Professor: Rape is Okay if Woman is Unconscious

Professor: Rape is Okay if Woman is Unconscious April 2, 2013

University of Rochester economics professor Steven Landsburg has a rather bizarre comparison on his blog that could easily be mistaken for rape apologetics — as long as the woman is unconscious and the rapist is gentle enough not to cause any physical trauma.

He offers up three scenarios, which he seems to think are virtually indistinguishable. In the first scenario, “Farnsworth McCrankypants” is upset at the idea that other people view pornography and thinks they should be forced to stop. In the second scenario, “Granola McMustardseed” is upset that other people alter the natural state of a wilderness area where they might want to hike later. And here is scenario three:

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?

And he doesn’t seem to recognize any meaningful difference between the three scenarios:

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?

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…

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.

Seriously? Look, I get the idea that taking unorthodox ideas out for a walk as a means of challenging your assumptions, and this is particularly valuable for a college professor. But seriously? He really doesn’t see the difference there? And he thinks that since photons enter our body without our consent, a woman should not be protected against a penis entering her body against her consent as long as she’s unconscious? That’s not a provocative counter-factual example, it’s insane and dangerous. And if I were a woman in one of this guy’s classes, I might well feel pretty damn uncomfortable that my teacher thinks that if he roofies me and isn’t too forceful, he should be able to rape me with impunity.


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