The Politics of Difficult Things Part 1: Necrophilia
Warning: this blog post deals with a subject that some may find disturbing
The US State of Wisconsin is a much talked about place at the moment, given the controversial budget proposals by the new Republican governor, which has been met with protests and walk-outs by concerned Democrat state senators. But in 2008 the State caught US headlines for very different reasons, sparking heated debates in both political and academic circles. The topic is something so contentious it is more often ignored, and due to its sensitive nature left aside in a trinket labelled “not to be handled even with a bargepole”. That subject is necrophilia.
Two things make Wisconsin stand out on this issue: firstly a case was brought against three boys from the state who in 2008 were accused of digging up a corpse so that one of the boys could engage in sexual intercourse with it. Secondly, it was felt by some that in Wisconsin law the notion of whether necrophilia was considered illegal was absent – leading to a lot of legal bickering. Sex without consent was illegal, and the majority of the justices involved in the case agreed that sex with a corpse falls under this bracket. Since the corpse did not give its consent, what the boy was trying to do (which he ultimately failed to do, being scared off last minute by a car entering the cemetery) could be considered illegal. Two dissenting justices insisted, however, that lawmakers drawing up the law under which the Wisconsin necrophiliac was prosecuted did not mean to ban necrophilia, but allow assault charges when someone was raped and then killed.
Wisconsin from that point on was brought into line with more than 20 other states that prohibit necrophilia or the abuse of a corpse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However what interests people today is whether this be a matter concerning consent. After all, does this not leave open the possibility of consensual necrophilia. In his 2006 book The Parallax View, Slavoj Zizek alludes to a discussion taking place in:
“some radical circles in the USA, a proposal to “rethink” the rights of necrophiliacs has recently started to circulate […] So the idea was formulated that, just as people sign a form giving permission for their organs to be used for medical purposes in the event of sudden death, one should also allow them to sign a form for their bodies to be given to necrophiliacs to play with”. (Zizek, (2006) The Parallax View, Cambridge: MIT Press, P. 309)
Some people would support consensual prostitution for example, without being obliged to approve of its act. Many more would have no problem with placing themselves on the organ donor list; the thought experiment Zizek is trying to raise here is whether necrophilia can ever be seen as a matter for two consenting adults alone?
The counter-argument to this reflects on how the state conducts itself vis-a-vis the notion of human dignity. In an interesting politics forum discussion on immorality and necrophilia, one person notes that: “How a culture treats its dead partly reflects how it views and values human life and human dignity.” In India, for example, the act of pursuing indignity to a human corpse has been conflated in law with “wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person” by trespassing, or doing ill acts, on burial places (see Section 297 of Indian Penal Code (IPC)). Necrophilia can be convicted under this section of the IPC.
And this point is probably where most governments stand today. The criminalisation of sexual violation where there is no consent is vital, but government will be less inclined to tolerate the consensual harvesting of a corpse for the sexual purposes of a necrophiliac. The real issue lies in how a state law system would choose to prosecute against those who, say, did meet the strict criteria for seeking consensus around this.
I, like many people, would not personally approve of such acts, and express deep concerns for those who did engage in them. But if no rights have been violated, how could the law possibly legislate against consensual necrophilia?