08 October 2009

Sense and Sexuality

I have to write an "Austen manifestation" essay in my Austen and popular culture course, so I've been doing some research lately on how the abstinence-only sex education proponents wield Austen in their rhetoric. I recently came across this train wreck, which I thought I would share with you. It starts with the moral panic and blame-it-on-the-liberals right away:
Not so long ago, rape was a capital offense, right up there with murder. When death was not decreed, convicted rapists could count on a long prison sentence. No one took rape lightly. The crime was an absolute evil, the moral equivalent of neither shoplifting nor stealing a kiss.
As far as I can tell, this isn't actually true. Capital offenses are determined state by state, and not all states ever punished rape with capital punishment. Some did, and that's not true now. From MSN Encarta:
The English common law served as the model for criminal law in the United States, including rape laws. However, U.S. laws added to the protections against false accusations of rape. For example, many states instituted a special corroboration rule for rape prosecutions. This rule provided that in the absence of corroborating physical evidence (such as semen or bruises) or the testimony of a witness, a rape victim’s testimony was insufficient evidence on which to convict a defendant. As was the case with English law, this requirement assumed that the primary objective of the law was to protect men from false accusations rather than to protect women from rape.
Rape law has a history of protecting potential rapists and not their victims. Fortunately, the feminist movement has resulted in an improvement in rape laws, and they do not (for the most part) shield men more than rape victims--we have the media to do that instead. From MSN Encarta again:
Following the English model, some U.S. states punished rape as a capital offense. However, a 1977 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States ruled this practice unconstitutional. Today state statutes typically provide for a substantial number of years of imprisonment, including life imprisonment, for persons convicted of rape. In 1997 Montana adopted a law authorizing the death penalty as punishment for a second conviction of rape involving serious bodily injury. Whether this law is constitutional in light of the Supreme Court’s earlier decision has not yet been addressed.
In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment for rape not resulting in death is unconstitutional--cruel and unusual punishment. And this is particularly interesting when you consider that capital punishment was disproportionately given to black men convicted of raping white women:
As a practical matter, the death penalty had nearly withered away for crimes other than murder and rape. From 1930 to 1967, over 3,300 persons were executed for homicide, 455 for rape, and only 70 (or less than 2% of the total) for all other non-homicidal offenses, including robbery, burglary, attempted murder, kidnaping, assault by a life-term prisoner, carnal knowledge, espionage, assault with intent to rape and accessory to murder.

In this era, executions for rape were carried out exclusively in the Southern states (including the border states of Oklahoma, Missouri and Delaware), and they were carried out predominately on black men convicted of raping white women. Of the 455 rapists executed, 405 (89%) were black.

Professor Marvin Wolfgang's research on the death penalty for rape, reported as "Racial Discrimination in the Death Sentence for Rape" in William Bowers's Executions in America (1974), showed that over one-third of black defendants convicted of raping white victims received death sentences; in all other racial combinations of victim and defendant, only 2% received death sentences. This eighteen-fold heightened likelihood of getting a death sentence had only one possible explanation, Wolfgang concluded after reviewing other possible explanations or linkages: "It is the racial factor of the relationship between the defendant and the victim that results in the penalty of death."
Fields wants us to believe that people punished rape by death because they took rape more seriously than we do now. But, considering that before 1993, marital rape wasn't even illegal in many states and that the first rape crisis center didn't open until the 1970s, this is unconvincing. Capital punishment for rape was a racially motivated cause, and to portray it's departure as a sign of decaying morality is disingenuous. Frankly, the only people "taking rape lightly" these days are conservatives. The anti-rape movement was fought primarily by feminists, and it still is. Conservative reactions to rape are to deny that we live in a rape culture, to deny rape statistics, to defend rapists, and to blame women for their own rapes. Even with the conservative backlash against Roman Polanski, we don't see a concern for the victim or the crime committed, but a new chance to hate Hollywood, which they think represents liberalism. Fields herself uses Polanski as an example of this new-fangled rape apologism (which isn't really new at all):
Men could create sympathy for themselves, as Roman Polanski has done. The forced sex act to which he pleaded guilty was never perceived in the culture of his peers as all that serious. He expected to get a light sentence, counting the 42 days he spent in psychiatric observation. Age, at least in Hollywood, no longer mattered so much; 13 was the new 18. You could hear the oh-so-sophisticated defenders of the distinguished director asking: "What did the aspiring pubescent model expect when she went with him to Jack Nicholson's house for a topless photo shoot?" (Jack Nicholson, for the record, was not at home; Polanski borrowed his house.) Besides, the 13-year-old girl had already done "it" twice. Polanski was only 43; how could he have known 43-year-old men don't fool with 13-year-old girls? Besides, it wasn't really "rape-rape," as the distinguished legal scholar Whoopi Goldberg famously decreed.
Hollywood, according to Fields, is to blame, sexualizing children and apparently creating a rape culture all on its own. Those conservatives who create an environment in which rape is okay in most situations (like, when the woman is doing a topless photo shoot, or has already had sex) have nothing to do with it. Yes, the hyper-sexualization of young girls is a problem, but it isn't made better by blaming young women and scolding them for having sex. But don't worry, Fields identifies the problem: the so-called "hook-up culture," which we all know will fix itself if women like Fields just shame women into not having sex or wearing low-cut tops. And then, rape will magically disappear.
Hollywood's attitude can make life hard for young women. A study at Princeton University finds that young women, in twice the number of young men, nurture hopes that what once was called "a one-night stand" can become "a relationship." Far more often than men, women regret that a "hook-up" even happened. The signs of depression grow with the number of her casual sexual partners; almost half the couples "hooking up" never see one another again.
If you want to read about why the moral panic over "hook-up culture" is ineffective and just plain bad for women, see here. Anti-feminists love this creature they've invented, the hook-up culture, which simply gives them an excuse to blame rape on feminists (and women in general) and scold women for having sex. In reality, both men and women are lacking experience and discussion about discussing boundaries with their sexual partners and identifying and recognizing consent (as well as situations in which consent is not possible), essential communication skills which could reduce confusion that may lead to rape, because of abstinence-only sex education. Rape culture is a consequence of conservative ideas about purity and sex, culminating in abstinence-only education.

Fields wields Jane Austen (and Victorian culture in general, which she equates with Austen) in an interesting way, but that'll have to wait for my next post.