done* anything sexual at all?