So, about Steubenville.
Every time we hear of a rape, our righteousness kicks in — I mean the righteousness we share with all smart, empathetic, civilized people just like ourselves, people who abhor sexual violence — and we condemn. Swiftly and easily. We condemn the perps before they even get to trial, because we understand in our bones the vileness and the “personalness” of sexual violence; and also because, as good people, we want to show solidarity with the victim. We remind ourselves and each other that we have wives and daughters and sisters, and we can just imagine our grief and anger — and theirs — if they were ever sexually assaulted. We shudder. We care. And we condemn.
The most strident among us, the ones who are especially empathetic (or in some instances merely eager to be seen as such), may call for state executions. A friend of mine just went there: reflecting on the Steubenville case, he said he feels that “rape equals capital punishment.”
I reminded him that if the prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case had had his way (and prosecutors usually do), we’d be looking at a number of executed-by-the-state young men — who turned out to be victims themselves, of gross judicial misconduct.
One of the Duke takeaways just might be that justice ought to be divorced from media-fueled emotions, and that fanning the flames with pronouncements of faux certitude, as both sides did, brings some serious risks.
But something else is bugging me.
Chances are I’ll get mauled for writing this, but here goes: I find there’s something problematic with our overall definition of rape. Surely there’s a difference between these two extremes:
• A fumbling 16-year-old getting to third base, feeling up his date under her murmured protestations. Or, let’s say, a teenager orally pleasuring a willing partner, with the recipient being just barely under the age of consent.
• A brutal, violent, sustained, and ultimately lethal gang rape of the kind that galvanized India and much of the world the other week.
All three of these examples (and even the first two are two not purely theoretical) are classified as rape. But are they the same crime? If they’re legally equivalent, are they morally equivalent also?
Should we kill the teenage perps in the first two examples? Would even the reflexive hardliners in the law-and-order crowd volunteer to throw the switch, certain in their opinion that rape is rape, and that all rape must be punished by death? Or might that be just a little too Taliban even for them?
My kids happen to be young girls. I do worry about them, and I’ll look out for them and keep them safe as best I can, always and everywhere and until my last breath.
But I’d worry too if I had boys. I’d worry not just that they’ll be trying on macho BS behavior and disrespecting women and girls, but also that if they did get into that kind of trouble (to the point where they penetrate a drunk girl with their fingers in some testosterone-fueled alcoholic haze, as appears to have happened in Steubenville), many people, like my friend, will stand ready to write my sons off, and even put them to death.
If we truly are those “smart, empathetic, civilized people” we fancy ourselves to be, that may not be the kind of justice we ought to aspire to.
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.