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.