Archive for Thursday, February 12, 2004

Defining rape

February 12, 2004


To the editor:

This letter concerns the recent controversial sentence for rape.

We first think of rape as a sexual encounter obtained by force or the threat of force. However, there are reasons for defining rape in terms of a sexual encounter to which at least one of the participants does not give morally valid consent. If the definition is chosen over the first thought, then the number of sexual encounters that are classified as rape will be larger (this seems right) and the definition will embrace all of the situations we intuitively believe are rapes (think of sex with the comatose, or with children).

One trouble with the definition is disagreement over what counts as morally valid consent. In addition, someone can be a willing participant in an interaction without having given morally valid consent. (Is such an interaction less wrong?) A consequence of adopting the definition is that some rapes will seem less harmful than others, although there are both practical and theoretical difficulties with the comparison of amounts of harm.

There are decent arguments for the view that some rapes are not harmful at all, although, of course, still wrongs. (This depends on what counts as harm.) There may well be morally permissible sexual encounters that the definition classifies as rape, such as sex in which one or both parties are intoxicated, that don't seem to be rape.

Perhaps not all of those who have commented on that rape sentence have fully appreciated these, and other, very difficult issues.

Don Marquis,


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