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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 35, 2019

Health, Well-Being, and Society

Lisa H. Schwartzman
Pages 89-101

Defining Rape
Gender Equality, Force, and Consent

Legal definitions of rape traditionally required proof of both force and nonconsent. Acknowledging the difficulty of demonstrating the conjunction of force and nonconsent, many feminists argue that rape should be defined based on one element or the other. Instead of debating which of these two best defines the crime of rape, I argue that this framework is problematic, and that both force and nonconsent must be situated in a critique of social power structures. Catharine MacKinnon provides such a critique, and she reframes rape as a matter of gender inequality. However, rather than rejecting the force/nonconsent dichotomy, MacKinnon focuses exclusively on force, which she thinks can be reconceived to include inequalities. Considering the #MeToo movement and feminist efforts to use Title IX to address campus rape, I argue that the concept of consent is more flexible than MacKinnon suggests and that “affirmative consent” can challenge this liberal model. In requiring active communication, affirmative consent shifts responsibility for rape, opens space for women’s sexual agency, and allows for the transformation of rape culture. Thus, I argue that rape should be defined by the use of force, the lack of affirmative consent, or the presence of both elements.

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