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My Oppression Is Not Your Thought Experiment

[Content note: sexual assault]

There seems to be no shortage of people just itching for the opportunity to turn real, tragic human suffering into intriguing little thought experiments for their own amusement or political gain.

This time we’ve got a college professor attempting to make some sort of bizarre claim about drilling for oil using Steubenville and sexual assault:

Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm—no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

[...]As long as I’m safely unconsious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?

Unfortunately for Steven Landsburg, the author of this rationalization, analogies only work when you know what the fuck you’re talking about.

Sexual assault isn’t wrong (just) because people don’t like it. It’s wrong because we have decided, as a society, that people’s bodies belong to them and only them. You cannot use someone else’s body for your own needs without their consent. You can’t harvest their organs. You can’t force them to get a piercing or a tattoo or a haircut. You (theoretically) can’t force them to have a child or an abortion, although we now seem to be getting closer and closer to forcing people to have children. You can’t compel them to undergo a medical procedure or experiment. You cannot go up to a stranger and touch their body. You cannot punch someone except in self-defense or, again, in a consensual setting. (Of course, all of this completely falls apart when it comes to children, which I think is ridiculous and wrong.) And you cannot use someone else’s body for sex without their consent. Your body belongs to you.

This, at least, is the ethical framework under which we normally seem to operate. It falls apart all the time, of course–with children, as I mentioned, and with pregnant women. It falls apart when we insist on the right to touch a Black stranger’s hair, and it falls apart when the police have been given the authority to use deadly force on innocent civilians. But in general, most of us have come to the conclusion that a just society is one that grants individuals the autonomy to decide what happens to their bodies, and that this power can only be taken away when there’s a compelling reason (i.e. the person is a child who is refusing medical care, the person has entered a coma from which they are extremely unlikely to return and their families now have the final say regarding their treatment, the person has committed a crime and is refusing to cooperate with the police, etc.)

That you feel like having sex with them and they’re unconscious so it won’t hurt them anyway is not a compelling reason. I refuse to debate this point. This is elementary.

Of course, Landsburg’s analogy fails on the other side, too, because people who criticize oil drilling generally don’t criticize it on the grounds of BUT IT MAKES TEH LANDSCAPES LESS PRETTY. But whatever.

This tendency to philosophize over real, painful, tragic issues that some of us are actually trying to do something about shows up all the time. It shows up during pro-choice activism. It shows up during suicide prevention efforts; I can’t count how often someone would appear on some post where I was discussing suicide prevention and attempt to engage me in some vague pseudo-philosophical ramble about whether or not it is truly ethical to prevent people who want to kill themselves from killing themselves, completely ignoring the fact that I am only here writing this by virtue of the fact that there were so many people who really didn’t want me to kill myself, once upon a time.

And it especially shows up when we talk about sexual assault and the proper way to respond to and prevent it.

I have spent a lot of time arguing about sexual assault with people who want to use all sorts of creative analogies about the violation of someone’s body when that person wasn’t (supposedly) doing everything in their power to prevent that violation. It’s like leaving your bike unchained! It’s like leaving your front door unlocked! It’s like leaving your keys in the ignition! In fact, it’s just like taxing someone, because money is just like bodily autonomy, so at best taxation is just as bad as violating someone’s actual, physical body. (Yes, that argument has been put forth in one of my comment sections. No, I won’t go dig it up.)

My body is not a bike. It’s not a house. It’s not a car. It is not money. Using my body without asking me first is not like robbery. It is not like taxation. You know what’s it’s like? It’s like sexual assault, because that’s exactly what it is.

To be clear, I don’t hate philosophy or discussions thereof. I think they can be really fascinating and useful. However, there’s a time and a place, and, in my opinion, an obligation to be sensitive when you’re trying to abstractly discuss things that actually hurt, traumatize, and potentially kill people.

First of all, do not attempt to insert yourself and your philosophical theorizing into spaces where people are trying to do activism. Philosophy can and should inform activism, of course, but when someone’s discussing rape prevention, that’s not the time to start pontificating at them about what rape really means and isn’t it just like a theft of property and whatnot.

Second, this is tangential to the main idea of this post, but very relevant anyway. Take special care when playing devil’s advocate. Tell people what you’re doing. Tell them you’d like to work through some possible counter-arguments and allow them to refuse. Why is this important? Because it’s so incredibly draining and hurtful for activists to be asked to listen to the same offensive and basic arguments over and over and spent their time and energy arguing against them, only for you to conclude with, “Oh, whatever, I was just playing devil’s advocate.” Cut that shit out.

Third, know what you’re talking about! Landsburg clearly didn’t. Or, if he did, he still managed to completely minimize that in favor of his convoluted view of rape-as-bad because people just don’t liiiiike it, in which case, should it really be illegal if it doesn’t cause them “Real Harm”? After all, it’s not illegal to call someone a poopyhead! So there. (I may be editorializing slightly.)

Fourth, take care that your philosophizing is not unintentionally contributing to the problem that you’re discussing. There is a long history of rationalizing away sexual assault, and Amanda Marcotte notes in her post:

Colleges in this country are suffering from a  rape problem that is all too real and not some kind of cutesy thought experiment. Rapists and their enablers are known to seize on claims like the one Landsburg is kicking around here, that it doesn’t count if you didn’t have to beat the victim to subdue her. In fact, one of the witnesses who saw the Steubenville rape but didn’t try to stop it used exactly that excuse: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I thought it was forcing yourself on someone.” Having a popular professor casually endorse this rationalization through wanky and ultimately irrelevant thought “experiments” isn’t just offensive, but could be dangerous as well.

In other words, your fun little thought experiment might actually make things worse. It’s not just a fun little thought experiment, really, because ideas and attitudes have consequences out in the real world, into which Landsburg might consider venturing sometime.


  1. smrnda says

    You can’t use someone’s body without their explicit informed consent in any way; that’s the foundation of sexual ethics right there. The point isn’t debatable. Also, a person’s body isn’t just some thing like anything else (the guy tried to sound so high-minded with the idea that it’s this outrageously unfounded assumption that violating a person’s body belongs in a special category.) I mean, I can make a compelling case that property and $$$ can sometimes be appropriated and it isn’t wrong, but yes, we place people’s BODIES in a special category. In some kind of crisis, it might be okay to throw a brick through a window to get some goods inside that would help with the crisis. However, forced sex can never have the same justification. Our bodies deserve special protection our property doesn’t necessarily warrant.

    It’s a bit disturbing that some privileged guy can say things things without finding them in the least disturbing. Obviously rape is an exercise in mental masturbation for this guy, to the extent that he can invent an impossible-in-the-real-world ‘harmless rape scenario’ and that he’s not deeply troubled by the idea that an unconscious person can be raped.

    I was kind of puzzled myself as to what his real goal was. I thought at first he might have been trying to demonstrate a failing of utilitarianism. The guy’s a libertarian, and they’re not particularly fond of arguments that something is wrong because it’s harmful because they prefer to base ethics on the idea of absolute property rights, in which negative externalities that arise from the use of private property are ignored. (They also present a naive straw-utilitarianism that nobody really adheres to.) I think his take was that ‘we can only say rape is wrong if we don’t use harm as a standard of wrong since otherwise my hypothetical and impossible in the real world ‘harmless rape’ is right!’ I think he’s trying to suggest that the only way rape is wrong is if all ethics are based absolute property rights and not harm. Leaving aside the fact that he’s creating a theoretical entity that doesn’t exist in the world… and that’s used as a justification for raping unconscious people. (Plus, we deal with people’s bodies much differently than their property.)

  2. says

    Thank you for not parroting the bullshit about how this is just standard libertarian thinking, because this professor apparently considers himself a libertarian.

    The libertarian obsession with property rights starts with the belief that the human body is our most fundamental property. It’s what makes slavery wrong; it’s what makes physical assault wrong, and it’s what makes rape wrong. If you believe that each person owns him or herself– and libertarians believe this to an almost absurd degree– then no form of non-consensual physical interaction performed on an adult against his or her will is acceptable, and the corollary is that nothing an individual wants to do to his or her own body, up to and including recreational drug use, bizarre sexual practices, body modification, organ selling, or suicide, should be forbidden.

    Some libertarians manage to reconcile this belief with being pro-life by asserting that a fetus is an individual with all of these rights in spite of being housed in and sustained by another person. This is utter bollocks and ultimately amounts to an anti-woman stance, but that’s how they get there philosophically. It doesn’t justify rape, because a potential rape victim is unquestionably a person, whether she’s unconscious at the time or not.

    • Alverant says

      He considers himself a hardcore libertarian. “The libertarian obsession with property rights starts with the belief that the human body is our most fundamental property.” That only works if you think of other people as being equal. If you don’t consider them equal, then that belief goes right out the window. If someone, like this professor, considers a group of people to be less than human, then you can have exceptions. Like if they’re not using their property at the moment and won’t notice if someone else uses it, then it’s OK to use it.

      Or if you want something less extreme, do parents have the right to control their children for example how about enforcing disipline and teaching them manners. If children own their own bodies what happens when they decide it’s OK to scream in restaurants or run about in the street?

      • says

        He considers himself a hardcore libertarian.

        As the first line in my post noted.

        That only works if you think of other people as being equal.

        I don’t know of any libertarian “doctrine” or doctrine that says women aren’t equal to men.

        • smrnda says

          I think a critique is usually made about what we mean by ‘equal.’ I know some libertarians who say that men and women are equal as long as there is no law that says “men can be engineers. Women cannot be engineers.” If women get actively discouraged from being in engineering, aren’t supported by faculty and if bosses just openly state they don’t want to hire women, some libertarians I know have said this is fine, since it’s wrong to compel people to hire women if they don’t want to. Not all do, but some.

          To me, this is a kind of ‘equality’ that exists in only a theoretical, but not an actual way. Men and women are not equal since our society is clearly biased and sexist. I’ve had some libertarians agree, but just say that it’s outside of the scope of the proper role of government to make things fair. I’m guessing their take is that discrimination by the law is wrong, but that discrimination in the private sector is a right.

          I don’t think all libertarians think like this, but it’s the point of view I’ve most consistently encountered.

    • says

      Interestingly, the person who made the argument about taxation being just like assault in my comments section was also a libertarian. But such beliefs clearly don’t correspond to those of the majority of libertarians I know, so I’m not sure where they get them from.

      • says

        One conception of property rights states that property rights are derived from a kind of extended right to bodily integrity. The idea is that you use your body to work and acquire property which you can legitimately claim ownership of. So according to such a view taxation is a breach of your right to this extended conception bodily integrity and assault and robbery would be similar breaches. Of course this is a controversial conception of property rights.

  3. hoary puccoon says

    In my opinion, Landsburg should face disciplinary action, including possible firing for this. This isn’t something he’s discussing with 80 year olds. He’s a college professor. Which age group does he think is disproportionately likely to commit rape? Is he unaware that rape is a serious problem on many college campuses? If he were getting up in front of 18-22 year old men and doing “thought experiments” about how driving 90 mph without a seat belt is really an innocent diversion as long as long as you don’t hit anybody, would the university administration be passing it off with, “we don’t agree, but after all, tenure and freeze peach”?

    I wonder, if… And I fervently hope this is only a hypothetical …. If a woman student is drugged and raped, will she have grounds to sue Landsburg and his university? What if the rapist admits he got the idea from Landsburg? To what extent could Landsburg be legally liable?

    This “thought experiment” isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in a place inhabited by a group of people who have a heightened danger of being raped, and a group of people who are disproportionately likely to rape– and sometimes, without understanding that what they are doing really is rape. Is Landsburg oblivious to that? Or is he knowingly advocating a heinous crime?

    • says

      To be fair, I’m pretty sure he wrote it on his blog rather than saying it in the classroom. I don’t think that teachers/professors should be disciplined for things they do on their own time, within reason, because I think that educators deserve to have a life outside of their career just like everyone else does.

      HOWEVER, I strongly agree with your comments about the fact that this isn’t happening in a vacuum, and what sorts of messages this may send to Landsburg’s students, who may read his writing. And honestly, maybe he does talk about it in class; I have no idea. College professors get a ton of leeway on what they talk about in class, so it’s not like anyone’s necessarily checking.

  4. Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters says

    I actually like thought experiments, but only done in well-labeled limited spaces with people who consent to participate and when you’ve stated at the outset that you believe rape is wrong and harmful. And anyone who wants to do such thought experiments needs to stand up and shout bloody murder should mass media start reporting their discussions without the values statements about rape being wrong and harmful.

    Come to think of it, a significant amount of evo-psych research would benefit from the same sort of statement of values at the outset…

    • Ysanne says

      Exactly my thoughts.

      My body is not a bike. It’s not a house. It’s not a car. It is not money. Using my body without asking me first is not like robbery.

      And even if it were… if someone just took my bike, car, house, money, whatever-other-thing when I’m not looking, used it, finished before I notice, and possibly even returned it to its original or better condition, it would still not be acceptable, especially to libertarians who seem to take the concept of ownership very seriously.

      Also, with the “what’s the harm, she didn’t even notice” line of argument, you could as well justify killing someone painlessly in their sleep: After all, they won’t notice or be bothered by it, ever.

  5. wowsers77721 says

    I’d add I’m tired of terms like “thought experiment” being used to get a free pass on agendas and biases, or that intentionally loaded statements are mere logic exercise because it’s economics or philosophy.

    Save pure math (perhaps), even science has to deal with bias, morality, politics and agendas because it’s being conducted by humans. And philosophy and economics are not science.

    As Emanuel Derman points out in “Models Behaving Badly” at best they are academic disciplines which rely on modeling, a selective reductive version of reality which is not scientific theory. That selective aspect is always informed by human biases no matter how much math is piled on top of it. They may be complex, disciplined moral arguments, but they are still informed opinions with human flaws.

    This false objectivity is more grating with “thought experiments” like Landsburg’s. As an academic he knows the presentation of an argument is part of its intent, and his entire essay is written in a way which is trolling at the very least.

    The most telling – and enraging point – is how he presents a “harmless” rape. In the first sentence he posits the magical rape of an unconscious victim “in a way that causes no direct physical harm”. He then brings up Stuebenville and claims the victim “was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it”. The equation between the imagined and real life scenarios is implied but open, setting up a tacit assertion: the real life victim wasn’t physically harmed and only experienced psychic harm when she found out. Which is a wild distortion of actual events (the victim was left for dead) as well as a creepy rationalization. The only thing which is unclear is if Landsburg actually does think intoxication is consent or is using this idea to troll feminists (which have been a target of his hostility in the past). What is clear is he understands language well enough to know what’s being implied, and is clearly relishing such rhetoric until people call him on it. Then he claims it’s dispassionate musing.

    It’s also been rumored that responses which quested the intent, bias and tone of this “thought experiment” did not make it through moderation. Which I understand, but part of an honest academic discussion should be if there are other agendas driving the discussion. In my opinion, good thinkers can admit this, economist trolls generally can’t preferring the fig leaf of objectivity.

  6. says

    As Andrew Ti, the author of the excellent “Yo Is This Racist?” blog, suggested, the next time someone claims that they’re just playing devil’s advocate, I’m going to throw holy water on them and attempt to exorcise them.

  7. says

    In the article above the one you linked to, there is not much context in regards to what the point was meant to prove being a libertarian philosopher I imagine the ‘thought experiment’ was meant to cast aspersions on Utilitarian ethics. As such a statement appears to be a caricature of certain types of Utilitarian ethics. I assume if (as everyone is saying) he is a libertarian he would have then contrasted with a rights based ethics.

    It’s certainly a bad choice for a thought experiment as one could formulate a similar thought experiment without invoking rape at all. Like the one I’m going to formulate below:

    ‘Suppose I have a rare blood type in a society in which Blood is stored for state medical uses and ultimately saves countless lives every year. Suppose now, that the state collected blood off me during me sleep in a way in which no harm is done to me and in the morning I am unaware of having blood taken. Clearly no harm came to me and some benefit was reaped by the people who ultimately received my blood. Why do we still think it would be wrong to take blood in such a way.’

    The only reason why someone would formulate such an example as I can see it is to contrast classical utilitarianism with a rights based ethic. Showing that utilitarian intuitions about morality are in correct. Is there any source which has the complete post, as I believe this was probably the case.


  1. […] As though the problem is that some people (in this case, women) just need to be challenged with different opinions.  As if “I was raped and society said it was my fault so the rapist was never prosecuted” is just a strong view on the topic.  Shocking news:  it’s really shitty to use people’s real lived experiences of traumatic events as a thought experiment. […]