On knowing and doing nothing

A thoughtful rumination on knowledge, complicity and responsibility.

Some of your friends knew the accused parties. Some knew the aggrieved women. Not all of the stories were straightforward. Some friends felt torn about accounts being aired online, in public, destroying reputations—about whether to call certain incidents “rape.” Others had no such hesitations. Tempers flared.

What do you do, you thought then, about actions that make women feel unsafe, violated, but do not cross the line of criminality? About gray zones? About the creeps in your midst?

Now, you think: If something seems kind of wrong, it is all too possible that it is very wrong…

If things are fuzzy, the human default is often to do nothing. It’s genuinely difficult to conceive and accept that something extreme may be happening, unless you witness it firsthand. Unless it happens to you. And as some of the women’s accounts make clear, it can be hard to absorb even then.

The worst thing, you realize, is that you tended to look down on [his] conquests. As if anyone who fell for his come-ons was a fool, instead of merely lacking the advantage of inside knowledge.

No wonder the women didn’t hope to be taken seriously. No wonder most filed no grievances, and none of them laid charges, nor spoke out in public, until they learned they were not alone. They expected not to be believed, and worse, that they would be hounded and humiliated

It’s about Jian Ghomeshi, and journalism. But we all know it could just as well be about philosophy.

#BeenRapedNeverReported goes global

If you are reading this in Canada, or if you read this post, you know that Canada is still reeling from reports that Jian Ghomeshi, until a week ago one of progressive Canada’s most beloved media figures, has for years been sexually assaulting women. For many Canadian women, the most disheartening aspect to the story was the thousands upon thousands of Ghomeshi supporters who dismissed Ghomeshi’s accusers’ claims because they hadn’t reported them to the police.

Thursday, distinguished Canadian journalist Antonia Zerbisias responded to the situation by creating the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported. Within 24 hours, people around the world had used the hashtag to tweet about their experiences with rape. The hashtag continues to trend with millions of courageous people sharing their stories and painting a rich picture of why so many rapes go unreported. Here’s the Toronto Star‘s coverage of the story.

Feminist philosopher Susan Brison in Harper’s

[Trigger warning: violence, sexual assault]

In “Cassandra Among the Creeps,” the cover essay of the latest Harper’s magazine, Rebecca Solnit considers the various ways in which women are silenced. She draws a line from the titular mythical figure to Dylan Farrow, both of whose testimony was doubted, if to differing degrees. But, as Solnit observes, the mechanisms of silencing can be external or internal: “First come the internal inhibitions, self-doubts, repressions, confusions, and shame that make it difficult to impossible to speak, along with the fear of being punished or ostracized for doing so.” In illustration of internal silencing, Solnit cites Aftermathfeminist philosopher Susan Brison’s account of her 1990 rape, and of her trauma and recovery. The article is behind a paywall, but here’s a snippet:

Susan Brison, now chair of the philosophy department at Dartmouth, was raped in 1990 by a man, a stranger, who called her a whore and told her to shut up before choking her repeatedly, bashing her head with a stone, and leaving her for dead. Afterward she found various problems in talking about the experience: “It was one thing to have decided to speak and write about my rape, but another to find the voice with which to do it. Even after my fractured trachea had healed, I frequently had trouble speaking. I was never entirely mute, but I often had bouts of what a friend labeled ‘fractured speech,’ during which I stuttered and stammered, unable to string together a simple sentence without the words scattering like a broken necklace.”

Mattress Performance

See the NY Magazine:

23 students have complained that Columbia University fails to take proper action when students file complaint about sexual assault. They include the senior art student, who says she was raped in her sophomore year. She has created a performance art work, which consists in her carrying around the mattress on which she was raped.

Readers may well have seen posts about this situation on Facebook. But there are features of the story that are worth highlighting. Because I want to get this up reasonably soon, I am making really pretty obvious observations. Please add in if you want.

One thing to notice is that the situation offers the victim no good resolution. Emma Sulkowicz experiences a conflict between self-care and persistence in prosecuting her rapist, and she has dropped the latter. Such a reaction is very common. It has long seemed to me a mark of abuse that it leaves one with no good alternatives, but in saying this I am envisaging having to act pretty much alone, as is so often the case. And is the case here. Maybe close friends believe a victim, but a lot of people don’t. And who wants to go up against such an institution on a friend’s say-so? Because we still can’t count on institutions to act on the preponderance of evidence.

The preponderance of evidence seems clear here. Two other young women have accused the same man.

Another pretty awful feature is how some people react. If you can bear it, read the comments to see what you can expect.

Yes means yes bill in California

From the Daily Beast:

On Thursday, the California state legislature voted to replace the “no means no” standard for sexual consent on college campuses with the affirmative “yes means yes” definition. Under this standard, silence or lack of resistance is not considered a legally acceptable way to convey consent. Inebriation will also not be considered an acceptable defense. Gov. Jerry Brown has until September 30 to sign the bill. If he does, all colleges receiving state funding would have to adhere to “yes means yes.” Campus assault advocates have been pushing for such reform, arguing that “ no means no” unfairly burdens victims. However, many worry that “yes means yes” is a vague standard.



Girls left out

This post follows on an earlier one about My Brother’s Keeper, Obama’s program for boys of color.

From Colorlines:

Kristie Dotson knows what it’s like to have to do her homework on the backs of cars because she doesn’t have a home to go to after school’s out. “I too have gone homeless,” Dotson said of her youth in South Central Los Angeles. Today, she’s a professor of philosophy at Michigan State University but, she said, voice shaking, “Even when you get out, there is no getting out.”

On Tuesday night Dotson, who’s African-American, and a dozen other girls and women of color testified about their experiences coming up in Los Angeles in poor, disenfranchised black and Latino neighborhoods. The event, organized by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and UCLA School of Law’s Critical Race Studies Program, was the third of such hearings held around the country this year to lift up the experiences and struggles of girls of color. It’s also a pointed response to My Brother’s Keeper, President Obama’s $200 million initiative to support boys of color.

“This hearing was necessitated by the silence around girls of color that we’ve seen in the discourse around the school-to-prison pipeline and more recently in the silence in My Brother’s Keeper,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia University and UCLA and a host for the evening’s proceedings. Too often, said Crenshaw, people settle for fallacies that suggest that girls and women of color suffer less than men of color do from racism. The truth, said Crenshaw, is that “girls experience some of the same things boys experience and some things boys never dream of.”

Much of the rest of the short article is about things many of us can at best half-imagine. It ends importantly with:

Single black and Latino women have a median wealth of $100 and $102, respectively, while single black and Latino men have a median wealth of $7,900 and $9,730, respectively, according to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development (PDF). Dotson is confounded that My Brother’s Keeper could ignore this reality.

“My Brother’s Keeper doesn’t want to talk about the fact that those boys of color coming off those mentor programs are going to come back to these same households supported by these women of color who are struggling,” said Dotson. “Does anyone care?”

New sexual assault legislation planned

From Inside Higher Ed

New sexual assault legislation unveiled

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of eight U.S. Senators on Wednesday unveiled legislation aimed at holding colleges more accountable for preventing and dealing with the sexual assaults that occur on campuses.

The lawmakers, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both Democrats, said that the bill responds to a national problem of campus sexual assault and the publicized cases of colleges mishandling investigations. …

[One measure:] The legislation would require all colleges to conduct anonymous surveys of students about their views of sexual assault on campuses. The results of the so-called “climate surveys” would then be published online for prospective students to see.

There are a number of other tough measures. Have a look.

How not to teach logic.

A case in point, from Richard Dawkins:

Richard Dawkins has said “date rape is bad” and “stranger rape at knifepoint is worse” and contrasted “mild” paedophilia with “violent” paedophilia on Twitter. The writer, known for his atheism and books including The God Delusion, emphasised he was not approving anything but giving examples of a “syllogism” – logical argument where the comparisons do not imply any endorsement of either.

A Reply to Leiter

Professor Leiter has responded to my post from earlier today via an “update” to his original post, with a critique of Judge Flanagan’s ruling that goes beyond his original objection that Flanagan’s law degree does not come from a high-ranked law school.

In the update, Leiter argues that Flanagan’s ruling is flawed because: (1) “rape is always a kind of sexual assault, but not all sexual assaults are a kind of rape”; (2) the Sun-Times replaced the word “rape” with “sexual assault” in the headline once contacted by Ludlow’s attorney, which Leiter takes to mean that the Sun-Times “recognized the meanings were different”; and (3) contra Flanagan, Leiter feels that the “sting” of being accused of rape is not the same as the “sting” of being accused of sexual assault.

I’ll take each of these points in turn.

In response to (1): to argue for non-equivalence based on the assumption that rape is a subcategory of sexual assault is to miss the point of the paragraph in my original post which provides examples of various state laws. There are many states in which rape is not a subcategory of sexual assault, and indeed, many states – and many universities – in which the terms ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault’ are no longer used at all, due to the fact that many state statues, university policies, and individuals have recognized that “mere” unwanted sexual touching, in which an individual’s sexual autonomy is violated, can be just as damaging as unwanted penetration. As any victims’ advocate will attest, many victims are so profoundly impacted by “mere” nonconsensual sexual contact – even fully clothed sexual contact – that they have been diagnosed with the full range of post-traumatic symptoms: PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc. (Recall that the undergraduate student involved in the Ludlow case was so distressed by the incident that she attempted suicide in the weeks following. Is the fact that Ludlow didn’t penetrate her really of much interest?)

In other words, to put some special emphasis on penetration is, quite frankly, bizarre, and jarringly out-of-synch with contemporary mores and sensibilities. In both U.S. culture and U.S. law, there has been a distinct shift over the past couple of decades, away from a focus on penetration, towards the protection of sexual autonomy. As one advocate wrote in a message to me earlier today, “what is the point of compartmentalizing violent sexual acts, when they’re all violations?” To insist that unwanted penetration is worse than unwanted sexual contact is offensive because it dismisses and belittles the reality of the actual experiences of most of the victims and survivors.

A brief review of trends in rape law might help paint the picture here. Not long ago, whether or not a sexual act was consensual was irrelevant to whether or not it was legal, and almost all acts of sex, with or without penetration, were illegal. If an unmarried man and woman had sex, it was fornication. If one of the two was married, it was adultery for the married party and fornication for the other. If a man lured a woman into bed through a promise of marriage, he committed the crime of seduction. If the couple were from two different races, they could be charged with miscegenation. If both were male, it was sodomy. Even married couples who engaged in consensual sex, in some states, could be charged with a crime if they used certain sorts of birth control to prevent conception.

In other words, the only legal sex was heterosexual, copulative, marital intercourse involving exactly two cisgendered partners. Obviously such laws – though still in piecemeal existence in different states – would be woefully out of synch with contemporary mores, for all kinds of reasons. One of these reasons, I’d argue, is because such laws focus on regulating penetration, in the interest of protecting pre-marital virginity and enforcing the idea that intercourse is for conception, rather than on protecting the sexual autonomy of the individuals involved. And, though I don’t have space to press this point here, I’d argue that there has been a corresponding revolution in sex law over the past two decades (it’s generally not even called “rape law” anymore), in which sexual autonomy has emerged as a sort of fundamental right. Indeed, many of the state laws codify this right by placing sex crimes in which an individual’s autonomy is clearly violated – e.g., in which, say, the offender takes advantage of the fact that the victim is inebriated to initiate a sexual act, without or without penetration – in the category of first-degree criminal offenses. (Ohio is a good example of this.)

Just in case I didn’t make this clear enough in my original post: note that, based on the examples provided by Yale’s sexual misconduct committee, Ludlow’s actions – actions that he himself has admitted – would be grounds, if he were a student, for expulsion. The fact that he is a senior professor and the student was a first-year undergraduate student – i.e., that there was a clear power differential – only makes it worse.

In response to (2): I have no idea why the Sun-Times’ act of replacing the word “rape” with “sexual assault” in the headline would necessarily imply that they recognized a difference. If the editors felt there was a significant difference, presumably they wouldn’t have used the words interchangeably in the first place. A much more plausible explanation of the change is simply corporate risk management.

In response to (3): Really? A re-reading of the response to (1) should make it clear why claiming that rape is worse that sexual assault is not merely wrong-headed, but offensive to survivors who have been harmed by sex crimes that don’t involve penetration.