Me too: But What About You?

If you’ve been on social media much in the last few days, you might have seen a lot of status updates saying “Me too” with or without explanation. The idea is to raise awareness of the magnitude of the problem of sexual assault and sexual harassment, particularly of women, though my personal take is this ought to be something for people of all genders. While it seems likely that the nature of the violence would vary depending on the genders of the people involved, we do ourselves no favours in framing sexual violence as exclusively a women’s issue.

But now that we see each other as survivors, what are some next steps? One, I think, is to know that many people do not feel comfortable speaking up about their own experiences, for a variety of reasons, and that we ought not make assumptions.

But another piece of this: who has been causing the violence? There are huge numbers of people speaking up about their experiences of harassment and assault, but let’s not ignore the fact that these wrongs have all been committed by someone. And who are those people who have perpetrated these wrongs? The hard truth is that in many cases it is also us. I think that the common narrative of perpetrators as predators, deviant, outsiders, and others, has resulted in a great deal of harm. It does not help us see that in a world run through with injustice, it is very easy to be ignorant of ways in which we harm one another and perpetuate injustices.

Perpetrators of assault and harassment need not be monsters. They can be us, having watched too many movies portraying the relentless pursuit of an unwilling romantic partner as charming rather than terrifying. Or having internalized women’s resistance to sex as obligatory behaviour, and not necessarily reflective of a woman’s actual desires. Or having accepted an ideology of pity, that disabled bodies are inherently undesirable, and anyone who is disabled (or otherwise not-conventionally-attractive) should be grateful for sexual attention of any kind. It is not that hard for us to hurt each other without being monstrous in moral character.

So perhaps instead of just feeling heartbroken and helpless in the face of wrongs perpetuated only by others, it would be a good time to wonder about situations in which we have ignored boundaries to which we ought to have attended, or interpreted situations in line with our desires rather than another’s. But the point isn’t just to feel bad about this, either, or to treat it as just a sign of your own bad moral character. The point is that there is a reason that this behaviour is easy to ignore on your part, as well as on the part of others. It is easy to disbelieve that a friend has committed sexual assault because you know them to be at heart a good person, and think that the two things are incompatible with each other.

All of this needs to go. Guilt and shame are not ends in themselves here, and the mere recognition of our own wrongdoing is not enough. Recognizing wrongs in retrospect at times like these does not change the fact that many of these wrongs did not seem so wrong at the time. And it is this last fact that needs to change before these problems can be solved. Without that work, these confessions seem (as many other things do to me) like just more yelling into the void.

Retroactive withdrawal of consent?

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa continues his excellent, thoughtful series on the new Kipnis book with a discussion of nonconsensual sex.

Kipnis often describes sexual assault allegations in these terms. She says that there was a consensual sexual encounter, and then, months or years later, someone “retroactively withdraws” consent, converting what had previously been a permissible sexual encounter into an assault. Her language suggests a kind of “backwards causation”—one can reach back into history and create rapes that weren’t there by removing the consent. The implication: this absurd metaphysics is being embraced by campus activists, demonstrating both their intellectual depravity and their danger.

But why is Kipnis so confident that, in these cases, there was consent in the first place? After all, there is such a thing as a nonconsensual sexual encounter where the victim doesn’t think of it as such at the time, or doesn’t decide to report it at the time. There is such a thing as being coerced, manipulated, or bullied into a sexual relationship. When this happens, one is quite likely to keep quiet about it at first, either for fear of repercussions, or out of failure to understand what has happened.

On Kipnis, Sexual Assault, and Sexual Agency

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa has another really excellent blog post today.

One of the central themes in Unwanted Advances is Kipnis’s suggestion that campus “sexual paranoia” stands in tension with a recognition of female sexuality and sexual agency. She attributes to the contemporary American university a Victorian sensibility, treating women as precious, featureless, sexless wards requiring zealous protection. I think this is a serious misreading of the cultural situation, and of the nature of agency.

Read on.



Northwestern Graduate Students on Kipnis

The Northwestern Philosophy Graduate Student Association has published an open letter on Kipnis’s book.

Several people, including a graduate student in the department of philosophy at Northwestern University, were recently targeted in a book by Radio, Television and Film faculty member Laura Kipnis. In “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus,” Kipnis constructs a narrative around a series of events — which have been largely centered within our own department — to support her claim that Title IX fosters a sense of sexual paranoia and creates an environment hostile to academic freedom.

In doing so, Kipnis dedicates a chapter of her book to questioning a sexual assault allegation our fellow graduate student brought against a faculty member. Kipnis questions this allegation on the basis of a limited set of evidence, without consulting with our colleague or those close to her to check a number of important details in the case. Moreover, Kipnis reinforces her claims with unsubstantiated speculations. Her construction of the narrative is, as a result, irresponsible. We feel compelled to express how dissonant Kipnis’ retelling of these events is with our first-hand experiences of them and with the people involved in them, and to express our concern for Kipnis’ conduct, both as an author and as a faculty member at NU.

Read on.

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.]

The Quiet Obliteration of Women’s Autonomy – Trump Edition

The Washington Post broke a story today about remarks Donald Trump made in 2005 while accompanied by Billy Bush, then host of Access Hollywood. 

I want to point out how Trump and Bush’s remarks about women, and the way that newspapers are reporting on those remarks, subtly dissolve the autonomy of the women who are being commented on.

Part I – The Remarks: Below are a good portion of the remarks. You can also listen to them in the link above in the WaPo story. [Heads up: they contain expletives and objectifying descriptions of women.]

Read More »

Canadian domestic violence survivor goes public after replacement judge declares mistrial

Yesterday, Canadian public broadcaster the CBC published the story of Isabelle Raycroft, Canada’s latest high-profile victim of intimate partner violence.

Here’s the tl;dr: the trial judge wrote a decision convicting Raycroft’s husband of four counts of assault against her, then got sick and couldn’t deliver the verdict. A replacement judge was appointed to read the verdict and determine the sentence. Before sentencing, a delegation of “old boys” from the rural Ontario community in which the Raycrofts reside appeared before the court to attest to the good character of the convict. Having heard this testimony (but not the evidence that was presented at trial), the replacement judge declared a mistrial. The devastated complainant decided that the public needed to know what she’d gone through. She went to court to have the publication ban on the case waived, and then she went to the CBC.

The story is frustrating, astonishing and riveting, and provides yet more evidence (as if it were needed) that when it comes to sexual violence, the law is an ass. Read it here.

Law Professors on the Preponderance Standard in Title IX cases

A group of more than 90 law professors have signed on to a white paper regarding the preponderance of the evidence standard’s use in campus sexual misconduct cases. I recommend reading the entire document, but here’s a snippet:

The consistency of the 2011 DCL with civil rights legal doctrine means that, had the 2011 DCL indicated tolerance for other standards of proof in sexual violence cases, it would have approved treating sexual violence and harassment victims differently from all other victims of all other discrimination prohibited under our nation’s anti-discrimination civil rights laws, and done so without any justification for that differentiation. Because differential treatment by the government without justification is itself a form of discrimination, OCR making such an exception in a specific set of sexual harassment cases, but in no other civil rights matters under its jurisdiction, would have been incompatible with the agency’s mission to secure gender equality in education.

Judge hands down six-month sentence for sexual assault to avoid “severe impact” on assailant

The victim read a letter to her assailant regarding the impact this has had on her during the proceedings.

Via BuzzFeed:

One night in January 2015, two Stanford University graduate students biking across campus spotted a freshman thrusting his body on top of an unconscious, half-naked woman behind a dumpster. This March, a California jury found the former student, 20-year-old Brock Allen Turner, guilty of three counts of sexual assault. Turner faced a maximum of fourteen years in state prison. On Thursday, he was sentenced to six months in county jail and probation. The judge said he feared a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner, a champion swimmer who once aspired to swim in the Olympics — a detail repeatedly brought up during the trial.

On Thursday, Turner’s victim addressed him directly, detailing the severe impact his actions had on her — from the night she learned she had been assaulted by a stranger while unconscious, to the grueling trial during which Turner’s attorneys argued that she had eagerly consented.

The full letter the Stanford victim read to hear assailant describing the impact on her is posted at BuzzFeed. I was going to excerpt a quote, but the letter is so powerful and important, I just want to encourage you to read it in its entirety instead.