Martha Nussbaum on sexual assault

Nussbaum draws on her own experiences to discuss sexual assault by powerful men.  Her main argument has a deeply depressing conclusion, consisting of advice to women:

Law cannot fix this problem. Famous men standardly get away with sexual harms, and for the most part will continue to do so. They know they are above the law, and they are therefore undeterrable. What can society do? Don’t give actors and athletes such glamor and reputational power. But that won’t happen in the real world. What can women do? Don’t be fooled by glamor. Do not date such men, unless you know them very, very well. Do not go to their homes. Never be alone in a room with them. And if you ignore my sage advice and encounter trouble, move on. Do not let your life get hijacked by an almost certainly futile effort at justice. Focus on your own welfare, and in this case that means: forget the law.

She also, in passing, raises an important issue about consent that (as she notes) is very much under-addressed.

Unlike the Cosby women, I certainly intended to consent to intercourse. What I did not consent to was the gruesome, violent, and painful assault that he substituted for intercourse. I remember screaming for help, to no avail, and I remember him saying, “It’s all part of sex.”

I’m inviting discussion of these issues.  But I’m also urging people to keep our Be Nice rules even more firmly in mind than usual.  These are difficult issues, and ones on which discussions quickly turn nasty.  And, somehow, appallingly, a survivor’s testimony seems especially likely to bring out the worst online.

11 thoughts on “Martha Nussbaum on sexual assault

  1. Yes, a deeply depressing solution, but there is an uplifting assertion here, too: Focus on your own welfare. Don’t let the patriarchal system continue to get you down, in other words. Good advice for the soul, but not so good for democracy. We need to stand up to the men who have raped us, especially the very powerful men, because if we just sit by and allow it to happen over and over again, it will never stop. Bill Cosby is not now the powerful man he was before courageous women stood up.

  2. While I found the piece powerful and deeply respect Nussbaum’s decision to come forward with her own story, I have to say that I found Nussbaum’s “sage advice” to women (about how to stay safe) troubling and borderline victim blaming. It’s disheartening to see such language in an otherwise wonderful and brave piece.

  3. I should preface my comment by saying I have more than once been told that I am not risk-averse enough, that I am idealistic, and that I am naive. That said, I too was bothered by the advice offered in this piece. I absolutely believe that victims should not be told they must sacrifice their own well-being for the greater good, they should not be compelled to come forward, and that we ought to respect the decisions that others make in their own lives to simply move on. I can’t, and shouldn’t, make those decisions for others. But I am deeply uncomfortable with the suggestion that, as a rule, this is how we ought to think. The phenomena Nussbaum describes are real, but they exist because we fail to appropriately act as a collective. When people come forward with allegations against the powerful and well-liked, we tend to towards skepticism in the face of their evidence, we fail to provide one another with support in the wake of retaliation — and when everyone makes decisions on the basis of prioritizing their own welfare, bad actors continue to get away with acting badly.

    I know people who have had their entire lives painfully rearranged in the course of bringing forward accusations of assault — but I also know people who have had their entire sense of self painfully disappear in the course of trying to simply, quietly, “move on,” and most of the survivors I’ve known who have come forward have been aware of the risks that waited for them.

  4. I am deeply distressed by Martha Nussbaum’s post, especially since she has such a following. I appreciate the excellent comments above. It’s difficult to know where to start. I’ve written two pieces about it and could write many more. I wrote the second after Nussbaum spoke at the University of Chicago Law School on “Accountability for Sexual Violence” earlier this month.

    Will Cosby and Lieb be the exceptions or the turning point

    Nussbaum ignores the many options available for survivors of sexual violence
    While I talk about Nussbaum’s poor advice to victims in this letter, her more egregious assertion may be letting society off the hook. Survivors rightly don’t come forward when they get no support.

  5. In regard to world renown Yale ethicist Thomas Pogge’s sexual violence, Nussbaum did not follow the prediction she made in her blog post that we’re discussing here: “What can society do? Don’t give actors and athletes such glamor and reputational power. But that won’t happen in the real world.”

    According to Buzzfeed:
    “Martha C. Nussbaum, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, said that since learning about the accusations Pogge faced at Columbia, she has chosen not to invite him to conferences and workshops. She also declines to participate in projects he is involved in.”
    “The time has come for a public investigation,” she wrote in a statement that Lopez Aguilar’s lawyers later gave to Yale.

    Now that she has power, she is taking stands in support of other survivors and I applaud that.

    p.s. in my comment above, I meant to say: Survivors WISELY don’t come forward when they get no support.

  6. According to Rachel Aviv in her New Yorker article, “The Philosopher of Feelings, “
    Martha Nussbaum “describes motherhood as her first profound experience of moral conflict.” How, then, does she define the sexual assault she endured many years before? In a recent Huffington Post blog post, the University of Chicago Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics described how she chose not to report the famous man who violated her, and then, incredulously, goes on to counsel other women unilaterally to do as she did and “forget the law.” Every violation is unique. Figuring out what to do in the wake of sexual violations is, for many, if not Nussbaum, a complex moral dilemma. Nussbaum is “calling for a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.” The threat and reality of sexual violence is a vulnerability that many people, particularly women, herself included, live with daily. We are indebted to the victim survivors who, in touch with their vulnerability, choose to fight for justice so that others may not have to endure it.

  7. I agree with Beaulieux. Nussbaum’s advice horrified me, as does her general aversion to anger and haughty obsession with forgiveness. Why not focus on changing the legal system in order to make it easier for survivors to come forward rather than telling tham to basically stay in their place and be quiet? Why not remove statutes of limitations on sexual violence? Why not consider the option of, say, a civil suit when criminal courts fail to act appropriately? Why doesn’t she recognize that there are indeed figures who were once above the law but have now fallen from grace quite badly in the wake of horrifying revelations, such as R. Kelly, Roman Polanski (still wanted on extradition in the US), Josh Duggar, and certain members of the clergy? A culture of not coming forward enables an above-the-law culture to continue. I will echo those who state that reporting isn’t feasible or healthy for everyone, especially those who feel that the deck is stacked too highly against them or those who have faced threats of retribution from their assailant, and that no one should feel forced to report. But no one should feel forced not to report either, or to “move on,” or “forgive,” or whatever. Nussbaum has no right to tell other survivors what to do and how to feel and think. That is a boundary violation in and of itself.

  8. In her response to four academics’ responses to her lecture, “Sexual Violence: Accountability in a Culture of Celebrity”

    Click to access NussbaumReplies-Final.pdf

    Nussbaum for the first time names the famous man who assaulted her (altho many people had figured it out by the hints she had previously given).

    Here’s a link to her original lecture and the four responses. The responses are pretty good. The original lecture is an expansion of the Huffington Post piece that she wrote that inspired this thread (without the advice to “forget the law”). It’s interesting that she didn’t name him in the original lecture but decided to name him in her response to the responses.

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