Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would not pursue further action against Oxford Union president Ben Sullivan, due to insufficient evidence arising from an investigation into the two accusations of rape and attempted rape made against him. In early May, Sullivan was arrested and released on bail, prompting a chaotic six-week period for the Union as the Thames Valley Police investigated the claims made against him. After Sullivan refused to resign, a number of high-profile speakers, including the UK director of Human Rights Watch, the Interpol secretary-general, and a Nobel Peace prize winner, pulled out of their speaking commitments as part of a larger boycott of Union events.
In an open letter (which has since been taken down) calling for the boycott, students Sarah Pine, who is Oxford University Student Union’s Vice President for Women, and Helena Dollimor wrote, “Remaining in his presidency continues to offer prestige and power to someone who is being investigated for rape. This undermines the severe nature of allegations of sexual offences.” In contrast, Oxford professor A.C. Grayling penned a response to the letter refusing to cancel his scheduled talk at the Union, noting, “I simply cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to act only on the basis of allegations and suspicions, or of conviction by the kangaroo court of opinion, or trial by press…” In this post, I look at the spectrum of responses in the wake of Sullivan’s arrest, of which these two examples represent the poles. More broadly, I consider how we ought to respond – both as individuals and a society – when those in positions of power are accused of rape or other sexual offences. Continue reading
“Legitimate rape,” moral consistency, and degrees of sexual harm
Should abortions be allowed in the case of rape? Republican Todd Akin—running for the U.S. Senate from the state of Missouri—thinks not. His reasoning is as follows:
From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy resulting from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.
There appears to be no scientific basis for the claim that the trauma of forced intercourse can interrupt ovulation or in any other way prevent a pregnancy; indeed pregnancy is just as likely after rape as after consensual sex, according to the evidence I have seen. This news article sums up the relevant data - though please note that one of my readers [see comments] takes issue with the standard interpretation of the most frequently-cited studies.
Let’s start, for now, then, with a bit of data that is not in question: thousands of pregnancies per year, in the U.S. alone, ensue from cases of reported rape or incest–either through the caveat of Akin’s theory that “maybe [the body's defenses] didn’t work or something” or through the medically orthodox explanation that the body has no such defense. Assuming that falsely reporting rape is relatively rare, as seems to be the case; and acknowledging that many rapes are never reported in the first place, we should be able to agree that pregnancies resulting from rape are a life-changing reality for thousands of women on an annual basis. By “rape” I mean any penetrative act done without clear consent; and here I’m calling attention to the sub-set of such acts that result in conception. I won’t say much about the term “legitimate” — which I find troubling in a hundred ways — simply because other writers have gone to town on it, and I want to say something new.
Now, given everything I’ve just said, what could be going on with Todd Akin’s moral reasoning for him to casually downplay the relevance of rape and incest to the abortion debate while maintaining, as he does, that there should be no exceptions to anti-abortionism even in those cases? Psychologist Brittany Liu uses the notion of “moral coherence” to provide an explanation:
I am desperate to start a sexual relationship with an old acquaintance but his wife, who has no interest in sex, would be appalled if she knew. Does that matter?
I read this in the Guardian’s ‘Life & Style’ section. Every week, a reader can present a dilemma she/he is faced with in her/his ‘private’ life and ask other readers for advice.
The full story goes like this:
I recently reconnected with an old classmate from my teens, and we fell in love almost immediately. We are in our early 50s and both in long marriages to good people whom we love. Leaving our spouses is not an option [....] Despite our desire for each other and the fact that his wife and my husband may be asexual, my friend and I have not slept with each other. My husband has given me permission to have a lover, but my friend’s wife would be appalled if he asked for the same set-up. Shouldn’t someone with no interest in sex and minimal romantic attachment to their spouse (they are like roommates) allow that spouse to fulfil her or his needs for stimulation and affection (discreetly) elsewhere without calling it “cheating”? My friend and I are moral people, but life is short.
Some of the readers’ replies are:
Whose word do we have for it that his wife is asexual?…Oh, only his… What a surprise.
Of course it is ok! Go and fuck with everyone in sight and don’t bother!
Fortunately, other replies are more sophisticated. Most people seem to acknowledge the dilemma is real. None of the proposed options are ideal. For example, those who suggest asexual married couples should never have extramarital sexual relationships at the same time acknowledge that this solution is not ideal as sexual frustration may build up and may have devastating effects on the marriage. Those who suggest the individuals who are attracted to each other (henceforth ‘sexual’ individuals) should be honest about it to their partners, and that the ‘affair’ (consented to by all parties concerned) may be justified, realise this will make their ‘asexual’ partners unhappy, with potentially devastating effects for both marriages. Perhaps some will find it obvious that one of these alternatives is better than the other, but surely we must except that whichever option one chooses, there is some harm, or risk of harm.
Could what Savulescu and Sandberg, in their 2008 paper, have called ‘love drugs’ help resolve the dilemma?
Serious warning: this post contains nudity, images of graphic video-game violence, and detailed descriptions of rape and torture. The intended audience for this post is adults.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week, in a 7-of-9 majority, that the State of California may not prohibit the sale of violent video games to minors. Such a ban, the majority argued, restricts the free speech rights of the video-game manufacturers, and is therefore unconstitutional. Read the ruling here.
Repeated rape of 13-year old stepdaughter: 2,5 years
Repeated rape of 15-year old girl:2 years
Rape of 2 mentally disabled girls: 2,5 years
Repeated rape of 2 girls younger than 15, making one pregnant: 2 years
Violent rape of a student: 3 years
Rape of 3 boys by a bishop: o years (but he lost his job)
Stealing 2 bags of muffins from a supermarket’s rubbish container: 6 months
(Prisoners are often released after doing half of their sentence)
Is it just me, or is something not right here?
What message is Belgium sending? “It is almost equally bad to steal two bags of muffins from a supermarket’s rubbish container, as to rape your 13-year old stepdaughter. Yes, we admit, it is slightly worse to repeatedly rape several girls, or to do it in a particularly violent way. But stealing muffins from a garbage bin is obviously worse than sexually abusing boys as a priest, at least if that happened a while ago. You may get into more trouble if you did it recently. You may even lose your job these days.”
Of course I realize that each case has its particular context, and that this determines the severity of the sentence, but still, even in an ‘ideal’ context from the perpetrator’s point of view, the sentences seem rather out of proportion. One seems to get away with rape quite easily in Belgium, but not with ‘dumpster diving’ (USA) or ‘skipping’(UK) (“the practice of sifting through commercial or residential trash to find items that have been discarded by their owners, but which may be useful to the dumpster diver”.
What is it that I am missing?
Why is skipping even a crime? Supermarkets throw tons of food out daily. This is mostly food that has passed the expiry date and that, therefore, can no longer be sold. But most food that is just past the expiry date is perfectly fine to eat. Skippers do not sell the food they find. They take it for their own use. Sometimes they also give it away to poor people. That is what the Belgian muffin thief did. Instead of being a bad thing, skipping seems like a very good thing then. It reduces the enormous food waste and it helps the hungry. Our muffin thief is a Robin Hood.
So why then is skipping illegal? I can think of three reasons:
A first reason is that eating food that is past the expiry date is unsafe. Though many foods are perfectly fine shortly after the expiry date, some foods might not be and this can cause serious health problems.
A second reason is that skippers are stealing, or at least trespassing. The food is still owned by the supermarkets, and these rubbish containers are usually located on private property, so one is actually trespassing and stealing when one accesses the containers and takes food out of them.
A third reason is that if everyone did it, supermarkets would risk serious financial losses. If you’re a skipper, you no longer need to buy food.
But it is one thing to make it illegal, it is another to give the Muffin Thief a 6 month prison sentence. What is the rationale behind this harsh sentence?
To give such a sentence because of a concern for the skipper’s health seems implausible and overly paternalistic. We warn people against dangerous foods, or cooking methods. But we generally do not give them a prison sentence if we find out that they eat something dodgy, or cook it in a dodgy way. BBQs cause cancer, but we do not prohibit eating food from a BBQ. The concern for food safety is unlikely to be an important motivation for giving the harsh sentence. Nor is it merely the fact that it is theft. If I steal 2 bags of muffins from a shop, I will not get a prison sentence. I’ll just get a fine, or a warning.
Plausibly, the main reason for giving a harsh sentence then has to do with the third reason to make skipping illegal: the potential financial losses for the supermarket if everyone did it. Giving the muffin thief a 6 month prison sentence is meant as a strong deterrent. The muffin thief is actually used as a scapegoat – as a means to deter others.
But why not give rapists much harsher sentences then? Surely rape is much worse than stealing muffins from a rubbish container and surely we also want to deter rape?
Perhaps the reason for giving the muffin thief this harsh sentence is because it is the most efficient way to deter. Rather than giving small punishments to all caught skippers, it is easier to make one skipper the scapegoat and threaten the others with a serious sentence. If people who pirate music knew they really risk a one year prison sentence, they might think twice about pirating.
Perhaps sex offenders are not deterred by prison sentences, for example because of the nature of their crimes and what drives them. Skippers are typically driven by ethical reasons or lifestyle preferences, rapists by something more irrational and uncontrollable.
Or perhaps shorter prison sentences result in less re-offending in rapists but not in muffin thieves.
But even if these reasons make sense, I just can’t find a sufficient justification for the harshness of the punishment for the muffin thief and the relatively mild punishments for rapists. It seems way out of proportion. Surely rape is many thousands of times worse than stealing discarded muffins. So even if there are some reasons of the sort I’ve outlined for harshly punishing skippers it is difficult to see why the sentences should be more or less in the same ballpark.
What am I missing here?
by Shlomit Harrosh
Five years ago Joanne Nodding was violently raped by a man she knew. As part of a restorative justice programme, she has recently met with the man at her own request and with his consent. Nodding told him of her experiences during the attack and of its effects on her family. The man offered what Nodding felt was a genuine apology. She chose to forgive him.
“I ended the meeting by telling him that I’d forgiven him and that I wanted him to forgive himself, if he hadn’t,” said Nodding, “because I wanted him to go on to have a successful life. Hatred eats you up, and you can’t change what’s happened.”
The subject of forgiveness has recently been addressed in an excellent piece by Charles L. Griswold. Griswold identifies the restoration of mutual respect as one of the goals of forgiveness. I want to further explore this idea, focusing on the way forgiveness can reorient a relationship compromised by grievous wrongdoing, like rape.