Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On the One Hand, It'd Be Mean

But on the other hand, it'd be oh-so-just:
[T]he comments yesterday spawned a question many of us would like asked of all the Jack Bauer wannabees in the GOP field who would literally do ANYTHING to save us from terrorist attack:

“Would you have sex with a man to stop a terrorist attack?”

Sure, it is a silly hypothetical, but so is the idiotic ticking-time-bomb scenario people throw around so damned much as an excuse for torture. So what is it, Mitt, Sam, Rudy, Mike, and company? Which is worse? A hot gay dicking or a nuke detonated in NYC?

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Mark Olson calls me out on inappropriate humor. In my defense, this arguably isn't a rape joke, per se -- assuming the unnamed male partner is consenting, the question is "would you consent to having sex with a man to stop a terrorist attack"? But it skirts close enough to the line, and I'm not that interested in splitting hairs. I've blogged before on how rape (particularly male-on-male prison rape) as a joke is one of the key barriers to reforming what is one of the primary human rights violations currently going on in American prisons. Clearly, I'm not immune to the cultural penetration of this sort of humor.

On a related note, though, I think the question of rape as a tool of our "war on terrorism" is a reasonable ground for inquiry as to the "end game" for the Republican approval of torture (at least in certain circumstances). Republicans have been falling all over themselves to assure their base that they're "tough enough" to torture (suspected) terrorists if its necessary for America's defense. Well, if we're willing to waterboard them, what else can we do? Can we rape them? Why not? What makes rape different from other forms of torture? If we catch Osama bin Laden, and our interrogators think this is the way to crack him, what then? What about "material witnesses"? What if we have someone in our custody who might help us crack a terrorism case, but isn't directly implicated in the plot? Is his body forfeit as well? The extreme case would be trying to "smoke out" a terrorist leader by capturing his family and threatening to sodomize his four-year old child with a spiked bat. Horrifying, yes -- but there is nothing inherent in the position of this administration that would render it out of bounds.

The point isn't that I seriously think Mitt Romney would endorse such behavior. It's that we need to draw a line that we will not cross. "We're fighting evildoers!" just isn't good enough anymore. In the wake of Abu Gharib and our "secret prisons", I wish I could be confident that sexual abuse is off limits for American personnel. But that fact is, that's no longer settled. And the people who are rushing to claim the toughness mantle deserved to be asked about how far is too far. "Would you sanction the rape of a suspected terrorist in order to defend America from a terrorist attack?" is, unfortunately, a live question. And it deserves answer.


PG said...

This has potential, though to give it a greater element of realism, I think we'd have to add some details. For example,

"Candidate, we are faced with an enemy that is desperate to regain its fantasy of an Islamic empire, and to humiliate the West. This humiliation could take several forms. If you could prevent a terrorist attack by instead letting Al-Jazeera broadcast a tape of you, -- the U.S. president, the most powerful man in the world -- being sodomized, what would you do?"

Anonymous said...

THE CULTURAL PENETRATION of this type of humor? Hahahaha. You crack me up, Mr. Schraub.

PG said...

Shrugs -- I think I'm sensitive to attempts to use rape as a joke, and I certainly didn't read your post that way. You were making fun of the simultaneous anti-terrorism machismo and ridiculous homophobia in the GOP. You were not taking rape itself lightly.

I think it is vital to understanding rape to know that there's a difference between sex without consent (clearly rape) and sex without desire in order to obtain another goal (not-clearly rape). For example, prostitutes often have sex without desire -- sometimes to the point that the prostite's general sexual preference is for women but she has male customers -- but I would not want to prosecute their partners for rape if the prostitute gave meaningful consent. I think you can give meaningful consent even if there's a threat of violence, as long as the threat is against anonymous others (which is what is implied by a terrorist attack) and not against yourself or someone near to you. There's a similar concern in prison sex, where many conservative prison reformers want to define all homosexual activity as "rape" in order to forbid and punish it. While rape in prison is horrible and epidemic, there also is sex between parties who desire one another, as well as between parties who consent but where one may be trying to obtain material goods in exchange for the sex -- in essence, is prostituting himself. Cf. Alice Ristroph

David Schraub said...

I agree with all of that except that consent can be given against the threat of violence against "anonymous" others. I'm curious why that's a legitimate grant of consent in that case?

PG said...

There's generally a lack of duty and emotional ties to anonymous others. For example, if someone grabbed me in the street tonight and said that either I had to have sex with him or he was going to go rape someone else, that's a threat of force, but it's not against me nor anyone toward whom I have a clear duty. If I agreed to have sex with him in order to achieve the goal of his not raping this anonymous other person, that would be morally praiseworthy of me, but I don't think it could be considered morally required, nor could I bring a very colorable rape claim against him.

Mark said...

If one uses threat of violence against a mother's children (or father's) to to coerce sex, that's clearly rape. And also clearly what's implied here.

Even if the unnamed partner is consenting, the person who is being forced into the sexual encounter is being forced by threat of violence (terrorism) in your proposed situation. How is that different than the above situation noted to PG.

David Schraub said...

PG: I guess I just disagree with that account of duties. I think we do have certain minimal obligations to anonymous others, which include intervening to stop them from being killed.

Mark: I don't think it's distinct, hence my "cross-out" and my current discussion with PG. It's a borderline case, obviously, but as I said I don't think this is an issue to split hairs on.

PG said...

I don't agree with your account of moral duties if your concept of "intervention" includes "imposing certain physical harm on oneself." If my having sex (that I'd normally rather not have) prevents the rape of another person, I don't think I have a moral duty to that person to prevent the rape. Matthew's references to parents and children muddy the set of moral duties involved. I cannot figure out what he thinks he is analogizing to, unless he believes that the president stands in a paternalistic relation to the citizenry, such that he has agreed to make intensely personal sacrifices in order to prevent harm to any American citizen. Yet as far as I know, presidents generally are not bone marrow donors, etc. to the general public; in short, we do not expect them to do the kind of personal tasks expected of family members.

Unless Matthew believes that the president would be morally blameworthy for refusing to take a harm to himself in order to spare it for any American citizen, I don't see why he makes the comparison to parental duties.

David Schraub said...

PG, Mark, not Matthew, is the target of your ire ;-).

I agree that you don't have an obligation to "consent" to the sex to save the other person (your obligation doesn't extend that far -- or rather, the imposition of physical harm offers an excuse that lets you "get out" of the obligation. But the obligation still exists). But I do think that if you do give consent, it's consent-under-coercion, and thus rape. The fact that there is really no "good outcome" in the scenario we're drawing doesn't mean the perpetrator gets off scot-free, nor does it change your relationship with the perpetrator for putting you in that relationship.

PG said...

Sorry, that should have been Mark.

But the physical harm to me is going to be less than the physical harm to the anonymous person being threatened with rape -- under your apparently utilitarian theory of moral obligation, why don't I have a duty to take the harm on myself?
I am not a utilitarian about this. If I could avoid a terrorist attack on others by consenting to homosexual activity, I would do it -- but that is because I don't see homosexual activity as any harm, and even when coerced, as any more of a harm than coerced heterosexual activity. Again, it's highly unlikely that if I agreed to sex in order to prevent harm to an anonymous other person that I'd be able to have the person with whom I had sex prosecuted for rape. I could have said no without facing any harm to myself. Instead I said yes. Where is the rape?

There's also the question of who the rapist in this scenario would be. Neither of us specified that the candidate would be having sex with a terrorist or anyone allied with a terrorist (indeed, given the even higher level of homophobia among radical Muslims, I doubt a terrorist would go for it).

David Schraub said...

I'm confused how I'm being utilitarian here (indeed, your standard strikes me as more utilitarian than mine)? I consider rape to be sex under coercion. Since I believe people have basic moral obligations to all other people, exploiting those obligations to demand sex is coercive in my book. This isn't a utilitarian standard (indeed, it's really the reverse, because I think that you have the right to refuse anyway because your moral right of self-ownership outweighs the obligations you have to anonymous others -- but I still the obligation exists).

The "rapist" in such a case would be the person who demands the sex act take place. To take an example you seem to concede would still be rape, in certain Central African conflicts militia forces have forced family members to have sex with each other, on threat of death. In such a case, the culpable party is obviously the militia man, even if he doesn't actually penetrate anyone. Same thing here.

Or take a better example. Rapist breaks into your house, and says that if you don't "consent", he won't hurt you, but will steal that nice candelabra on the table. As it happens, that candelabra is your friends, and you're just hanging onto it as she moves across town. I say you don't have an obligation to consent, but if you did it would still be rape -- a function of the competing moral obligations (your own bodily autonomy versus protecting your friend from harm).

PG said...

Yeah, I don't see why there is a significant moral obligation to protect any material object, whether it is yours or another person's. There's an obligation against being reckless or negligent, but if this guy had broken in while I wasn't home and stolen the candlebra, I would be very glad I hadn't been home, not thinking, "Oh no, I failed my moral obligation to protect the candlebra!"

There are different types of coercion. Some people would say that having prostitution in an environment where some people would starve unless they sold their bodies is coercive. I assume you wouldn't think that their customers were rapists because of the coercion created by economic necessity. So in order to be a rapist, one has to create the coercion; indeed, as with your militia man, it is coercion that is the rape, not the sex.