Some reflections on slut-shaming, class, and power

I’ve just read this account in Al Jazeera America about a recently published study on college slut-shaming, and I’m feeling ambivalent.

On the one hand: Yes! Of course slut-shaming is about class! It’s long been the case that what passes as sexual liberation among those with cultural capital gets disparaged as sluttiness among the unlettered classes. And it’s about time that we bring class-consciousness into our discussions around slut-shaming. (Obviously, race/ethnicity, dis/ability, gender identity and sexual orientation are important parts of this story too. I don’t raise them here because the Al Jazeera article doesn’t raise them.)

However, I’m less in accord with bits like the following:

“Viewing women only as victims of men’s sexual dominance fails to hold women accountable for the roles they play in reproducing social inequalities,” Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology and organizational studies professor at the University of Michigan, said in a release. “By engaging in ‘slut-shaming’ — the practice of maligning women for presumed sexual activity — women at the top create more space for their own sexual experimentation, at the cost of women at the bottom of social hierarchies.”

I mean, yes, to the extent that people should be held accountable for helping to reproduce unjust systems, then of course this accountability must extend to both men and women. Sure.

However, I’m just not on board with the liberal view that individuals are answerable for systemic inequities.  The thing about the interlocking systems of power that Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has helpfully termed “kyriarchy” is that we mostly reproduce such systems without ever deciding to do so. Even when we’re well-intentioned and trying really hard to treat people justly and to leave the world a little better than we found it, we daily, behind our own backs, reproduce the unjust system of which we are a part. We can hardly help it, having been socialized within the system.

Sure, some people are just assholes. And, I’ll bet that’s true of some of the Greeks in the slut-shaming study. Ultimately though, it’s really important to remind ourselves that tenacious systems of power are tenacious precisely because they operate through not just isolated assholes but through all of us – nice, well-intentioned folks included.

So, rather than deciding whether men or women are to blame, or trying to zero in on which men or women are to blame, we should focus our attention on understanding the mechanisms of systemic injustice. Taken with a grain (or a cup) of salt, this study may be helpful to that end.


[H/t CB for the original link.]



Gezi anniversary

Today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Gezi park protests in Turkey. The protests have moved on to a much more general unrest, but while we have witnessed much violence from the police and governement, the protesters seem to have kept to the spirit in which they began.

For the first two weeks in Kuğulu Park, I experienced a gender neutral space. There was no harassment, no cat-calling, no overbearing flirting, no attempted groping. It was the first time I was seen as a human first and as a woman second. It was a truly liberating experience; I felt safe and free from any gender based discrimination.

Read the rest here.

Conference in Honor of Alison Jaggar

From Barrett Emerick:

I am very happy to announce: “In the Unjust Meantime: A Conference in Honor of Alison M. Jaggar” The 2014 Morris Colloquium at the University of Colorado Boulder will celebrate the work of Alison Jaggar, UC-B College Professor of Distinction in Philosophy and Women and Gender Studies. The conference will feature keynote speakers Vicky (Elizabeth) Spelman, Claudia Card, and Alison Jaggar. In addition to the keynotes, there will be panel presentations by professional philosophers who studied with Jaggar at UC-B and who currently work in “non-ideal theory.” The Morris Colloquium immediately precedes the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME). All are welcome to attend both events. There is no registration fee for the Jaggar conference. For more information, please visit the conference website.


Barrett Emerick, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

St. Mary’s College of Maryland [bmemerick at smcm dot edu]

CFP: Midwest SWIP

U.S. – Midwest SWIP Call for Papers

Simpson College (Indianola, IA)

October 10 – 12, 2014

Submissions Due: August 13, 2014

The Midwest Division of the Society for Women in Philosophy invites papers in all areas of feminist philosophy, theory, and praxis – from political, ethical and social theory, to epistemology, mind and metaphysics. Because U.S. Midwest SWIP is especially interested in enriching theorizing and discussions about ethical and social issues facing our society, we welcome work that explicitly connects to those discussions and that interrogates the intersections between race, gender, ability and class. We also welcome the work of feminist scholars at any stage in their careers.

 In honor of the 30th year anniversary of The Politics of Reality, we welcome papers, panels, and workshops on Marilyn Frye’s work.

Submit papers, proposals for panels or performances to:  Sonya Charles [s.charles07 at csuohio dot edu]

Attending U.S. – Midwest SWIP:  Historically U.S. – MSWIP has sought to make attendance affordable for all participants. This includes no conference attendance fee and free snacks throughout the conference. Please contact Allison Wolf (allison.wolf at simspon dot edu) to request local housing and we will solicit local hosts. Travel grants ($70) are available on a first come, first serve basis with priority given to students, the unemployed, and the underemployed. You do not need to be a SWIP member to participate in the conference, request local housing, or to request a travel grant.

Being a genius or working very hard: is the profession getting more realistic

The post “Why are there so few women in philosophy?”referred to research that described several ways in which beliefs about abilities affect women’s career choices. One important factor was whether people in the field saw the foundation of ability as something like inborn genius. Since women are seen as being less likely to possess innate brilliance, and they know this, the ‘genius fields’ may well seem less attractive to women.

I think there are a number of comparisons it would be interesting to make. How do exceptionally gifted children fare if they grow up to go to philosophy grad school? Another is asked by Josh Knobe below.

What do you think?

From Josh Knobe:

In my (very limited) experience, it seems like things have actually gotten a little bit better in this regard. I am really curious to hear whether people have the same impression.

Back when I was a grad student, there was a prevailing sense that the ticket to getting a job was not making concrete contributions to philosophy but rather cultivating an aura of genius. Some of my fellow students ended up writing and publishing papers while they were in school, but this effort was seen almost as ‘tarnishing’ or ‘sullying’ the purity of their philosophical work. Of course, this is exactly the sort of atmosphere that Leslie et al. show leads to underrepresentation of women, and all of the women in my year ended up leaving the field.

In the time since then, my sense is that things have actually improved a bit. More and more, I see an emphasis not on innate genius but on actual concrete contribution. But this sense I have is based entirely on anecdote and personal experience, not on any serious empirical research. So I am curious, do other folks see things in the same way?

Let me close by mentioning one thing that worries me. There are a lot of researchers these days investigating creativity. Creativity may be teachable to some extent, but not, as far as I can tell, by hard work. I don’t know what that means for originality in philosophy, nor do I have much idea of how much creativity and originality a field needs. Here again, what do you think?

Another feminist philosopher in a leadership position!

Two days ago, we reported on two feminist philosophers who are assuming new leadership positions. Yesterday, another feminist philosopher joined that list. Last night at the annual general meeting of the Canadian Philosophy Association, feminist philosopher Samantha Brennan was elected vice president of that organization. She will assume the presidency in 2015. There’s a rumour that Samantha’s election will eventuate in CPA dance parties. I’m already polishing my dancing shoes. Congratulations, Samantha!

Women Philosophers as leaders: New News!

There have been at least two recent appointments that should delight supporters of women in philosophy.

Louise Antony: President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association

Tamar Gendler: Inaugural Dean of Yale’s new Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Both deserve our heartiest congratulations and our very best wishes for success.


If other recent appointments should be mentioned, please let us know in comments!

The Ethics of Trigger Warnings in the Classroom

Trigger warnings (definition in the link) are a mainstay on many blogs and internet forums. People are also now starting to use them in books and on classroom syllabi. In response to this, there’s been a huge surge in articles discussing the ethics of using them. Most of these pieces worry that they do more harm than good.

Here’s a sampling of articles, op eds, and blog posts:

Salon. New York Times. NYT Op Ed.  New Republic. Los Angeles Times. The Atlantic. NY Mag. Huff Po. Mother Jones. Jezebel.
If you google “trigger warnings” and under “search tools” set the time frame to within one week (as of today, May 26th), you’ll find dozens more of them.

I take it that most of us can easily imagine the main arguments for using trigger warnings in the classroom: you are giving people a heads about about the material they are about to encounter, so that they can make better informed decisions about how and whether to engage the material, and you are signaling that you understand the severity of the material and consider it a valid decision if students to do not wish to engage the material at this time.

There are a lot of arguments in these articles against using trigger warnings in such a way. Many of them are bad arguments–they conflate serious trauma with any level of momentary discomfort, they seem to not understand how PTSD and anxiety disorders work at the most basic level, they trade on stereotypes of feminists wanting to keep people in a state of perpetual victimhood (thanks to Kate Manne for pointing this one out), and they don’t acknowledge the sheer levels of paternalism involved in their suggestions.

There are, however, some very thoughtful arguments and considerations that raise concerns about how we use trigger warnings and how we follow through with them. I quote some below, along with points in favor of using trigger warnings in the classroom. Comments are open and moderated.

“As someone who studies PTSD from several different perspectives and works with people who actually have PTSD, I think what is interesting about this conversation is that it seems like a basic understanding of trauma and PTSD is almost entirely missing. People who truly have PTSD are ‘triggered’ all the time. By many things. Most of which are not directly related to their trauma. Noises, smells, tastes, phrases, tactile experiences, thoughts, etc. etc. One of the most – if not the most – disruptive part of having PTSD is isolation. Feeling like what you’ve experienced is something that no one else can understand. Feeling like you are not like everyone else and never will be again. If we slap trigger warnings on books that mention war, I worry that we are further isolating the people who need just the opposite. I worry – particularly when it comes to combat related PTSD which the NYT article addresses – that we are sending a message that says, “You’re right. What you’ve been through is so terrible, what you’ve done is so inhuman that we cannot even talk about it.” I worry that though this is intended to come from a protective place that it sends the opposite message. The message that the rest of us don’t want to hear it, don’t want to have to worry about your emotions spilling over. People who have been traumatized – in my opinion – don’t need to be protected from being re-triggered. What they need is empathy. Instead of trigger warnings on syllabi, maybe we should have some classes (and trainings for profs) that attempt to understand trauma and PTSD so that we can all be better witnesses instead of just continuing to shut it all away.”
–Mary Catherine McDonald, philosopher


“I’ve used […trigger warnings] for graphic/sensitive material in my ethics classes (e.g., FGM, sexual assault) for a number of different reasons. Most obviously, there are students who really do need to opt out of discussions which may leave them feeling vulnerable and reeling because of past trauma. Nobody has opted to opt out yet, but I have been thanked for the warning, because it helped a student mentally prepare for what they were aware (and were aware that I was aware) could be an emotionally wrenching discussion. Also, as that brings out, being given a choice can be valuable in its expressive or symbolic value, even if it isn’t exercised or something which it would be good for that particular student to exercise in this instance. Namely, it says to them that opting out would be respected by me and that I am not assuming that they are all clearly going to be fine with talking through anything and everything which might be important to talk about in an ethics class in particular. And that they are not being excluded from philosophy in general if they are not prepared to participate in a more or less unpredictable discussion of (e.g.) bodily mutilation or sexual assault. Finally, and equally importantly, it signals to everyone else – i.e., the students who have no need whatsoever to opt out of the discussion – that this is a morally serious subject which we are going to approach in a morally serious way, remembering that what we are talking about real lives, real bodies, and real social practices.”
–Kate Manne, philosopher


“…It’s almost utterly unpredictable what will trigger people. It’s often not the topics themselves, but the smallest thing that unless someone *knows* is a trigger for me (for example), there’s no way they could have given adequate warning. And given my intersectional identity, things that are triggers for other people with sufficiently similar identities may not be triggers for me. This is related to the dilution worry: we’d have to essentially say: “This course may contain triggers.” If we tried to list them all, we’d fail (because we can’t predict how something we think is benign and unrelated is really someone’s #1 trigger) and the list would be massive.”
–Rachel McKinnon, philosopher


“…part of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.”
–Brittney Cooper, writer, Salon (linked above)


“I kind of know where these critics are coming from, because I used to be one of them. I publicly joked that sappy songs required trigger warnings, and I privately complained that they were as infantilizing as spoiler alerts. But now that trigger warnings have gone mainstream, I find I’ve come full circle. Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose. In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.”
–Kat Stoeffel, writer, NY Mag (linked above)


“Kids in college are thought of as these young, naïve, uncorrupted youngsters who need knowledge dropped on them hard, but it gives me pause to acknowledge how many of them have been sexually assaulted or seen trauma already. Regardless of what you think we should do about that, it’s heartbreaking to think that some students begin an experience meant to challenge them already deeply challenged and fragile enough that they aren’t able to experience the positive cognitive dissonance being offered through an education.”
–Tracy Moore, writer, Jezebel (linked above)





Not long after a UC Santa Barbara student went on a killing spree last Friday, his homicide-suicide message surfaced on the internet. “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me but I will punish you all for it,” he complains, “I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman… I take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one, the true alpha male.”

While we can hope that the killer’s misogyny, narcissism, and fascination with revenge are signs of an unusually demented mind, it is a mistake to dismiss the killings as a lone incident or freak behavior of an isolated miscreant. There is no such thing as isolated violence. Misogynists, sociopaths, even psychopaths are a product of a cultural illness – an illness that tells us that we should mind our own business; that boys will be boys and hopefully they’ll grow out of it when they become men; that we need to keep the silence and refrain from naming our fears and our perpetrators because, well, you know, we’ll be branded as crazy. Or worse.

In response to the UCSB killing and the murderer’s misogyny, women around the world are adding their voices to a Twitter stream, #YesAllWomen. As I write this, it is the top-trending hashtag, with 49,541 tweets and an average of 20 tweets per second.

Here are just a few of those almost-50,000 tweets:

#YesAllWomen capture 1


#YesAllWomen capture 2


One of the tweets most likely to resonate with all or most female philosophers (thanks, S.E.!) is this one:

#YesAllWomen capture 3

I’m not the tweeting type, but it occurred to me that if I were to tweet, it would be to a #YesAllPhilosophers hashtag. Here are just a few of the tweets I’d probably write:

#YesAllPhilosophers because the accused was given a golden parachute to another better position, and the survivor, who got nothing, tried to commit suicide.

#YesAllPhilosophers because I can name four philosophers who read or gave copies of Lolita to the students they desired.

#YesAllPhilosophers because when I asked a provost whether the university would keep a known serial predator and pedophile on the faculty, she didn’t immediately say no.

#YesAllPhilosophers because I can name 34 philosophers who have been accused of sexual misconduct, ranging from “mere” drunken groping, to first degree sexual assault and child porn.

#YesAllPhilosophers because I was a student in a department where four faculty members were accused of sexual misconduct in five years.

#YesAllPhilosophers because I’m currently helping complainants at 10 different universities who have been adversely affected by the misconduct of 8 different philosophers.

#YesAllPhilosophers Because I can’t solve this problem alone.

Comments are closed on this post because I don’t have time to moderate – but those who want to comment can of course tweet using the hashtag #YesAllPhilosophers.