Myodicy, Issue 7, April 1998

Hot-Button Ethics:
Reflections on Harassment,
Imposition and Autonomy

by Theodore Plantinga

Some words serve nicely to get a discussion going because they play on our feelings. "Rape" is such a term; therefore it gets used in both literal and metaphorical senses when people are being pressed to take an issue seriously. For example, we talk about "raping" the earth, when what is meant is environmental degradation.

When I was a student in a public high school some years ago, "rape" was not a polite term. I don't recall hearing it in a classroom setting. But times have changed. Just recently my daughter came home from a class in her Christian high school and announced that she had to do an assignment about date rape. In a Christian school students are regularly told about the Christian position on the topic in question -- or they are assigned to find out what it is. So it was with date rape. My daughter was advised to see what the Bible has to say about the subject. But before consulting the good book, she asked her father.

I soon ascertained that it was not rape in general that was to be explored but date rape. She asked me what the Bible said about the topic. I asked her in turn whether murder is wrong, according to the Bible. She acknowledged that it is. I then asked her whether "date murder" is wrong. In other words, is it wrong to murder a person with whom you are out on a date? Again the obvious answer is yes. I then trotted out a few more of these narrowings of the issue. And now, as I think back on the conversation, still more examples come to mind: church murder (murdering the person sitting next to you in church), supermarket-checkout-line murder, pesky-salesman-at-the-door murder, and so forth. My daughter got the point. If we as Christians are opposed to rape, we are also opposed to date rape.

But there was another reason why the assignment seemed to me a peculiar one. It looked like a case of a Christian school adopting the secular agenda. If all the world is talking about date rape, maybe we should discuss it too, even if there isn't a whole lot to say on the subject.

The discussion did not seem to have a context. And the suggestion that one should consult the Bible on this matter was also ill-considered in one important respect: the Bible does not comment on every sort of specific issue and challenge we face in our time. Students sometimes assure me that the Bible condemns this or that practice (e.g. buying lottery tickets). I then ask for chapter and verse, and they come up empty. It was not that they had personally read such a thing in the Bible; rather, someone had said that it was there. Or perhaps someone said that the activity in question was "unbiblical."

The English Bible does not contain the word "rape." What we call dating was not a custom of Biblical times, and so the word "dating" is not to be found either. On the most superficial level, therefore, the Bible says nothing about date rape. Precisely because it doesn't (and other such examples could easily be added), it is important to discuss such an issue in terms of Christian thought and ethics, broadly conceived. Our emphasis should be that there are ideas and general principles in Christian circles which are drawn from the Bible and which can be applied to new situations that arise in our time. Christian ethics condemns rape -- and therefore also date rape.

But there is another specific type of rape discussed in our society nowadays which is harder for a Christian to handle -- marital rape. There are jurisdictions in North America in which a husband can be convicted of raping his wife. Indeed, there have been some celebrated cases. Laws have been drafted to make it very clear that a charge of rape can indeed be brought in a situation where the woman's own husband is the accused.

Students of mine have sometimes been surprised to hear that I am opposed to such laws. They maintain that Christians should take an even stricter view of sexual morality than society in general. It follows, they think, that we ought to get behind the notion of prosecuting husbands for marital rape.

My response to their argument is usually twofold. First I indicate that when a woman marries a man, she has thereby consented to sexual intimacy with him. If such intimacy is accompanied by physical brutality, she has good reason to protest and she may even press charges for assault. The marriage covenant leaves no room for a husband to inflict physical abuse on his wife -- or vice versa, for that matter. But a wife is obliged to make herself sexually available to her husband (see I Corinthians 7:5). A husband should in turn be considerate in his approach to his wife, and if he lacks such consideration he is certainly guilty of misconduct. Yet to equate such misconduct with rape in the traditional sense is to take away some of the gravity that should be associated with this chilling offense. Let us recall that in the days when capital punishment was used in virtually all democratic countries, rape was one of the offenses that could lead to the death penalty. It was a very serious matter.

The second reason I object to the thesis that there should be a law defining marital rape as a criminal offense is more subtle and philosophical. When the notion is unpacked, it usually has hidden within it the Humanist ideal of autonomy.

When I use the term "Humanist," I am not suggesting that whoever does not declare himself a Christian adheres to a unified set of philosophical and ethical principles of the sort that one sometimes finds published as a "Humanist Manifesto." A great many people in our society have conflicting intellectual and ethical impulses operative within their thinking at the same time; few of us are pure examples of a coherent philosophical or religious pattern of thought. Yet I do maintain that for many people who live outside a traditional religious community in which divine revelation plays a key role in ordering everyday affairs, the Humanist notion of autonomy operates -- perhaps mainly on an unconscious level -- in everyday decision-making. Its operation can be traced especially in questions of sexual ethics.

What makes specific sexual acts right or wrong? Traditional society had a set of answers to this question which today, sad to say, are no longer taken seriously. It now appears that sexual acts are right if the persons performing them have chosen freely and consciously to engage in them. There must be absolutely no coercion, no pressuring. Whatever two consenting adults choose to do in private is legitimate. (Children do not know their own mind well enough to give such consent; thus sexual acts involving an adult and a child are wrong.)

According to this line of thought, we do not say that date rape is wrong for various reasons, one of which is that sexual relations outside of marriage are wrong; rather, we say that date rape is wrong because one of the two people involved has not given her consent. By the very same logic, marital rape is wrong -- the wife has not given her consent on the particular occasion in dispute. Consent cannot be given in general or in perpetuity.

The term "rape" is being worn down and currently covers an excessively broad range of misbehaviors. In effect it now overlaps with "sexual harassment"; sometimes a charge of sexual harassment could be called attempted rape. It might then be said that the man in such a case finally took NO for an answer, a NO that may well have involved substantial physical resistance on the woman's part.

The overlap between rape and sexual harassment gives rise to a question: can a man be guilty of sexually harassing his own wife, by forcing his attentions upon her, or by making sexual overtures to her when she was not in a mood to receive them, or by touching her in an intimate manner when she was did not welcome his caresses? My answer would be no. But by the logic of the autonomy principle, one would have to say yes.

Yet there is a peculiar difference between the terms "rape" and "harassment," a difference that is worth noting here. Rape is unconditional. Rape is rape -- period. And so we say that rape is wrong -- without qualification. Motive and intentionality do not need to be investigated. But it seems that harassment needs to be designated as being of a certain kind or having a certain motive or intention behind it; we speak of sexual harassment.

Authorities in the USA recently faced the question whether a man could sexually harass another man, or a woman a woman. The answer was yes: no crossing of genders is needed for sexual harassment to take place.

As I followed the public discussion about same-gender sexual harassment, I wondered to myself whether the term "sexual" could not then be dropped. (Of course, if it were dropped, harassment would be less of a hot-button issue; it would no longer be quite so interesting.) But as I pondered the issue, it seemed to me that if the adjective "sexual" were indeed dropped as a qualifier, harassment would more and more take on the same meaning as abuse, which is in turn a form of mistreatment.

I believe that all human beings on earth today are sinners. Thus all are guilty of mistreatment, and it is probably safe to say that all have likewise undergone mistreatment. But many people today are enamored of the idea of being "victims" and "survivors." They like to explain that they have endured "abuse" in the past and have become "disabled" because of it. Now they need special help and consideration. This is what they tell us, or sometimes professional caregivers speaking on their behalf bring us this message. Perhaps those same people are also guilty of abuse; I have not often heard them affirm that they are. Through this kind of expansive talk of victimization, the notion of harassment might become so general as to lose its meaning, and also its cash value in legal terms

Something like this broadening out and trivialization might have happened with the idea of affirmative action or reverse discrimination if we had chosen a certain route in response to the complaints about it. According to its defenders, reverse discrimination is "good" discrimination, that is, discrimination intended to set right what went wrong in the past.

Some North American governments in recent years have undertaken to abolish all programs of affirmative action and reverse discrimination. If this were done, it would no longer be possible to identify oneself as a member of such-and-such a minority and on that basis claim special treatment or access to grants and services not available to the general public. In my philosophy classes I sometimes say that I am opposed to the abolition of affirmative action programs; what I advocate instead is making them available to everyone, that is, to every possible group and description of human being. We should all get special consideration. Students quickly note that to extend such consideration to all is in effect to eliminate it. My suggestion regarding affirmative action is basically an effort at trivialization.

My philosophical point has been made by the time this realization sinks in. But such a point also needs to be made concerning harassment, regardless of the gender of the harasser and the harassee. It is always a form of mistreatment (not necessarily severe mistreatment), and therefore it is always wrong.

The interesting question, of course, is whether -- and under what circumstances -- harassment can become a basis for legal action. There are a great many forms of mistreatment in the world: blowing smoke in someone's face is one of them. But I don't believe we should involve the law in every case; some instances of mistreatment are of such a sort that we should be able to handle them apart from police and court involvement.

When we approach social and ethical issues on the basis of the Humanist principle of autonomy, we get the kinds of discussions that fill magazines today. People are quick to invoke their sovereign right to be left alone. Some may even quote from a play of Jean-Paul Sartre and explain that "hell is other people." But a Christian should not invoke the principle of autonomy, for the fundamental principle in Christian conduct is not autonomy but love. And love brings with it a certain vulnerability, a certain openness toward others. Being committed to love means, among other things, that we must allow others to impose upon us.

Now, "imposition" is not a word I hear often in discussions of harassment. Yet I am convinced that it has an important role to play. During my college days we liked to use the word "hassle." We were quick to declare this or that a "hassle," and when something was asked of us, we might well respond that we didn't want to be "hassled." Friendship could also lead to "hassles," if a friend made demands.

We didn't hear much about harassment in those days, but the concept was contained in our term "hassle." (Why are you hassling me?) And it occurs to me that if men can harass men, and women women, the explicitly sexual element will disappear more and more from the concept, and it will come to include imposition and what we used to call "hassling" people. Indeed, I wonder whether we will not soon have a category of social harassment.

Suppose someone "hits on you" (as they say nowadays) but you want nothing to do with this person, yet the conduct persists. You are being "harassed." Unwanted attention counts as harassment, provided it has something to do with the romantic or sexual interest people take in each other. But doesn't the same sort of thing happen with social relations, where only the prospect of friendship is in the picture, and there is no element of romance or sexual interest? What if someone "hits on you" socially because he wants your friendship, or wants you to give him some of your time, or wants to be involved with your life, helping and being helped in the way of friends who give no thought to repayment? The Humanist principle of autonomy would suggest that you have the sovereign right to decide matters of friendship. Therefore it makes sense that one should be able to report such unwanted attention as misconduct and expect that the authorities (e.g. in the workplace) will have a chat with the offending party in order to remove him from your social horizon.

As a Christian I would not be comfortable with such reasoning and would not wish to see laws against social harassment enacted -- either for society in general, via the law of the land, or specifically for the workplace. Christians need to render themselves vulnerable in the service of their Lord; they need to take chances; they need to spend their time and energy for the well-being of others. When we affirm that the principle of love should be central to our conduct, we are in effect opening ourselves to imposition. Yet on a psychological level, imposition is irritating. Deep in our hearts the autonomy principle is lodged.

We live in a crowded world in which most of us cross paths with our fellow human beings constantly. When I find them on my path -- literally right before me -- I am sometimes irritated by their presence and may think of them (if only unconsciously) as imposing on me. I am irked by them and may feel a small surge of anger toward them.

When I am walking rapidly through a crowded mall, I get irritated with my fellow shoppers if they occupy the open space before me and thereby cause me to slow down. When I am speeding down a highway with the open road before me and see a car turning onto the highway up ahead to go in the same direction, I feel that the car is somehow imposing on me and crowding my space -- space that I want to claim as my field of vision before I pass through it in my car. A truck is even more imposing; it blocks my vision, and I feel the impulse to pass it.

In my saner moments I recognize that I share the road -- and planet earth -- with my fellow creatures. I get in their way and block their view, and they do the same to me. We have to work these things out. I do not suffer from furious bouts of "road rage."

But as a Christian I need to go further and recognize that my fellow human beings -- sometimes just by their presence -- impose certain obligations on me. As an adult I may unexpectedly find a child imposing upon me and thereby robbing me -- for the moment -- of my freedom. Suppose I am walking down a residential street with a fairly high traffic flow. There is no one in sight outdoors except for a small boy who could not be older than two. He is playing in a front yard with no fence. He runs around freely, while cars pass by at normal speed. I sense the possibility of danger in the situation. Will he dash into the street? I wonder where his parents are. I slow down as I walk, and I begin to watch him, wondering whether I will need to take him by the hand and bring him to a place of less danger.

Variations of this situation in my own life have taught me something about unexpected obligations (I do have an obligation to watch out for such a child's welfare) and about the inevitability of imposition in human life. And it is indeed an imposition, for I was walking down the street with no other intent than to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine. I was not hoping to go "on duty."

Children may impose upon adults and appeal to them for help. An ancient mariner (think of Coleridge's famous poem) may pull us on the sleeve and ask that we listen to his tale. In the Christian life we need to be open to such imposition. Our tradition calls it "loving your neighbor."

But in making these points in opposition in opposition to the autonomy ideal, I am not trying to open the way for misconduct of certain sorts to continue unchallenged. Instead I hope to stimulate people to think along distinctively Christian lines when they confront the prospect of such misconduct. In the Christian liberal arts college in which I teach, we had occasion some years ago to adopt a policy against sexual harassment. The policy, of course, is that we would not tolerate any such thing, and that if a charge was brought forward, we would look into it by following such-and-such a procedure. A great many institutions and organizations have some such policy.

During the discussion that led to the adoption of the policy, I voiced opposition to the way the issue was being laid out. Part of the reason for my objection should be evident from what I have written above. What I would have welcomed instead is a professional code of conduct.

Consider a pair of facts. Instructors in liberal arts colleges like Redeemer are mainly male; the students are mainly female. If someone had said that we need a professional code of conduct for male instructors in particular, and then especially as regards their interaction with female students, I would have supported him. Many types of work require specific codes of conduct, whether informal or written.

This point came home to me some years ago when I was a college student: to pay my own way, I worked the night shift as an orderly in a hospital. As an orderly, I was a member of the nursing staff and was under the supervision of the nurses. Most of the time I worked with male patients. But it was a small hospital, and I was and was sometimes pulled into the emergency room to help out. Because of these circumstances, I was also involved to some degree in the care of female patients. I was instructed informally -- but carefully -- by my supervisors regarding possible areas of indiscretion. Under certain circumstances I was to seek a female counterpart to meet a female patient's request for help. Yet in some situations I was to meet the request myself. It would depend on the urgency of the situation and on the likelihood of finding a female staff member able to come quickly to the scene. There were a few other considerations as well. On occasion I was sent to find a female nurse to join a male doctor when a delicate examination or procedure was to be undertaken. Charges of malpractice and abuse were not as common then as they are today, but I could see that the hospital was concerned that we should not open ourselves to legal charges and challenges through carelessness or indiscreet behavior. And so I worked under a code of conduct designed specifically for the type of work I was doing.

The work of a college professor does not normally include the prospect of physical intimacy with the potential to cause embarrassment, but it does involve written and oral admonition, and it also involves opportunities for young females to be alone with male instructors in the privacy of an office. In other words, there are situations for which the guidance of a professional code of conduct would be welcome. Such a code could include provisions about romantic associations between teacher and student on the college level. (They should be discouraged, but not absolutely excluded.) Within this context there would be place for stern "sexual harassment" regulations. Thereby a Christian liberal arts college could show that it welcomed the realization among many non-Christians that the type of misconduct we call sexual harassment has no place in a civilized work environment.

If we were drawing up such regulations, should we add one against classroom rape? ("No prof is allowed to rape a student after class if she stays behind to ask him a question.") Probably this strikes you as a silly suggestion. You may feel inclined to say that no such law is needed because rape is already covered under the law of the land. How about a rule to the effect that professors are not permitted to urinate in the hallway but must use the designated facilities instead? This one might also seem superfluous, but it is not covered under the criminal code. I would of course be offended if such a regulation were proposed for our college: I would want to know what bad experiences had led people to suppose that such a regulation was needed. Presumably it is not needed. Yet endless regulations of this general sort could be proposed.

The point to take home is that for the most part, the code of conduct that governs proper behavior in an institution is unwritten and is derived from the supporting society. Therefore one keeps regulations to a minimum. Some are adopted for show, some for legal protection. But many are a matter of common sense. It is when common sense dies, or when the consensus underlying common sense is shattered, that we feel the need for regulations.

Autonomy is a difficult principle to follow consistently in one's moral reasoning. The exercise of my autonomy may well collide with someone else's liberty. As traditional moral standards fall away, as the thought of any consensus regarding sexual right and wrong begins to sound quaint, we may find ourselves ever more in need of specific regulations against such specific offenses as "sexual harassment" and "date rape." And with these highly charged terms comes the possibility of hot-button ethics. [END]

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