University of Rochester Professor Steven Landsburg has generated quite the kerfuffle this week with a blog post that posits that rape should be okay if the victim suffers no physical harm and only psychological harm is inflicted upon them. He compares this situation to one in which an environmentalist and an anti-pornography activist who both, if you accept the terms of the thought experiment, suffer deep, psychological harm from their perspective pet-causes being violated.
There are really two questions at issue here: Should Landsburg have posited the question? And is he right in his analysis. Most folks have only come down on the first question, but I’m going to take the time and answer both.
Should the question have been asked?
Of course it should.
I am, in fact, deeply disturbed by those who have called to censure Landsburg for his thought experiment and musings on his blog. All individuals should feel like they have the ability to ask controversial questions, subvert paradigms, and call into question the fundamental premises of what they see. When we attack and lambast people for asking questions they are wondering about, then that keeps them from asking the questions to begin with. And, in the midst of a national crisis and conversation about rape culture and the prominence of rape in our society, we have to have these conversations.
Some folks have said that Landsburg should not have brought Steubenville into the debate, or, that he shouldn’t have asked the question because of its proximity to the Steubenville rape trial.
It is even more important to ask this question in the wake of Steubenville.
Clearly, even if we assume that Landsburg is fully committed to “raping unconscious people is okay” agenda, he is not the only one who thinks this. Feminists, people in society, hell, even I, spend a shitton of time talking about rape culture and about how terrible ideas of rape permeate our culture. This professor presents a perfect opportunity for people to calmly, rationally, persuasively strike down one of those insidious ideas and you try and shut him up?
You have got to be fucking kidding me!
People calling for Landsburg to shut up are missing an absolutely golden opportunity to have an open and honest conversation about the kinds of ideas that lead to rapes like Steubenville. It positively blows my mind that people are spending more time trying to drive the idea underground—where it will flourish and lead to more Steubenvilles—than to engage with the idea and show how it is wrong.
Some have accused Landsburg of sophomoric thinking not fit for a professor at a university. Perhaps that is true, but it’s fundamentally irrelevant. Whether a professor should be thinking along these lines or not, there are people who do think this way. It doesn’t matter whether the person presenting the idea is a professor or a plumber, to not engage with it and show why it’s faulty is just foolish, because he’ll just go on thinking it.
But, no. Lest we be somehow confused for rape apologists, we have to shout down people who pose uncomfortable questions. We are more interested in appearing saintly than getting our hands dirty.
Fighting rape culture is so much more than shaming assholes who catcall you on the street, posting on Jezebel, and sitting up on your high horse calling out misogyny. Ending rape culture is going to require hard work. It’s going to require that you treat people who think this way with enough respect that you can persuade them of your ideas. It’s going to demand that you get on your hands and knees, accept the premises of someone’s argument, and engage them on the ground that they stand on.
Take the ten minutes to show why he’s wrong rather than the thirty to try and shut him down. It’ll do the world a favor. Seriously.