A Reply to Leiter

Professor Leiter has responded to my post from earlier today via an “update” to his original post, with a critique of Judge Flanagan’s ruling that goes beyond his original objection that Flanagan’s law degree does not come from a high-ranked law school.

In the update, Leiter argues that Flanagan’s ruling is flawed because: (1) “rape is always a kind of sexual assault, but not all sexual assaults are a kind of rape”; (2) the Sun-Times replaced the word “rape” with “sexual assault” in the headline once contacted by Ludlow’s attorney, which Leiter takes to mean that the Sun-Times “recognized the meanings were different”; and (3) contra Flanagan, Leiter feels that the “sting” of being accused of rape is not the same as the “sting” of being accused of sexual assault.

I’ll take each of these points in turn.

In response to (1): to argue for non-equivalence based on the assumption that rape is a subcategory of sexual assault is to miss the point of the paragraph in my original post which provides examples of various state laws. There are many states in which rape is not a subcategory of sexual assault, and indeed, many states – and many universities – in which the terms ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault’ are no longer used at all, due to the fact that many state statues, university policies, and individuals have recognized that “mere” unwanted sexual touching, in which an individual’s sexual autonomy is violated, can be just as damaging as unwanted penetration. As any victims’ advocate will attest, many victims are so profoundly impacted by “mere” nonconsensual sexual contact – even fully clothed sexual contact – that they have been diagnosed with the full range of post-traumatic symptoms: PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc. (Recall that the undergraduate student involved in the Ludlow case was so distressed by the incident that she attempted suicide in the weeks following. Is the fact that Ludlow didn’t penetrate her really of much interest?)

In other words, to put some special emphasis on penetration is, quite frankly, bizarre, and jarringly out-of-synch with contemporary mores and sensibilities. In both U.S. culture and U.S. law, there has been a distinct shift over the past couple of decades, away from a focus on penetration, towards the protection of sexual autonomy. As one advocate wrote in a message to me earlier today, “what is the point of compartmentalizing violent sexual acts, when they’re all violations?” To insist that unwanted penetration is worse than unwanted sexual contact is offensive because it dismisses and belittles the reality of the actual experiences of most of the victims and survivors.

A brief review of trends in rape law might help paint the picture here. Not long ago, whether or not a sexual act was consensual was irrelevant to whether or not it was legal, and almost all acts of sex, with or without penetration, were illegal. If an unmarried man and woman had sex, it was fornication. If one of the two was married, it was adultery for the married party and fornication for the other. If a man lured a woman into bed through a promise of marriage, he committed the crime of seduction. If the couple were from two different races, they could be charged with miscegenation. If both were male, it was sodomy. Even married couples who engaged in consensual sex, in some states, could be charged with a crime if they used certain sorts of birth control to prevent conception.

In other words, the only legal sex was heterosexual, copulative, marital intercourse involving exactly two cisgendered partners. Obviously such laws – though still in piecemeal existence in different states – would be woefully out of synch with contemporary mores, for all kinds of reasons. One of these reasons, I’d argue, is because such laws focus on regulating penetration, in the interest of protecting pre-marital virginity and enforcing the idea that intercourse is for conception, rather than on protecting the sexual autonomy of the individuals involved. And, though I don’t have space to press this point here, I’d argue that there has been a corresponding revolution in sex law over the past two decades (it’s generally not even called “rape law” anymore), in which sexual autonomy has emerged as a sort of fundamental right. Indeed, many of the state laws codify this right by placing sex crimes in which an individual’s autonomy is clearly violated – e.g., in which, say, the offender takes advantage of the fact that the victim is inebriated to initiate a sexual act, without or without penetration – in the category of first-degree criminal offenses. (Ohio is a good example of this.)

Just in case I didn’t make this clear enough in my original post: note that, based on the examples provided by Yale’s sexual misconduct committee, Ludlow’s actions – actions that he himself has admitted – would be grounds, if he were a student, for expulsion. The fact that he is a senior professor and the student was a first-year undergraduate student – i.e., that there was a clear power differential – only makes it worse.

In response to (2): I have no idea why the Sun-Times’ act of replacing the word “rape” with “sexual assault” in the headline would necessarily imply that they recognized a difference. If the editors felt there was a significant difference, presumably they wouldn’t have used the words interchangeably in the first place. A much more plausible explanation of the change is simply corporate risk management.

In response to (3): Really? A re-reading of the response to (1) should make it clear why claiming that rape is worse that sexual assault is not merely wrong-headed, but offensive to survivors who have been harmed by sex crimes that don’t involve penetration.