SUNY Geneseo Colloquium: Perhaps not what it seemed

Today we have been hearing from Heidi Savage, a feminist philosopher at SUNY Geneseo about the talk many have recently posted on by Ted Everett. She tells us that the event has been very much misrepresented:

The talk was misrepresented in the assumption that Ted was seen as some kind of rape apologist, simply in virtue of the title, which he certainly isn’t. But this is how it’s been portrayed on jezebel and in a petition started to ask the president of SUNY Geneseo to condemn the talk. In fact, even the media represented the issue itself far more neutrally and reasonably! I’ve seen the talk and it raises legitimate issues, issues that are controversial within feminist discourse itself. To represent the issue as one between THE feminists and the anti-feminists is an embarrassment to me at least as a self-proclaimed feminist.

Moreover, in a somewhat ironic twist, the critics have failed to notice that there is a feminist woman responding to him. Here’s the full schedule.

Topic: Political Perspectives on the Sexual Assault Awareness Movement

Speaker: Dr Theodore Everett
Title: Against “Sexual” “Assault” “Awareness”

The quotes in the title indicate that I am not against SA awareness, but that I am against much of what’s *called* SA awareness. My central concern is that the sexual assault awareness movement counts too many borderline cases (for example, badgering somebody into letting you give them a kiss) as true sexual assault, when they are not really sexual and not really assault. This diverts attention away from the truly damaging core cases of rape and sexual assault that everybody cares about and toward borderline cases that no one believes are equally important, even though they also shouldn’t happen. The presentation of sexual assault as systemic to American culture rather than pathological behavior, together with the zero-tolerance mentality that it supports , both do more harm than good to college women, who in my view would benefit most from an honest, unpatronizing, genuinely respectful, and two-sided discussion of these issues.

Commentator: Dr Heidi Savage
Title: “No” means “no”: feminist and victim understandings of sexual assault awareness

While there are many different motivations for raising questions about the Sexual Assault Awareness Movement, at least one motivation comes from feminist controversies about what counts as consensual sex. Historically, this controversy arose between those known as “anti-pornography feminists”, and “sex positive feminists” whose proponents had very different understandings of what counts as sexual autonomy for women. It is important to understand that questioning the current definitions of what counts as an instance of sexual assault does not entail an anti-feminist agenda. There is not a unified feminist front on this topic. To assume otherwise is to risk silencing victims of sexual assault even further by imposing a particular conception of sexual assault upon them that they might themselves reject. If we are to properly address sexual assault as feminists we must listen to victims of sexual assault and develop a theory of consent in tandem with victims’ own understanding of that concept.

I’d like to ask that everyone be super-careful about being nice in their comments.

30 thoughts on “SUNY Geneseo Colloquium: Perhaps not what it seemed

  1. I just want to say thanks. This has really helped me feel like I can do what I need to do tonight. Warm fuzzies to you all!

  2. I must say that Heidi has a very interesting abstract, and I think it helps me make more sense of the discussion we had in the other thread. I hadn’t thought of the consent debate in terms of the anti-porn/sex positive distinction. Heidi’s probably right about the history.

    But I’m not sure the history translates too well to contemporary debate. If the expanded notion of consent was once associated with the anti-porn side (as I think Heidi’s saying), I actually suspect it’s now associated with people who would identify more closely with the sex positive side. What I’ve read on expanded notions of consent comes mainly from the positive/affirmative consent movement (esp. Valenti/Friedman’s anthology “Yes means Yes” and related work), which approaches the issue very much, I’d say, from a perspective that tries to combine structural analysis of oppression with sex positivity.

    But, however that works out, the point that victims’ perspectives are important is a great point. I hope the talk goes well!

  3. I think it’s worth contemplating what role blogs like FP play in exacerbating already difficult situations. From my understanding of things, this was supposed to be a simple (albeit controversial) department colloquium. Based only on the title — as no abstract was yet released — students started a petition and mobilized other university units against Dr. Everett. This resulted in his needing to take a defensive posture, which partly resulted in an unflattering email. That then turned into an extremely one-sided, slanted Jezebel article, which was then uncritically shared here (and then, at least in my feed, shared widely on Facebook).

    Also from my understanding, this caused harm to members of the department, because they went from having to deal with a potentially slightly problematic department colloquium, to a very public clusterfuck. This caused harm to innocent people, and we’re hearing from Heidi that this has also caused some backlash against her (feminism) students.

    FP had some part in this, although it certainly wasn’t intentional. I don’t know what, exactly, I’m trying to say. Is an apology in order? I don’t know. I just feel really bad about what’s happened, especially to Heidi. I’m glad people are starting to show support, but it seems like harming someone and then apologizing. It doesn’t feel as good as simply not being harmed in the first place.

  4. It all went wonderfully well. The discussion was useful. People were surprised that feminism was not monolithic. Maybe I am wrong about linking the historical debates to current debates, but I do think that top down approach of defining what counts as consent for victims independent of their own perspectives is reminiscent of the sex-negative movement. At any rate, I at least feel that a great weight has been lifted.

  5. I saw the news reports on last night’s talk. I’m glad that I was not on TV, but the stories don’t even mention my commentary. Marginalization or sensitivity? I’m not sure.

  6. “…but I do think that top down approach of defining what counts as consent for victims independent of their own perspectives is reminiscent of the sex-negative movement.”

    I guess this is the part I’m not putting together. Events like Take Back the Night are, at least ideally, supposed to be organized around the perspective of the victim. Every Take Back the Night rally I’ve attended has explicitly set out a space (a time and a place, usually right before or right after the march) for victims to set out their experiences and ideas in their own words. In fact, I’ve been under the impression that the expansive notion of consent that seems to be adopted by Geneseo *was* developed primarily by victims of rape and sexual assault. Indeed, that’s what sets it apart from older, more sex-negative notions of consent.

    Anyway, I think I’ve had more than my fair share of time to ramble on. I’ll let other people have a say.

  7. As an attendee last night, I would like to say that Dr. Savage’s commentary was both illuminating and powerful. No doubt that such a commentary would not have been necessary had Dr. Everett’s title not stirred so much controversy, but I thought Dr. Savage’s comments provided much needed context (and made me reconsider one of my criticisms of Everett). Were this a regular colloquium, I’m sure much more of the discussion could have centered on the content of their talks, rather than on some preconceived ideas of what they were saying (which is why, I’m guessing, there was only one or maybe two questions directed at Dr. Savage, and why her commentary was ignored by media). I’m sure the controversy will dissipate as fast as it arose, but I wanted put my two cents in that the commentary not only went well, but was quite excellent.

  8. Glad to hear it went well, Heidi.

    Rachel – yes, those are difficult and important questions. We will be thinking about them.

  9. In response to Rachel (at 4 above), here’s my two cents. I obviously don’t speak for the rest of the bloggers, so this is just me.

    I really don’t think FP is blameworthy in this situation, or that we ought to apologize for our original post. Of course we can deeply regret the way coverage of this session happened, regret our role in it, and – mostly importantly – regret any distress we may have caused to our fellow feminists (especially Heidi Savage and her students).

    But I can’t see that we’ve done something that’s blameworthy, or something that we owe apology for. We’re a blog. We’re a blog run by spare-time bloggers, not by journalists. We don’t have the time to fact check and thoroughly research everything we post. More often than not, we’ll report things as we read them on (generally reliable) news sources. Part of the reason for the comments section, of course, is that we’re open to – and very appreciative of – additional pieces of information or corrections we may not have known about. But we don’t post only in those circumstances where we’ve screened off all such additions and corrections in advance. Because if we did that we’d quite simply never post at all. None of us would have the time. Personally, I find the choice between no blog and a blog subject to errors and corrections a pretty easy one to make.

    Our responsibility, I think, lies with handling additions and corrections responsibly and conscientiously. And in this case I think we’ve done exactly that. In fact, several bloggers (not me, I take no credit!) put in quite a lot of time and energy trying to get to the bottom of what was going on in this situation and construct an accurate post. I should emphasize that the people that did this did so because they really, really care, and because they want to make every effort to have this blog be both supportive and accurate.

    More generally, we are people trying to speak out and take action on gender issues, especially gender issues in philosophy. Speaking out almost always incurs the risk that you will speak incorrectly or inaccurately. That’s a risk we take, and we try to deal with it the best we can when we do make mistakes. But we’re never going to be fully free of mistakes, and I don’t think we are blameworthy – or owe apology – for those times when we make them. Again, if the choice is between speaking with a risk that we sometimes speak inaccurately (and that in some cases this inaccuracy may have bad effects) versus staying silent, then for me that’s an easy choice.

  10. “We don’t have the time to fact check and thoroughly research everything we post.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apologize when you get something wrong. In fact, it may increase the obligation.

  11. I put a lot of time into getting that full correction up during one of the most difficult professional weeks I’ve ever had. Your response makes me feel like packing it all in. I probably won’t. But I will stay away for a few days.

    Many thanks to Magical.

  12. IMHO the issue was entirely addressed with the new thread posted. What more could be done? Enough is enough. Leave the administrators of this blog alone people!

  13. Just for the record, Dr. Everett’s talk was not initially advertized as it is listed above. Initially, it was simply a flyer and there was no mention of Dr. Savage. It was only AFTER groups on campus began to protest that the venue was changed, Dr. Everett’s explanation (such as it is) was added, and Dr. Savage was invited to speak. So I don’t think it’s fair to say “critics failed to take notice that there is a feminist responding to him.” What critics responded to was just the title–which was, in the contexts of sexual assault week, clearly intended to inflame.

  14. I also want to commend everyone, and particularly Jenny, for putting in extra effort trying to get to the bottom of things. My comment likely came off as accusatory when that’s not what I wanted. I’m very sorry for any and all ill effects it had.

  15. Fair enough Heidi, and sorry about the “invited” versus “volunteered” mistake–I’m getting my information second hand. I also want to voice my support for your role in the talk. Your analysis was smart, nuanced, and appropriate.

    At the same time, I don’t think the “critics have failed to notice” comment up above is fair. I was with many of the students (the “critics”) who saw the initial flyer for the talk, and that flyer made no mention of, well, anything. These students were justifiably upset–having put in so much time over the last several years to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus–and, while I disagree with their desire to silence Dr Everett (I told them so at the time), I don’t think it’s right to say that they failed to notice that your response was part of the program. The students I spoke with were simply not aware that you were speaking.

  16. Rob, you’re getting the order of things really backward.

    Heidi wasn’t planning on talking, and only volunteered *because* the students overreacted and things blew up out of proportion. So it’s getting things backward to justify the student reaction on it not being announced that she would participate.

    You seem to think that students’ merely seeing a title is enough justification to mobilize a petition to silence (or rebuke) the talk, without any idea about the actual content, since you admit that that information wasn’t available.


  17. Rob,

    To set the record straight:

    Anyone else not interested in the details of SUNY Geneseo politics need not read any further :)

    To a non-academic, or even a non-philosopher academic, the title may have seemed provocative. I have no idea whether that was intentional or not. I try always to focus on content rather than contexts, and I give people the benefit of the doubt most of the time. To a philosopher, it appeared, at least to me as a run of the mill talk on the definitions used in the current sexual assault awareness movement. No more, no less. As a feminist and a victim, the flyers did not bother me. We do this all the time. That’s how I took it, and the chair, and cetera. Of course, others, not me, apparently know that Ted has a certain political perspective that many in an LAE setting don’t like, but any contact I have ever had with Ted never indicated that he is anything close to a hate-monger, libertarian sympathies perhaps, though that is just a guess, and we don’t fail to teach Nozick in political philosophy classes. Indeed, my impression of Ted is that he is a genuinely concerned caring person who cares about the welfare of others. He presents his position with arguments, and so long as that what he is doing, there is nothing wrong with that. That is not hate speech or dangerous speech, which at least one person on a university wide listserv suggested it might be. Hate speech involves speech or representations that discriminate against a person or class of persons, and not even the title, even WITHOUT the quotes around the words (as the mainstream media had it), would count as such. Then, some students, led by one in particular, tore all of the flyers down and demanded to speak to Ted and proceeded to his office. It is also customary to put up flyers when we have talks, and I am quite sure that it was not Ted who put them up. Anyway, yes, we were a bit, or maybe a lot, socially oblivious and there’s a lot of background about the scheduling re: other people’s schedules who wanted to be there conflicting with our regular time slot. Had that not been true, the talk would have been scheduled at its regular Friday afternoon time. When I saw that the talk might cause problems, I spoke with the chair about adding some feminist content, and of course, my own perspective on it qua victim given that it was sexual assault awareness week, after all. Then, when I got home from teaching that day, I had an email with a link to the petition, reporters were contacted, and cetera. Anyway, this was all so complicated. But I think at least my personal intellectual goals were achieved by the talk. Students remained critical, but demonstrated this in a way appropriate to an academic setting.

    Now, when are you free for a beer again? We could have an Irish vs. Half-newfie drinking contest! I’ll clear a spot for you under the table :)

  18. FYI, I have edited one of the above comments because I did not think it fully conformed to our comment policy, but I thought deleting the whole thing was not called for and could be counter-productive. Let’s try to be careful in our discussion here.

    Rachel, I don’t know if you have more information than I do, but let’s be careful about what we’re attributing to the students here too. Both the petition itself and the Jezebel article purport that students met with Everett. On a charitable interpretation of the evidence available to me, it looks as though they did not start a petition solely in reaction to a title.

  19. Heidi,

    We should, indeed, have that contest; and thanks again for clarifying your perspective on this–let’s continue our conversation in person, but, again, I just want to say here how much I value the (incredibly brave) response you gave at the event.

  20. The talk has been posted at Everett’s website, and its content seems to me to justify – not the attempt to get the talk shut down, but very much the suspicions of the content that the title generated. The talk is marred by evidence-free, sweeping generalizations and by assumptions along the lines of, but of course any rational person or response would, etc.

  21. Suspicions are totally fine. I was more than suspicious! I was appalled, and pissed off, but that reaction falls far short of starting a petition and then getting Jezebel involved. A reaction was called for, but the issue (for me) is whether what the students did was over the top. I think it was, by far.

  22. Philodaria: based on my information (which includes inside reports), the students essentially started the petition based only on the title. Some spoke to Everett, but things were put into motion before that. From what I understand, the students didn’t go meet with Everett ready to be charitable with what he had to say.

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