Sex: Laying Down the Law
It is easy to agree that rape is reprehensible. Even those who disagree about what defines the act of rape condemn it. What is not so easy to agree on is the definition of responsible sexual behavior: sexual behavior that does not lead to the violation of another human being.
It is also not easy to agree on what constitutes consenting sexual behavior when that discussion takes place in a society replete with ambiguous messages about male and female sexual desires and permeated by sexual violence and abuse, in which it is estimated that one in three females and one in six males will be sexually assaulted by age 18, typically by a male they know and often trust.
Efforts to define responsible sexual behavior and consent so that no one would be confused about when a rape has occurred have, not surprisingly, uncovered the deeper, more subtle disagreements and misunderstandings about precisely these points. Various studies and surveys have found, for example, that men and women have different interpretations of behaviors as simple as a smile, and as serious as the expected quid pro quo for paying for your date's dinner.
The current public discussion of acquaintance rape, a discussion which has as its goal the reduction of rape and the appropriate prosecution of those who rape, has produced as well the extraordinary characterization of date rape as an item on the "PC" agenda, and articles which take women and feminists to task for their part in creating the conditions that allow men to rape, either out of lack of control or out of confusion.
One such article, by Mona Charen, a columnist who appears regularly in The Boston Globe, suggests that feminists, allying themselves with the proponents of the sexual revolution, have been partially responsible for discrediting the notion that women should be treated with "particular care and respect," a notion that, she states, "served the interests of women," since women, the "smaller and weaker sex," "cannot thrive in a world where men are not socialized to control themselves."
This is an astonishing conclusion. In fact, it has been through the work of feminists--academics, psychologists, lawyers, survivors of rape, childhood sexual abuse and battering--that public awareness has been called to the lack of "particular care and respect" historically paid to women, and that laws have been crafted and enacted which, by holding those who rape, abuse and batter accountable for their actions, perforce socialize them.
At Harvard and Radcliffe, as in any other community, it is only through mutual care and respect that anything like a community can conceivably be built. In all aspects of social interaction, and most certainly when it concerns sexual contact, mutual care and respect should be the foundation of the interaction.
This is true whether you're saving yourself for the man or women you marry, or you're prepared to sleep over on the first date. Without care and respect, sexuality is a violation of both partners. To recognize this, to act on it, and to hold others to it should not require a particular ideology, political stance, or belief system.
Ms. Charen also comments that it is not surprising that "in the world we have created over the past 25 years, young men are somewhat confused about the rules." Is this relevant?
Clarity about the rules of sexual behavior has not yet prevented the sexual abuse of girls at the hands of fathers, brothers, grandfathers, uncles and family friends (nor has it protected young boys from similar forms of abuse). And it has not interfered with a history of sexual violence that predates by a long shot the last 25 years.
I think, however, that in all likelihood young men are confused about the rules. In fact, I think that young women are too. Given this confusion, given the ambiguity of sexuality in this society, given the history of sexual violence into which we are all born, it is then profoundly important that sexual contact be unambiguously consensual.
And because, indeed, women tend to be the "smaller and weaker sex," and because men have the physical capacity to imtimidate, threaten or force a woman into having intercourse, then every man who is unwilling to gain his own sexual release at the cost of his partner's violation must commit himself to hearing clear consent. Not just lack of protest, not just silent submission--but active, enthusiastic, sober consent.
It is true that women must, in this society, protect themselves from their psychological and physical vulnerability to rape, even by those they have reason to trust--classmates, boyfriends, friends of friends. Being clear about one's own desires and limits, not drinking to the point of losing control, going to and leaving parties with a friend, are all reasonable recommendations for women to follow for their own safety.
But the rules of risk reduction in the life of any woman often becomes clear only in retrospect--"I shouldn't have let him walk me home (but he offered to because my roommates had already left)"--or are obvious to the experienced but not to the young woman who has never been away from home before.
Ultimately women cannot protect themselves from all potential circumstances in which a rape might take place--just as all of us are unable to guarantee that no one will ever break into our homes, steal our cars or physically assault us.
The rules of rape avoidance in the life of any man, however, are clearer. In fact, there is only one rule. If you're not sure that your partner is willing, stop and ask. The consequences of doing so are slight, and temporary--embarrassment, hurt pride, the end of the evening. The consequences of failing to do so are likely to be traumatizing and lifelong--for everyone involved.
According to Massachusetts law, you have raped someone if you have compelled her to submit to sexual intercourse against her will and by force or threat of bodily injury. This is the very least standard to which we should hold ourselves if we are to be a community characterized by care and respect.
I call upon all of us to strive for a more meaningful ethic of sexual behavior--one that repudiates sexual self-gratification at the expense of another, whether that gratification is achieved by aggressive persuasion, bullying, coercion, or outright force.
It is not simply a question of legality, but of the mutual responsibility that should be the goal of every member of this community.
Janet A. Viggiani is Assistant Dean for Coeducation.