The XX Factor

College Professor Gives Credence to Rapist Rationalizations

If a rape happens in a forest, does it really count?

Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

University of Rochester professor, self-described libertarian and former Slate contributor Steven Landsburg wants to tell us a tale of two egotists who clearly have too much self-regard and a third person that we traditionally consider a sympathetic figure but who may very well be an egotist with too much self-regard.* In a blog post labeled “Censorship, Environmentalism, and Steubenville,” Landsburg laid out the tale of two busybodies who need to mind their own business, a prude named Farnsworth McCrankypants that wants to keep you from masturbating and a dirty hippie named Granola McMustardseed, whose only motivation for opposing drilling is to preserve landscape views he’s not even looking at. Joining this cast of characters of people who fuss too much about stuff that doesn’t involve them? Rape victims getting bent out of shape about their own rapes. 

Hey, it’s a thought experiment, so don’t get all fussy, or Landsburg might call you Antirape McFunkiller.

In the first two cases, the evilness of McCrankypants and McMustardseed is pretty hard to dispute, in the terms Landsburg lays out: They want to stop you from reaping the real benefits of self-drilling in your own home or drilling for oil in Alaska for no other reason than because they just don’t like the idea of you doing it. He doesn’t give rape victims a charming nickname to demonstrate that they are the same kind of crybabies, but he otherwise draws a strong parallel.

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?

He clarifies why one should avoid excessive whininess about rape if one is unconscious during it:

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?

When commenters pointed out that women own their bodies—unlike McMustardseed, who doesn’t own Alaska, and McCrankypants, who doesn’t own your body or the pornography you’re using—Landsburg questioned that assumption.

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.

Presumably, this is why he didn’t make example number three a story of people who break into your home while you’re not there and throw a party that you don’t know about. Your house is indisputably your property, but hey, women’s bodies? Let’s not get too crazy here.

Not particularly surprising for a man who believes that your employer should be able to control how you use your compensation if you’re female, but still noteworthy for this reason: Landsburg is not only a college professor, but a beloved one. 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. 

As an aside, Landsburg is also being deliberately obtuse about the concerns over Alaskan oil drilling. It’s not about unseen aesthetics, but about real concerns over safety, toxicity, and ecodiversity. Landsburg could have looked it up, but clearly he’s of the school that believes what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

*Update, 5:45 p.m.: This blog post was updated to note that Landsburg was a Slate columnist.