Rape Is about Sex

I remember first becoming informed that rape was not about sex around 1970. This was back in the days when the typical bookstore would carry numerous books written by Freud, of which I had read about a dozen.  As we all know, Freud argued that owing to the role of the unconscious in determining behavior, our motives are often hidden from us.  We think we know why we did something, but it turns out the real reason was something else, something we never suspected.  And, owing to the large role that sex played in Freud’s theories, the motive hidden in the unconscious often turned out to be a repressed sexual desire.  The theory that rape is not about sex certainly followed Freud, in that an unconscious motive is attributed to the rapist.  But it was a complete reversal of the usual Freudian formula:  instead of sex being the unconscious motive for something else, something else was asserted to be the unconscious motive for sex.

In general, I was a little skeptical of all the claims being bandied about in those days regarding the unconscious, whether by Freud or any other psychoanalyst, and so I merely noted this peculiar notion that rape was not about sex with indifference.  A couple of years later, I saw Frenzy (1972), a film by Alfred Hitchcock.  It is about a “necktie strangler” who rapes and murders women.  At some point during the movie, the detective tells a sergeant that most men like him are impotent.  The sergeant expresses surprise at this remark, and rightly so, I thought to myself.  That was carrying the rape-is-not-about-sex theory to an extreme.  After all, impotence is the failure to be able to perform sexually, owing to the inability to get an erection. In any event, the detective goes on to say that it is not the sex that gratifies the rapist.

The detective speaks with an authoritative voice in the movie, and so we know we are supposed to believe him.  But aside from squaring impotence with rape, there is the incongruity between his words and the rape that took place in the movie thirty minutes before.  In the history of mainstream cinema, no movie, made before or since, has depicted sex, consensual or coerced, in which anyone, male or female, experiences greater heights of sexual ecstasy than the necktie strangler in Frenzy.

What is remarkable about this movie is that, in discussing it with others, I have noticed that most people accept the pronouncements of the detective, notwithstanding their apparent inconsistency with the rape scene.  This is in part due to the authoritative voice of the detective, and in part due to the widespread acceptance of the rape-is-not-about-sex theory at that time.  I have seen people twist themselves into a pretzel trying to argue that the rapist never really got it up, let alone gratified himself sexually.  I suspect that this was Hitchcock’s idea of a joke.  He purposely put this contradiction into the movie between the words of the pompous detective and the scene of sexual passion, as his way of making fun of that theory.

This movie aside, I have heard this rape-is-not-about-sex theory discussed many times.  I have never known one woman to disagree with it.  And while a lot of men will also agree with it, I have noticed that a lot of men grow silent, particularly in mixed company.  Though a man may disagree with this theory, yet he will quickly realize how inadvisable it would be for him to say so. Imagine a man, upon hearing it declared that rape is not about sex, saying, “Oh no!  Rape is all about sex.  I mean, sometimes you want it so bad, you feel like holding them down to get what you want.” Any man that would say something like that, especially with women present, would be a fool. By the time that story got around, no woman would ever go out with him again.  And so, the theory largely goes unchallenged.

People often use force to get what they want.  Wars are fought for territory or natural resources, revolutions are fought to wrest power away from others, and criminals rob and steal to get money.  Given how much men want sex, why they should not use force to get that too is a mystery.  Alternatively, if we are willing to say rape is not about sex, why not say that robbery is not about money? Granted, there are cases where robbery does have an additional motive.  A gangster may be angry at society, or maybe he enjoys dominating his victims. But mostly, robbery is about money; and mostly, rape is about sex.

I have heard it said that there are two primary types of rapists, anger rapists and power rapists.  The former are motivated by “resentment and a general hostility towards women.”  But how do we make sense of this resentment and hostility unless it has a sexual origin?  It has only been recently that women have had anything other than sex about which men would be resentful. For millennia women have been denied status, property, power, rights, or anything else that might inspire resentment, and yet rape has been going on since caveman days.  Is it not more likely that the hostility toward women arises out of sexual frustration or rejection?

The power rapist, it is said, is motivated by his need to control and dominate his victim, and inversely, to avoid being controlled by her.  But if a man had no sexual desire for women, he would not likely bother with them at all.  How do we make sense out of this threat of being controlled by her, unless that threat be sexual?  In any event, the main reason a man would want to control and dominate a woman is for sexual purposes.  Sex is the end; dominance and control are but the means.  Without the former, there is no point to the latter.

The intensity with which some people defend this theory that rape is not about sex naturally makes one suspicious.  One cannot help but wonder if the purpose of the theory is to demean the rapist. We deny him the sexual motive, which he may regard as manly, something he can be proud of, and assert that he has anger issues and a need to dominate.  In other words, this thesis is an act of revenge against the rapist, undermining his masculinity by insisting that he acts out of insecurity and weakness.

In the end, the claim that rape is not about sex is speculative, almost metaphysical.  It is not the sort of thing that one can verify simply through observation.  Even if we could observe rapes, as we do in movies like Frenzy, all we would see is the use of force and violence in combination with sex.  We cannot observe the motive.  The best that can be done is to interview the rapist. But the whole rape-is-not-about-sex theory is premised on the idea that things are not what they seem, not even to the rapist himself; so his own assessment of his motives is not to be trusted, even granted that he is being sincere, which is a big assumption right there.  Such interviews may reveal the anger and power motives referred to above, but that gets us right back to the whole question of which is cause and which is effect.  The prima facie case is that sex is the cause of rape.  The theory that it is just the effect, an insignificant epiphenomenon of anger and power, is counterintuitive and unverifiable.

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Consensual Sex and the Double Standard

In 2014, California enacted a law requiring college students to get consent before they have sex.  The language is couched in gender-neutral terms, so that technically the law applies to men and women, either gay or straight.  But the primary intent of the law is directed toward heterosexual couples, and it is only the consent of the woman that is of concern.  In other words, the law is written in such a way that it appears to grant equal protection under the law to both sexes, even though we all know that a double standard will and ought to be applied in its implementation.

It is women that need protection against rape, even in the case where force is not used.  This is for several reasons:  First, men are bigger and stronger than women.  Not only is this true on average, but men and women tend to select each other on the basis of size as well.  Although the law is not intended to cover cases where force is used, for that is already illegal and does not need additional legislation, the size and strength of a man compared to a woman can be a factor in cases where consent is ambiguous. That is, a man can simply wear a woman out physically, until she becomes too tired to resist.

Second, it is the woman that can become pregnant.  This puts her at a severe disadvantage compared to the man.  Though birth control may make pregnancy unlikely, and abortion may be available to terminate it, yet it is a big problem for women nevertheless.  And while the man may find himself forced to pay child support if she has the baby, she will still have the greater burden in caring for it and raising it.

Third, a woman is more likely to feel violated by a man than a man would feel violated by a woman.  A major reason for this difference is penetration.  Though a woman may be disgusted by the unwanted kisses of a man, or by his groping her, nothing can compare to being penetrated.  Furthermore, an erection is prima facie evidence of consent regarding the man, thereby undermining his ability to claim that he was similarly violated.  Apart from this, there may be psychological differences as well. Some men think of sex as a matter of conquest.  And it is part of nature of sexual conquest to have a “love ’em and leave ’em” attitude, resulting in one night stands, which can make a woman who surrenders to such a man feel betrayed, especially if he whispered words of love as part of the seduction.  In fact, whether a rape has occurred may depend in part on the subsequent behavior of the man.  If a man refuses to have anything to do with a woman after they have sex, and possibly even insults her, she may feel violated; if he calls her up the next day and asks to see her again, thereby beginning a long-term relationship, that is another thing altogether. In other words, whether a rape has occurred may have as much to do with the subsequent behavior of the man as it does with what happened just before and during sex.

Fourth, alcohol has one legal implication for women and a different implication for men.  People drink, in part, simply because it feels good.  But they also drink in order to get carried away.  I once had a girlfriend who, by her own admission, had been quite promiscuous in college.  During some pillow talk one night, she told me about all the one night stands she had when she was young, and I expressed amazement.  “I don’t think I could have a one night stand,” I said.  “In fact, I don’t think I would want to.  I would have to get to know a woman first before I would feel comfortable having sex.” Without the slightest hesitation, and through half-closed eyelids, she said, “That’s because you don’t drink, John.  Standing there cold sober, no one could do it.  But when you drink, you feel like you’re in love.  And it’s easy to have sex with someone you love.”

Alcohol not only lowers our inhibitions, it also gives us cover for inappropriate behavior. Drinking gives us a license for license.  We are more likely to misbehave if we know that others will excuse this misbehavior as being the result of intoxication. Therefore, a lot of people drink knowing it will not only make it easier to have sex, but also will be a prophylactic against shame the next morning.

The problem lies in judging when someone has consumed enough alcohol to get carried away, but not so much as to no longer be able to consent to sex.  And here the double standard may strike some people as unfair.  If the woman is drunk, her saying “yes” to sex does not constitute consent, but if the man has sex with her, he cannot use the fact that he was drunk as a legal justification against a charge of rape.   So we end up with the situation in which if a man and woman who are equally drunk have sex, she can claim to have been raped, because the legal implications of being drunk are different for men and women.

But even if the woman is sober and only the man is drunk, their having sex will not be construed as her raping him.  No one has ever watched The Way We Were (1973), and thought that Katie (Barbara Streisand) deserved to go to prison for raping Hubbell (Robert Redford), even though she had sex with him while he was too passed-out drunk to know what he was doing.

The double standard here regarding alcohol, not holding a drunk woman responsible for saying “yes,” while holding a drunk man responsible not realizing that she was too drunk to consent, is justified on account of the reasons given previously:  the size and strength of the man, the possibility of pregnancy, and the difference in the male and female psyches.

It is peculiar that the law seems to apply only to college students.  Although I support a double standard for men and women when it comes to sex, I hope we do not have a double standard for college students and all other adults. Presumably, women who are not in college are not fair game, and the “yes means yes” standard applies to them too.  It is only on account of the unique circumstance of young women living away from home and under the protection of a university that special legislation for coeds has been enacted.

Unfortunately, a double standard is a two-edged sword.  In affirming a double standard for sexual activity, we run the risk of having that double standard leach out into areas where it is inappropriate, such as in the workplace.  By saying men are more responsible for their drunken behavior than women, by saying women are psychologically more likely to feel violated and be traumatized by sex than men are, we run the risk of suggesting that women cannot be trusted with responsibility in the workplace, and that they are psychologically weaker than men.  It is partly for this reason that the law is stated in gender-neutral terms.  Although gender-neutral language allows the law to apply to gay couples too, I suspect that this gender-neutral language would still be there anyway, as if to suggest that a man has the same protection against being violated by a woman, and could thus bring charges of rape against her.  So, to keep from having a double standard for men and women in the workplace and in other contexts where sex should not matter, we pretend not to have a double standard for men and women in the matter of sexual activity.  I don’t doubt that someday a man will bring rape charges against a woman, saying he was too drunk to consent.  In anticipation of this event, allow me to smirk preemptively at such a claim.

This is our dilemma:  either we deny the existence of a double standard in matters of sex as being repugnant to egalitarian principles, and end up being forced to accept conclusions that are absurd or paradoxical; or we admit to the need to have a double standard in matters of sex, which leaves an opening for those who want a reason to discriminate against women elsewhere.

A Passage to India (1984)

When we speak of Freudian interpretations of drama, we must distinguish those works created with no thought of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory from those that were created with Freud’s theory in mind.  Plays written before Freud can safely be assumed to fall into the first category, as when Hamlet is interpreted in terms of the Oedipus complex.  There is less certainty regarding dramatic forms created after Freud’s theory had become well known, for there is always the possibility that an artist purposely decided to spice things up by putting a little Freudian symbolism in his story.  In the case of Forbidden Planet (1956), the Freudian element is explicit, the monster being finally explained as a material manifestation of the id.  In the case of this latter type of movie, we are forced to interpret it in Freudian terms even if we do not care one whit for Freud’s theory.  That being said, it is with some confidence that I place A Passage to India into this latter category.  And so, while I am not especially prone to interpret drama in Freudian terms, this movie appears to have been influenced by Freud’s theory to a degree that references to that theory are unavoidable.

But first things first.  The movie is set in India in the 1920s, when India was still a part of the British Empire.  The movie itself, however, was produced in 1984, in a postcolonial world, where the collective judgment is that colonialism was simply wrong.  In fact, it is regarded as so wrong that little room is left for subtlety or nuance.  The Indians are all portrayed as good in one form or another—religious, moral, polite, kind, etc. —while the British are all portrayed as bad in one form or another—rude, snobbish, arrogant, bigoted, etc. —with only three exceptions:  Adela (Judy Davis), Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), and Fielding (James Fox).  Adela and Mrs. Moore are just setting out for India at the beginning of the movie, so they do not share the prejudices of the British that have been in India for a while.  Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) makes this explicitly clear when, after almost being run over by an automobile full of British citizens, he says to his friend that all Englishmen become unpleasant within two years of coming to India, while he gives Englishwomen only six months.

Fielding is a special case.  He has been in India for some time, and yet he retains his good qualities, being friendly with Indians and treating them with respect.  That is so we have someone to identify with.  You see, we all like to flatter ourselves that had we lived in some other time and place, we would somehow still have our American, twenty-first century values and sensibilities, and that we would have been moral heroes, refusing to go along with the norms and mores of that place and time.  So, had we lived in the antebellum South, we would, of course, have freed all of our slaves.  Had we come of age in Nazi Germany and been ordered to be a guard at Auschwitz, we would, of course, have refused, choosing to be executed rather than participate in the holocaust.  And had we been a British subject assigned to a post in India in the early twentieth century, we would, of course, have been just like Fielding, refusing to go along with his white countrymen in their condemnation of an Indian (Dr. Aziz) who has been charged with attempted rape of a white woman (Adela).  Without Fielding to identify with, we would have been adrift.  We might have tried identifying with some Indian in the movie, but those of us who are white really prefer to identify with a character that is also white.  It is one thing to ask us to identify with a white person who has no prejudices against people of color, but don’t ask us to identify with the people of color themselves, because that is just asking too much.

Adela goes bicycle riding by herself, and she decides to explore a seldom used path.  It takes her to an abandoned building adorned by sculptures of men and women making love.  This arouses repressed sexual desires that distress her greatly.  Then she notices a bunch of monkeys looking at her.  Agitated, they start to chase her and she runs away.  The monkeys represent her animal passions, and what she is really running away from is her own lust.  On a previous evening, she had broken off her engagement with her fiancé, but upon returning, she tells him she has changed her mind and wants to get married.  In other words, even though she no longer loves him, she figures it is better to marry than burn.  Other Freudian symbolism consists of Aziz having a fever and the sweltering heat of the sun, all of which are suggestive of sexual passion.

When Adela and Mrs. Moore, Adela’s prospective mother-in-law, first arrived in India, they wanted to meet some Indians socially.  They got no help in this regard from the British people that lived in India, who were appalled at the idea, but Aziz accidentally made the acquaintance of Mrs. Moore and through her Adela.  He is so enamored of them that he invites them to a picnic in which they can visit some mysterious caves.  Through one incredible coincidence after another, one by one, many of the people who were invited are eliminated—Fielding arrives too late, a chaperon arranged by Adela’s fiancé is dismissed by her, and Mrs. Moore becomes fatigued and remains behind—so that only Aziz, Adela, and a guide arrive at some caves.

Aziz runs off to smoke a cigarette.  This is nothing but a contrivance, the movie’s way of allowing Adela to be alone.  She enters a cave by herself.  The cave, of course, represents her unconscious.  When Aziz finishes his cigarette, he goes looking for her.  He stands at the entrance to the cave as if about to enter.  Now the cave represents her vagina.  She becomes overwhelmed with her forbidden lust for Aziz and bolts, eventually falling down the hillside into some cactus.  Just as she was really running from her sexual desires when she ran from the monkeys, so too here she runs from her desire for Aziz and not from Aziz himself.  Being hysterical, she so vividly imagines being ravished by Aziz that she believes he actually assaulted her.  As a result, charges are brought against Aziz.

Every white person thinks Aziz is guilty except Mrs. Moore, who says there is nothing she can do and returns to England (dying on the way), and Fielding, who asserts Aziz’s innocence.  Adela’s fiancé is a judge, but he has to recuse himself.  He is replaced by an Indian judge.  During the trial, much is made of the fact that Aziz is a widower and therefore deprived of a sexual outlet, except for his occasional visits to brothels or his collection of girlie magazines.  Needless to say, nothing similar is said about Adela’s being a maiden who is also deprived of a sexual outlet.  When Adela is put on the witness stand, she recants her previous testimony, and Aziz is acquitted.  At this point, we realize why the judge had to be an Indian.  If Aziz had gotten a fair trial from a white judge, this would have been out of keeping with the movie’s simplistic formulation:  Indians good; British bad.

So, as often happens in movies in which a man of color is accused of raping a white woman, he turns out to be innocent because the woman is to blame somehow:  either the woman lied, was hysterical, or behaved in provocative manner.  I covered this subject at greater length in my essay, “Rape and Race in the Movies.”

Consensual Sex and the Double Standard

Back in September of 2014, California enacted a law requiring college students to get consent before they have sex.  The language is couched in gender-neutral terms, so that technically the law applies to men and women, either gay or straight.  But the primary intent of the law is directed toward heterosexual couples, and it is only the consent of the woman that is of concern.  In other words, the law is written in such a way that it appears to grant equal protection under the law to both sexes, even though we all know that a double standard will and ought to be applied in its implementation.

It is women that need protection against rape, even in the case where force is not used.  This is for several reasons:  First, men are bigger and stronger than women.  Not only is this true on average, but men and women tend to select each other on the basis of size as well.  Although the law is not intended to cover cases where force is used, for that is already illegal and does not need additional legislation, the size and strength of a man compared to a woman can be a factor in cases where consent is ambiguous. That is, a man can simply wear a woman out physically, until she becomes too tired to resist.

Second, it is the woman that can become pregnant.  This puts her at a severe disadvantage compared to the man.  Though birth control may make pregnancy unlikely, and abortion may be available to terminate it, yet it is a big problem for women nevertheless.  And while the man may find himself forced to pay child support if she has the baby, she will still have the greater burden in caring for it and raising it.

Third, a woman is more likely to feel violated by a man than a man would feel violated by a woman.  A major reason for this difference is penetration. Though a woman may be disgusted by the unwanted kisses of a man, or by his groping her, nothing can compare to being penetrated.  Furthermore, an erection is prima facie evidence of consent regarding the man, thereby undermining his ability to claim that he was similarly violated.  Apart from this, there may be psychological differences as well.  Some men think of sex as a matter of conquest.  And it is part of nature of sexual conquest to have a “love ’em and leave ’em” attitude, resulting in one night stands, which can make a woman who surrenders to such a man feel betrayed, especially if he whispered words of love as part of the seduction.  In fact, whether a rape has occurred may depend in part on the subsequent behavior of the man.  If a man refuses to have anything to do with a woman after they have sex, and possibly even insults her, she may feel violated; if he calls her up the next day and asks to see her again, thereby beginning a long-term relationship, that is another thing altogether.  In other words, whether a rape has occurred may have as much to do with the subsequent behavior of the man as it does with what happened just before and during sex.

Fourth, alcohol has one legal implication for women and a different implication for men.  People drink, in part, simply because it feels good.  But they also drink in order to get carried away.  I once had a girlfriend who, by her own admission, had been quite promiscuous in college.  During some pillow talk one night, she told me about all the one night stands she had when she was young, and I expressed amazement.  “I don’t think I could have a one night stand,” I said.  “In fact, I don’t think I would want to.  I have to get to know a woman first before I would feel comfortable having sex.”  Without the slightest hesitation, and through half-closed eyelids, she said, “That’s because you don’t drink, John.  Standing there cold sober, no one could do it. But when you drink, you feel like you’re in love.  And it’s easy to have sex with someone you love.”

Alcohol not only lowers our inhibitions, it also gives us cover for inappropriate behavior. Drinking gives us a license for license.  We are more likely to misbehave if we know that others will excuse this misbehavior as being the result of intoxication.  Therefore, a lot of people drink knowing it will not only make it easier to have sex, but also will be a prophylactic against shame the next morning.

The problem lies in judging when someone has consumed enough alcohol to get carried away, but not so much as to no longer be able to consent to sex. And here the double standard may strike some people as unfair.  If the woman is drunk, her saying “yes” to sex does not constitute consent, but if the man has sex with her, he cannot use the fact that he was drunk as a legal justification against a charge of rape.   So we end up with the situation in which if a man and woman who are equally drunk have sex, she can claim to have been raped, because the legal implications of being drunk are different for men and women.

But even if the woman is sober and only the man is drunk, their having sex will not be construed as her raping him.  No one has ever watched The Way We Were (1973), and thought that Katie (Barbara Streisand) deserved to go to prison for raping Hubbell (Robert Redford), even though she had sex with him while he was too passed-out drunk to know what he was doing.

The double standard here regarding alcohol, not holding a drunk woman responsible for saying “yes,” while holding a drunk man responsible for not realizing that she was too drunk to consent, is justified on account of the reasons given previously:  the size and strength of the man, the possibility of pregnancy, and the difference in the male and female psyches.

It is peculiar that the law seems to apply only to college students.  Although I support a double standard for men and women when it comes to sex, I hope we do not have a double standard for college students and all other adults. Presumably, women who are not in college are not fair game, and the “yes means yes” standard applies to them too.  It is only on account of the unique circumstance of young women living away from home and under the protection of a university that special legislation for coeds has been enacted.

Unfortunately, a double standard is a two-edged sword.  In affirming a double standard for sexual activity, we run the risk of having that double standard leach out into areas where it is inappropriate, such as in the workplace.  By saying men are more responsible for their drunken behavior than women, by saying women are psychologically more likely to feel violated and be traumatized by sex than men are, we run the risk of suggesting that women cannot be trusted with responsibility in the workplace, and that they are psychologically weaker than men.  It is partly for this reason that the law is stated in gender-neutral terms.  Although gender-neutral language allows the law to apply to gay couples too, I suspect that this gender-neutral language would still be there anyway, as if to suggest that a man has the same protection against being violated by a woman, and could thus bring charges of rape against her.  So, to keep from having a double standard for men and women in the workplace and in other contexts where sex should not matter, we pretend not to have a double standard for men and women in the matter of sexual activity.  I don’t doubt that someday a man will bring rape charges against a woman, saying he was too drunk to consent.  In anticipation of this event, allow me to smirk preemptively at such a claim.

This is our dilemma:  either we deny the existence of a double standard in matters of sex as being repugnant to egalitarian principles, and end up being forced to accept conclusions that are absurd or paradoxical; or we admit to the need to have a double standard in matters of sex, which leaves an opening for those who want a reason to discriminate against women elsewhere.

Blaming the Victim or Counseling Prudence?

John Kasich, when asked by a female college student what policies he would promote as president that would help her “feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment and rape,” made some general remarks about confidential reporting and rape kits, but then ended with this:  “I’d also give you one bit of advice. Don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol. OK?”  As a result, he was accused of blaming the victim.

Just prior to making that remark, Kasich made reference to his two sixteen-year-old daughters.  The idea was to show that he had empathy for young women like the one that asked him the question.  But that was undoubtedly what led him astray.  He was thinking about the advice he likely has already given his daughters regarding parties they are invited to in high school, and it is only charitable to imagine that in giving that advice he is counseling prudence, not blaming his daughters in advance if they are raped.  So, part of Kasich’s problem lies in confusing his role as a politician hoping to become president of the United States with his role as a father trying to protect his daughters.

In like manner, President Obama confused his roles regarding the Morning-After Pill.  Although his administration eventually quit blocking the sale of that pill to minors without a prescription, his administration resisted for some time, as noted in an article in The New York Times:

Mr. Obama had expressed personal concern about making the drug more broadly available last year and offered support to Kathleen Sebelius, his secretary of health and human services, when she blocked a decision by the F.D.A. that would have cleared the way for nonprescription distribution to all girls and women regardless of age. He said that as the father of two young girls, the idea of making the drug available to them without a prescription made him uncomfortable.

I never was sure what to make of that.  Did Obama expect his daughters to come to him and say, “I had sex last night without a rubber.  Could we go to the doctor and get a prescription for the Morning-After Pill?”  Let’s face it.  It was not the availability of the drug that made Obama uncomfortable, but the thought of his daughters having sex.  And this brings us back to Kasich, who said, “I have two 16-year-old daughters and I don’t even like to think about it.”  Of course, Kasich was thinking about his two daughters being raped, not merely having consensual sex, which is what bothered Obama.  But they had this in common:  they were both confusing their roles as fathers with their roles as president.

Another thing they had in common was voluntarily bringing their families into the subject of public policy.  Sometimes consideration of a politician’s family will be forced upon him in the context of a discussion about public policy, as when Bernard Shaw, the moderator in a presidential debate in 1988, asked Michael Dukakis if he would favor the death penalty for a man who raped and murdered his wife Kitty.  Unlike Obama, who allowed his personal feelings about his daughters having sex to influence his public policy regarding the Morning-After Pill, Dukakis made the opposite blunder of insisting that even the rape and murder of his own wife would not change his feelings about the death penalty.  With the wisdom that comes from hindsight, most people believe that Dukakis should have first said how he would have felt personally in such a case, perhaps saying that though he would want to avenge his wife’s rape and murder by killing the man who did it, yet the death penalty is still a bad idea as a matter of public policy.  It is part of the social contract that the individual gives up the right to revenge in exchange for which the state takes on the responsibility to see that justice is done.

Separating one’s personal feelings from what would make for good public policy is not always easy.  I sometimes suspect that if Moses had been a bachelor, there would have been no commandment to honor one’s mother and father, and in its place would have been something like, “Thou shalt treat thy children with respect.”  After all, bachelors do not know what it is like to lose control of their willful children, but they do have painful memories of being mistreated by their parents.  In fact, it may have been Moses’s exasperation with his two sons that caused him to send them and their mother Zipporah back to her father (What a great return policy!).  On the other hand, had Jesus been married to a nagging wife who was always after him to get a job, he might have had more liberal views on divorce.

Returning to the present, it is clear that in the case of Obama, his personal feelings about his daughters led to bad policy.  One almost suspects he tried to block the availability of the Morning-After Pill in order to block the idea of his daughters having sex.  In the case of Kasich, however, his giving the same advice to women in general that he gives to his daughters led to a charge of blaming the victim.

Does it make sense to say that private advice given to daughters about how to avoid being raped is counseling prudence, while that same advice given to women in general is victim-blaming?  The difference in our feelings about the two different situations may lie in a presumption of intent.  We assume that a father loves his daughter and thus is only counseling prudence when he advises her on how to avoid being raped, whereas when a politician makes such a remark to women in general, there is no such presumption.

Even when advice on how to avoid rape is offered publicly, however, we can still distinguish that which is clearly victim-blaming, as in, “Don’t wear tight, revealing clothes that might provoke a man’s sexual appetite,” from that which is clearly counseling prudence, as in, “Don’t walk across campus by yourself late at night,” advice recently given out at a university where a young women was murdered, as reported by The Washington Post:

University and law enforcement officials have repeatedly warned students to be careful on campus and be aware of their surroundings. Students should walk in groups, especially at night, officials said. And they should stay vigilant and think twice about focusing on their phones or wearing headphones.

Surely, we wouldn’t want to say that the school officials were blaming the victim.

Part of the problem with Kasich’s advice is that it is not realistic.  A female college student may think she is going to an ordinary party and only later find out that it borders on an orgy.  But once there, she may hate to leave and be thought of as a party pooper.  So, rather than be rude, she figures she will just stick it out.  And in most cases, nothing bad will happen to her.  But what if Kasich had given the woman who asked him the question that same advice as that of the school officials:  “Be aware of your surroundings.  Walk in groups and avoid walking at night or while distracted with cellphones or headphones.”  I suspect he would still have been accused of blaming the victim by those that take an absolutist position in this matter.  One wonders if that advice just sounds better coming from school officials than it would from a politician, especially a pro-life conservative.

Kasich eventually tweeted, “Only one person is at fault in a sexual assault, and that’s the assailant.”  Had he said that to begin with, he would have avoided the mess he got himself in.  However, by insisting that there is no fault on the part of the victim, we may be inadvertently suggesting that there is nothing women should do to try to protect themselves.  If it is legitimate for the school officials to advise women to avoid walking at night, to walk in groups, etc., then does it not follow that a woman who ignores such advice and ends up being assaulted is partly to blame?

Part of the problem in sorting this out is that what one says to a woman who wants to be safe from sexual assault must be distinguished from what one says to a woman that has already been raped.  Once a woman has been raped, it is rude to tell her that she acted imprudently.  It is precisely in that case that we should insist that she is not to blame, in an effort to make her feel better.  After all, she can probably figure out for herself that it was a bad idea to walk across campus at night alone.  Unfortunately, public statements, whether by politicians or school officials, cannot selectively deliver their message only to women that have never been attacked, while sending a more consoling message to those that have.

Ultimately, politicians like Kasich should leave the counsels of prudence to parents and school officials acting in loco parentis, while sticking to public policies that will reduce the likelihood of sexual assault on campus.  Whatever advice they might give their daughters, however wise and caring it may be, that same advice given out publicly to women in general is going sound like blaming the victim.

Has No Always Meant No?

I was in high school in the early 1960s, a hopeless virgin, and thus I was always eager for any advice I could get from some of the guys who seemed to have a way with women.  A common refrain at the time was, “When a girl says No, she means Maybe, and when she says Maybe, she means Yes.”

Well, that advice did me no good.  For one thing, when a girl said No to me, she usually sounded pretty serious.  In fact, a girl could stop me with a glance.  If anything, I needed encouragement.  So, as a practical matter, No meant No to me, regardless of what I was being told by those supposedly in the know.

It was during those high school years that the movie Hud came out, 1963 to be exact.  I expect that most people have seen this movie, but in brief, the title character is played by Paul Newman.  He is a big stud in a small Texas town.  His nephew Lon (Brandon De Wilde) is a virginal teenage boy who admires Hud and wishes he could be like him.  They are both attracted to Alma (Patricia Neal), who is their housekeeper.  Alma admits to being sexually aroused by Hud, especially when he has his shirt off, but she is leery of him, because she thinks he is a “cold-blooded bastard.”  She regards Lon with affection, but she is practically a mother to him, and thus never thinks of him as a lover.

One night, when Hud is drunk and angry, he goes to Alma’s cabin, breaks open the door, and starts trying to rape her.  There is a fierce struggle as she tries to fight him off.  Suddenly, Lon bursts in and grabs Hud, pulling him off.  Hud almost bashes Lon’s face in, but stops, lets him go, and leaves the cabin.

I saw this movie with my parents at the drive-in when it first came out.  Both of them said that Alma wanted to be raped and that she was irritated that Lon stopped Hud from giving her what she wanted.  I voiced my reservations, but they dismissed me as being naïve.  I figured that was a losing argument, so I gave up.  A few years later, my girlfriend and I watched the movie, and she also said that Alma wanted to be raped.  I had always wanted to ask a girl if No meant No, but I figured that would lead to the absurdity of the Liar’s Paradox, so I never bothered.  But since this particular girlfriend had already taken my virginity, I guess she felt comfortable telling me that sometimes No means Yes.  Well, technically, Alma never said the word “No,” but her actions clearly implied it.

Having already been dismissed as naïve by my parents, I didn’t even bother expressing my doubts to my girlfriend.  But I never believed for a minute that Alma wanted to be raped.  It was different with an earlier movie that Patricia Neal had been in, The Fountainhead (1949), in which it is clear that her character Dominique wanted to be raped.  Or rather, as the novel on which it is based makes clear, it was because she had been raped that for the first time in her life she experienced sexual ecstasy.  Perhaps this role became part of Patricia Neal’s persona, making it easy for people to believe that she wanted to be raped in Hud as well. As for me, I have seen the movie many times over the years, and I always think about my parents and my girlfriend when the scene with the sexual assault takes place, but I have never seen any reason to change my mind.

But then I bought Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies.  I have read a lot of books on film criticism, but I have avoided Kael for years, because she seems to spend too much time praising weird foreign films.  Anyway, I finally broke down and bought this book, in which is included an essay on Hud, written in 1964.  In it, she maintains that Alma wanted to be raped, and she gives reasons in support of her position:

Alma obviously wants to go to bed with Hud, but she has been rejecting his propositions because she doesn’t want to be just another casual dame to him; she wants to be treated differently from the others.  If Lon hadn’t rushed in to protect his idealized view of her, chances are that the next morning Hud would have felt guilty and repentant, and Alma would have been grateful to him for having used the violence necessary to break down her resistance, thus proving that she was different.  They might have been celebrating ritual rapes annually on their anniversaries.

One of the objections to this theory is that Alma leaves the next day, but to this, Kael replies:

No doubt in Hud we’re really supposed to believe that Alma is, as Stanley Kaufmann [a film critic] says, “driven off by his [Hud’s] vicious physical assault.”  But in terms of the modernity of the settings and the characters, as well as the age of the protagonists (they’re at least in their middle thirties), it was more probable that Alma left the ranch because a frustrated rape is just too sordid and embarrassing for all concerned—for the drunken Hud who forced himself upon her, for her for defending herself so titanically, for young Lon the innocent who “saved” her.

That makes three women, my mother, my girlfriend, and Pauline Kael, who subscribed to the theory that Alma wanted to be raped.  All three women, however, voiced these opinions in the 1960s, which means their attitudes could have been the same as those who made the movie, all of them sharing what might have been a 1960s Zeitgeist of consensual rape, if you’ll pardon the expression.

In other words, even if they were right, they were right about a movie made in the 1960s.  And this raises the question as to whether there could be a remake of this movie, not that I would want to see one.  That is to say, if producers in Hollywood decided that Hud was old enough to justify a remake, inasmuch as a lot of people like their movies fresh, especially since it could be made in color this time, and if this remake followed the original, especially regarding the sexual assault, how would people react to this movie today?  Surely not the way my parents, girlfriend, and Pauline Kael once did!

Or am I just being naïve again?

Summer of ’42 (1971) and The Way We Were (1973)

The Way We Were begins in 1944. Katie (Barbra Streisand) runs into Hubbell (Robert Redford), a good-looking guy she met in college and whom she had a crush on. But as she is rather homely, her love for him was hopelessly unrequited. She invites him up to her place for a cup of coffee, but he is so drunk that without realizing what he is doing when he comes out of the bathroom, he gets undressed and falls asleep in her bed. She gets naked, slides into bed with him, and encourages him. Without really knowing what he is doing, he has sex with her, and she hopes he knows it is Katie he is making love to. But by the next morning, it is clear that he has no memory of what happened, and he merely thanks her for letting him sleep there.

In evaluating this scene, we must do so from the vantage points of three different periods: the last days of World War II, when the scene took place; the early 1970s, when the movie was made; and the twenty-first century, when we watch this movie today. In other words, each of these three different periods will tend to yield three different moral judgments about that sex scene.

But first, let us reverse the sexes. By today’s standards, if a man were to have sex with a woman while she was too drunk to know what she was doing, that would be rape, for she would be in no condition to consent. However, in accordance with twenty-first century egalitarianism, we would not limit it to just a man doing that to a woman. Rather, we would say that if one person had sex with a second person when that second person was too drunk to know what he or she was doing, then the first person has raped the second person. This allows for the possibility that a woman could rape a man, a man could rape a man, and a woman could rape a woman. In other words, by today’s standards, Katie raped Hubbell.

In 1944, when the scene took place, if it had come to light what Katie had done, no one would have called it rape. Katie’s behavior would have been condemned, but not as an act of rape. Rather, she would have been regarded as a slut, in that she had sex without being married. And in no way would Hubbell have been thought of as victimized.

In 1973, when the movie was released, the people who made this movie probably did not think of it as rape either. And given the fact that it was made after the sexual revolution, what Katie did was not condemned as slutty either. In other words, the audience of the early 1970s did not condemn Katie at all.

In fact, the people who made the movie in 1973 probably had no idea that over forty years later this scene would challenge our willingness to apply a single standard to both men and women when it comes to rape. In other words, if a man who takes advantage of a drunk woman can be charged with rape and sentenced to a year in prison, should the same sentence be given to a woman who does that to a man? In particular, if The Way We Were were set in the twenty-first century, would we say that Katie should have gone to prison for what she did to Hubbell?

Some people might argue that since she and Hubbell later fell in love and got married, that made it all right. But suppose a twenty-first-century Hubbell were to realize what happened when he woke up the next morning. And let us further assume that this twenty-first-century Hubbell was outraged and felt disgusted by what happened. Under those circumstances, should Katie spend a year in prison?

Such a distinction suggests that whether such an act constitutes rape depends not merely on the circumstances leading up to and including the act of sex, but also on what happens after the fact.  To reverse the sexes again, imagine a man has sex with a woman who is drunk.  The next morning, he calls her up, tells her he really enjoyed being with her the night before, asks her out for another date for that weekend, leading eventually to their getting married.  It will never occur to that woman that she had been raped.  But suppose, instead, that he doesn’t call her, and she later hears from her friends that he has been bragging about how he got a piece of old what’s her name, she may feel violated and end up bringing charges against him.

Determining whether Katie raped Hubbell would be further complicated if Katie had been as drunk as he was.  By today’s standards, if Katie were that drunk, it would be said that she was unable to give consent; and by today’s standards, a man’s being drunk is no legal excuse for taking advantage of a woman who is too intoxicated to give her consent.  Therefore, by today’s standards, had Katie and Hubbell been equally drunk, she could claim to have been raped, and Hubbell would be in trouble.

I confess that I have a double standard concerning rape in such a circumstance. First, I would find it hard to believe that even a twenty-first-century Hubbell would be all that put out by what she did. And second, I would not want to see Katie go to prison in any event.

But my views are not important. What is important is that this scene in the movie, imagined to take place today, tests our willingness to apply a single standard to both men and women in such cases. Most people I know, after some hesitation, will admit that they would not want to see Katie do hard time.

In a way, Summer of ’42 is a companion piece with The Way We Were, only instead of challenging our attitude about rape and the double standard when it comes to having sex with someone too drunk to give consent, Summer of ’42 challenges our attitude about rape and the double standard when it comes to having sex with someone too young to give consent.

With both movies, we pretty much have the same three time periods: the 1940s, when the movies were set; the early 1970s, when the movies were made; and today, when we watch them from the perspective of the twenty-first century. In Summer of ’42, a 15-year-old boy named Hermie (Gary Grimes) falls in love with a 22-year-old woman named Dorothy (Jennifer O’Neill). One evening, she gets word that her husband’s plane has been shot down over France, and he is dead. She and Hermie have sex, and the next day she is gone.

I never really cared for this movie, but that is neither here nor there. The sense of it was that Dorothy, in her grief, turns to Hermie for affection, and that what happens is a deeply meaningful and positive experience for him. Now, I don’t know what the laws were in Massachusetts in 1942, but I am pretty sure that in most states, if a 22-year-old man had sex with a 15-year-old girl, he would be guilty of statutory rape; and if found out, he would be sent to prison, especially when the jury was told that he had sex with her on the very night he found out his wife had been killed, for that would make him seem callous. Should we condemn the man but excuse the woman? Did Dorothy deserve to go to prison for rape, just as a man would?

Once again, as with The Way We Were, we have a situation in which there is consent after the fact, in this case, when the boy becomes a man. Does that matter? And if it does, what would our attitude toward Dorothy be if the adult Hermie was psychologically harmed? And once again we have to distinguish between the attitudes existing when the movie was set, when it was made, and the attitudes we have today.

Even today, the double standard lends itself to late-night humor. Typical was when Jay Leno was discussing a story about a female teacher that had sex with one of her male students, leading Leno to ask in exasperation, “Where were these teachers when I was in Junior High?” Humor aside, could Summer of ’42 be made today? More to the point, could such a story be told in a contemporary setting? Probably not. But I wonder if that represents a genuine change in attitude on the part of the general public, or simply a fear that a handful of radicals would stir up trouble, making the film controversial. I, for one, would have a hard time condemning Dorothy, even if the story were set in the present, just as I would have a hard time condemning Katie, even if that story were set in the present.