Individualist ethics and rape

Over here in the UK, feminist academic Germaine Greer recently caused a huge controversy by calling for the punishment for rape to be reduced (Guardian). She stated that rape is not a “spectacularly violent crime” but is often instead “lazy, careless, and insensitive”. Obviously, this created storms of furious chatter between the pro- and anti-camps that emerged out of the formless ether of the internet presumably only engage in the kind of mindless invective that seems to dominate sociocultural discourse right now. That said, Greer was making an argument, and treating it as such necessitates some consideration of what she was actually getting at.

Firstly, Germaine’s argument can be distinguished into two elements, one descriptive, one prescriptive. To me, her descriptive claims seem to be the following:

  1. Rape generally doesn’t inflict much harm
  2. Exceptions to this pattern are rare
  3. A significant proportion of rapes, whether harmful or otherwise, are the results of miscommunications in which malevolence or ill-intent were absent (where mens rea cannot be reasonably attributed)

Following this reasoning, she makes the accordant prescriptive claim (4) that the punishment from rape should be reduced. I’m going to argue that while her fundamental descriptive claim (1) is wrong, her prescriptive claim (4) would still be wrong even if (1) was right. Here goes.

Greer makes the acknowledgment that while rates of PTSD among combat veterans is close to 20%, these pale into insignificance in comparison with the rates among rape victims which approximate 70%. I didn’t check the source of these claims because it’s irrelevant to my argument, but I’ll note that I’m skeptical of the notion that the collection of this data for PTSD rates was methodologically identical (i.e. self-reported vs medically diagnosed). In reference to this huge disparity, Greer says:

“What the hell are you saying? Something that leaves no sign, no injury, no nothing is more damaging to a woman than seeing your best friend blown up by an IED is to a veteran?”

This is the statement that set my psychology-sense tingling.

Unfortunately for Greer, clinical psychologists have known for decades that the likelihood and severity of PTSD symptoms cannot be evaluated in direct proportionality to any physical harm inflicted by an experience. This is because trauma is as a phenomenon dependent on our subjective expectations and self-image within the context of interlocking societal collectives, or what clinical psychologists like to call a ‘schema’ for short. James Pennebaker is a clinical psychologist who did a lot of research back in the ‘90s on trauma and its epidemiology; his papers are a goldmine for fascinating factoids, like gender being a better predictor of PTSD likelihood than proximity to ground zero.* Jordan Peterson, much of whose pre-fame academic career actually focused on trauma, summarizes findings for us as follows: “[a] blizzard that would incapacitate Washington for a month barely makes the residents of Montreal blink”.**

In short, Greer is wrong about the harmfulness of rape. People can be traumatized by quite a lot of things, and the fact that more rape victims report being traumatized than combat veterans is direct attestation to that fact. A soldier fighting in a combat zone will likely have a reasonable expectation of killing someone, of having his friends killed, or of being killed (or almost killed) himself. All of those events are pre-programmed into their schema from basic training onward. Frankly, the fact that around 20% of soldiers get PTSD at all seems to suggest that war is even more brutal than we think, since it’s unlikely that so many people would be traumatized by something they engaged in years of physical and mental preparation for otherwise.

Contrast this with a woman walking home from work who gets assaulted, dragged away and raped. As awful traumatic events go, this is pretty much 99th percentile. Given the assumption that healthy and psychologically normative individuals do not tend to make provision for the eventuality that they will be physically and sexually violated in such a way, nor would the future possibility of such an event feature prominently in their self-image, nor would they have engaged in years of intense physical and mental preparation for being victimized in such a fashion, they’re entirely defenseless to the psychological damage that subsequently ensues. Viewed in this context, Greer’s attempted comparison seems somewhat inane; why would rape victims get PTSD at a higher rate than combat soldiers? We might be better served by asking how on earth they would not?

But returning to the original point – even if we grant that these types of rapes are a small minority, and most rapes are not *as* traumatic (this does not mean *not* traumatic), she’s still totally wrong on the prescriptive point she made suggesting that the punishments for rape should be decreased.

Things aren’t illegal just because they upset people, and individual harm isn’t the sole factor considered by any justice system. Crimes and their legally mandated punishments are also integral elements to the social contract, which dictates what a society considers to be acceptable or integral to its cohesiveness and smooth operation. Ideally, this social contract reflects the social will, otherwise you’re most likely in a tyranny of some kind (a definition with which modern Britain surely complies).

That aside, the policing and punishment of rape is not an isolated phenomenon that pertains only to the retribution of the harm done by the offense – it also lays out in stone the framework around sexual relations which our culture, any culture, considers to be normative and moral. Forcing people to have sex with you is wrong – it’s a behavior we are so opposed to, that we’ll lock you up for 10 or more years in jail just so you have enough time to get that into your head before we let you out again.

Little of this, in the Western legal tradition, has anything to do with inflicting upon the perpetrator an equivalent level of harm as he himself committed; the Western justice system is not as victim-centric as Islamic law (e.g. qisas) or other similar systems, but in fact SOCIAL-centric, in the sense that it operates on the principle of the sanctity of the common good. In other words, it seems to me that Greer is failing to incorporate the social implications of rape into an overall assessment of its harm. This kind of failure is typically exhibited by Western moral individualists, whose elevation of the individual to absolute primacy results in a kind of vulgar utilitarianism exemplified by Greer’s comparison of PTSD rates between rape victims and soldiers. Such thinkers may be very good at assessing individual harm, but they’re also incredibly bad at building moral frameworks for functional social systems – if you want proof for that, just look at the West today.

However, I would support further distinction and categorization of rape within the legal system, simply because I do acknowledge that an aspect of Greer’s reasoning here is correct. 

Perhaps this situation could be remediated by adding further categories of legal distinction to rape, such as rape by coercion, rape by force, and rape by predation, or something of the kind. It seems to me that categorizing date rapes (as meriting of punishment as they obviously are) alongside those of the other kind mentioned here is somewhat nonsensical.


*Pennebaker, JW, Cohn, MA and Mehl, MR. “Linguistic markers of psychological change surrounding September 11, 2001,” Psychological
Science 2004, 15 (10). pp. 687-693. DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00741.x. P691

**Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York: Routledge, 1999, p249

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