Instead of ruminating on on new paper or discovery in this post, I figured I should address two problems that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past day or so. First, over at Pharyngula there has been a rather, erm, spirited debate over the use of the term “rape” as it applies to animals. Some feel that it disregards human suffering and may even be demeaning, other arguing that it is a perfectly acceptable alternative to “forced copulation” or other such terms. My own opinion; well, that depends.
Overall I don’t have a problem with the term “rape” being used for forced copulation in animals, especially vertebrates like ducks, dolphins, and primates. I don’t think a distinctive line can be drawn where it’s possible to say that psychological and physical suffering don’t accompany the act, although we should be careful not to infer morality on animals (i.e. ducks) where no such moral system exists. In fact, and this is going to sound absolutely horrible, but I almost prefer the term rape in describing the forced copulation of vertebrates because it inherently incorporates a psychological aspect (however short or long-lasting) that I don’t believe is often taken into account.
That being said, the how we define the term “rape” determines how we can use it, and some suggest that forced copulation may not equal rape. In humans a large part of the detestable behavior exhibited by rapists may be connected to dominance (thus being considered just as much a violent crime as sexual) and others have suggested that maybe some people make themselves more vulnerable to rape because of some biological cause (I’m not advocating this view, merely saying that it exists). If this is so and rape is just as much about dominance as it is about sex then we have to ask ourselves if the same applies to other animals; it may for dolphins and primates but what about ducks, and more importantly, insects? If this is true then there is a distinction between rape and forced copulation, although where we draw the line might be a bit difficult.
In essense, as far as vertebrates go (especially those who have a good deal of intelligence) I think rape is an acceptable term to use (and perhaps even moreso than “forced copulation”). The same may not extend to invertebrates, however, and so whenever we’re going to take the controversial road and use “rape” instead of “forced copulation” we should define what we mean by each so that the ramifications of such behavior can be fully understood. This isn’t about being insensitive to the suffering of people or animals, but rather about accurately describing behvaior and its implications.
Also, a commentor recently mentioned on my fish-as-food post that people should have the “right” to eat fish. This got me thinking; where does this right come from? Obviously it’s not spelled out in any legal documentation, and while I may have the right to eat shark fin soup it would be horrible for me to do so, so what should we do? Personally, I feel that at some point if consuming fish is doing more harm than good to the species (and oceans in general) perhaps we should have our “right” to eat certain fish revoked, just as we shouldn’t have the right to develop anywhere we want to (especially if its right in the middle of critical habitat for a particular species). What we have right now is choice to eat fish (or certain kinds of seafood for that matter) or not to eat fish, but I don’t believe that the system as is should never be revised when our consumerism risks species.
I’m not saying no one should eat a fish ever again, but it’s obvious that our current habits are harming the oceans and we do not have a sustainable plan so we should give species ample opportunity to recover. We can probably go ’round and ’round about what rights we do and don’t have when it comes to ecology, but regardless of what we have the right to do what without doubt exists is the responsibility to act like adults and perhaps abstain from eating certain foods. When it comes to ecology, doing something because we can or have the right to is not an excuse and often leads to catastrophe; we need to pay more attention to what we should be doing rather than what may or may not be permissible to do.