Rape is about power and sex

cn: non-explicit discussion of rape

“Rape is about power, not sex” is one of those old feminist sayings. I don’t know the exact source, but Psychology Today suggests that it might be simplified from statements by Susan Brownmiller in 1975.

In its simplified form, it’s obviously a political soundbite, a piece of rhetoric rather than a serious thesis. If I put on my philosopher hat, what does it even mean for X to be “about” Y? Is this about-ness relation commutative, reflexive, or transitive? Based on usage, I’m guessing that what people mean is that rape (and other sexual violence) is motivated by power relations, and not motivated by sexual desire. Which just isn’t always true, so I don’t know why people say it.

I recently discussed the case of Avital Ronell (who, to be clear, was found guilty of sexual harassment, not rape). One detail I didn’t mention, because it was irrelevant, was that the perpetrator was lesbian, and the victim was gay. This surprised some people, and I saw people on Twitter defending the perpetrator on this basis, or suggesting that she must really be bisexual. This comes from the false belief that sexual harassment must be motivated by sexual desire. In this case, it was motivated by the power relation between an advisor and grad student.

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Sexual economics, a theory in need of reworking

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015.  It’s just some good old-fashioned making fun of pseudoscientific nonsense.

Recently, my attention was caught by the idea of the “sexual marketplace”.  Specifically, there’s a theory of sexual economics created by Baumeister and Vohs.  If you’d rather not read the paper, the Austin Institute* made a fancy video about it:

*Apparently, it’s a think tank run by Mark Regnerus.  Yes, that Mark Regnerus.

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Now it’s happening among feminist professors of literature

cn: sexual harassment

I saw a New York Times article titled “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is Accused?” The answer, it turns out, is that academics close ranks and defend their own.

The article is about an NYU professor of literature, Avital Ronell, who was found by a Title IX investigation to have sexually harassed a former grad student, Nimrod Reitman. Some professors circulated a letter in support of Ronell, and a draft of the letter leaked. The letter appears to take the ludicrous position that Ronell should be judged on the quality of her scholarship, rather than the substance of the investigation.

The kicker is that the first signatory of the letter is Judith Butler.

Now I did a bit of research, and I found a small mitigating factor that I thought I should mention first before going into how terrible this is. Apparently, the signatories of the letter were given false information about the investigation. There was another leak of the letter soliciting professors for signatures in defense of Ronell. Signatories were told that Ronell had undergone a long investigation, which had cleared her of sexual harassment, and was moving on to non-sexual harassment charges. Ronell was apparently worried that she would be fired even if found innocent, and the letter was intended to support her under those circumstances.

One can hope that Judith Butler et al. will retract their defense of Ronell once they learn the findings of the investigation. But even if they do, for shame. These professors should know better than to lend their support to some professor under investigation for sexual harassment, when they know little about the case.

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Authorial intent is magic!

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015, although I changed the title.

The author is magic

Death of the Author” is a famous 1967 essay by Roland Barthes regarding the interpretation of literature.  He argues that the intentions and context of the author are irrelevant when interpreting the author’s work.  At most, the author provides a single interpretation, which must compete with all other interpretations.

Intent! It’s fucking magic!” is an influential 2010 essay by Kinsey Hope regarding the moral judgment actions.  There’s a common circumstance wherein a person tries to justify their mistakes by emphasizing their good intentions.  The essay snarkily observes that good intentions have the strange and magical power to erase all harms.  “Intention isn’t magic” has become a common saying among activists.

Though the two essays live in completely different contexts (literary criticism vs moral discourse), I would argue that the sentiments behind each are substantially similar.  Indeed, in the modern age, when we increasingly look at popular works of fiction through moral lenses, and when “actions” often consist of tweets or other comments, it is questionable whether they even live in different contexts.

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#MeToo and centering perpetrators

Last October, #MeToo had become a popular tag on Facebook, with many friends posting personal stories of harassment or assault. At the time, I wrote a post asking “Who is #metoo for?” I was questioning the assumption that #MeToo was entirely for the benefit of survivors. While sharing a personal story of trauma can be cathartic, it is often a burden. Survivors may be adopting this burden not for their own benefit, but in hopes of educating the public.

So, funny thing, #MeToo continues to be a big deal even now. And it didn’t go in the direction I expected.

At some point, I stopped seeing friends post personal stories. As far as friends’ personal stories go, #MeToo is over. Most people with stories have already decided either to share them or withhold them. Instead, #MeToo has become about celebrity accusations. Somewhere someone writes a #MeToo post talking about their horrible experiences with some unnamed dude, then the truth comes out that the unnamed dude was actually Famous Celebrity. Then the media gets a hold of it and it makes huge headlines. #MeToo strikes again!

This has been happening over and over again for months. And not just in the mainstream realm–if you paid attention to any subcultures or small communities, you might have heard accusations against small-time celebrities and leaders. Scandal after scandal, fractally repeating.

It’s good to see people in power finally punished for their misdeeds. But you see, back when #MeToo was mostly about survivors posting personal stories on Facebook, I was already complaining about how the campaign wasn’t very survivor-oriented. And that’s nothing compared to what #MeToo is now. #MeToo, in its current incarnation, fundamentally centers perpetrators rather than survivors.

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