The suicide of University of Missouri swimmer Sasha Menu Courey brings to the fore the problem of rape. President Obama has now called for an overhaul of rape policies on college campuses, a companion to his earlier call for an overhaul of rape policies in the U.S. armed forces. The United States desperately needs an effective system that not only adjudicates allegations of sexual assault but decreases the incidence of rape.
The system, belatedly, is just getting around to addressing lapses concerning the death of Courey, who killed herself in 2011, months after she privately confided to a school crisis counselor that she had been raped. This comes following a 16-month ESPN "Outside the Lines" investigation that raised questions about how the university handled her case. Now, addressing the complex issues of privacy and Title IX, the university's president has called for an independent counsel to examine how the school handled Courey's case.
Roman political mythology perhaps offers an instructive parallel for the policy crisis facing colleges. The rape of Lucretia, a beautiful, hard-working Roman wife, represented a turning-point in Roman history, the moment when the Romans decided to turn away from monarchy, a system wherein the personal wishes of wealthy, powerful, charismatic individuals predominated, and begin to develop a political, civil community.
Out on deployment in a Roman war against near-neighbors, Lucretia's husband and his buddies had a drinking-party and quarreled about who had the best wife. All rode back to Rome and found their wives engaged in similar dinner-party entertainments, excepting Lucretia, whom they found hard at work, by lamplight. According to the Roman historian Livy, Lucretia's modesty inflamed the king's son to want to rape her. And he did, by knifepoint. The family friend, who betrayed friendship and family, Lucretia's rapist presumed to use social/misogynist biases against her. He threatened to kill her and then to destroy her reputation by claiming that he found her having sex with another male, a slave. Details of Lucretia's rape are interesting for the modern debate about men, women, and rape: the Romans knew that women are raped because men decide to rape them and that men rape women because they think they can.
Lucretia faced the dilemma of the rape victim. She summoned her family and her husband, tearfully informed them of what had happened to her, and killed herself. The woman who had been the object of a contest (best wife), the object of male desire to rape, had no way out from her devastating personal experience. She worried that her rape be conflated with promiscuity and revealed the enduring, oftentimes unspoken presumption that women misrepresent consensual sex as "rape." Lucretia becomes a moral agent -- and takes back the narrative of her own experience -- only by killing herself. She killed herself to assert her integrity, and in doing so she became a Roman icon: The early Church theologian Augustine sought to dissuade women from following Lucretia's example and committing suicide after they had been raped during Alaric's sack of Rome in 410 CE.
In Roman historical tradition Lucretia's rape and suicide were seen as offenses against the entire community, and Roman government emerged and developed from the community's decision to protect the most vulnerable body and to hold powerful individuals accountable for their actions. The Roman Republic -- and the much-trumpeted institutions of elected government, the protection of the law, and broadly-based citizenship -- emerged from the ideological ashes of Lucretia.
Rome remained a patriarchy and Roman women, though knowing a remarkable level of independence, did not attain the equality claimed by modern feminism. But for Roman tradition, violence against women reflected the deliberate, uncivil act of will by a mightily resourced male, and Roman government developed to preclude that presumption of the powerful. The small, necessary first step must not be elided: the enforced social exclusion of her rapist, who faced exile, an isolation from the community which he did not respect.
We seem at a similar moment. Sasha Menu Courey claimed "The system failed me!" She was telling us an important truth. We should recognize rape as a violent crime, a volitional act against our entire community; and we must develop the mechanism -- and most important the collective will -- to hold individuals accountable for their actions.