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Question 20: What should a woman do about the possibility of being raped?

Next fall I will be a resident student on a college campus in a very rough part of the city. I’ve heard that in recent years a number of women have been raped by strangers around the campus. I also have read that a large percentage of the women residing on nearly any campus are raped at least once during their college years by a fellow student or other acquaintance. As a potential rape victim, I am wondering what I should do about it. And even though the answer might seem obvious, I am confused.

I have several questions. What should I do to avoid being raped? How can a college woman enjoy a normal social life and intimate friendships with men without taking chances? If someone tries to rape me, should I resist? Some people say no, because a victim who resists is more likely to be seriously injured or even killed. But the Church offers as models Susanna in the Old Testament and Maria Goretti, and both risked their lives by resisting. If I were about to be raped, should I urge the man to use a condom? What could I do to avoid becoming pregnant? Would I be obliged to report being raped to the police? They say rape victims who report it to the police always go through a great deal of unpleasantness, usually for nothing, since rapists seldom are punished.

I read a magazine article about rape, and am not sure what to think about the author’s ideas. She says society must stop blaming the victim, as if she somehow shared responsibility for being raped, and start punishing the rapist. She argues that rape always is a crime of violence, not of lust—the rapist is seeking the emotional gratification of dominating his victim rather than sexual pleasure—so that no woman becomes a victim of rape by dressing or acting in a so-called provocative manner. The rapist is no less guilty if the victim was dressed sensually or if she flirted with him and led him on; in fact, even if a woman changes her mind after she has begun to have intercourse with a man, he becomes a rapist if he does not withdraw when she tells him to. This writer also says that unless the woman’s consent is totally free, the man’s act is rape, not sex. She argues that a woman is not totally free if she is under any pressure at all, and verbal pressure is the same as physical force. So, she says, many women raped by an acquaintance do not even realize they are victims, and mistakenly feel guilty about having given in to the rapist’s repeated demands.


This question concerns a woman’s responsibilities with regard to rape. To avoid being raped, a woman should take reasonable precautions and avoid unreasonable risks. Under duress, a victim should not consent to sexual intercourse, but consent must be distinguished from choices (1) not to resist being raped and (2) to do various things demanded by the rapist and not wrong in themselves. Depending on her own responsibilities and the anticipated risks, a woman generally should resist being raped but sometimes need not. If conception can be prevented, the victim may try to prevent it, but she should not attempt abortion. Since citizens should report crimes, a woman who has been raped has a duty to report the crime, but this affirmative responsibility admits of exceptions.

The reply could be along the following lines:

I set aside as outside your present concern the rape of young children and others who lack the capacity to consent, homosexual rape, and intercourse forced on a woman by her husband. Still, I wish to include everything that does concern you. To most people, the word rape probably suggests a man using physical force to achieve vaginal penetration (the insertion of the penis into the vagina) despite the woman’s manifest unwillingness to have intercourse with him. This is too narrow an understanding, however, since anal and oral intercourse also can be rape. Moreover, a woman unable to resist—for example, because she is unconscious or paralyzed—can be raped without any sort of force. Likewise a woman too frightened or otherwise unable to manifest her unwillingness can be the victim of rape. And the rapist can use psychological duress—for example, a threat to kill or injure—rather than physical force. In what follows, rape refers to heterosexual, extramarital intercourse, natural or sodomitical, initiated by a man without the woman’s consent—and it will be assumed here that the woman has the power to consent to sexual activity, though not that she is able to exercise that power here and now.

Pivotal in this definition is that the woman does not consent. Since the act in question is interpersonal, merely inward consent is not sufficient: a man commits rape if he initiates intercourse without the woman having communicated consent. But a woman who willingly engages in intercourse often gives her consent without words, by a gesture or by behavior that initiates or facilitates intercourse. Moreover, since there is a natural progression in the behavior that ends in intercourse, consent can be given by cooperation in mutually arousing activities of increasing intimacy. Still, if a woman cooperating in such activities makes clear her unwillingness to proceed, her earlier cooperation cannot be regarded as consent to the final step.

Even though she might otherwise refuse intercourse, a woman who chooses to engage in it when her inhibitions are lowered—for example, by fatigue, the excitement of a celebration, unfamiliar surroundings, alcohol or drugs, other couples’ behavior, and/or her own sexual arousal—truly consents provided she remains sufficiently conscious and in control of herself to be able to refuse. Even if a man does not rape a woman, however, he gravely wrongs her in seeking to engage in nonmarital intercourse with her, more gravely wrongs her if he does so knowing her usual inhibitions are lowered, and still more gravely wrongs her if he has intentionally done something to lower them. Though rape is worse in that it violates the woman’s autonomy, the wrongdoing just described is worse than rape in that it induces the woman to share moral responsibility for the abuse of her own body, and suffering evil is not as bad as cooperating in it.

Even if a woman’s choice to engage in intercourse is elicited by prolonged cajoling, a threat to break off a romantic relationship, or a promise of payment or some other benefit, her choice remains a preference of intercourse to the alternative, and so constitutes consent. It is not true that exerting any sort of pressure on a woman to consent to intercourse makes a man a rapist. Here, too, however, a man who presses a woman to engage in nonmarital intercourse gravely wrongs her, and that wrongdoing is in one respect worse—insofar as it involves inducing the woman’s wrongful consent—than rape would be. Then too, if men with power (employers, professors, public officials, and so on) use promises and threats to elicit women’s consent to nonmarital intercourse, they do additional injustices by abusing their power with respect to the other goods at stake (employment opportunities, job advancement, grades, governmental action, and so on). Moreover, both in taking advantage of a woman’s lowered inhibitions and in exerting pressure on her, a man without regard for a woman’s autonomy can seek her consent solely to avoid being guilty of the crime of rape. Such a man would rape the woman if he dared, and so is morally guilty of rape (CMP, 369–74).

The choice to engage in intercourse must be distinguished from the choice not to resist rape. Typically, a couple’s agreement to have intercourse includes the choice of both parties to seek integral, mutual sexual satisfaction. However, a woman’s choice to engage in intercourse is at least her choice to do something, if only express consent, so as to help bring about vaginal (or oral or anal) penetration. Considered in itself, a woman’s choice not to resist rape is a choice, not to do anything, but to suffer—that is, passively accept—penetration rather than suffer the rapist’s other violence and/or accept the risk of death or injury. A woman being raped also can rightly obey the rapist’s orders to do various things not wrong in themselves: undress, lie down, spread her legs, and so on. Though such behavior facilitates penetration, she need not choose it for that end, but can choose it, without consenting to intercourse, to avoid undergoing other evils.

In considering what to do to avoid being raped, begin by rejecting two claims made in the article you summarize: that rape never is a crime of lust and that victims never share responsibility for the injury they suffer.62

As to the first claim: Though rape certainly is not a sex crime as much as it is a crime of violence, lust and violence are by no means mutually exclusive. Indeed, they often are intertwined. Undoubtedly, men whose primary motive is to dominate and degrade women in general or a particular woman sometimes use rape as the bad means to their bad end. But some men obtain sexual gratification by acting with violence, and any woman who arouses their lust is likely to be treated violently. And some men’s lust, by displacing affection and depersonalizing women, disposes them to do violence to a woman they lust after who resists their advances.

As to the second claim: Though every rapist is guilty and many victims of rape could not have done anything to avoid it, others, especially some raped by acquaintances, would not have been raped had they not misbehaved. They did not intend to be raped—something logically impossible—but they shared responsibility for what they suffered if they willingly cooperated in sexual sins preceding and leading up to the rape, or if they otherwise willingly took unreasonable risks or failed to take reasonable precautions. They are something like fraud victims who never intended to be defrauded but who share responsibility for their loss because greed and carelessness made them vulnerable.

Of course, no man who rapes a woman should be excused (see CCC, 2356; LCL, 548–49), even if her wrongdoing made her vulnerable. But while such a rapist is guilty, his victim is not entirely innocent. Women who deliberately arouse men’s lust and then claim their right to limit the resulting behavior are not only imprudent but unjustly manipulative. A man whose wrongly aroused lust transforms him into an abject suppliant for sexual satisfaction or moves him to criminal misbehavior has been rendered servile. Thus, those who try to justify arousing men’s lust apparently want, not true community with men, but domination over them, perhaps in retaliation for some men’s abuses of power—whether the latter are identified accurately, exaggerated, or, perhaps, merely imagined. Therefore, to avoid being raped, think of sins you might be tempted to commit that would increase the risk, recognize that this risk is an additional good reason not to commit those sins, and firmly resolve to avoid them.

You ask how a college woman can enjoy a normal social life and intimate friendships with men without taking chances. The question is ambiguous. If a normal social life refers to partying that includes using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol, and if intimate friendships refers to relationships in which the couple intentionally cause each other’s sexual arousal and seek sexual satisfaction, I do not see how a college woman can enjoy these things without risking acquaintance rape. However, there is no place for such enjoyments in a good Christian life. Men and women committed to living such a life do not use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol. Except within marriage, they do not intentionally cause or maintain their own or anyone else’s sexual arousal, or seek their own or anyone else’s sexual satisfaction. They dress and behave modestly, that is, in ways likely to dispose others to regard them as persons rather than as sex objects. Being considerate of others, they learn what stimuli are likely to trouble someone of the opposite sex who is trying to be chaste and do all they reasonably can to avoid presenting those stimuli.

On some of these matters you perhaps do not accept traditional Christian morality. Even so, you surely recognize some limits to morally acceptable behavior, and you should consider the risks not only of violating those limits but even of approaching them. Many rapes by acquaintances would not occur if women stayed away from or left parties at which people take illegal drugs or drink excessively, and if they abstained from participating in behavior appropriate only to prepare for sexual intercourse.

Sometimes, too, a timely call for help would prevent rape by an acquaintance. Some women fail to call for help because they do not wish to bother those they might summon, or are embarrassed, or are reluctant to report to authorities the threatening behavior of someone they know. Plan never to let such considerations keep you from summoning help if the need arises.

What about the risk of being raped by a stranger? Collect information about situations in which there is a significant risk of that happening, and think about each of them. In most if not all of them, there also is significant risk of being mugged. Thus, like men at the college, you should consider whether you have a good reason to be in those situations, and, if so, whether there are precautions you could take to reduce the risk.

Some muggings and rapes by strangers can be avoided by good planning: doing errands at less dangerous times, going about in groups, using a campus escort service, and so on. Heed any advice or warnings by the city police and/or the campus security office.

Of course, one also should be ready to use elementary means of avoiding and warding off assault: flight and a call for help. A young man or woman in good condition who has the presence of mind to get rid of any encumbrances has a good chance of outrunning many would-be attackers—and the regular exercise required to keep in shape has many other benefits. As for calling for help, be prepared to do it without hesitation at the first clear sign one is likely to be attacked.63

Much of the preceding advice will be offensive to some people, who maintain that women have the right to the same freedom as men to do as they please and go where they like, that women also have the right to exercise their feminine sexual appeal by dressing and acting attractively, that society should vindicate these rights by giving women adequate protection and punishing rapists consistently and severely, and that women should not collaborate in maintaining the present unjust state of affairs by accepting all sorts of constraints that compromise their freedom.

Three things must be said in response.

First, as has been explained already, there would be a lot less acquaintance rape if couples abstained from the sexual sins and abuse of drugs and/or alcohol that often occasion it. Since neither men nor women have any right to the freedom to commit such sins, women have no right to equal freedom to behave as wrongly as many men do in those matters.

Second, none of my advice requires women to conceal their femininity or prohibits their dressing and acting attractively. However, to exercise sexual appeal means deliberately arousing others’ erotic desire, and doing that, except between spouses, is wrong. Even those who do not accept traditional Christian morality, which limits sexual activity to marriage, should admit that deliberately arousing others’ sexual desire without their consent is unjust, since the desire either will cause them frustration or lead them into sexual activity they may prefer to avoid. So, just as a man has no right to initiate sexual contact without a woman’s consent, a woman has no right to arouse a man sexually without his consent.

Third, rape is one of the cruelest forms of criminal assault; indeed, it is a wrong comparable in gravity to homicide and, in some cases, even worse (see LCL, 548–49). Society often does fail to provide adequate protection against it, and the criminal law and its enforcement doubtless should be improved. Women do suffer an injustice in this matter, and it is unfair that they have to accept some of the constraints they must to reduce the risk of being raped. Moreover, if most ignored the risks, the crime’s frequency undoubtedly would increase, and that might lead society to provide women with better protection. However, those who suggest you should ignore risks are trivializing what being raped would mean to you and inviting you to be a victim-martyr for their cause. That probably would not accomplish much, since few other women are likely to do the same. One suspects that even those who issue the invitation do not themselves do as they suggest, either because they prudently avoid risks of being raped or because their lifestyle keeps them out of situations of significant risk.

If a man is about to rape you, should you resist? As explained above, not resisting rape does not constitute consenting to it. Since being raped is a grave injury, however, a victim always has a strong reason to resist. In some cases of incipient acquaintance rape, minimal force is used and the risks involved in resisting are slight, so that nonresistance is likely to be misinterpreted as expressing consent. Especially if her own wrongdoing has helped create the situation, the victim in such cases has a duty to resist, not only to prevent the injury to herself but to save the acquaintance who already is guilty of attempted rape from committing the greater crime.

However, the burdens and risks of resisting, especially if resistance is likely to be futile, can provide a compelling reason not to resist. Assaulted by a stranger and already injured or threatened with a deadly weapon, a woman might well suffer great injury or even death. In that situation, many women would not think of resisting, and only those well prepared to repel such an attack would be likely to succeed. Still, if a woman were ready and able to use force against a would-be rapist, her resistance would be justified even if it were likely to result in the attacker’s death, provided she intended only self-defense and chose only the least destructive means that is available and adequate for that purpose (see LCL, 483–85). (I am not telling you to obtain training in self-defense or to equip yourself with a repellent or weapon; such tactics might be self-defeating, and only someone with the relevant expertise could provide reliable advice about them.)

The Church does indeed offer Susanna and Maria Goretti as models, but it does not follow that a woman always is morally obliged to resist being raped. Susanna was presented with a choice. The two old men said: “We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away.”64 Understanding her predicament in terms of a choice between refusing and consenting, she would have sinned had she consented, and so she rightly refused.65 Maria Goretti, whose father had died and who kept house while her mother labored in the fields, repeatedly rejected a neighbor’s attempts to seduce her, yet did not tell anyone because the young man threatened to kill her if she did. Finally, he menaced her with a dagger, but she refused to yield, saying: “No, God does not wish it. It is a sin. You would go to hell for it.” Perhaps it did not occur to Maria that she could choose not to resist, or perhaps her passive compliance would not have satisfied the young man. In any case, the Church proposes her as a model both for her refusal to consent to fornication and for her merciful concern for the soul of her tormentor, whom she also forgave before she died.66 Both cases illustrate the point that consent to nonmarital intercourse is always wrong, but neither shows it is wrong to suffer rape passively rather than actively resist.

Should you urge a rapist to use a condom? In some situations, that might seem to express consent, and, in any case, such a request should not be an alternative to resisting, if appropriate. Having made clear your unwillingness to engage in intercourse, however, your intention in urging a rapist to use a condom presumably would be to lessen the likelihood both of conception and of being infected with HIV and/or other diseases. The latter intention plainly is good, and so is the former insofar as it bears, not on preventing a baby, but on limiting the violent and unwanted union (see LCL, 512; q. 54, below). Moreover, inasmuch as the point of the request would be to prevent the fullness of wrongful intercourse, it would not constitute consent to intercourse. So, unless you feared the request would increase the likelihood that the rapist would carry on with the rape or inflict other injury, it would be morally acceptable.

If you were raped, what could you do about the possibility of becoming pregnant? The chance of becoming pregnant would be small, since conception seldom results from a single act of intercourse and is even less likely to result if that single act is rape (see q. 64, below). You might be able to further reduce the chance of conception, and it would help if you were aware of the stage of your menstrual cycle at the time. Fertility awareness also will be useful if you marry. So, you would do well to begin learning about natural family planning so that you will understand and be aware of your cycle, during which there is a stretch of only a few days when conception is possible.67

If the rape occurred after the fertile days had already passed, pregnancy would be impossible. If it occurred at the time of ovulation or shortly thereafter, nothing that can be done would reduce the chance of conception. If conception did occur, it certainly would be wrong to destroy the new individual who had come to be. So, it would be wrong to accept the abortifacient medication generally offered victims of rape who go to a hospital emergency room.68 If it occurred after a menstrual period but before the signs of fertility had appeared, you could go as soon as possible to a hospital emergency room or at once see a physician. If you knew you could not be pregnant or a pregnancy test were negative, and if additional tests indicated that ovulation was not imminent, you could accept medication to suppress ovulation.69

Seeking medical care after rape and reporting the crime to the police are related. In some places, care providers are required by law to report the crime when a rape victim comes to them. Any woman who is raped should seek appropriate help, though that need not always mean medical care. But even if you were not interested in medical care after being raped, you have a serious responsibility as a citizen to report crimes and to help bring criminals to justice. Now, if a rape victim goes to a hospital emergency room as soon as possible, without cleansing herself or changing her clothing, the physician often can recover semen and/or other physical evidence useful in prosecuting the rapist; thus, a timely visit to a hospital emergency room probably would be part of your civic responsibility.

Strong negative emotions aroused by a horrible experience might tempt you not to report the crime. But one important reason why few rapists are punished is that many women do not fulfill this responsibility. Putting yourself in the place of others whom the rapist might victimize, you, as a victim of rape, would recognize your civic duty. If raped by a stranger you could not describe or identify, you might suppose reporting the crime would be pointless. But even such reports can alert others to danger and provide helpful information to the police. If raped by an acquaintance, you might suppose that reporting the crime to the police would be pitiless or that the matter should be dealt with by the college’s disciplinary process. But prosecution in such a case not only could save other women from becoming the man’s victims but could induce his repentance, and no college’s disciplinary process is adequate to bring a rapist to justice. Only special circumstances would justify not reporting the crime to the police. Such circumstances could be of two sorts: the police and other law enforcement authorities were so sure to perform poorly that reporting certainly would be a waste of time, or reporting raised the prospect of such great burdens to you that not even the most conscientious citizens would expect you to bear them.70

Finally, though you do well to think about your responsibilities—being raped would be horrible and the danger of rape is real—do not be overly concerned about this single threat.71 Some feminists have exaggerated the frequency of rape.72 No doubt, acquaintance rape has increased in recent years, but a chaste and temperate woman is not very likely to be in a situation where a man she knows will rape her. And reasonable precautions, which will hardly add to the trouble both men and women must take to avoid being mugged, will greatly reduce the risk of being raped by a stranger.

62. Katherine Anne Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993), responds at length to such ideas; though not entirely consistent with Christian moral standards, her views are marked by a respect for reality missing in many ideologically driven treatments of the subject.

63. Research supports the view that calling for help, fleeing, and perhaps fighting back are more effective than verbal strategies for avoiding rape; see Joyce Levine-MacCombie and Mary P. Koss, “Acquaintance Rape: Effective Avoidance Strategies,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 10 (1986): 311–19, which includes references to previous research bearing mainly on rape by strangers.

64. Dn 13.20–21 (in the NRSV Bible, Dn 13 is Susanna, among the apocryphal books).

65. See John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 91, AAS 85 (1993) 1205, OR, 6 Oct. 1993, xiv.

66. See New Catholic Encyclopedia, 6:632.

67. See, e.g., John F. Kippley and Sheila K. Kippley, The Art of Natural Family Planning, 4th ed. (Cincinnati, Ohio.: Couple to Couple League, 1996); Evelyn Billings and Ann Westmore, The Billings Method: Controlling Fertility without Drugs or Devices (New York: Ballantine, 1983).

68. See Eugene F. Diamond, “Rape Protocol,” Linacre Quarterly, 60:3 (Aug. 1993): 8–19, focusing on the use of Ovral; also see q. 64, below.

69. See LCL, 512, n. 103. Eugene F. Diamond, “Ovral in Rape Protocols,” Ethics and Medics, 21:10 (Oct. 1996): 1–2, says (2) that determining the stage of the cycle “will require objective laboratory evidence such as the Ovutest to detect the LH surge, urine pregnanediol, and serum progesterone levels.”

70. Linda Fairstein, Sexual Violence: Our War against Rape (New York: William Morrow, 1993), makes a strong case for reporting rape and other sexual assault, and pressing charges; she admits that victims often used to be mistreated by police and prosecutors, but argues that those who report these crimes are likely to be treated better today.

71. Roiphe, op. cit., 51–71, puts the threat into perspective.

72. See Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 209–26.