Of Risk and Rape and Inhibition

In aviation safety we've come to realize that accidents don't just happen -- they're planned. Pilots are trained to anticipate risky situations and take evasive action. Most accidents, we find, occur as a result of a sequence of bad decisions which box pilots into situations they can't get out of, so a bad outcome is inevitable. To avoid accidents, we practice risk reduction.

So what has pilotage to do with rape? In a recent much-publicized case, a beautiful young woman goes to the bedroom of a celebrity womanizer and is raped -- she says, although he claims she had sex willingly. Stop right there! What female in her right mind would trust herself to the mercies of a powerful male by going to his room after midnight and not anticipate sex, willed or unwilled?


No woman deserves to be raped. No pilot deserves to crash, either. But imprudent actions lead inevitably to accidents and crashes, rapes and murders. We are warned about "blaming the victim." We are told that a woman wearing scanty clothes is not inviting sex. That forced sexual advances are inexcusable. But we also know that flirting with danger increases the risk of accidents, and we say that those who do so are "asking for it."

This century has been a revolution in sexual ethics. Call it personal freedom or women's lib or what you will. People pick up partners in bars and have sex without knowing much about each other. Today using a condom is called "safe sex." For most young people, prudence has gone down the tubes with prudery. They think the morality of their grandparents quaint and needlessly inhibited. But inhibitions are what flying instructors spend a great deal of time inculcating. We call it risk reduction. It means getting students to think before doing dumb things and becoming statistics. We make them memorize checklists and religiously go through them before takeoff and landing. Always file a flight plan. Keep your head up and look around. And check, check, check.


The Victorians, too, had checklists. They knew man was lustful and sinful, and they took evasive action. Young woman were chaperoned. Affianced couples were allowed a chaste kiss, but a lover never crossed the threshold, actually or metaphorically. A woman who allowed a man to visit her in private lost her reputation. In a court of law, a man and woman alone in a bedroom were assumed to be having a liaison, and divorce courts knew what to do: condemn and convict.

The great granddaddy of checklists was that brought down from the mountain by Moses. It was simple and final: Don't lie, don't steal, don't kill, don't screw around. God said it, but it also was common sense. Moral codes everywhere are not quaint vestigial survivors of ancient customs; they are checklists of prudent inhibitions which form the rules of the game in civilized society. We relax them at our peril -- as the "victims" of AIDS and syphilis and gonorrhea well know.

Long ago the founders of the first civilizations knew the biological urges that had dominated man's evolution were becoming inappropriate. They introduced laws, codes, cultural corrections to the animal impulses that governed primitive people. They accepted the restraints of civilized society.

Restraints are sometimes irksome. Our 20th century has been an era of relaxation, redefining the roles of man and woman, master and servant, class and class, race and race. We see the process as liberation -- women's lib, gay lib, civil rights, do your own thing.

But other ages may view us very differently -- as an age which relaxed the restraints of civilized society, the checklists of prudence and morality, until accidents became inevitable. They may see us as the victims of our own indulgence, of the "loose living" that brought ruin to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Today's young people have little idea of the risks they run by getting too close to each other sexually. They have no concept of original sin, the ape inside the skin. They may be aware of AIDS and condoms, but they are unaware of the strains on civilized behavior when young healthy males encounter young healthy females, when "saying no" is a mere verbalism overwhelmed by animal passions.

The Victorians placed a wide cordon sanitaire around sex because they feared its overwhelming power. The unfortunate result was that all sex became "dirty." We have removed the visible dirt, but the invisible germs remain, the real risks of disease, pregnancy, divorce, abortion, rape.

The risks are greatly increased by the use of alcohol and drugs. In a recent case reported at the University of Maryland, a girl drank beer until she passed out in a fraternity house and later claimed she was raped by three of the brothers. The party started after midnight and went downhill from there. It was an accident waiting to happen, which any prudent person could have avoided. Sure, boys shouldn't take advantage of an unconscious girl. But they were drunk too. Who was at fault? Everyone. And society.


Today "blaming the victim" takes on a new meaning. We are all victims of a blameless society, a permissive ethic that exercises few restraints on risky, self-indulgent behavior. Long ago our ancestors learned that freedom is not license. They repeated in church their devotion to a God "whose service is perfect freedom." They sought freedom through discipline. Freedom through checklists. Thou shalt not. Say no to self.

Western civilization is being laid waste by its mindless approval of freedom as license. It has trashed all the old codes, and the grotesque result is we know far more about how to pilot airplanes safely than how to navigate in life. Our society is a demolition derby of AIDS, drugs, unwanted pregnancies, divorce, crime and violence. We can't build prisons fast enough: Lock 'em up, we say.

It's easier than saying no to self. Maybe it's time for another Messenger. "Put not they faith in condoms" saith the prophet.

+ John Brain is a free lance.