Apr 222010

In an episode of the new Green Porno series (well, this time it’s “Seduce Me”), Isabella Rossallini says,

“Ouch! Ouch! One of them is raping me! I don’t care.”

She’s in the role of a duck at the time.

Which made me think… Is there such a thing as duck “rape”? Or is rape a strictly human concept?

I’ve already asserted that there’s no such thing as a “gay” penguin, as “gay” is a human cultural phenomenon, superimposed over a behavior. There are penguins (and individuals among numerous and various species) who exhibit homosexual and homosocial behavior. The behavior doesn’t make them “gay.”

Indeed, other cultures construct different meanings for homosexual and gender-variant behavior in humans. Among the Navaho – forgive the DESPERATELY oversimplified explanation I’m about to give – a female-bodied, masculine-identified person can have a relationship with a female-bodied, feminine-identified person – in other words, a homosexual but heterogendered relationship – and that’s fine, whereas for a female-bodied, masculine identified person to have a relationship with a male-bodied, masculine identified person – a heterosexual but homogendered realtionship – is as taboo as incest. For them it is the social role, not the body, that matters.

Cultures construct forced copulation in humans differently too. My (brilliant, marvelous) intern has spent time doing sexual health education in Tanzania (this is an understatement; she actually built a program in a hospital from scratch). She and I have talked about the culture around rape in that country, how women view non-consensual sex as a part of life, just one of those things. They described to her not feeling particularly traumatized. It’s culturally different.

Returning to the point: behavior is one thing. Cultural construction is another.

Based on this idea, I also don’t think that there’s non-human rape. Non-human forced copulation is forced copulation, not rape.

Undeniably there are varying degrees of mutual interest during sex between non-human animals. Ducks are one example – indeed male waterfowl in general use a forced copulation strategy. Subordinate male orangutans, too, use a forced copulation strategy.

But is that “rape”?

Rape has a deep moral, as well as legal, meaning. Rape is (briefly) penetration without consent. Can a duck give consent? Can an orangutan?

You may say I’m an arrogant human, but as far as I’m concerned, NO, a duck can’t give consent. (If a duck could give consent, I’d feel like a terrible, cruel, and, what’s more, cannibalistic person when I ate one. Personally, I can’t eat something to which I apply the same moral standards as humans.)

It’s not so easy to avoid imposing human moral standards on orangutans and chimps; they’re so like us, they’re so close to human. But we must avoid it. It’s not appropriate to overlay moral meaning on animal behavior; chimps commit infanticide, but that’s just part of being a chimp. It’s not immoral or wrong, it’s just… chimpanzeedom.

There’s something in us, some apparently innate tendency, to find lessons and moral standards in nature. This is, in part, the naturalistic fallacy – the conclusion that if something is natural it must be right or good. Just as mistaken is the conclusion that something in nature is bad or wrong because it violates a human moral standard.

Ducks aren’t wrong or cruel or bad for using a forced copulation strategy. They’re just ducks.

But you can’t say that about humans. The standard is DIFFERENT.

I won’t, in this post, address the controversial and, in my opinion, nonsensical research on the “evolutionary adaptiveness” of rape in the human species. That’s another post (and one I dread writing).

But I do want to mention, in closing, that female ducks have remarkable vaginas that Isabella Rossallini describes in her movie; Radiolab tells us about duck vaginas too. They’re amazing. They’ve evolved a variety of mechanisms for controlling which male’s sperm actually makes it to the egg. There has been an evolutionary arms race between male and female ducks; males want their sperm to fertilize as many females’ eggs as possible, and females want to control which male’s sperm fertilizes her eggs. This is, in itself, beautiful. It’s neither right nor wrong nor good nor bad. It’s just nature and holy crap is it glorious.

The power of evolution. If you can think about with your moral judgment in neutral, your brain will grow six sizes, man.