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Them’s the Rules
March 19, 2013 — 7:29 pm

As much as I can get sucked into them myself, I rarely find debates that are played out in Facebook comment threads to be truly productive. The brevity of the format and the pressure to respond quickly too often devolves into a retaliatory one-upsmanship that focuses on narrow points of disagreement at the expense of fuller nuanced context.

On Monday, a post by Sarah Skwire responded to the just-announced verdict in the horrifying Steubenville rape trial, along with some baffling CNN coverage that focuses on the tragedy of the perpetrators’ ruined lives rather than the victim’s. Skwire’s post was widely reposted by many of my libertarian Facebook friends, including economist Steve Horwitz — and it’s in his comment threads (and elsewhere) that my best pal since high school and sporadic co-Shrubblogger Justin M. Stoddard spent much of the day debating with other commenters (not really with the professors themselves, I should add, at least not much) whether or not we live in a “rape culture.”

One description of the INTP personality type points out that “An INTP arguing a point may very well be trying to convince himself as much as his opposition.” Whatever problems personality typing may have, I have no doubt that this statement accurately describes me, and I suspect the same is true for Justin. I know him well enough to know that he’s absolutely sincere in his desire to seek truth through conversation, ready to be convinced by others even as he tries to convince both them and himself. Debate is a proving ground for ideas, not a place to make a final, unalterable declaration then leave.

Skwire and Horwitz are both on the short list of people whose work I most admire in the libertarian movement, and I’ve long been on the record as applauding the value of their Bleeding Heart Libertarians project, although not of every idea falling under its umbrella. I also know that Justin has long been a fan of Horwitz’s work, at least, so it seems odd to see such a contentious debate play out — especially regarding a point that seems entirely unobjectionable to me. I can understand Justin’s desire to achieve clarity on the details of an argument by challenging others, but at the same time I can sympathize with the frustration that the original posters may feel as their calls to attention for an important problem mostly only inspire an interminable discussion about what we should, or shouldn’t, call that problem.

The Steubenville rape case is cut-and-dried — football players repeatedly raped and violated a drunk and incapacitated girl at a series of parties, taking photos and videos and bragging about the conquest to friends. Evidence of guilt abounds. And so, as it happens, does at least localized evidence of a bona fide rape culture. From Yahoo! Sports:

Had nothing been said, shot or sent, this would’ve been just another night, like sadly so many anywhere in America with a confused girl wondering what really happened.

Instead, this group of teens, so full of an overabundance of self worth, filmed and documented the crime, perhaps never assuming anyone would see it for what it was.

They basically told the victim about it. Their friends essentially took real-time crime-scene photos for the cops. Of course, this was only possible because Mays and Richmond were more than comfortable committing the crime right in front of witnesses in the first place.

Mays, in particular, essentially confessed to the crime via hundreds of text messages over the next few days – ranging from profound bravado in the immediate aftermath, to matter-of-fact statements the next day, to a panicked attempted cover-up and witness control as reality began to set in.

Their coercive conquest was widely accepted as normal within their peer group — that the girl deserved to be assaulted because she was drunk and unable to resist. Nobody came to the aid of the victim at the time of the repeated assaults, and nobody reported the incidents to authorities until she and her parents realized what had happened days after the fact. There’s also no shortage of online public opinion placing blame squarely on the victim.

Why the aversion, then, to calling this a rape culture — so much so that outrage over violent sexual assault gets sidetracked into an endless debate about semantics? I really don’t get it. Is it because the term originated with the left, and may therefore be freighted with Marxist connotations? I can see debating the connotations, especially if the notion of collective guilt for individual crimes rears its ugly head, but the term itself seems accurately descriptive to me. People in our culture often tend to overlook, rationalize, and justify rape and other forms of sexual assault. Not everybody does this, and not all the time, but often enough that it can be considered a pervasive aspect of our culture.

Justin and most of the other commenters agreed on what seemed to me to be the important points: rape is a terrible crime; other crimes that violate individual rights are also terrible; rape happens to both men and women; prison is a literal rape culture in and of itself; libertarians should be on board with efforts to prevent rape; there’s nothing wrong with working to prevent rape with multiple simultaneous strategies, approaching the problem from different angles. So, again, as far as I can tell, the debate isn’t whether this set of violent problems exists, but rather, whether we should call it a “rape culture.”

Justin protests in one comment that the term is meaningless because “If we live in a rape culture, then we live in a murder culture, a war culture, a theft culture, a gun culture, a tax culture, a robbery culture, a jay walking culture, ad infinitum.” Yeah, we do. I also object to none of those terms. Cultures carry many attributes, and there’s nothing wrong with focusing on one of them even as the others remain existent.

I’ve never seen anything in real life as horrifying as the Steubenville case, but I have seen these cultural attitudes at play firsthand, manifesting in surprising places. So, in the spirit of Skwire’s call for libertarians to “Take responsibility for calling out, and calling attention to, the kind of rape culture that strikes at the heart of … libertarian principles,” I’ll share something that I witnessed a few weeks ago.

At a party this past New Year’s Eve, I had the chance to see several good friends I hadn’t seen in more than a year, and, as is my wont at such gatherings, I spent most of the night playing Rock Band guitar with them. One of these friends, having imbibed to excess, eventually passed out on the living room floor not far from the game. After a while, in the middle of a song, I heard some commotion happening just out of view, and momentarily turned to see what was happening. A naked man was straddling my unconscious friend’s face, inserting his scrotum into my unconscious friend’s open mouth, his erect penis bobbing above my unconscious friend’s nose. A couple of dozen other people were in the room, laughing, smiling, and taking photos. “I’m really sorry, whoever you are,” the perpetrator said, “but I have to do this.”

My initial instinct was to stop playing, stand up, and kick the perpetrator in the face. I did none of these things. I’d like to think that shock is the reason I didn’t intervene, but, truth be told, cowardice in the face of group dynamics certainly played a role. I told one of our mutual friends that if I were the victim, I’d press sexual assault charges. “Really?” Yeah, I really would, I reiterated. My friend responded, “He was passed out drunk at a party — them’s the rules.” Them’s the rules. Who wrote that rulebook?

“So, wait, do you think he should go to jail for doing that?” Yeah, probably. “Huh.” My friend made a few inquiries and told me that yet another mutual friend had given permission for the assault, so didn’t that make it OK? But that’s not how consent works. You can’t give permission for somebody else to sexually assault your unconscious friend. Even the strongest power of attorney wouldn’t cover that.

The relevant statute for this particular offense classifies it as a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine: “A person commits the crime of sexual misconduct in the first degree if such person purposely subjects another person to sexual contact without that person’s consent.” For the record, I think the perpetrator would deserve every bit of that sentence, anybody aiding or abetting should be regarded as a criminal accessory, anybody cheering it on should be regarded as a reprehensible human being, and anybody else who observed this happening but did nothing to stop it should be regarded as a coward at best. Of course, I include myself here. I’ll regret for the rest of my life that I did nothing to intervene when I had a chance.

I’d heard about this kind of hazing, the stereotypical juvenile frat-boy mentality that any gay (or faux-gay, as the case may be) sexual contact is simultaneously icky and hilarious, especially if perpetrated on a passed-out partygoer. And it’s fun for the whole group! After all, them’s the rules. I never thought I’d see anything like it myself, though, outside of the movies. Maybe that’s because I come from an at least somewhat sheltered sample population — I’ve never been drunk, and have spent only occasional, intermittent time around drunk people. I’ll never be in the same position as this particular victim. I won’t ever be passed out at a party unless I somehow spontaneously develop narcolepsy. But if any of my friends do pass out, that’s when I should be most vigilant about protecting them, if I’m any kind of actual friend at all.

The victim was roused later in the evening and gleefully informed, “Dude, you got teabagged by a gay guy!” He kind of half-smiled and shrugged it off, then everybody went home. Not all of the many people in the room that night were libertarians, but many of them were — even hardcore libertarians, for whom individual rights and self-ownership are sacrosanct principles. I’d like to think they would have recognized the assault for what it was if it had been a straight guy sticking his genitals into an unconscious girl’s mouth. And yet, this first-degree sexual assault was laughed off as a hilarious prank because the victim was drunk and unconscious, and his perpetrator was also a guy.

This wasn’t anywhere near as horrifying as the Steubenville case, and I don’t mean to marginalize one by talking about the other. The dehumanizing attitude toward completely defenseless victims, though, strikes me as similar in each case: Somebody who indulges to excess, to the point of incapacitation, deserves to be violated. Them’s the rules.

If I ever needed any firsthand evidence that “rape culture” is a useful term that actually has widespread, if not universal, applicability to the society we live in, I got it that night. If this kind of victimization happens among those who profess to care most about individual liberty, it can happen anywhere.

— Eric D. DixonComments (0)

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Eric D. Dixon

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