A Philosopher's Blog

Defining Rape I: Definitions

Posted in Law, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2014
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A picture of a dictionary viewed with a lens on top of it, at the word “Internet” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the basic lessons of philosophy dating back to at least Socrates is that terms need to be properly defined. Oversimplifying things a bit, a good definition needs to avoid being too narrow and also avoid being too broad. A definition that is too narrow leaves out things that the term should include. One that is too broad allows in too much. A handy analogy for this is the firewall that your computer should have: if it doing its job properly, it lets in what should be allowed into your computer while keeping attacks out. An example of a definition that is too narrow would be to define “art” as “any product of the visual arts, such as painting and sculpture.” This is too narrow because it leaves out what is manifestly art, such as movies and literature. As an example of a definition that is too broad, defining “art” as “that which creates an emotional effect” would be defective since it would consider such things as being punch in the face or winning the lottery as art. A perfect definition would thus be like perfect security: all that belongs is allowed in and all that does not is excluded.

While people have a general understanding of the meaning of “rape”, the usual view covers what my colleague Jean Kazez calls “classic” rape—an attack that involves the clear use of force, threat or coercion. As she notes, another sort of rape is what is called “date” rape—a form of assault that, on college campuses, often involves intoxication rather than overt violence.

In many cases the victims of sexual assault do not classify the assault as rape. According to Cathy Young, “three quarters of the female students who were classified as victims of sexual assault by incapacitation did not believe they had been raped; even when only incidents involving penetration were counted, nearly two-thirds did not call it rape. Two-thirds did not report the incident to the authorities because they didn’t think it was serious enough.”

In some cases, a victim does change her mind (sometimes after quite some time) and re-classify the incident as rape. For example, a woman who eventually reported being raped twice by a friend explained her delay on the grounds that it took her a while to “to identify what happened as an assault.”

The fact that a victim changed her mind does not, obviously, invalidate her claim that she was raped. However, there is the legitimate concern about what is and is not rape—that is, what is a good definition of an extremely vile thing. After all, when people claim there is an epidemic of campus rapes, they point to statistics claiming that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in college. This statistic is horrifying, but it is still reasonable to consider what it actually means. Jean Kazez has looked at the numbers in some detail here.

One obvious problem with inquiring into the statistics and examining the definition of “rape” is that the definition has become an ideological matter for some. For some on the left, “rape” is very broadly construed and to raise even rational concerns about the broadness of the definition is to invite accusations of ignorant insensitivity (at best) and charges of misogyny. For some on the right, “rape” is very narrowly defined (including the infamous notion of “legitimate” rape) and to consider expanding the definition is to invite accusations of being politically correct or, in the case of women, being a radical feminist or feminazi.

As the ideological territory is staked out and fortified, the potential for rational discussion is proportionally decreased. In fact, to even suggest that there is a matter to be rationally discussed (with the potential for dispute and disagreement) might be greeted with hostility by some. After all, when a view becomes part of a person’s ideological identity, the person tends to believe that there is nothing left to discuss and any attempt at criticism is both automatically in error and a personal attack.

However, the very fact that there are such distinct ideological fortresses indicates a clear need for rational discussion of this matter and I will endeavor to do so in the following essays.


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17 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on June 25, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Democrats: if you have a penis, you are a rapist.

    It’s not just the Obama administration VAWA Office that thinks all sexual contact or behavior without “explicit consent” is sexual assault. So does Senator McCaskill (D-MO).

    Later this summer, McCaskill is going to propose legislation that would further undermine due process on campus.

    According to Senator McCaskill’s spokeswoman, she thinks that people (including, presumably, her constituents) are rapists if their consent to sex is not “explicit.” Many forms of consent to sex or intimate touching do not involve “express” consent in advance, and thus would be sexual assault under this definition.

    This concept is not popular among the general public, i.e., voters, judging from criticism of the slightly less extreme California “affirmative consent” bill (which would arguably allow non-verbal consent) by both the liberal Los Angeles Times and the conservative Orange County Register. It puzzles me that lawmakers support it, despite the seeming lack of a political upside (except perhaps within the Democratic primary electorate).

    The White House VAWA blog, in a post by Bea Hanson, also endorsed this “explicit consent” standard . It writes, “Sexual assault is not just limited to rape – it includes any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent.”

    According to The Maneater, the University of Missouri at Columbia’s student newspaper, McCaskill agrees. Her spokesman Sarah Feldman noted that McCaskill appreciated the White House’s recent PSA on sexual assault because it “gets the right message across,” namely, “that unless there is explicit consent, it’s rape and there is no gray area.”

    – See more at: http://www.mindingthecampus.com/2014/06/mccaskill-endorses-loopy-version-of-sexual-consent/#sthash.XXhrl2KL.dpuf

  2. T. J. Babson said, on June 25, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    Mike, how do you think Kazez’s “classic” rape differs from Aikin’s “legitimate” rape?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm

      I think Kazez’s distinction is this: “classic” rape involves the attacker ambushing the victim and using force. She says this is the sort that is addressed on campus by having more police patrols at night, escorts, etc. This is distinct from the sort of date rape that people are now focusing on-the victim is intoxicated and taken advantage of without the use of force. This is addressed on campus by education and warning women to not get intoxicated. Kazez lays out clear context for her distinction.

      I am not sure exactly what Aikin’s means since he does not lay out the sort of discussion Kazez presents and “legitimate” has normative implications that “classic” does not. After all, classic rape vs. date rape has a very different connotation than legitimate vs. illegitimate rape.

      • T. J. Babson said, on June 25, 2014 at 5:57 pm

        Aikin clarified by saying that by “legitimate” rape he meant “forcible” rape.

        Is there any difference between “forcible” and “classic” rape?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2014 at 7:10 am

          Presumably not. But why is making “classic”, “legitimate” and “forcible” the same important? That is, where is this going?

          • T. J. Babson said, on June 26, 2014 at 8:05 am

            Mike, this is what you wrote: “For some on the right, “rape” is very narrowly defined (including the infamous notion of “legitimate” rape) and to consider expanding the definition is to invite accusations of being politically correct…”

            I was just trying to understand what people thought Aikin meant when he used the term “legitimate” rape, and based on this sentence you seemed to know.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2014 at 4:44 pm

              Ah, thanks for clarifying what you were getting at.

              My point was just that conservatives tend to favor a more narrow definition of “rape” than what liberals tend to favor.

              Aikin seems to take a narrow definition-“legitimate rape”, as you asserted, would seem to be forcible rape. This would seem to suggest that non-forcible rape is not “legitimate” rape. Or perhaps not.

              Some liberals take a very broad definition of the term and include any sexual contact without explicit consent as rape.

          • WTP said, on June 26, 2014 at 9:30 am

            “That is, where is this going?”

            Putting in my Mike-speak babblefish translator, what this really means is “Yes, you caught me being disingenuous, but rather than admit my attempt at deception and obfuscation I will distract and now attempt to change the subject by suggesting, via implication of reducto ad absurdum, that your point is silly”

      • T. J. Babson said, on June 25, 2014 at 5:58 pm

        “I am not sure exactly what Aikin’s means…”

        Condemn first, ask for meaning later.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2014 at 7:16 am

          The reason I was not exactly sure is that Aikin did not present a clear and detailed account of his usage. However, my criticism of his claim was not a dispute over definitions but that he made the false claim that women can “shut down” their ability to get pregnant when they are being raped. The use of “legitimate” was an odd choice and a bit problematic because it has normative implications, such that women could be raped in ways that are not legitimate rapes but somehow something else.

          But, my issue with Aikin was over his error about physiology. If he had used “classic” rape, he would still be wrong in his claim about the possibility of pregnancy.

          • T. J. Babson said, on June 26, 2014 at 8:08 am

            “But, my issue with Aikin was over his error about physiology. If he had used “classic” rape, he would still be wrong in his claim about the possibility of pregnancy.”

            Agreed. But the topic at hand is the definition of rape, and you wrote that the concept of “legitimate” rape is an “infamous notion.” I am simply trying to get you to explain what you think that notion was.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2014 at 4:53 pm

              What made it infamous was, I suspect, the claim that the woman’s body can shut down a pregnancy in cases of “legitimate” rape. I also suspect people took issue with the use of the term “legitimate”-this could be taken as implying that there are forms of what some would regard as rape that are not.

              In any case, my main concern is not over the semantic nuances of Aikin’s terminology. Rather, the goal is to find a definition of “rape” that is neither too narrow nor too broad.
              The left tends to accuse the right of taking too narrow a view while the right often regards the left as having a definition that is too broad. This is actually an important issue because the definition determines how people get treated. To use a concrete example, if rape is defined too broadly by a college, then innocent people would be punished. If it is defined too narrowly, then guilty people would avoid the punishment they deserve.

              If the Aikin’s example really bothers you, feel free to just ignore it. After all, I just used it as an example-it has no substantial role and nothing at all in my discussion hinges on it. If you prefer, just read it this way: “For some on the right, “rape” is very narrowly defined and to consider expanding the definition is to invite accusations of being politically correct…”

            • T. J. Babson said, on June 27, 2014 at 7:06 am

              “I also suspect people took issue with the use of the term “legitimate”-this could be taken as implying that there are forms of what some would regard as rape that are not.”

              Sure, like statutory rape, in which the “victim” can be an enthusiastic participant. This is a completely different situation than forcible rape, and often times the kids involved are only a few months apart in age.

              Mike, I would ask that you pay attention to the way lefties often try to win arguments by saying that some people have “no right” to speak out on a given topic. This is really what “check your privilege” is all about. In the case of Aikin, few people were interested in what he was actually trying to say. If you start listening, however, you will see that many feminists feel that anyone in possession of a penis has “no right” to speak about rape.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 27, 2014 at 12:03 pm

              On the one hand, there are times when a person should remain silent based on concerns about propriety and decency. While a person retains the right to speak, they should not forget that sometimes not saying things is the right thing to do. But, this is a matter of etiquette and decency rather than logic. On the other hand, to reject a person’s claim by asserting that a person has no right to speak is a variant on the ad hominem fallacy. As such, while it does have some rhetorical force it is devoid of logical force. I infer you find that tactic annoying-I also find it very annoying, especially when it is used with smug self righteousness.

              The “check your privilege” ad hominem thing tends to annoy me as well-it is a rhetorical gimmick that is often employed, as you note, to silence people. It is, of course, fair to engage someone and try to get them to consider the issue from perspectives other than their own, but throwing out a “check your privilege” has no logical weight. It also strikes me as a lazy tactic-if you have a good criticism of someone, then present it. If not, check that lack of argument.

            • T. J. Babson said, on June 27, 2014 at 7:15 am

              Here is an example:

              What do liberals believe about the current disaster in Iraq? One thing most of us believe is that the United States should stay the hell out. But another thing liberals believe with even greater conviction is that advocates of the last Iraq war should not participate in the current debate. The Atlantic’s James Fallows argues that Iraq war hawks “might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, writing in the second person, instructs Iraq hawks, “Given your role in building this catastrophe, you should be barred from public comment, since anything you could say is outweighed by the damage you’ve done.” Washington Post columnist Katrina Vanden Heuvel, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, and many others have reiterated the point. This meta belief about who should be allowed to argue about Iraq, more than any actual argument about Iraq itself, has become the left’s main way of thinking about the issue.


              When you’re trying to set the terms for a debate, you have to do it in a fair way. Demanding accountability for failed predictions is fair. Insisting that only your ideological opponents be held accountable is not fair. Nor is it easy to see what purpose is served by insisting certain people ought to be ignored. The way arguments are supposed to work is that the argument itself, not the identity of the arguer, makes the case. We shouldn’t disregard Dick Cheney’s arguments about Iraq because he’s Dick Cheney. We should disregard them because they’re stupid.


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 27, 2014 at 12:19 pm

              I’d say that anyone who engaged in willful deceit to sell the last Iraq war and those who got it incredibly wrong should be regarded as having low credibility in this matter. Also, anyone who engaged in willful deceit or made catastrophically wrong predictions based on a lack of actual research and critical assessment should probably feel some shame. However, these guys have every right to present their views and claims. But, given their track record on Iraq, their credibility should be regarded as low. To anticipate: Hilary got it wrong, too. This impacts her credibility, but to a lesser extent given her lesser role in the process. She can also claim that she was mislead (although she should have been more critical).

              Outside of politics, imagine if you had a coworker who deceived you and was also quite wrong about the matter, thus creating a major disaster. Now you are working on the same project that she lied about and wrecked before. She keeps lecturing you about how you are handling it and criticizing you. Sure, she has every right to do this. But I suspect you might be thinking “she should just shut the hell up. I wouldn’t be up to my ass in alligators now if she hadn’t created this mess.”

              So, those folks have every right to talk. But, they should not be too dismayed when people think or say that they should shut the hell up. But, they should obviously not be barred. If they are wrong (which seems likely given past performance), then there should be reasons that show they are wrong.

      • T. J. Babson said, on June 25, 2014 at 6:23 pm

        “After all, classic rape vs. date rape has a very different connotation than legitimate vs. illegitimate rape.”

        To my ears, Aikin was just trying to draw the same distinction Kazez was drawing. What do you think he was trying to say?

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