Rochester University Professor Trivializes Rape of Unconscious People

***Trigger Warning for Rape Apology***

I just read a rather horrifying post. Every time someone claims there is no such thing as rape apologia, I read a post like this. This one is by Steven Landsburg, a professor of economics at the University of Rochester. Say what? Say yes.

Here are three dilemmas about public policy:

Question 1:

Farnsworth McCrankypants just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be looking at pornography. It’s not that he thinks porn causes bad behavior; it’s just the idea of other people’s viewing habits that causes him deep psychic distress. Ought Farnsworth’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Farnsworth an argument for discouraging pornography through, say, taxation or regulation?

Question 2:

Granola McMustardseed just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be altering the natural state of a wilderness area. It’s not that Granola ever plans to visit that area or to derive any other direct benefits from it; it’s just the idea of wilderness desecration that causes her deep psychic distress. Ought Granola’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Granola an argument for discouraging, say, oil drilling in Alaska, either through taxes or regulation?

Question 3:

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?

Say what? Where the heck did that last example come from? Two of these things are alike . . . and one is completely different. And did he just really honestly ask if rape should be illegal?

Meta Question

If your answers to questions 1, 2 and 3 were not all identical, what is the key difference among them?

Is this question supposed to be hard? Did he seriously have to ask the difference between someone wanting the government to control other people’s physical property on the one hand (computers and land), and wanting the law to protect your own body from being non-consensually assaulted on the other hand? There is a world of difference between saying “I don’t want other people to watch porn” and saying “I don’t want other people to rape me” on the other hand. Did I say a world of difference? I meant a universe of difference.

Let’s give Steve the benefit of the doubt and assume his question was rhetorical. Right? I just set up the scenario and asked what the difference is so that he can then come out and hammer home on that difference. I mean, surely that must be what’s going on.

Some Thoughts

A. I have a strong visceral sense that Bob McCrankypants’s issues are his own and ought not impinge on public policy. This makes it incumbent on me to think about where I draw the line — why should one sort of harm (e.g. a punch in the nose) be legally actionable and another (e.g. psychic distess over someone else’s reading habits) not be? I’ve mused on this before (e.g. in the final chapter of More Sex is Safer Sex), but I think I’ve failed to draw a compelling bright line. That said, some clearly relevant issues are:

  1. We have only Bob’s word for the magnitude of his distress.
  2. We don’t want to encourage others to dredge up their own feelings of psychic harm, which might have lain safely buried in their unconsciousness until they noticed that conscious expressions of such feelings tend to get rewarded.

I’m sorry, what? There’s several universes of difference between the harm someone suffers from being punched in the nose and the harm someone suffers from being upset that someone across the bus is reading Harry Potter. And his points one and two, really? Seriously? He sounds almost like the people who have argued that child sexual molestation only hurts kids if they’re told when they grow up that they’re supposed to have been harmed by it. And I don’t think that’s the kind of company he wants to be keeping.

B. It seems crystal clear to me that there is no substantive difference between Bob and Granola. If Granola plans to hike the Alaskan wilderness, and if those plans are likely to be disrupted by oil drilling, that’s a legitimate reason to discourage oil drilling (though of course there might be countervailing reasons to encourage it). But as long as she’s sitting in her own living room fuming about other people’s drilling habits, even as Bob sits in his living room fuming about other people’s viewing habits, I see no reason why her fumes should get more public policy weight than his.

I’d argue that there is a difference here—if we screw over our country environmentally, we and future generations will be harmed in very real ways. Now of course, the guy wanting people to stop watching porn probably thinks that if we allow porn future generations will be similarly harmed. But only one of those two arguments has real evidence on its side. But really, this isn’t the point of this article, and is just a nitpick.

C. I’m having trouble articulating any good reason why Question 3 is substantially different from Questions 1 and 2. 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? And if the thought of those benefits makes me shudder, why should my shuddering be accorded any more public policy weight than Bob’s or Granola’s? We’re still talking about strictly psychic harm, right?

Someone make this nightmare stop.

“Reap the benefits”? “Reap the benefits”? I’m starting to hyperventilate over here. My body is not a benefit for someone else to reap. Look, if Landburg’s logic were correct here, then it would only make sense, from an economic standpoint (he is an economics professor, remember), for the freshman guys of ABC Hall at XYZ University to roofie the freshman girls each night and rape them while they’re unconscious. The boys reap the benefits an the gals are shielded from the costs of the assault, amirite?

If this is what economics professors like to spend their spare time thinking about, I don’t think I like economists anymore.

Are ideas like bodily autonomy and consent really that hard to grasp?

D. It is, I think, a red herring to say that there’s something peculiarly sacred about the boundaries of our bodies. Every time someone on my street turns on a porch light, trillions of photons penetrate my body. They cause me no physical harm and therefore the law does nothing to restrain them. Even if those trillions of tiny penetrations caused me deep psychic distress, the law would continue to ignore them, and I think there’s a case for that (it’s the same as the case for ignoring Bob McCrankypants’s porn aversion). So for the issues we’re discussing here, bodily penetration does not seem to be in some sort of special protected category.

No. Freaking. Way.

Is Steve seriously comparing someone turning on a light and that light shining on another person with someone being raped by another person? And somehow the fact that we don’t regulate who can turn on and off lights means that a person’s ability to control their own body is somehow moot? That makes no sense at all. Or does Steve advocate for getting rid of the laws that make beating someone up a crime? Clearly not, since he already distinguished between rape while conscious and rape while unconscious (just writing that makes me feel sick to my stomach).

Also, this bears repeating: “bodily penetration does not seem to be in some sort of special category.” Yes, he actually wrote that. I don’t think I really need to explain this, but yes, bodily penetration is in a special category, because it entails violating someone’s bodily autonomy. And while Steve may not see a difference between someone’s porch light lighting up his silhouette and being raped, I actually see a huge amount of difference.

E. One could of course raise a variety of practical issues. If we legalize the rape of unconscious people, we will create an incentive to render people unconscious. If you answered Question 3 differently than you answered Questions 1 and 2, was it because of this sort of thing? Or do you see some more fundamental difference among the three cases?

If we legalize the rape of unconscious people . . . if we legalize the rape of unconscious people . . . did I really just read those words?!?

Also, yes Steve, I do see a fundamental difference among those three cases, and the fact that you don’t appear to see one makes me wonder how in the world you got tenure at a research university.

F. Followup question: If your answer depends on the (perfectly plausible) assertion that the trauma from learning you’ve been raped is of a different order of magnitude from the trauma suffered by Bob and Granola, would you be willing to legalize the rape of the unconscious in cases where the perpetrators take precautions to ensure the victim never learns about it?

What the hell is wrong with this guy?

Also, in case you’ve been wondering what it looks like, this is rape culture! This suggestion that if you can rape someone while they’re unconscious and make sure they never know, that should be legal! And he works at a university! I don’t think I need to point out that universities have long had serious rape problems, and that perpetrators often use things like alcohol and drugs to render their victims unable to resist or even unconscious. Is it just me or is posting something like this horribly irresponsible?

Edited to add: Some commenters have suggested that Question 3, unlike Questions 1 and 2, involves a violation of property rights. This seems entirely wrong to me; in each case, there is a disputed property right — a dispute over who controls my computer, a dispute over who controls the wilderness, a dispute about who controls my body. To appeal to a “respect for property rights” solves nothing, since in each case the entire dispute is about what the property rights should be in the first place.

Oh my word.

First of all, I don’t put my body in the same category as property. My right to my own body isn’t a property right. It’s more fundamental than that. There’s a huge difference between someone doing harm to my bike or my patio furniture and someone assaulting my body.

But that’s not actually the problem with this little addendum. This is not actually parallel. Let’s have a look:

  • Farnsworth wants to control other people’s computers so that they don’t watch porn.
  • Granola wants to control other people’s land so that they can’t alter wilderness areas.
  • An unnamed woman wants to keep other people from raping her own body while unconscious.

There’s a big difference between wanting to control your own property and wanting control someone else’s property, and there’s an even bigger difference between wanting to have control and autonomy over your own body and wanting to tell other people what they can and cannot do with their own things on their own time.

I repeat: How in the world is this guy a tenured economics professor? This is without a doubt the worst piece of rape apology I have read in a very long time. This man is suggesting that we should think about decriminalizing what happened at Steubenville, seriously and honestly make an argument that as long as a woman is blacked out when she’s raped, there’s no harm done. And he seems almost to wonder why women are so uptight about wanting to be able to control their own bodies. Oh, I don’t know, maybe the fact that two centuries ago our bodies were property and half a century ago it was legal for us to be raped by our husbands, yes, while being conscious might, you know, have a little something to do with it. Also, the fact that not only is my body mine in the way that no piece of property I own is, but in actuality my body is me.

Somehow I think Steve thinks he’s just having a jolly little thought experiment. He doesn’t have the visceral reaction to contemplating legalizing the rape of unconscious people experienced by myself or other women, some of whom have been raped and essentially all of whom have had moments when we’ve wondered if we’re going to be raped. He thinks he’s grappling with these fascinating questions, but in reality he’s asking whether it should be legal for me to be raped. He may think he’s just having an abstract conversation, and dealing in hypotheticals, but his lack of ability to see the difference between me wanting to be able to control my own body and someone wanting to control someone else’s ability to look at porn, combined with his utter disregard of the idea that bodily autonomy might be, you know, important, is gobsmacking.

And do you know what? I just looked him up, and Steven Landsburg isn’t just a tenured economics professor and published academic. He’s also written for, or is currently writing for, Slate, Forbes, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Oh, and in 2007 he was awarded professor of the year by his university. (I’m guessing he didn’t get that award for his work on rape prevention.) Oh, and would you look at that. People are now pressuring Rochester University to fire him. I wonder why. /sarcasm

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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