This is my fifth post in a series on the morality of slavery. I'm in the process of responding to an argument that if slavery admits of the degrees I said it did in my first post then so will murder, rape, and genocide. The argument is intended to undermine my view by showing that it leads to the ridiculous conclusion that murder, rape, and genocide happen all the time and aren't really wrong when they do except in the extreme cases that we usually call murder, rape and genocide. I don't think my argument regarding slavery leads to that conclusion. My previous post deals with murder, and this post moves on to rape.
As I said before, for each of these moral categories, here are the possibilites with respect to rape:
(1) It's not like what I'm saying about slavery and doesn't admit of degrees.
(2) It admits of degrees but not in the same way that I'm saying slavery does.
(3) It is like slavery in its admitting of degrees.
In the case of rape, I think (3) fits best. Rape is generally defined as nonconsensual sex. This leaves two ways for rape to admit of degrees. Whether something counts as sex seems to admit of degrees, and whether something is consensual also seems to admit of degrees.
I've discussed coercion and consent at length with respect to abortion here (and a little bit in this followup post more recently). Something similar goes on with consent in general, as I said in arguing that for this phenomenon with respect to abortion. It's not just that consent is hard to determine, though that's part of it. If I don't know if someone consents to something that morally requires consent, perhaps I should refrain from doing it. But what if I have good reason to think the person consented, but they didn't? Or what if I think I have good reason to think the person consent, but I don't really have good reason? Those are epistemic gradations in my status with respect to the person's consent, and those might make a moral difference.
What's more clearly a moral issue is whether they do consent, and that's not an all-or-nothing matter. Date rape cases are a good example. There's a custom of ambiguity in high school and college sexual situations, and I'm not entirely sure that consent is wholly present or wholly lacking in such cases. Is a begrudging consent real consent? It's not as much consent as someone who is all for it and initiating it. It's more than someone who resists it. It just seems to me to be at odds with the facts to assume that consent is fully present or fully absent.
If rape, then, depends on consent, then whether something is rape will depend on something that may be a matter of degree. Rape, then, is like what I'm saying is true of slavery. A forced sexual act is more strongly rape than a merely psychologically coerced sexual act, and psychological coercion itself is a matter of degree. If there's any degree of coercion, isn't it that same degree of rape? It should be if rape is coerced sex, and that's how most people define it, at least those who accept date rape as rape. Those who do not will define rape as forced sex, where being forced involves physical force. I don't accept that account of rape myself, but if it's right I'd say (1) is the case, then rape might still admit of degrees if sex admits of degrees (see below). Otherwise, the charge against me just doesn't stand up. Saying slavery comes in degrees doesn't require saying rape comes in degrees.
The other way rape comes in degrees has to do with whether something counts as sex. Bill Clinton infamously claimed that he didn't have sex when he had oral sex. Most people just shake their heads and say he's got the facts wrong on how the word 'sex' is used. If he's right, and sex is only coitus, then I'd say again that you have to argue also against what I say above to avoid the view that rape comes in degrees, and then even if you do I'll just say (1) is the right attitude toward it, and the argument against me fails.
Still, I do think sex comes in degrees. It's less accurate for Bill Clinton to say he had sex with Monica if all he did is have oral sex. If that's all he said, it would be misleading. That's because we assume coitus when we hear the term. Does that mean you can deny that you had sex if it's oral sex? It seems not. In the end, I want to say that oral sex is sex to a lesser degree in the same way that indentured servanthood is a lesser degree of slavery than American plantation slavery. Then foreplay would be a lesser degree of sex than that, and perhaps phone sex or internet sex is only a little bit sex (sex enough to make a spouse mad at the unfaithfulness).
So I think (3) is the correct view about degrees of rape. It is exactly like slavery in its admitting of degrees (in two different ways!), but that's not problematic. It's in fact what we should expect. So why is it an argument against my claim that it entails the view that rape comes in degrees? It does come in degrees. I'm biting a bullet on this, but I don't think it's a very hard or fast bullet to bite. It's just sort of hanging out in the air waiting for me to gobble it up, and it's made out of chocolate.
My next post in this series will deal with genocide.