August 30, 2007

Free Larry Craig

because hypocrisy is not a crime, and discretely looking for consensual sex partners should not be.

August 29, 2007


Every once in a while I notice some language related mistake online and then see it everywhere for a while. Right now it's annoying me that too many people seem to think "opus" means a work or achievement of monumental or great quality. Latin words aren't like English but to the extreme!

Blog Post...of Gor!

Karen's got a good post up about an upcoming omnibus collection from Dark Horse. Admittedly, the thing that made me link to this post is the presence of the word "gynocracy", which I think is fantastic.

August 28, 2007

Problems with consent

I'm going to stretch myself into an area in which I usually don't write -- legal philosophy. I have no real training in the area, though I've been reading some feminist legal philosophy (MacKinnon and Nussbaum). Hopefully the lawyers in the crowd can point me in the right direction when I inevitably stray off the path.

The feminist blogosphere has been talking a bit about a notion recently promulgated in book and Cosmo-interview form by one Laura Sessions Stepp, a staff writer at the Washington Post. The notion is `gray rape' -- sexual encounters where it's not entirely clear whether there really was consent. Here's a passage from Sessions Stepp that's circulating as an illustration:

Oh, the gray area -- that insidious "if I hadn't gone to that party" place, that "if I had only stopped after one beer" place, that "if I hadn't worn such a revealing top and come on to that hot guy" place where young women go when someone they probably know lays siege to their most private parts and everyone assumes it was at least partly their fault. More than half the time, they're drunk and can't remember details, and most of the time they don't press charges .... some defense lawyers and even some students have taken to calling such episodes "gray rape" out of a mistaken belief that when both parties have been drinking heavily, responsibility for what happened falls into a gray area.

Session Stepp's work is controversial mostly because -- as one can probably tell from the passage above -- she blames `gray rape' on the young women who are going to the parties, drinking too much, wearing revealing clothes, and coming on to the hot guys. I think the feminist bloggers are right to attack this etiology. Session Stepp is straightforwardly blaming the victims for their assaults.

But are they assaults? One thing that seems to have gone mostly unexamined is the idea that responsibility and consent are murky in these sorts of cases. The writers that have looked specifically at this aspect just seem to reject it, as Echidne does here, as an attempt to inappropriately muddy the waters. Note that Session Stepp herself calls the belief that `responsibility for what happened falls into a gray area' to be `mistaken' in the quotation above.

I'm not so certain this is the case. Sexual assault law usually defines rape as nonconsensual sexual penetration, and recognises a notion of implied consent or reasonable consent -- consent need not require an explicit `yes', and denying consent need not require an explicit `no'. But what counts as reasonable? MacKinnon has pointed out that, until very reasonably, anything short of resistance `to the utmost' -- usually, a struggle to escape or death -- was considered as consent under the conventions of `reasonability'.

This definition of rape has other problems. It assumes that a sexual encounter has a very specific structure: the advances of an active penetrator are either accepted or rejected by a reactive penetratee. The agent is not required to give consent; indeed, the idea of the agent denying consent to the encounter is logically incoherent. It is, in particular, incompatible with a model of two autonomous sexual agents, both consenting, coming together in a sexual encounter. And the assumption that the penetrator is the sexual agent is clearly dubious.

Finally, rape as defined in this way is discontinuous with sexual harassment. As both rape and sexual harassment are based on the use of sexuality to humiliate and dominate another, the two should be continuous notions, at least linked with each other in recognition of their similarity of structure.

Thus, I suggest the following definition, to replace `nonconsensual sexual penetration' as the basis for sexual assault law.

Rape describes any sexual encounter in which one or more parties lack real control over the encounter.

Let's walk through the definition

First, `sexual encounter' is vague. But this vagueness is necessary to cover the gaps left by the standard definition's use of penetration. Rape need not involve penetration, after all -- forcing a male to masturbate himself at gunpoint, for example, ought to qualify as rape. Lesbian theorists have long decried the phallocentrism of penetrative definitions of sexuality, but I am not familiar enough with any adequate positive proposals to deploy one here. Suggestions are most welcome.
Second, a sexual encounter may involve two, three, five, or ten parties. My definition does not presume what, following MacKinnon, I call the `subject-verb-object' model of sexuality, on which Man fucks Woman. All the parties in a sexual encounter are regarded as potential sexual agents. The question is whether or not they actually have agency in the encounter.

The third and central component of the definition is the notion of `real control'. This might also be called `actual agency'. A participant in a sexual encounter, for the encounter to not be described as rape, must recognise that she has the ability to exercise control over the encounter. In the first moment, this means she must be able to end the encounter easily and completely. This means any level of incapacitation, whether physical or pharmacological, makes the encounter rape. Likewise, the presence of any coercive factors -- from an explicit threat of grievous harm to verbal wheedling -- make the encounter rape.

It may be objected that I have cut far too broad a swath through the field of human sexuality. Consensual BDSM (Bondage-Domination-Sadism-Masochism) encounters can be immensely sexually satisfying to all parties. Am I not inappropriately ruling these out by explicitly forbidding physical incapacitation, as in the last paragraph?

This objection vastly oversimplifies BDSM practices. The first habit any responsible practitioner of BDSM learns is the use of `safewords' -- vocalisations or other indications that allow any participant, at any time, to easily and completely terminate an encounter. Responsible BDSM, in contrast with its name, is about creating an illusion of domination and torture, and simulating submission and servility. In reality, all parties to a responsibly organised BDSM encounter are autonomous sexual agents, in complete control of the encounter.

This point is one of two critical aspects of the central notion of real control or actual autonomy. BDSM, on my analysis, involves pretending to strip an agent of her or his autonomy, while actually (and explicitly, in the negotiations that take place beforehand) maintaining it. The second critical aspect is that mere formalities of control and autonomy are insufficient. A petite, scantily-clad woman in an unfamiliar neighbourhood may technically be able to leave, but the unknown threats to her safe return home could easily outweigh the more obvious threat of unwanted sex.

Let us return to the notion of `gray rape'. In cases of `gray rape', intoxication and other factors make ascriptions of consent problematic. On my definition, this issue falls out as only indirectly relevant. Consent is neither necessary nor sufficient for a sexual encounter to qualify as non-rape. All that is required is for every agent involved to have control over the situation. In practice, this amounts to a straightforward empirical determination of what coercive factors were in play in a given encounter, from intoxication and threats of force to psychological manipulation and geographic familiarity of the alleged victim. (This would mean that rape cases would be easier to evaluate, if not easier to actually prosecute -- the evidence is entirely empirical and objective, and not dependent on biased testimony of subjective impressions.)

Finally, `reasonable' standards of `implied consent' do not lead to the guilt that Sessions Stepp connects with gray rape. If rape is defined as a lack of control over a situation, then it is impossible for the victim to be in any way responsible for her assault. She did not `lead him on' -- imply consent to a sexual encounter -- by flirting or wearing a skimpy outfit or anything else. Even explicit consent to the encounter is not immediately relevant according to my defintion. Explicit consent can be an indication that actual autonomy is being enjoyed by all participants, but it is not automatically taken to be so.

Of Grand Gestures

Ezra's got a post over at the Prospect about American aid and generosity. While it's couched in somewhat narrow terms, it's important to note that while American military power has been been a major portion of our global rep since WWII, American exceptionalism used to extend to nearly every area including aid and great achievements. I'm reminded of the episode of The West Wing where Josh tries to sell Donna on the idea that a manned mission to Mars was something that the US could do to regain some of our lost image. Well anyway, he certainly sold it better than President Bush did.

So how about it, let's hear some ideas for great projects that are currently achievable or are just barely out of our grasp technologically which you think would help with America's image.

Penny Arcade

Wired just published a really interesting article on the PA guys and their powerful status in the game industry. You know, it's strange that I've internalized the presence of PA in my daily routine as much as I have. I just realized today that it's been around longer than a successful TV show run (8 years and counting). I've read the comic as both creators got married, had kids, quit day jobs, begged for donations from fans, and then turned the corner and made the comic self sufficient. I've seen them go from angry 19-20 year olds (which I certainly was as well), to more mellow 29-30 year olds (which I'm, uh, approaching). What a weird thing to care about...

August 23, 2007

Hooray For Me!

Well it came right down to the wire, but I just got a job offer for a job starting when my current gig is up at the end of the month. Most of my fellow law clerks got jobs months ago but I got tied up in some bureaucrazy that tied up my application at my first choice. So these last few weeks have been an immense amount of stress while I tried to stall another employer who had given me an offer long enough to get an offer from the first choice. If you're wondering why I'm using pretty evasive language in describing my offer, it's because I'm not supposed to be politically active while employed by this particular employer. While I'm sure the intent of the restriction really refers to participating in some level of campaigning for a political party, I'd just rather not test that theory. I'm not going to discuss my job on the blog and remain as anonymous to any people that don't know me in the real world as possible. I'm also going to ask anyone that knows which job I'm talking about to refrain from posting anything about it in the comments. Anyone that can't figure it out though, feel free to get in touch with me privately.


August 18, 2007

Not actually anywhere near the most disturbing thing I read today

but chapter four of Nussbaum's Sex and social justice is about Female Genital Mutilation, and that's just so horrible I don't even want to think about it, much less blog about it. This is from chapter five, which is about the importance of contemporary American feminism. Nussbaum quotes William Kerrigan, an English professor at UM Amherst in 1993.

[T]here is a kind of student I've come across in my career who was working through something that only a professor could help her with. I'm talking about a female student who, for one reason or another, has unnaturally prolonged her virginity .... There have been times when this virginity has been presented to me as something that I ... half [sic] an authority figure, can handle -- a thing whose preciousness I realize .... These relationships exist between adults and can be quite beautiful and genuinely transforming. It's very powerful sexually and psychologically, and because of that power, one can touch a student in a positive way.

I'm speechless. Probably because of the overwhelming nausea.

August 15, 2007

Red Handed

Oh man, this is the coolest web tool in a while. Wikipedia edits are normally anonymous, but this site tracks the user's IP address so while it may not tell you the individual that edited the article it can yield some impressive results.

Found through Ezra.

August 11, 2007

Acknowledgement and praise

By the way, I'm back from California. In case the long-ass post below wasn't a clue. I also finished my SYP and have some more pictures for the photologue, and both of those will go up whenever I feel like it, punk.

jeff at feminist allies has a nice post up on the status of men in feminism. Here are his conclusions:

1. Doing the basic work of feminism doesn't earn men a cookie. (Which is a toned-down version of something akin to what Janis is saying.)
2. Doing the basic work of feminism isn't easy, and as feminist men we have to take the valued opinions of people like Jaclyn to heart, to keep our hearts alive while struggling.
3. Back to something like what Janis is saying, we ought not expect reactions like Jaclyn's, to look to women who have similar views to motivate us--we must be prepared to do feminist work even in the face of never getting such encouragement. We must work to encourage each other to fill in gaps, as well.

I think that's all in order, and they're important things to remember. Feminist work is hard for anyone, especially in our backlash culture, and men shouldn't expect it to be easy.

But what does he mean by saying that doing feminist work `doesn't earn men a cookie'? Here's the comment from Janis, which was posted on another thread at another blog:

So AFAIC, if men can be feminist, if want WANT to be feminist, they’re going to do it with no acknowledgement from me. None. I will nto engage them. If they really are, they shouldn’t need me to kiss their asses and tell them how wonderful they are. No engagement on my end, at all. IF that keeps them from being feminist, then so goddamned be it. They shouldn’t need to have their asses kissed to acknowledge that 2+2=4, either.

I agree with some of the things Janis says here -- `If [any men] really are [feminists], they shouldn't need [women] to kiss their asses and tell them how wonderful they are'. That's right. I think that doing feminist work is a fairly basic part of our ethical obligations. There are problems with comparing it to picking up garbage blowing down the street as you walk by and not going around randomly punching people, but in each case you shouldn't expect a medal for being minimally decent. (There's an additional wrinkle here -- I don't believe in supererogatory acts -- but let's just bracket that for now.)

But Janis doesn't just say that she's not going to kiss men's asses and give them high praise for doing feminist work. She also just doesn't say that she's going to be on the lookout for male feminists claiming male privilege (either wittingly or un-). She's not even going to `acknowledge' or `engage' with male feminists. Even men who are deeply committed and involved in exactly the same political struggle she is are persona non grata. (NB: Not the same personal struggle. Obviously her daily experiences living in sexist society will differ dramatically from, say, mine. But part of the same political movement, possibly even doing the same political work, eg, blogging.) This doesn't just sound like not standing in awe of the benevolence of the minimally decent human being. This sounds like actively alienating men from the feminist movement.

Let's look at her argument. From earlier in the same comment:

Basically, we’re so badly crushed down, we’re so used to being flat-out hated and treated as the designated, god-given into which one dumps the repulsive turds of human sexuality, that we can sometimes get pretty fucking pathetic over the slightest indication that a man might NOT jerk off for a half-hour solid after watching “Captivity.” We fawn, we praise, we fall the hell over ourselves going, “Oh, but I don’t mean men like (insert male blogger name here)! Oh, he’s just FANTASTIC! Oh kissy-kissy on his ass, if ONLY ALL MEN EVERYWHERE WERE AS FABULOUS AND WONDERFUL AS HIM!” while Male Blogger sits back and rakes in oceans of ass-kissing merely for not being the worst asshole they’ve ever known.

There are two ways of reading this, I think. The first way is to place the blame on women, for fawning over men who don't deserve it. The second, more accurate and vastly better, reading is to place the blame on the system that trains women to fawn over men who don't deserve it in general.

What's to be done about this state of affairs? Well, obviously, get rid of the system. Of course, that amounts to building a truly gender-neutral society, which is probably at least a couple months away. More immediately, feminists of all sexes and genders can resist this form of male privilege within our own ranks. Men can actively deny that being a feminist is anything more than a basic commitment to justice, as part of constantly examining our own behaviour and situation for male privilege. Women can actively check any tendencies to praise men when we don't deserve it, and calling men out when we do start to expect being praised undeservingly.

But none of this amounts to not acknowledging male feminists, and the last point is most effective when women actively engage men as fellow feminists. Acknowledging a person's good actions and habits isn't the same thing as praising them for those same actions and habits. Recognising my commitment to feminism doesn't require falling to my feet in awe. It just means I'm referred to as a feminist (rather than marginalised as a `pro-feminist' or `feminist ally') and, just like any other feminist, recognised as an imperfect human being who's willing to contribute to the movement and genuinely welcomes criticism, but also really doesn't like being blamed for the ethical failings of other penis-equipped individuals.

August 09, 2007

Chaos, the stock market, and the ends of political philosophy

I just finished teaching a class on chaos theory to a group of 15 young people (ages 12-16). The subject is fascinating, and I highly recommend picking up a copy of James Gleick's Chaos for an non-technical and historical introduction. One of the major themes we have learned in the development of chaos theory over the past 40 years is that order and disorder are not, as traditionally thought, opposites. Gigantic, destructive hurricanes -- to pick a vivid example -- are caused by essentially the same processes that produce refreshing light rains.

One of the most important and interesting features of chaotic systems is a tendency for a system to transition between order and disorder spontaneously and without any outside influence. The same processes keep happening in the same way, and predictable stability suddenly turns into completely unpredictable randomness -- and then, just as suddenly, settles down into predictable stability again. Freakish weather -- Indian summers, snow in April and May (in the US) -- is a good example of this sort of thing.

I spent all day yesterday travelling, which means most of the news I saw was business news. And all the business news was going on and on about the turmoil in the stock market. And I was reminded that chaos theory has turned out to be rather successful at explaining the behaviour of stock markets. It's not that the abstract mathematics gives a causal account of how real economic events influence the way the wealthy trade money. Rather, those causal processes, whatever they are, have a mathematical structure that is accurately expressed using chaotic dynamical systems.

This means that stock markets, like other chaotic phenomena, will tend to alternate -- unpredictably and on all time-scales -- between periods of ordered and disordered behaviour. The current turmoil on Wall Street may be the result of exactly the same processes behaving in exactly the same way as two months ago. Predatory and self-destructive lending practices may have been an incidental factor -- more like the straw that broke the camel's back than a ton of bricks -- or may have even been completely irrelevant -- the system went from order to disorder entirely naturally, with no outside influences.

But we don't think in chaotic terms, at least not generally and not yet. When we see order turning into disorder, we think some external force has intervened in the system. And so we see pundits talking about this or that possible cause, without ever considering the possibility that there was no cause, that this is just the sort of thing that happens in chaotic systems.

Now, to get to something that's actually important. I don't want to try to formulate the definitions that would make empirical investigation actually possible here, but I do want to suggest that `political stability' may also be a chaotic dynamical system.

This hypothesis would have some interesting explanatory power. It would explain, for example, why the 1960s and '70s were so tumultuous, and our era is so placid.

But, for this post, I'm really interested in thinking about what implications this hypothesis would have for political philosophy. We tend to think of the just society as at least internally stable -- it has all its problems solved, so the only way instability could arise would be for some outside event to occur, like a drought or plague or alien invasion. Some political philosophers have even considered stability as the single most important issue for political philosophy -- Hobbes, for example, defends a totalitarian state on the grounds that it's the only way to guarantee stability, and Rawls makes the transition from A theory of justice to Political liberalism by realising that an ineliminable political pluralism will be a feature of any liberal democracy, and hence a potential threat to stability that must be dealt with.

But if this chaos hypothesis is right, then a perfectly stable society is a pipe dream. We may be able to achieve stability for a while, but it will never be completely ineliminable, and indeed will crop up unpredictably and spontaneously on all time scales. Even Fall of the Roman Empire-level disorder may be inevitable. And then political philosophers may be completely wasting their time, looking for the totally stable society.

We should therefore go after justice directly. A stable society is either impossible, or will be a secondary achievement of a truly just society. Perhaps we can even develop a conception of the just society that can survive a Fall of the Roman Empire-level disorder.

Drug Policy

There's a post up over at Tapped arguing for legalization of several currently illicit narcotics. The argument isn't terribly new (illegalizing drugs causes lots of related crimes), but ties the idea to the terrorism, which is funded in many parts of the world by the illegal drug trade. I'm not particularly interested in getting into the merits of that, but the first comment annoyed me and for some reason the network here at work will let me view Tapped but not comment.

The person brings out the old "but illegalizing murder hasn't made it go away, so should we legalize it" song and dance....

Ok, so I wrote, deleted, and rewrote and deleted several paragraphs on why this is dumb, but it really wasn't very interesting to read and always sounded like more of a rant than I'd like. Anyhow, if folks want to mix it up in the comments I'll happily oblige, but otherwise I'll just let this one go, like so many other ridiculous things posted on the webs.

August 06, 2007


I haven't had a chance to catch up on all the goings on at YearlyKos, but this exchange certainly seems to have caused quite a dustup online. I can't watch videos at work, but just based on the comments to this post the right wingers seem to have gone a bit nuts for the story.

Good to know their priorities are in order

I just received this email from the Notre Dame undergrad student government. The subject line was `URGENT - South Bend Party Ordinance'.

Hey everyone -

I hope all of you are enjoying your summers and getting ready for another great year at Notre Dame. I know classes are still a couple weeks away, but Maris and I wanted to inform you of some recent developments in the City of South Bend.

Last Friday, Student Government received word that Common Councilmembers Timothy Rouse and Buddy Kirsits proposed an ordinance regulating special events in residentially zoned areas of the City of South Bend. This ordinance, if passed, will directly impact ND students. Maris and I will represent the students at the Common Council meeting on Monday, August 13th. We encourage any and all interested students to join us.

Here is a quick summary of the ordinance as it is currently written:

Who does it affect? Students who reside in “boarding houses” (houses with more than 2 non-relative residents)

What does it require? Individuals holding special events (ie. parties) where alcohol is served with 25 or more non-resident guests must file an application with the Board of Public Works 10 business days in advance at a fee of $15. This application is then distributed to the SBPD and the area neighborhood association, among others.

What will it cost you?
Violations by individuals who file applications:
1st violation - $50
2nd violation - $100
3rd violation - $200
Chronic violations (more than 3) - $2500; loss of right to hold special events

Failure to file:
1st violation - $500
2nd violation - $1000

As this directly affects students, we encourage you to direct any of your questions and concerns to members of the South Bend Common Council.

So, basically, the urgent news is that the city is working on a law which, if passed, will put a very small hurdle in the way of students having large parties in residential neighbourhoods. What a grave injustice. Certainly it's far more serious than the sexual assault epidemic, the crappy health insurance for grad students, or the way the University treats the staff.

August 02, 2007

Completely missing the point in Ohio

Via Broadsheet I learn, while procrastinating writing evaluations for my students, that the `choice for men' contingent of the MRA movement have actually gotten legislation up for consideration in the Ohio House of Representatives.

In Ohio, there's an actual bill being considered in the state's House of Representatives that would require a woman seeking an abortion to obtain written consent from the father, according to the Record-Courier by way of Feministing. 'This is important because there are always two parents and fathers should have a say in the birth or the destruction of that child,' Rep. John Adams, an antiabortion Republican state legislator who submitted the bill, told the paper. 'I didn't bring it up to draw attention to myself or to be controversial. In most cases, when a child is born the father has financial responsibility for that child, so he should have a say.'"

Broadsheet blogger Katharine Mieszkowski goes on to ably point out all the myriad ways in which actually enforcing this law would be a complete nightmare. But even she seems to miss the real problem with this bill, that is, the entire point of reproductive rights, viz, bodily autonomy.

You see, ultimately, the right to an abortion isn't the right to avoid child support or commit quasi-infanticide. It's the right to not have one's body used as a life-support system against one's wishes. The problem with this bill is simply that it was written specifically and deliberately to deny women this right. Indeed, it establishes a major organ system in a woman's body as the joint property of her and the man with whom she had sex. Whether that man was her husband or a complete stranger, and whether that sex was an act of love or an act of rape, simply by having inserted tab A into slot B he now enjoys one-half ownership of slot B, which incidentally happens to be another person. `Choice for men' might try to use the rhetoric of gender equity, but it's really about resurrecting coverture.

August 01, 2007

Warthogs At The Ready

Halo 3 will have 4 player Co-Op over Xbox Live. Man, I guess that means I'll have to sign up for Xbox Live Gold to be able to play this with all my friends that have Xboxes across the country.

After All These Years, They Can Still Surprise Me

Ok, maybe not *surprise* exactly. But man, the gall of these people still makes me shake my head in disbelief.

Masculinity in Disney films

Here's an interesting little documentary about portrayals of sex, gender, and race in Disney animated films. The claim is, unsurprisingly, that Disney uncritically promulgates vicious, traditional gender roles, especially in their portrayals of masculinity as violent and domineering. But their evidence for this claim is a bit on the weak side -- many of their clips show villains acting in a traditionally masculine way. What's more, these traditional masculine qualities are usually part of the villainous qualities of these characters. For example, in The Incredibles and Beauty and Beast, for example -- the latter being one of the documentary's primary sources of evidence -- the aggressive individualism expressed by these characters is what makes them villains.

This doesn't mean I think Disney films are totally progressive. The documentarians are right in the broad strokes, and some particular claims -- that the climax of a Disney film is often a physical confrontation between hero and villain over who will possess a woman is dead-on accurate, even if it's completely untrue for Pixar films. But the evidence is insufficient to prove their primary thesis.

Via Feminist allies