V.A. The Offense | Jeannie Suk | January 20, 2014


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V.A. The Offense

Original Creator: Jeannie Suk Current Version: Jeannie Suk Show/Hide

To a greater degree than any of the other crimes we study in this class, the very definition of rape has been a subject of dispute and reform in recent years. Perhaps that is because the basic result element that rape law criminalizes—sexual intercourse—is not, unlike death or battery, itself considered bad. When someone intentionally kills another, there is usually little question (except in cases of self-defense) that the result is bad and that a crime may have occurred. Unlike most intentional killing, intentional sex is not inherently wrong. Indeed, in some situations, much of the evidence of rape may rest in the perceptions and interpretations of the involved parties.

The traditional elements of rape law are: 1) sexual intercourse; 2) with force; 3) and lack of consent. Because the sexual intercourse element of rape can be difficult to distinguish from lawful, intentional behavior, rape law has struggled to create a regime that balances the punishment of wrongdoers with the protection of the rights of the accused. Originally, rape law established strict rules governing punishable behavior that were under-inclusive and strongly protected accused men: for example, a claim of rape had to include the use of physical force by the accused and physical resistance by the victim. Additionally, there was a spousal exception to rape, so that husbands could not be criminally liable for rape of their wives.

As the cases in this section demonstrate, however, rape law reform in the past several decades has dramatically affected these requirements. Namely, feminist legal reformers have challenged and in many jurisdictions weakened or eliminated the force requirement. That has shifted more legal focus onto the question whether there was consent. Consider what problems consent itself may have as a central element of rape law.

As you read the cases and essays in this section, consider how different formulations of rape law balance several very serious considerations of our criminal system: punishing wrongdoers; differentiating between levels of blameworthiness; and protecting the rights of defendants. What evidentiary or normative roles did the traditional rape requirements play? What are the risks of limiting or removing them? How should our system balance the risks of over-inclusivity and under-inclusivity? What social and intimate relationships between men and women do the various possible rape rules promote and change? And as always, how do these questions implicate the justifications of punishment such as retribution and deterrence?


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  1. 1 Show/Hide More V.A.i. Statutes
    Original Creator: Jeannie Suk Current Version: Jeannie Suk
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    1. 2.1 Show/Hide More State v. Rusk
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February 18, 2014

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Jeannie Suk

Harvard University

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