Thursday, September 28, 2023
Kathryn Stanchi, The Rhetoric of Rape Through the Lens of Commonwealth v. Berkowitz, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law (Forthcoming)
United States law and culture have yet to find a constructive and fair way to talk about rape, especially in “non-paradigmatic” rape cases like acquaintance or date rape. Particularly on college campuses, acquaintance rape is an ongoing, severe problem. Leading legal minds disagree sharply on how to address it. In part, this polarizing debate stems from our collective inability to free our language of the myths and stock stories that plague the subject of rape. No court case better exemplifies the problem than the notorious decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Berkowitz, one of the most widely taught rape cases in the United States. In his empirical study of attitudes on rape, Professor Dan Kahan used the Berkowitz facts in part because they are such an iconic representation of some of the more difficult and troubling issues surrounding acquaintance rape. In that study, Kahan concluded that whether people perceive a story as describing “rape” depends primarily on cultural cognition, meaning the cultural group to which the reader of the story belongs. The text and substance of the law’s definition of rape mattered little. Kahan concluded that if we wish to change outcomes in rape cases, the cultural understandings of rape, more than the law, must change.
This essay takes Kahan’s conclusion that cultural understanding is the primary driver of rape outcomes and asks the question: from where does that cultural understanding come? In no small part, this essay argues, those cultural beliefs come from the law, particularly from legal narratives. The facts of judicial opinions reflect the judges’ cultural understanding of rape and then that cultural understanding becomes what rape is (and isn’t). That image of rape then powerfully influences cultural understanding within and outside of law. It is a recursive process by which legal narratives create and reinforce cultural understanding which then itself creates and reinforces legal narratives and so on in an endless loop. In this way, law is neither irrelevant nor innocent in the outcome of rape cases. It is just exerting its influence, often imperceptibly, through rhetoric.