There are spoilers for those who have not yet read Amazing Spider-Man #700 or Avenging Spider-Man #15.1, published today. Go no further if not…
As has been stated a number of times "If you have to ask if it's rape, then…" But this is superhero comics, which brings in whole new levels of circumstances. Or does it?
In the new Amazing Spider-Man #700, as it begins we meet Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, with Doctor Octopus living in his head. And he seems to be getting it on with Mary Jane Watson, his in-another-reality ex-wife, certainly ex-girlfriend, and they seem to be getting it on.
They are interrupted by events, however, before Doc Ock can get his ninth tentacle out. But this is the new status quo for Spider-Man. The question asked is, if Mary Jane Watson willingly sleeps with Peter Parker – because it's not really Peter Parker – is this rape?
She is certainly not consenting to have sex with Doctor Octopus. But the sex that she would be having, she seems totally to be consenting to. Indeed, Dan Slott specifically writes this scene so that Doctor Octopus is the one who is voicing his consent, Mary Jane Watson is the instigator here.
This issue was raised a while ago in this run, with Chamelon supposedly sleeping with Peter Parker's roommate Michelle under similar circumstances. Writer of that issue Fred Van Lente wrote at the time;
My understanding of the definition of rape is that it requires force or the threat of force, so no. Using deception to trick someone into granting consent isn't quite the same thing.
He then clarified that Michelle and Chameleon only made out, which felt a little like equivocation. But if Mary Jane Watson and the new Peter Parker get down to it in Superior Spider-Man #1, as they were about to in Amazing Spider-Man #700, is it fraud or rape?
Certainly people have lied to get sex many times. Pretended to be someone other than who they really are. Is it rape if you say you are a multi-millionaire, a member of a popular rock band or related to someone who is? Pretended to be interested in the other person, pretended to be from another country, pretended to not be in another relationship at the time? Much of our life is pretence, some of it ends in sex.
But what are the real life examples of what Doctor Octopus was trying to do?
Well, in British law, it's unequivocal. The Sexual Offences Act states that is rape if you are impersonating someone else known to the complainant.
In the USA, it's not so clear and varies state to state. In 2009 one police officer in Connecticut masqueraded as his twin brother to have sex with his brother's girlfriend. The charge was later dropped and he pled guilty to unlawful restraint and criminal impersonation, sentenced to suspended five years. in jail
In a similar case involving siblings, the US courts decided again this year that this did not constitute rape. in Massachusetts at least.
The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled that a judge should have dismissed the rape charge against Alvin Suliveres, of Westfield, because Massachusetts law has for two centuries defined rape as sexual intercourse by force and against one's will and that it is not rape when consent is obtained through fraud.
If the Legislature wants to make fraud an element of rape, it should follow the lead of several other states and change the law, the court said. Lawmakers have taken no steps to do so, the court added, since the SJC issued a seminal ruling in 1959 about the use of trickery to obtain sex.
Clearly not everyone agrees with this, with Wendy Murphy, former Middlesex County prosecutor and New England School of Law teacher is quoted as saying;
"The message that the court sends today is, in essence, that a man's ability to obtain sex through fraud with regard to who he is is more important than a woman's fundamental right to control her own body… It is impossible — as a matter of fact and law — to consent to sex with the wrong person."
But there is something else regarding Amazing Spider-Man #700 and Avenging Spider-Man #15.1 that many may have missed. Doctor Octopus gets his lesson, his Uncle Ben moment, his Road To Damascus revelation and decides to change. To be a different man, a better man, the hero he could have been but never was.
Superior Spider-Man #1 looks to be, in many ways, a tale of redemption. Someone trying to change and be a better man. Knowing what he knows now, experiencing what he has now experienced, will he choose to decline what is being offered to him?
Will he have a conscience? Because here's the thing, in arguing whether this is rape or not, it may be forgotten, it is unequivocally wrong. And now Doc Ock is meant to know the difference, and that means something to him.
Marvel Comics has often blurred the line between the hero and the villain, giving relatively justifiable motivation to the bad guy, and often seeing them cross over to the light, seeking and finding redemption. Magneto, Rogue, Sandman, Hawkeye… this is just another example, albeit it a more prominent one.
As to the original question "if you ask to ask…" it's a lesson that some people need to learn. It's just possible that Superior Spider-Man may teach it.
NB: And to those swearing off Spider-Man forever, remember this. They are making the second Amazing Spider-Man film. And often the comics try and line up with the film portrayal of the comic book hero. So the odds are you won't have to wait too long.
Comics courtesy of Orbital Comics, London.