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Is the Whole Concept of Rape Just Sort of Going Away?

Were the Sabine women actually raped, or were they engaging in social upward mobility?
Were the Sabine women actually raped, or were they engaging in social upward mobility?

What do you think? Should Dallas Judge of Criminal District Court #6 Jeanine Howard, now at least nationally famous if not internationally for her "You Ignorant Slut" ruling in a rape case, think about returning to private law practice? Or run for president? It's so hard to know these days.

What is the liberal position on rape right now? What is conservative? Does any of that matter anymore? We're all still agreed that rape is bad, right? Right? Hmm. Pretty quiet out there. I guess we're thinking about that.

Judge Howard is the one who gave a 20-year-old convicted rapist 45 days in the slammer instead of 20 years because his 14-year-old victim had been sexually active and had given birth to a baby before he raped her. The victim's version is that she told him to stop and he did not. The inner logic of the judge's ruling is that you don't have to stop if the 14-year-old you are trying to penetrate has had sex and a baby before.

So nobody believes that, right? Or maybe just liberals believe it? No, wait, maybe conservatives are the ones who believe it?

The biggest rape story right now nationally is college campus rape. There's a new book out, Paying for the Party from Harvard University Press, in which two female sociologists "embed" themselves (one dreads to think ...) at an unnamed Midwest university that sure as hell sounds like my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, where they study the immemorial riddle of all higher education: Which gets you richer in the long run, studying or drinking?

Surprise, surprise, it's drinking, which is not a surprise for many of us, I would think, because we know that 97 percent of all business gets done by schmoozing and social climbing while drinking. I think the unnamed school is UofM as we call it (sorry, Missouri), because one of the authors is a faculty member there; they dub their unnamed school "MU;" and I distinctly remember as a student seeing students in Ann Arbor consuming what I believe were alcoholic beverages. (I was a little out of it, which explains my social status now.)

I also remember taking a political science course at UofM based on the professor's year of study in Washington during which he embedded himself at cocktail parties. He reduced the entire year to a mathematical equation so long it took almost the entire semester for him to write it out on the chalk board and for us to copy it down. Probably to keep us from skipping en masse he declined to divulge the principle expressed by the equation until the very last class before the exam: He had discovered in his year away from home that a whole lot of politics -- I mean really a lot -- gets done at parties. I hope if he ever did a book about it the title was No Shit, Sherlock.

Maybe this new book, which I have not read, is more significant. I did read Russ Douthat's column about it in The New York Times in which he called the fraternity and sorority booze scene "the great unequalizer." He said the book argues that kids who come to school ready to drink and party -- kids who come knowing how to drink and party -- will get a lot farther later in life than kids who naively think it's all about the books.

Maybe. Depends on what you mean by farther. Recent experience leads me to believe that big state schools are still divided domains as they were in my distant time there, occupied in part by young people who go there in search of social and business connections but also in part by young people who go there because they are intellectually, scientifically or aesthetically curious. I'm OK with all of them and consider their different missions equally necessary to making the world go 'round.

But here is the question that haunts all of it for me and takes me back to Judge Howard. Where are the bright lines? Where are the moral cut-offs? If girls can act like boys and boys can act like girls, if everybody, 14 years old or 20, social or science-minded, can get shit-faced high and pull out the paws, where is the red light?

I do get that it's all gray up to a point. Let's imagine it from a parent's point of view: Imagine that we want our daughter to be a social success in Austin. I think we can agree that means we want her to go to parties. We want her to have fun, but we also want her to be fun. Same for the lad. He should be a bit of a player as well. We all know that means a good deal of booze will be spilled. We hope it won't also involve Vicodin or cocaine, but there's many a spill twixt the cup and the lip, is there not? If we want the kid to be cool, we have to roll the dice on how cool.

In all of this, where is "Stop?" Who can say "Stop" and have it mean stop? Can anyone, boy or girl, say stop? Or is that moment gone? If your daughter or son says stop and somebody keeps right on penetrating her or him, will some judge later on start sorting out how much sex he or she had before the incident; what sort of party behavior this young person may be known for; and, oh, by the way, are the parents sluts, too? Did the parents implicitly encourage slutdom in order to enable social mobility?

We can have it one of two ways. We can say that stop means stop, and if the other party persists after stop is said, then that party is a rapist. Or we can decide that gray trumps stop. There is no stop, only gray.

I would argue that it doesn't make any difference how much sex kids have had before they get to that moment -- it doesn't even matter how blitzed they get -- if there is no longer a bright-line stop, a stop no matter what, a stop you have to hear, then there is no longer rape. If that's how it is, then it's a huge cultural shift, and we should recognize it by electing Judge Howard president. If that's not it, then I vote for private practice. Soon.


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