The right to rape


We’ve made progress; some of us are now outraged when rapists, such as Stanford University student Brock Turner, get off with a proverbial slap on the wrist.

But we haven’t made enough progress, since rapists still get off with only a proverbial slap on the wrist.

Not all rapists, of course, only the privileged rapists. And that speaks to our deep-seated cultural belief that privileged men have a right to rape.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Rape is a perk of privilege.[/pullquote]

To the victor go the spoils, right? And for the entirety of human history, women’s bodies have been the spoils. The only thing that has changed is our concept of victory. In the beginning, the victors were the men who were better warriors. They were men from indigenous tribes who raided other tribes for “brides.” They were men from primitive (and modern) wars who raped their way through conquered cities. They were men who decreed that raping their female slaves was the “master’s obligation.”

As Snopes notes:

The use of political power (or any exalted position in society) as a means of gaining entry into women’s beds has been with us for thousands of years. The name of this phenomenon has changed over the years (from ius primae noctus to droit de seigneur to “the master’s obligation” to sexual harassment), but the concept has remained the same.

Except that Snopes is wrong in one critical detail. The modern day incarnation of “droit de seigneur” is not sexual harassment, it is rape.

The right of powerful men to rape women of the was first codified as a “religious” right.

The custom of someone other than the husband being the first to engage in sexual intercourse with a bride after the wedding goes back several thousand years and is tied to the concept of God as the source of all life. If all life springs from the creator, then surely his earthly representatives … are guarantors of fertility …

It didn’t take long for the right to rape to be enshrined as a political right:

After the Sumerians developed the concept of a divinely-ordained king “descended from heaven” as the primary intermediary between man and his creator, kings supplanted priests as the vessels of fertility …

This codified “right” survived until relatively recently:

First night customs survived in parts of Europe into the Middle Ages (as the droit du seigneur), although by then it had been stripped of any pretense that it was a means of assuring fruitful harvests and fecund brides. Feudal noblemen were not of royal blood and had no claim to divinity; they were “lords” only by virtue of having been granted titles, and they simply used their positions of power over their vassals as a basis for asserting their “right” to substitute for any of them on the wedding night…

We don’t have official nobility anymore, but we do have the privileged and they apparently have no trouble getting away with rape. Wealthy men, athletes and celebrities are the new nobility and society seems to recognize them as such. In general, privileged white men are much more likely to get away with rape than other men. Had Brock Turner been a poor, black man who met a white women at a party and raped her, he would likely have received a lengthy jail sentence. But because he was a white man, and an athlete to boot, the judge in the case seemed to have spent more time considering the impact of punishment on the perpetrator than the effect of the rape on the victim.

Lest you think that this is purely an issue of race, consider that Bill Cosby has been allegedly drugging and raping women for decades without punishment.

To the victor go the spoils and wealthy men, athletes and celebrities are the victors in contemporary society. It isn’t merely that college athletes are valuable to the team that leads universities to protect them; it’s that they are stars and taking sex without consequences is believed (consciously or unconsciously) to be one the perks of being a star.

Obviously, it was Brock Turner who raped his victim and we don’t bear collective responsibility for the rape. But we do bear collective responsibility for a society that consciously or unconsciously believes that privileged men have a right to rape.

They don’t.