Rape Victims and the Marriage Market

August 2013

This has been a week of questions about rape. Dr. Phil started it all off by asking his followers their opinion on having sex with drunk girls. This encouraged many to question what (or, if) he could have possibly been thinking when he insinuated that the acceptability of having sex with drunk teenaged women was subject to debate. That response led Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon to ask a whole series of questions; important questions about how we think about rape, many of which have no clear answers.

I also have a question about rape. Mine is a question that could, I believe, be answered by an enterprising researcher who was willing to take the time to look and consider the empirical evidence. For the time being, it is only a question with no clear answer. But it is one I believe is worth asking.

Here is the question: Is the assessment of harm inflicted on a victim of rape a function of her perceived value on the marriage market (i.e. her value to men) at time of the rape?

Or, a more specific, empirically testable, hypothesis: Do judges pass harsher sentences when the rape victim is a woman who is believed to have had good marriage market prospects at the time of the rape relative to one who is believed to have had poor marriage market prospects at the time of the rape.

And, it’s an important question since if harm is assessed this way, it suggests a belief that women who have been raped are “damaged goods” – that men will assess them as having a lesser value on the market for marriage.

Here are four examples of where I see a possibility for a woman’s position in the marriage market at the time of her rape coming into consideration when assessing the harm she has endured

It is generally believed that women who demonstrate chastity have a higher value on the marriage market than do women who do not; virgins are in higher demand and, as a result, have the opportunity to marry under better terms than women who are not virgins.

Does the high value of chastity on a marriage markets lead to the conclusion that rape victims who are chaste have been done more harm than women who have had previous sexual partners? Or, in more general terms, have women who have had few sexual partners been done more harm than women who have had many?

Sex workers are perceived to have a low value on most marriage markets; they are in low demand and so when they do marry they generally marry under poorer terms than women in other occupations. In assessing the harm from rape, is it perceived that sex workers have been done less harm than other women who might have, otherwise, done better on the marriage market?

This marriage market theory might explain the persistent belief that rape by a spouse is less harmful than is rape by another man if we believe that a woman who has been raped by her husband will experience no change in value to that husband and that a married woman who is raped by another man will experience a decrease in value to her husband.

African American women search on much tougher markets than women of any other race; they are significantly less likely to be married at any point in their lives. Does the belief that a Black rape victim had poorer marriage market prospects at the time of the rape, translate into an assessment that she has experienced less harm than a white woman who was more likely to marry?

I hope it is obvious that when I pose these questions I am not suggesting that this is the way we should think about the harm caused by rape. I am questioning whether or not this is the way we do think about harm. Because if we do – if we weigh the value of a woman on the marriage market at the time she is raped – I think that warrants a serious discussion about the societal perceptions of the value of a rape victim on the marriage market.

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