Berkeley Professors face off over the definition of rape


September 23-27, 1991


Berkeley Professors face off over the definition of rape


Six years ago, Ms. magazine published a survey on rape conducted by Mary Koss. The data state that fifteen percent of college women have been victims of rape and another twelve percent have been victims of attempted rape. Some claim that these data are grossly inflated and trivialize rape. Others contend that no matter what the real facts are, a real rape epidemic exists.

In the September 1991 issue of California Monthly, Berkeley’s alumni magazine, two Berkeley professors face off over the statistics. Neil Gilbert, Chernin Professor of Social Welfare, and Sally Fairfax, associate dean in the College of Natural Resources, debated not only the numbers, but the definition of rape itself.

Both professors acknowledge that the data are probably inflated, but their agreement ends there. Gilbert felt that the figures are simply “advocacy numbers,” used to “magnify the incidence of sexual assault.” He believes that these numbers have complicated an already tough issue, broadening the definition of rape to “one that gives women complete control over sexual relations with no responsibility for their outcomes.”

Fairfax, however, focuses away from the statistics and onto the issue of mutual consent. She contends, “defining rape is difficult because behavior that is rape in one context is not in another, and because our values and expectations about many aspects of gender and sexual interactions are changing.” To simplify the situation, she defines rape as sexual intercourse without mutual consent.

Is there a rape epidemic as the Koss numbers suggest? There are approximately 14,000 female students here at Cal. If Koss’ figures are correct 2,100 would have been raped and another 1,680 have been victims of attempted rape. All together, 3,780 women are victims of either rape or attempted rape each year at Berkeley according to these statistics. However, actual reported data is quite different. Last year, only two causes of rape were reported to the campus police.

At the core of this debate is the definition of rape. Gilbert doubted the legitimacy of Koss’ questions in her survey regarding rape. The survey contained questions such as: Have you ever had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs? Gilbert claimed that this type of question broadens the scope of rape to where it becomes almost undefinable. “By saying that everything is rape, you trivialize what rape is,” Gilbert said. Quite simply, “(Rape) is not an epidemic,” Gilbert asserts, “the numbers [only] gain authority by repetition.”

Gilbert is quite adamant is saying, “Rape is a heinous crime, and date rape is real.” However, he questioned the broadening of the definition of rape. Intimate discourse between a man and a woman is a delicate subject and should be handled accordingly, he said. The redefining of rape by what he called “radical feminists” is “an effort to reduce the awesome complexity of intimate discourse between the sexes to the banality of, ‘no means no.’” Gilbert stated, “‘No means no’ is simple-minded.”

Fairfax, however, believes that “no means no” could quite easily rule out all ambiguities involved. When a woman says, “no,” then all other actions taken by the man to pursue his sexual endeavors can be labeled as “attempted rape” or possibly “rape” itself.

Gilbert strongly disagrees with the notion that any ambivalence in an intimate discourse between a man and a woman can be sufficient grounds for rape. “Ambivalence is a big word, and sexual acts contain ambivalence,” he said. He believes it is perfectly natural for people to have sex and not feel absolutely certain about what they are doing. Statements such as, “no means no,” undermine the uniqueness of each particular situation. Intimate discourse must be understood in the context of the situation, he asserts and blanket statements like “no means no” only make the situation more difficult to handle.

In contrast to Gilbert, people such as Fairfax believe that any ambiguities should be eliminated before people engage in sexual intercourse. If ambiguities existed, then rape might have occurred. She writes, “it is absolutely at the core of any attempt to achieve mutual consent to sexual activity.”

On the other hand, according to Gilbert physical force or the threat of physical force in coercing sexual activity constitute a rape. Gilbert does not believe that psychological force, other than threats, should be used as a criterion in defining rape. He noted, “Physical force can be measured, but the notion of psychological force opens up a Pandora’s Box.”

Neither party denies the complexity of rape and its horrific nature, yet accurate data which clearly indicate how frequently rape occurs do not exist.

Gilbert believes the agenda of the “radical feminist” will backfire, because, as stated earlier, rape will be trivialized by the statistics’ exploitation. However, Student Advocate Rachael Settlage thinks that society, including the students and faculty at Cal, must be aware of the rape epidemic which exists in the eyes of many women.

In an interview, Settlage said, “I don’t think that it’s possible to overestimate the number of women who have been sexually harassed or abused.” She does not believe that the Koss figures are inflated and offered that one in three women have been victims of sexual harassment and/or abuse, including rape.

Settlage agrees with Fairfax, saying that if a person is allowed to construe, “no means no,” to “no means maybe,” then one is questioning the competence of that woman when she indeed does mean no.

Settlage offers a slightly more specific definition, saying that any sexual activity, not strictly intercourse, committed against a woman’s will is rape.
Gilbert believes that “radical feminists,” in redefining rape will cause only more difficulty in dealing with it. Settlage disagrees and believes that society is too lax in its view on rape and is not willing to see it as a violent crime, but as a sexual one, when, “Rape has nothing to do with sex; it is about violating the woman’s personal privacy.”