Sexual Discrimination I’ve Seen

An Alternative To Me Too

So in response to my criticism of me too someone suggested I should post about an experience I’ve had. I won’t post about a situation where I’ve done something useful to combat sexual discrimination nor extreme violations of the law since that isn’t particularly helpful in my opinion. The goal isn’t to signal moral virtue or share scary stories but, instead, to illustrate the ways in which unfair treatment can hide even in surprising places so we can excise those last remnants of sexism and discrimination.

So the story I’ll convey is about how at an academic institution I attended a friend of mine was repeatedly asked to perform administrative tasks and food provisioning tasks by an elderly professor because of her gender. Certainly, she could have raised a fuss but doing so would have caused her more grief than going along with the situation. What I think is instructive about the situation is that this reflected only the messed up priorities of one member of the faculty but despite this the fact that it was easier for all the other faculty members not to get involved meant that this was all it took.

As far as solutions go I think this illustrates the importance of not simply relying on complains or formal channels to solve these problems. Its important for people to be aware when their colleagues are imposing an unfair policy (gender based or otherwise) and say something. I also think it reveals how some people find they virtually never experience this kind of treatment and other people experience it frequently. While I don’t think it would have mattered in this case (female victims were in short supply here), I can easily imagine that a less stubborn/crotchety instigator would specifically target those individuals who seemed least likely to report/complain.

Anyway I’ve kept details vague to avoid identifying anyone but this is the kind of description I felt would be helpful as opposed to merely ‘me too’.

The Absurd Idea That Privileged Individuals Should Step Aside From Discussions Of Harassment, Aggression and Discrimination

If Anything Cis-White-Men's Lived Experience Makes Their Views More Valuable Than Those Of The Usual Victims

So frequently when social media gets involved in solving/addressing/recognizing racial or gender aggression (like the ‘me too’ trend) I see (or get) the attitude that its somehow not appropriate or bad for cis-white men (or some subset thereof) to offer their opinion on whether the effort is effective, morally justified, etc.. Not only does this attitude seem to lack any semblance of justification but it pretty clearly places the holder’s concern over their moral righteousness or social standing above the welfare of the group they claims to care about helping. Furthermore, by abandoning the hard won cultural consensus that it is the value of an individuals ideas, character and contributions that matter not their gender or skin color it risks less obvious, but more extensive, harm to the philosophical foundation on which we’ve built our turn away from bigotry and intolerance.

I recognize that this last point is only convincing once you accept that there isn’t a systematic reason that cis-white-mens’ views on these issues are almost categorically1 certain not to be worth hearing so I’ll start there and focus on the ability of men to contribute to conversations about harassment.

I’ll first argue that not only is there no particularly unique experience that living as a woman (even almost) ensures that one has nor is there any reason to think that gender, rather than Myers-Briggs type or socioeconomic status, would be the way to identify conversational participants most likely to understand the experience of being a victim of harassment. Then I’ll point out that it’s not even important for participants in the conversation to have a good idea of how or why harassment is bad much less what it feels like to experience it. All that’s really important is that people in the conversation agree that it is bad and work to eliminate it. Finally, I’ll point out that its primarily men’s beliefs and behaviors that need to be changed to make progress against harassment and, as such, the life experiences that offer the most value to conversation or planning are those that offer insight into men’s psychology and can identify what will and won’t be persuasive to men. Then, having demolished any claims this attitude has to epistemic virtue I consider why so many people seem to find it intuitively attractive despite the fact that it represents an abandonment of core principles in the struggle against hatred, bigotry and intolerance. In particular, I’ll suggest that we need to be careful not to conflate group membership with moral guilt nor confuse what feels just with what will be most likely to produce a more just society.

Before I continue, however, I should address two important points. First, I’m not talking about interactions where victims are seeking out a compassionate, understanding ear and may feel more comfortable with one gender. I’m talking about public discussion of matters of societal concern. Secondly, I’m aware of those little verbal catchphrases used by the social justice community to respond to criticisms of this attitude but disparaging the speaker isn’t a compelling argument. Simply acting like this question has already been decided isn’t sufficient. If you don’t agree with my criticisms you need to offer an actual argumentative defense.

Of course, I could be missing something so if you think I am please let me know.

Does Gender Offer A Unique Experiential Understanding of Harassment?

Now, obviously there are certain feelings or gestalt impressions which are difficult to fully appreciate without first hand experience. Just as I will never fully appreciate what it feels like to be engrossed in an Olympic bobsled run I won’t ever fully experience the exact way in which sexual harassment (or the concern that one will be harassed) are hurtful. Of course, different women and minorities also experience these events in different ways. Indeed, variation here is sufficiently large that I’m quite confident that I have a much better grip on the emotional experience my wife has when she gets catcalled or is otherwise hurt/slighted based on her gender than a random women pulled off a US street would have based merely on their status as women in the states. This already pokes some serious holes in the usual argument that, lacking the experience of living as a woman, there is some epistemicly critical aspect information about how female victims feel which is somehow denied to men but available to other women. In short, being female neither ensures you agree about the frequency or emotional impact of harassment2 nor does being male mean you aren’t constantly perceiving this behavior to be going on around you or that the empathetic distance from you to any particular female victim is greater than it is for other women.

Of course, it will be true that other women will be more likely to both be aware of when, how and with what frequency harassment occurs then the average man but that is no more an argument for discouraging men’s contributions than the fact that blacks in the US are less likely to have a college degree is a good reason to throw out applications from blacks for a professorial position. In both cases its absurd to use the individuals racial or gender identity instead of simply checking if they know what they are talking about. Even if we had to adopt the (repugnant) policy of picking some feature with which to screen potential contributors to the discussion we could almost certainly do better by instead selecting for culturally liberal men and women who have been the victim of bullying or other sustained emotional cruelty. While being bullied isn’t the same as being sexually harassed this criteria at least ensures that the selected population understands how many small slights or disguised verbal assaults can amount to an unbearable psychological assault for the victim even while, viewed in isolation by colleagues and authority figures, each incident appears trivial and clearly not worth reacting to. In contrast, there are no shortage of female religious nutjobs who not only don’t believe sexual harassment happens but think it would be a woman’s place to quietly endure it if it did.

Is First Person Experiential Understanding Important?

For the sake of argument suppose that it was true that almost all women and almost no men have a first person experiential understanding of what it feels like to be a victim or likely potential victim. What conclusions should we draw from that? Well, perhaps in certain discussions that turn on details of the experience and aftermath its plausible that women would be systematically better able to contribute than men. For instance, I think its probably true that people with first person understanding are better equipped to contribute to a discussion about how best to manage/alleviate the emotional aftereffects of such experiences. However, even in cases where the specifics of the experience are relevant, its not always true they help reach better conclusions or productively contribute.

For example, while my experience of being bullied in junior high certainly left me with a profound sympathy for the victims and concern about the issue it also compromises my judgement. I know intellectually that many bullies aren’t bad people (I even befriended some eventually) and the worst ones are often victims of some kind themselves but when the topic comes up in discussion I can feel my vision go red and I find myself advocating extreme solutions and dismissing promising compassionate interventions with bullies. Worse, when it comes to offering advice to prospective victims or parents I find myself assuming that every situation resembles a suburban catholic school in the Midwest during the early 90s and baselessly assuming that just because authority figures could do nothing for me they have nothing to offer (except disciplining the victim under zero-tolerance policies).

Yes, the fact that I’ve thought about the issue a bunch and feel strongly about fixing it means I probably have more opinions on the problem than the average man on the street but those are more than balanced by my impaired judgement about the issue and the reluctance I feel to consider certain possibilities3. Indeed, I’m quite certain that if I’d found myself talking only to other victims of bullying while everyone else felt it was inappropriate to chime in I would be making the situation much worse and be blind to potential solutions.

Moreover, even setting aside the downsides of first-person emotional experience it’s not even clear that understanding the exact nature of the victim’s experience is helpful at all. Returning to the analogy with bullying, it’s certainly true that there are aspects of how it made me feel, ways its affected me and details of how it happened that are hard to convey to those who haven’t had similar experiences. However, appreciating the precisce way I or others were hurt offers no particular advantage in combating the problem. Anyone who believes the experience is very painful (so worth addressing) , is capable of evaluating the evidence and can usually recognize the harmful behavior when they observe it is just as capable of contributing to the discussion about what can be done to make things better. The same reasoning tells us that discussing the best way to combat harassment doesn’t require any kind of first person experience or understanding merely the genuine belief that it can cause substantial suffering.

Benefits of Male Lived Experience

The attitude that men shouldn’t participate in these conversations is obviously motivated by the idea that women are particularly vulnerable to being harassed and harassers are particularly likely to be men. While we shouldn’t pretend there aren’t also male victims (especially given the greater stigma for reporting) and female offenders I’m sure that the vast majority of cases are male offenders and female victims. While many people seem to have the intuition this is good reason for men to keep quite when women talk about harassment, exactly the opposite is true.

Given this breakdown of victims and perpetrators there isn’t any reason to suspect that the experience of being a woman could offer any particular insight into improving the situation. After all, we don’t want women to change their behavior and feel obligated to avoid `tempting’ men into harassment. Rather, we want to figure out how to change the way men behave so they don’t harass.

In contrast, the experience of being a man and interacting with other men (in the absence of women) offers a great deal of useful information to improve the situation. For instance, despite being about as far from a bro as its possible to be even my experience immediately suggests some useful facts. While I can’t be sure that the little just-so stories I offer in this footnote4 are completely accurate they are the sense I get of some of the ways men end up harassing women. Obviously, by inviting more men into the conversation, especially those who have engaged in various kinds of harassment in the past, one could gain a great deal of useful information about the factors that cause harassment to happen and potential mitigation strategies.

However, despite the fact that in this case men’s life experiences offer more value to the discussion than women’s, that’s certainly no reason to discourage women for participating. Rather, both sides should simply share the relevant experiences they’ve had so everyone can evaluate a single larger pool of evidence and come to a more accurate conclusion.

Dangers Of Gender Based Evaluation

Alright, so discouraging contributions based on the contributors gender risks keeping important information and perspectives out of these discussions not to mention reinforcing potentially counterproductive (if totally human and understandable) emotional responses to the state of affairs with respect to risks like harassment. Obviously, the mere fact that this attitude impedes us from reducing the problem of harassment that we supposedly care so much about fixing is enough to reject it but slightly slower progress is the least of the dangers.

Least importantly, in the eyes of anyone even slightly critical of the social justice community and millennial leftists, this kind of attitude confirms all their most absurd stereotypes. Presenting this attitude makes life substantially more difficult for all those women struggling to be believed or convince someone to take action about the fact they are being sexually harassed (or even assaulted). Each time some cop in the Midwest or mine owner in the West runs across someone saying guys should but out because only women have something useful to say they think, “Huh, I guess it is all absurd BS just like Fox news says,” and the next time someone tries to report a crime or workplace violation they will be just that much more skeptical.

Moreover, as women should know there is an especially strong reaction when one is rejected from something on the basis of an irrelevant, but psychologically salient, property like gender. For some reason making categorical judgements based on certain attributes is something people find especially infuriating even if other judgements (e.g. being treated worse because you aren’t as attractive or aren’t a morning person) are no less unfair. You may not think men should have this kind of reaction when it is the privileged gender that is getting the short end of the stick but they do and it will push men away from the causes you care about.

Now maybe you think this is all silly. Of course its not a big deal if men don’t get to contribute to this particular discussion or you deviate from the principle of supposed gender blindness in this understandable way. And if you could control everyone else who would might use a similar justification to exclude men from some contributing to some conversation or issue that might be a good argument. However, remember that not only are there always extremists out there but there are a thousand different opinions about exactly which conversations men should or shouldn’t be excluded from and once you open deviate from the principle that each person’s contribution should be evaluated solely on its merit not the gender (or race or etc..) of the contributor someone else will take it too far or try to apply a similar rule somewhere it isn’t appropriate and eventually you risk undermining the broad consensus for the idea that incidental features like gender, race, sexual orientation etc.. shouldn’t be relevant to most decisions.

It doesn’t matter that you may have defined discrimination in such a way that it can only apply to policies that hurt the underprivileged. There is a large segment of the population who won’t see the difference between rules which treat people differently based on gender in what you see as a good way and what you see as a discriminatory way.

Intuitions In Opposition

Ok, so what accounts for the widespread intuition that men should be excluded from such conversations?

Well part of this is simply a response to the fact that, given a norm in circles sympathetic to harassment claims against male participation of course the men who nevertheless participate are overwhelmingly likely to be saying something stupid and offensive. However, that’s hardly a justification for having the rule in the first place. Sure, even in the absence of such a rule its almost certainly true that men will be over-represented among the dismissive and mocking responses but since such respondents won’t be inclined to obey such a rule in the first its not really a good reason for having such a rule. Moreover, there are any number of subjects where either men or women are particularly likely to be mean and insensitive but we don’t favor general gender based contribution bans.

Another part of the explanation is the ambiguity, in some circumstances, as to whether the conversation is truly about discussing useful fixes or taking actions as opposed to simply venting/bitching. I suspect that often people like to adopt the pretense they are interested in finding solutions or fixing a problem but really just want to vent and bitch. As such, almost any contribution from a man will be unwelcome as, even if they are offering helpful insight into how one might make the situation better, it will force those participating in the conversation to switch gears from simple venting to seriously considering proposals and useful actions. I can understand why people find this annoying but I think there are serious social harms in allowing mere venting to masquerade as serious consideration of social problems. When we vent we are liable to say a great many things (e.g. how about we have a curfew on men on college campuses) we don’t really mean. If we don’t clearly delineate what is mere venting from serious suggestions in online conversations people will get the wrong idea (at the very least detractors will use such ambiguous discussions against us). So, while I appreciate the need for such venting we already have good reasons to clearly distinguish it from genuine discussions about how one should make the world better.

Finally, I think many people have the idea that since harassment is a harm that is predominantly (though not exceptionlessly) inflicted on women by men somehow it seems unjust or unfair for men to also take a significant role in discussing how to combat the problem. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it implicitly assigns blame to all members of an identity group for actions taken by some members. Just as it would be unreasonable to say that a black homeowner shouldn’t be able to speak at a town meeting because it was black teenagers vandalizing homes largely owned by whites so too its unreasonable to act as if men as a group are guilty for the bad behavior by some members. This sends the message to young men that they should be ashamed of being men and that male sexuality is inherently somehow bad and harmful. But, even if we put this aside, this attitude places symbolism over actual progress. As I’ve argued above excluding men from such discussions reduces our ability to actually make the situation better and thats what should matter not the symbolism along the way.


  1. While I will argue that men’s voices are, if anything, particularly valuable in these discussions all that is necessary to indict this policy is that men aren’t so obviously less able to contribute that it makes sense to screen them based on their gender rather than simply evaluating their individual contributions. We normally think that it is inappropriate, and often irrational, to use statistical differences in rates of criminal behavior, workplace productivity or even upper body strength based on race or gender to deny members of those groups the opportunity for an individual evaluation even when, as in the case of upper body strength, there are clear biological differences giving rise to a large performance gap. 
  2. There are always women, despite the social pressure, who are willing to admit (or even speak up and say) that they experience harassment so rarely and find it so unimportant when they do that its a less pressing concern than more mundane concerns, e.g., whether people at their work get to annoy them by eating at their desks. 
  3. For instance, emotionally I don’t want to believe it was primarily a midwestern catholic school thing and if I’d just switched schools things would have been orders of magnitude better. Though its obviously a good thing if most kids don’t have to endure quite that level of unpleasentness the idea that if I’d just be born a few years latter in California the same traits which I was mercilessly mocked for would have been accepted if not popular. My wife claims this was what things were like growing up in Berkeley but I’m still not sure I believe her. 
  4. For example, the temptation to catcall, make a show of continued (unwanted) sexual advances and other kinds of ‘strutting’ are most acute when men are in a pack together. Despite the fact that the comments and behavior are putatively directed at the woman they are really a show put on to advertise masculinity/dominance to the other men in the group. As such, we ought to be careful before suggesting women should give as good as they get and shout back or otherwise retaliate against the catcaller as, by increasing the perceived risk (up to a point) of showing off that way, may also increase its apparent value. The crude sexualization talk, e.g., Trump and Billy Bush, is also largely a performative behavior for other men but in a very different sense. Here it is about making friends and being seen as a good guy. Shared transgressions, e.g., unflattering remarks about the boss, shared gossip, sexual exploits, are normal and unproblematic for both genders but things can go poorly if someone starts pushing things in the direction of harassing remarks as everyone else is reluctant to be the one who pulls back and offers criticism. Of course, in other cases the guys really are assholes and think harassment is an acceptable form of transgressive male bonding. 

‘Me Too’ Is A Silly And Potentially Dangerous Trend

The Folly Of Mindless Identification

So at the moment there is a trend for women on social media to post ‘me too’ to indicate they have been a victim of sexual harassment or assault. The originator described the idea saying

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem

While I understand the attraction of wanting to fix things by posting on social media this craze is about as useful as trying to fix racism by posting facebook updates saying ‘racism is bad’ making it at best silly. At worst it further discourages women from entering male dominated areas (STEM, CS, congressional politics) by increasing the level of fear and anxiety felt about harassment with potentially other negative rebound effects.

Presumably, the idea is that, by illustrating the number of women affected people will realize just how big a problem this is and extra resources or attention will help rectify the situation. However, one would hardly expect this to either convince those who resist the idea that this is a serious problem or who accept it but don’t realize their actions are part of the problem.

Of course, one might respond that the true point is to convince those who have been victims of sexual harassment or assault that their experience isn’t an isolated case and its a problem shared by many other women. Unfortunately, the mere fact that a large number of other women post ‘me too’ just isn’t a good measure of the magnitude of the problem. Knowing that many people have once experienced something that they are willing to construe as sexual harassment/assault when doing so lets them feel they are making a difference and gaining social approval isn’t very informative. Heck, if I were female and I believed this would help I would lie and say ‘me too’ even if I hadn’t so experienced it just to help make a difference.

So even other victims of sexual harassment/assault shouldn’t have their estimate of the frequency of such behavior elevated by this information provided they at least realize that many other women out there believe sexual assault/harassment is a problem that deserves more attention. Something they surely must to even process and understand this new evidence. After all, provided many other women believe that sexual harassment/assault deserves more attention they would be inclined to post ‘me too’ even if they only had a single moment of harassment once in their life (the people posting believe they are helping and want to be part of that solution by helping). I don’t believe that is what is happening but the point is that seeing other people post ‘me too’ should leave your prior about how frequent and serious the problem is roughly where it is.

Ultimately, then this leaves this whole trend down in the messy world of emotional effects where I fear there are more potentially. harmful emotional effects (discouraging or scaring women) as there are potential beneficial ones.

To be clear I do think it could be helpful if women posted descriptions of their individual experiences with harassment or assault and described how those experiences affected them. Seeing people describe both the frequency, severity and emotional harm is at least plausibly the sort of thing that could convince skeptics but this is something that women are going to be, understandably, reluctant to do. What I’m objecting to here is the idea that just be saying ‘me too’ and nothing else one is likely to make things better.

Lawsuit Demanding Students Be Barred From Accessing Offensive Content

Do We Really Want To Stop Victims of Harrasment From Learning What's Being Said About THem?

I pretty much agree with everything Prof. Volokh says in this post but I would add that is is particularly disturbing and dangerous that these claims not only made it to the lawsuit stage but also that sufficiently many people in the Feminist Majority Foundation (not mainstream but not tinfoil hat nutters) thought this was worth pursuing.

Sure, demanding censorship of mean, hurtful and demeaning comments about your group or identity isn’t anything to write home about. However, what really sets this situation apart is that the demand wasn’t to punish the anonymous individuals responsible but to stop students from choosing to access an information source because it might allow them to read these awful things.

Demands for censorship in response to hurtful/mean/awful comments is nothing to write home about (from either side of the political aisle) but I think something is particularly distasteful about demanding policies that would allow all the assholes in a 5 mile radius to continue attacking, degrading, spreading hurtful gossip about and otherwise making life bad for some women on campus while barring those very women from keeping abreast about what is being said about them so they can refute malicious gossip, take threats to the police and otherwise protect themselves (reputationally and physcially).

Sure, I know those filing the suit no doubt intended to discourage people from posting such hateful and derogatory remarks in the future by eliminating the on campus audience for them. However, this line of argument could equally well be used to deny students access to a contrarian blog (say by a former student) making an extended argument that, because of innate ability differences, the schools affirmative action policy was driving reductions in academic rigor/performance. Even if the students visiting the blog were driven by simple curiosity and desire to evaluate the claims for themselves, if the continued posts were clearly motivated by the blogger’s desire to reach so many students with his message there would be an equally strong argument for barring students from accessing the site. With the predictable result that it would probably only increase the extent to which students agree with those unpopular views (the feeling that a view is being suppressed is far more alluring than poor arguments for it).

In a different context I would be far more charitable. If a private university were being asked to ban the platform I’d still oppose the suggestion but it wouldn’t really be fair to suggest the proponents would be responsible for denying victims a chance to (easily) make themselves aware of attacks against them so they can respond. After all, the advocates would be presumably be suggesting that in the particular case the benefits would outweigh the costs. However, the plaintiffs were asking the courts, an institution designed to apply predicatable precedent not case specific balancing, to rule that such an outcome was required. As such I do think its fair to point out the plaintiffs are asking for a rule which, in many of its applications, would deny the victims warning and an ability to respond without substantially reducing the torrent of hate and insults.

The fact that this resulted in a full court case with published opinion makes me worry that the argument was either plausible enough that reasonable lawyers thought it had a chance of prevailing or, perhaps more likely, those advancing the suit felt the risk of enduring such a lawsuit would discourage universities from being quite so protective of free speech in the future. Particularly so for private universities who aren’t bound by any need to comply with the first amendment.

Opinion | Court rejects Feminist Majority Foundation’s demand that public university block access to Yik Yak

University of Mary Washington had no obligation to “ban Yik Yak from the campus wireless network ,” because such a ban “may have exposed the university to liability under the First Amendment” (and in any case wasn’t required by Title IX or the equal protection clause.

The Conceptual Penis Embarrassment

How an Idiotic Hoax Gave Skeptics A Bad Name and Reinforced A Dubious Discipline

Skeptic magazine recently published a piece describing a hoax article submitted to a gender studies journal (and published by one journal) in an attempt to debunk gender studies as deeply intellectually flawed. I’m not going to wade through the resulting controversy but suffice it to say that skeptic magazine didn’t put in sufficient due diligence to verify the results obtained really backed up the conclusions about both the field of gender studies, the status of academic publishing or pay to publish academic journal. I was embarrassed that a publication so associated with the skeptic community didn’t notice multiple major unjustified assumptions required to reach anything more interesting than a mild finger-wagging at the publisher and/or editor of NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies for passing along (what they claim was an automated message sent mistakenly) suggesting republication in what Cogent Social Sciences along with their rejection. Worse, this failed attempt to discredit gender studies functions to further the narrative that it is a cogent academic discipline engaged in a search for the truth.

Indeed, if the hoaxers really believed that gender studies had gone off the railings they should have known no hoax would work. The discipline of gender studies must continue to hire and fire professors, determine which papers to publish in top journals and generally make determinations of status and it’s not plausible that this is all accomplished by the toss of a coin. Rather, you would expect to see the same kinds of cultural signifiers of status you see in subgroups like hipsters of goths. Certain kind of language, references etc.. etc.. would all collude to let members of that subculture recognize each other and notice an interlooper immediately. This is even more true regarding choice of ideology. Just because Christian beliefs about Jesus have almost no basis in fact and to the non-believer sound like “Blah Blah Jesus nice…miracle…salvation…soul blah” doesn’t mean an unfamiliar non-believer can just toss something together that sounds similar to them and pass as a Catholic theologian. When ideology because the driving force rather than fact people don’t shrug and say ‘close enough’ they start killing each other over minor differences (at least Tuvel only had her paper withdrawn).

In other words the hoax was surely doomed to fail because, in a large part, gender studies is deeply flawed in something like the way they fear. But simple reflection should have made it clear this would mean they would have far more means of detecting belonging/status than a discipline with clear objective standards like mathematics.

Discrediting Gender Studies and Feminist Philosophy Myself

Rather than following the hoax strategy there is a much easier way to debunk gender studies (and it’s relative feminist philosophy). Simply take a look at what they themselves write. For example, to quote from a paper I found by browsing Hypatia (a top tier journal) to get a taste of their articles (no, not cheery picked)

When it comes to relations among specific human beings, I understand sexual agency as the ability to contribute meaningfully to the quality of the sexual interaction in question. To have sexual agency is to be recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction; it is, in an Irigarayan sense, to be recognized as sexually distinct from the other, such that the interaction is marked by that difference.

If you read that quote without contrarian fussiness it feels like something meaningful was said but try and actually identify what it was and it fades away. For starters, what is the effect of qualifying this passage to `specific human beings’? Are there non-specific human beings? While mere unreasonable verboseness isn’t a mortal sin it is qualifiers like this which simultaneously create the sense that something deep and non-trivial is being said while leaving open the option to use ‘sexual agency’ in some completely different sense by setting up a metaphorical sense in which it is no longer about ‘relations among specific human beings.’ Coming to the definition of agency one finds oneself totally unenlightened. My grip on ‘sexual agency’ was stronger than my understanding of what is meant here by ‘contribute’, ‘meaningfully’ and ‘quality.’ For instance, does meaningfully operate as a synonym of significantly, indicate the phenomenological feeling of purpose/understanding or simply serve as a weasel word so that any time sexual agency needs to be denied one can simply say it isn’t meaningful?

Then we come to what appears to be a further elaboration of that definition but now we are told that it is “recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction.” But this seems to be a completely different criteria than the one it elaborates. If your partner has a fetish for having sex with robots genuinely tricking them into believing you were a robot using your mad acting skills in a way you both find super hot should be off the charts on the first definition yet as you are literally not recognized nor is the interaction intersubjective the second definition says something completely different. Maybe the author is sneakily reading this sense of intersubjective recognition into the idea of quality which does violence to the plain meaning but that just highlights the tension between the robot example and our intuitive sense of sexual agency.

Note that none of these definitions makes any sense of the claim that in cases of where a woman’s partner only seeks their ‘consent’ and wouldn’t take any other reaction at face value their sexual agency is limited. Notice how the inattentive reader who is inclined to assume a cogent argument is being made is pulled along. It certainly feels like there is something limiting about having only one ‘real’ choice but even that is the result of a sleight of hand. Presumably there is nothing less real (only less desirable) about choices that require one to have unpleasant interactions. If we understood agency to diminish as the unpleasantness of the outcomes increases then we would have to say a disabled individual whose conditions imposes massive untreatable pain has much less agency because the outcomes of all his choices are deeply painful. Moreover, yet again the definitions above seem to give all the wrong answers and the situation continues downhill when we are later told that in an act of sexual violence the victims agency is ‘negated’ (whatever the hell that means) because what happens and how is unaffected by her desires, interests, etc.. etc… But surely some rapists are motivated by an active desire for cruelty and deliberately perform whatever acts they intuit their victim would most dislike so are we to conclude that in those cases the victims agency isn’t ‘negated’? Moreover, if agency is understood as the ability to contribute meaningfully then a victim whose rapist would deeply enjoy her consent (and if necessary suppose it would change the nature of the experience for her) is overflowing with sexual agency despite, intuitively, the fact that her agency is being denied by overriding her choice.

Note that I’m not engaging in unrepresentative cheery picking. The entire content of the paper (as well as the other papers I pulled) has this form. Worse, the author is not only apparently willing to let her concerns about what is desirable function as reasons for believing or rejecting specific claims she actually sees this as a huge positive.

What I aim to emphasize is that the very act of categorization needs to be recognized as a social and world-constituting act, one that ought not to be understood as an objective practice that either succeeds (by correctly aligning an experience with a definition) or fails (by mismatching an experience with a definition). To identify a particular experience as an instantiation of sexual violence (or not) doesn’t just reflect the world as it is (or reflect it inaccurately); it creates new possibilities, and forecloses others.

This passage pushes the paper into the realm of the openly absurd. There is no sense in which all the fancy words in the article are actually an attempt to describe the world. Of course, those inclined to defend postmodernism will offer long erudite sounding defenses of this sort of thing but as the above exploration showed the kind of explanations they will provide shouldn’t be assumed to have any factual content just because they sound smart. They will also surely explain that I simply don’t understand what is being said here and it is only in relation to (big name drops) that I can appreciate this but at some point when a subject simply continues not to make sense as you dig down layer after layer you’ve simply got to shrug and say you don’t believe there is anything there.