What we talk about when we talk about rape


It’s not hard to see why progressive America has so enthusiastically taken on the challenge of stopping rape on college campuses. Rape is the Great Crime—the example we use when challenging moral relativists. It’s never OK. Nowhere. At no time. Our books are littered with stories about it. Rape is the most evil thing we can imagine. Working to stop it is thus quite noble, about as close to fighting evil itself as we can come. For the progressive who seeks to fight injustice, these are compelling front lines to be at.

More conservative-minded people like to intimate that this whole problem is the consequence of post-60s sexual liberation. Surely my generation has been raised to think sex should have limited or no consequences. For cases in which individuals simply regret an encounter or think they were mistreated or disrespected during a hookup, the conservative reminder that sex is dangerous has some utility. But what’s primarily of concern here is not consensual sex between naive partners, but forced sex in which both partners know—or should know—exactly what is going on.

The real problem is not sexual liberation, but rather the ambiguities surrounding actual incidents of rape. While rape may be the most certain sin in theory, it is often not so obvious in reality. My friend tells me she has eight female friends at her college who have been raped. If even one of these stories is true, that’s enough to horrify us. Yet further digging reveals potential complications. One of these women was allegedly raped twice by the same man. She went back to him after the first time, my friend informs me. Most of these incidents have no independent witness and likely involved too much alcohol and, thus, foggy memory. Inebriation makes it impossible to give consent, of course. But if both parties were inebriated, and neither can be trusted to recall the details, how are we to know who initiated the offending activity?

Is it possible that we don’t exactly know what rape is? Might it be possible to disagree about the definition of such a universally-condemned crime? The tragic reality is that we don’t really know enough to prove most rape cases and, barring some more severe intrusions of privacy (such as placing recording devices in the bedroom), we never will. This is not to dismiss the impulse to end rape. Difficulty is not an excuse for inaction. But by presuming each sexual assault is as unequivocal as the most egregious rape we can imagine, we obscure the problem rather than take a meaningful step towards solving it.

College kids like to talk about “leaning into discomfort,” by which they mean not shying away from inconvenient truths. The idea that justice is often most ambiguous when it involves the most clearly immoral crimes is deeply uncomfortable. Alas, it’s true. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

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