Seriously, why? I’m not being facetious, here. Of course I know it is wrong, but at the moment I want to consider why. “Lack of consent” is insufficient as an explanation–I do not consent to a man sitting in a seat on a bus I would like to sit in, but that doesn’t make his sitting there wrong. “Violence” is also insufficient, since we can all agree that punching a man is wrong but, though it may cause more physical pain, it is on a completely different level than rape.
Indeed, we are forced to admit that there is something unusual about the nature of sex. The laws of human nature dictate that sex is supposed to happen in one way and not another. When it doesn’t, there are often devastating emotional and psychological consequences. This is why consent is so important in the first place. As professor J. Budziszewski put it in the title of his recent book, the laws governing sex and the rest of human behavior are something “we can’t not know.”
Many colleges understand that rape is wrong and admirably put a lot of effort into trying to prevent it. However, they don’t seem to have a very firm grasp on why. On the one hand–in the case of sexual assault prevention programs–they seem to understand that sex is special, with immutable rules governing how it is supposed to work. On the other hand, as in the case of Yale’s biennial Sex Week or Duke University’s Sex Workers Art Show, they send the message that sex can work in whatever way you dang well please.
In a recent post on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website, National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood alluded to this apparent contradiction:
Educate about “sexual harassment and sexual violence” on one hand, and promote sexual license and vulgarity on the other hand? This may not be a complete contradiction, but it is pretty close to one. License and restraint are awkward partners. Campus culture currently decrees that we should want both: It decrees that we should strive to liberate students from conventional morality in favor of free-wheeling sexual expression, while at same time we should instill an ethic of male restraint hedged by severe penalties.
Perhaps someday the larger part of American higher education will return to an understanding that the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” on which our rights, prosperity, and happiness depend, aren’t malleable but fixed.
UPDATE: Some commenters seem to think that I am somehow defending rape. I apologize for the confusion. I meant just the opposite (see “Of course, I know it is wrong” and my subsequent inquiry into why it is worse than other bad things). I’m saying it’s really, really, bad. The question I raised here is “Why is it bad?” If we are going to conclude that it is bad–and I think we’re all in agreement that it is not just bad but much more so than lots of other bad things–then there has to be some basis for why it is bad. I believe that our special abhorrence to it and its profound effects are evidence of the laws of human nature. Whereas in some cases our innate sense of right and wrong is obscured, here it is clear. If we are to say “rape is wrong” and really mean it, right and wrong must be real things, knowable at bottom to all people.
Also, the example of punching someone would also have given us an insight into the natural law. It’s also (in many cases, at least) obviously wrong. Imagine someone saying “there is no right and wrong,” then getting punched in the face. He may offer to give the attacker his lunch money or threaten to call the police, but without right and wrong the attacker is under no moral obligation to stop. However, I chose rape because it highlights higher education’s abandonment of the idea of natural law, especially when it comes to sex. We all agree that rape is worse than punching someone. Why? It seems obvious that it is because of the nature of sex. There are rules knowable to all of us governing who to have sex with, when to do so, etc. This is why rape is especially bad. Yet colleges often treat sex as if it’s just an amusement.