A Reply to McMahan and Singer on the Stubblefield Case

Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer have a piece in the Stone today at the New York Times that I think is woefully ill-argued, in which they conclude that Anna Stubblefield has been treated unjustly by the courts, and question whether or not the man she was convicted of sexually assaulting was really harmed by her. I’m not going to address every point in their piece — but I do think it’s important to say a few things.

First, while I haven’t seen all of the evidence they have apparently been made privy to, there is enough in the public domain to know that their description of the events which transpired is deeply misleading.

For example, on the matter of John Doe’s* communicative capacities, they write,

“Sheronda Jones, an undergraduate at Rutgers at the time, volunteered to assist [John Doe] by using facilitated communication so that he could write papers for an English class he was auditing at Rutgers. Before the trial, Jones had told a detective in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office: “He pretty much read the books. I didn’t know any information about the book. I made sure never to read any of the information. I can’t tell you what he read. And he typed out the information.” Jones did not attend the class [John Doe] took. If she did not read the material on which his work was based, how could she have produced writings that respond to that material?”

They fail to mention that Jones’ statement went on to note that one of her roommates was in the same class, and she knew that her roommate and John Doe produced similar writings for the class. So, how could she have produced writings that responded to the class material which she had not read? By reading her roommate’s homework.

They also fail to mention that despite training in how to use facilitated communication, neither John Doe’s mom or brother was ever able to successfully use it to communicate with John Doe, and that they believed the purported communications facilitated through Stubblefield conflicted with what they knew about John Doe from experience living with him (e.g., according to Stubblefield, John Doe didn’t like gospel music, but according to his family, his behavior suggested he particularly enjoyed it).

As another example, on the matter of the assault itself, they write:

“If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether.

This does not exclude the possibility that he was wronged by Stubblefield, but it makes it less clear what the nature of the wrong might be. It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him; for even if he is cognitively impaired, he was capable of struggling to resist, and, for reasons we will note shortly, it is implausible to suppose that Stubblefield forcibly subdued him. On the assumption that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, therefore, it seems that if Stubblefield wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.”

Now, just on the question of if John Doe was forcibly subdued, set aside for the moment that of course assault is not actually the sort of thing where all perpetrators lurk in dark alleys, twirling their mustaches as they lay in wait, ready to do obvious physical violence, and one need not have been forcibly subdued in order to be a victim of assault — as a matter of fact, the evidence does suggest that John Doe tried to get away from Stubblefield, at least on the first occasion they had sexual contact. As the New York Times wrote on this case back in 2015,

“They met the following Sunday at [John Doe]’s house, while his mother was at church. They tried to kiss while lying down on [John Doe]’s bed, on the theory that it would be easier, given his impairments. But [John Doe] kept sitting up, and then he lowered himself onto the floor. Anna offered him the keyboard and asked if anything was wrong. Nothing’s wrong, he typed, he was very happy, but also overwhelmed — he needed a minute. Anna said O.K., and [John Doe] scooted out into the hall.”

Stubblefield performed oral sex on John Doe a few minutes later.

Second, philosophically, this argument is quite astounding. One’s being incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations makes unclear what the nature of the wrong of sexual assault could be? Seriously? Why ever should we think that one must have the cognitive capacity to conceptualize precisely how one has been harmed in order to have been so harmed? Are small children not even possibly victims of sexual assault? Can animals not be unjustly exploited? Are persons with severe brain damage incapable of being victims of theft?

Why think experiencing pleasure precludes genuine harm? And even if one wanted to subscribe to a principle so readily met with counter-examples, why ignore that, again, according to Stubblefield’s own description of events, on many occasions John Doe expressed discomfort?

On the question of predation, McMahan and Singer write:

Judge Teare described Stubblefield as “the perfect example of a predator preying on her prey” and gave her a sentence that would be fitting for a predatory rapist. Yet no one would or could ever have known that Stubblefield and [John Doe] had had sexual relations if she had not conveyed to his mother and brother what she believed to be his message to them, via facilitated communication that she conducted in their presence, that he and she were in love and had consummated their relationship. This is the action not of a sexual predator but of an honest and honorable woman in love. Even if she is mistaken in her beliefs about his intelligence and ability to communicate, it is undeniable that these beliefs are sincere and that she was neither reckless nor negligent in forming them. This ought to have been a mitigating, if not wholly exculpating, consideration in the sentencing.

Stubblefield was aware of the controversial nature of facilitated communication. She may have believed that the experts which determined it to be pseudoscience were mistaken — I suspect she genuinely did — but she also knew that others who had diligently attempted to learn the methods of F.C. had failed to communicate with John Doe. She knew that she was in a particular position of power over him, and that she had an interest in virtue of her own feelings, in his communicating particular things.

But more importantly, McMahan and Singer confuse self-conceptualizing as having good intentions with failing to engage in predatory behavior. They confuse a willingness to articulate one’s position with being honorable. If these characteristics were genuinely interchangeable, multitudes of paradigm instances of exploitation through grooming, and even through violence, would be mitigated or exculpated. How many victims of childhoood sexual abuse have been told that their assailant loved them?  How many cult-leaders have thought they were doing what was best for the souls of their followers? How many perpetrators of domestic violence believed they were doing what was best to keep their families as they should be?

Intending to do good is not in any way inconsistent with doing enormous harm.

[Update: An earlier version of this post used the victim’s initials rather than the pseudonym John Doe. I’ve removed his initials in an attempt to do a better job of respecting his privacy.]

3 thoughts on “A Reply to McMahan and Singer on the Stubblefield Case

  1. Really good piece, thank you for this. Was going to comment my thoughts here but found that as soon as I started to write out my frustrations they somewhat overtook me in terms of length.

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