Tuesday, March 16, 2010

That Persian Rug Was Just Sitting There, Your Honor

Looking back over the previous post, I'm not sure my argument was as focused as I wanted it to be. So let me return to Michael Ruse's discussion of rape, and what I take to be the core of his argument:

I am simply saying that if women did go into heat, then even if we had the same moral principles -- treat others fairly, etc. -- it would simply not make sense to condemn someone for fucking the female if he got the chance. Having to take a shit is a physical adaptation, and it makes silly the moral claim that you ought never shit -- although it does not affect the claim that it is wrong to go to your supervisor's home for supper and end the evening by crapping on his Persian rug.
I think this remarkable passage makes it quite clear that Ruse hasn't got the foggiest idea what the fuss over rape is all about. Rape does not mean a man "fucking the female if he got the chance." It is not comparable to going "to your supervisor's home for supper and end the evening by crapping on his Persian rug." (But what if the rug was in heat? What if it was begging to be crapped on? What if it had a sign on it, saying, "Take a crap on me or I'll die"?) Most tellingly, the prohibition of rape is not analogous to "the moral claim that you ought never shit", because, as Ruse concedes, no one would make such a moral claim; a closer analogy would be a moral claim that you ought never to have sex at all, which is of course an ideal in numerous moral traditions. Ruse's is closer to the claim that you oughtn't shit on your supervisor's Persian rug unless he gives you permission, but even here the analogy breaks down, because a Persian rug is not a sentient being and a woman is, and what counts in sexual intercourse is the woman's (or partner's) consent, not that of her putative owner.

As shown by the Biblical examples I quoted at the end of the previous post, though, traditional prohibitions of rape are based on the assumption that women are chattel, owned by men. Ruse's argument works only in that context, and that may be why he falls prey to the confusion that so many straight men can't seem to escape: between sex in general, and forced sex. Women going into heat, or not, is irrelevant.

Even in species that have rutting season, females are selective about which males they'll accept. (Here's an interesting, prize-winning, undergraduate student paper on the subject, with references. How can a clear-headed Darwinian like Ruse exhibit such amazing ignorance? Could it be wishful thinking?) There's no reason to assume women in heat would be any different. As things are, even when a human female is consciously interested in sex, and goes out looking for a sexual partner, she is looking for one she wants, not just any. I've known a number of young-ish straight males who can't understand why women will turn them down when they promise that the woman will get an orgasm too; they can't get it into their heads that, regardless of their erotic competence, those women don't want to have orgasms with them. It's sad, but it happens. One kid told me he believed that as a straight male, he had the right to give women pleasure. (Of course, he didn't plan to achieve this by jumping in a lake, wearing a paper bag over his head, or taking vows of chastity.) He did have that right, I suppose, but they equally have the right to decline his offers. This seems to be extremely difficult for many men to grasp.

Ruse seems to assume that estrous females take on any and all comers. Since they don't, his thought experiment is worthless from the start. He also assumes that males, including human males, are helpless in the presence of available estrous females, and they just have to throw themselves at them. But this assumption already animates many if not most of the excuses for rape in the human world. It's not the woman's consent that concerns rapists or their defenders. For that matter, even men are selective, though they often pretend otherwise. Still, it might be worth pointing out that obese women are raped, "ugly" women are raped, old women are raped, six-month-old infants are raped; being in heat simply has nothing to do with it, though the rapists defend themselves by claiming that the victims needed it, wanted it, begged for it, should thank them for it. It took years of feminist agitation to get police, prosecutors, and courts to stop thinking in terms simply of male craving and need, and to start seeing rape as a crime with a (usually) female victim. And yet, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a professional philosopher of some distinction still sees rape as the unfortunate consequence of the fact that women don't go into heat. We haven't come a very long way, baby.