Archive for February, 2010

At Feministe, a guest post by Rachel Hills (originally published at her own blog) ignited an acrimonious discussion on rape, gender, and the stereotype that women can’t rape men. Rachel’s post drew on a story that Pluralist recounted on Feministing’s community blog:

Since November by best friend has been having relationship problems. She is cis and het as is her boyfriend and they’ve been a committed and monogamous relationship for about 4 years now. The whole story is too long to recount, but as of a week ago they began a “break they need in order to stay together”.

Suffice it to say the first two days were hellish as I talked to one of the loves my life breaking down over the phone. But during one of the more lucid moments, she told me that – among a lot of alleged grievances – she had (unknowingly) forced her boyfriend into sex.

Apparently he had said things along the lines of “I’m too tired right now, let’s just go to sleep” and she had continued to proposition him thinking “welll, this will help you sleep better!” My immediate reaction was that there was no way she had coerced or pressured him into sex. After all, he should’ve just said “No really, I don’t want to do this right now” if she kept at it. It was his fault for not stopping the encounter.

And then I realised that had this been a woman in his place – not to mention my best friend – I would never have given this consideration. I was victim-blaming, basing my assumptions in tropes of male hypersexuality and female passivity. She didn’t handcuff him to a heater and force-feed him viagra . She’s a nice girl, she couldn’t have done that !

(More here.)

The main point of Rachel’s commentary was that yes, women can rape men, and yes, they can commit many other lesser forms of sexual violation. However, she wasn’t willing to say that Pluralist’s friend was guilty of rape:

Now, I know at least one woman who has physically forced sex upon a man who had repeatedly told her he didn’t want to have sex with her and was pretty pissed off with her afterwards – rape in no uncertain terms, if the genders were reversed. But the situation Pluralist talks about is a little less obvious than that. It’s unethical, certainly, and inconsiderate, and you shouldn’t do it, but I’d argue it’s technically not classified as sexual assault (if you disagree, please debate it in the comments).

(Lots more here, plus the aforementioned acrimonious comment thread.)

The comments degenerated into a lot of name-calling, along with lots of valid and important arguments. Among the polarized comments (which made up the bulk of the thread), some folks were arguing that of course it’s rape and if you didn’t agree, well you must be a RAPE APOLOGIST! (Yelling with caps, the quickest way to get my old eyes to tune out!) People at the other pole said well, in an long-term, ongoing relationship, wheedling can be coercive, but it’s often a normal part of negotiating about sex. The thread at Feministing was similarly polarized.

Stepping back from the shouting for a moment, I think it’s helpful to clarify some terms. Each state defines rape and sexual assault, so for purposes of discussion I’ll draw on my own state’s laws, since I don’t know where Pluralist’s friend lives, and Ohio tends to a pretty good barometer of middle-of-the-road America.

In Ohio, “rape” is defined as follows (in the absence of statutory rape, intoxication, or other mental factors that could impair consent):

No person shall engage in sexual conduct with another when the offender purposely compels the other person to submit by force or threat of force.

(Ohio Revised Code 2907.02, Rape)

Note that this definition doesn’t define rape narrowly as penetration. So yes, under this definition, a woman can definitely rape a man. (I’m going to set aside trans issues just because I don’t know enough about how the law would be applied. However, note that the law doesn’t specify gender, so it evidently ought to apply to woman-on-woman assaults, cis-woman-on-trans-man assault, and any other imaginable combination.)

Now, back to Pluralist’s friend. At no point does Pluralist describe anything that can be described as “force or threat of force.”

But doesn’t “no mean no”? Well, Ohio law doesn’t recognize a simple “no” as adequate unless the other person uses at least “threat of force” to override it. So in Ohio, at least, the law does not categorize an act as “rape” every time there’s a lack of consent, nor even when the lack of consent has been clearly and explicitly communicated. (Other states are liable to vary on this point.) Perhaps we’d like to reform the law to include any instance where one person persists in ignoring the other’s “no!” but current law doesn’t go that far.

Instead, Ohio law defines additional crimes that fall under the rubric of “sex offenses.” Among these are sexual battery, gross sexual imposition, and sexual imposition. All of these crimes make provisions for underage victims, intoxication, mental incapacitation, and abuse of power by such authority figures as therapists, clergy, etc. I’ll set those aside here because they don’t apply to the case Pluralist raised.

Sexual battery must include an element of coercion:

(1) The offender knowingly coerces the other person to submit by any means that would prevent resistance by a person of ordinary resolution.

(2) The offender knows that the other person’s ability to appraise the nature of or control the other person’s own conduct is substantially impaired.

(ORC 2907.03, Sexual Battery)

Part (2) might well apply to some of the experiences people described in the Feministe thread of feeling unable to say no to their partners due to prior trauma or abuse. However, it only would apply if the partner knew about the problem. The law doesn’t expect people to be mind-readers. Based on Pluralist’s account, “sexual battery” wouldn’t apply to her friend’s actions, as there’s no indication that her boyfriend wasn’t “a person of ordinary resolution.”

Gross sexual imposition (ORC 2907.05), like rape, again requires “force or threat of force,” so it too fails to match Pluralist’s friend’s actions. But what about simple sexual imposition? Now we’re getting warmer:

(A) No person shall have sexual contact with another, not the spouse of the offender; cause another, not the spouse of the offender, to have sexual contact with the offender; or cause two or more other persons to have sexual contact when any of the following applies:

(1) The offender knows that the sexual contact is offensive to the other person, or one of the other persons, or is reckless in that regard.

(2) The offender knows that the other person’s, or one of the other person’s, ability to appraise the nature of or control the offender’s or touching person’s conduct is substantially impaired.

(3) The offender knows that the other person, or one of the other persons, submits because of being unaware of the sexual contact.

(4) The other person, or one of the other persons, is thirteen years of age or older but less than sixteen years of age, whether or not the offender knows the age of such person, and the offender is at least eighteen years of age and four or more years older than such other person.

(5) The offender is a mental health professional, the other person or one of the other persons is a mental health client or patient of the offender, and the offender induces the other person who is the client or patient to submit by falsely representing to the other person who is the client or patient that the sexual contact is necessary for mental health treatment purposes.

(B) No person shall be convicted of a violation of this section solely upon the victim’s testimony unsupported by other evidence.

(C) Whoever violates this section is guilty of sexual imposition, a misdemeanor of the third degree. If the offender previously has been convicted of a violation of this section or of section 2907.02, 2907.03, 2907.04, 2907.05, or 2907.12 of the Revised Code, a violation of this section is a misdemeanor of the first degree.

(ORC 2907.06, Sexual Imposition – unabridged so you can judge for yourself)

It looks like Pluralist’s friend might well have violated (1), by engaging in conduct she knew to be “offfensive to the other person.” She might well have been “reckless in that regard.”

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that she was indeed reckless. I’m skeptical of definitive judgments, because we haven’t heard directly from Pluralist’s friend or her boyfriend, but let’s just take the story at face value. We now have a name for the act – sexual imposition. We have a penalty that can theoretically be imposed. In this particular case, though, it likely would be impossible to prosecute on account of (B), which requires other evidence – most likely, a third party – to substantiate the charge.

So it’s possible that a form of sexual assault occurred, but it certainly wasn’t rape. (And while state laws vary, I’d be surprised if any state in the U.S. would consider this incident rape. If you know of exceptions, please post about them in comments, and please include citations.)

Is this just legal hair-splitting? Well, no. It clarifies a basis for Rachel Hills’ position and the common-sense reaction that lots of commenters articulated at Feministe: Pluralist’s friend wronged her boyfriend and maybe that wrong rises to the level of sexual assault, but we don’t know enough to say for sure. However, it’s definitely overblown to brand Pluralist’s friend a rapist. The law draws these distinctions because very few of us – including most feminists, I’d wager – really want to imprison someone for twenty-to-life for the behavior she exhibited. In addition, calling her behavior “rape” trivializes the experiences of those who’ve actually been pressed into unwanted sexual activities by force or the threat thereof. (For the record, this is not a blanket endorsement of the law in its current form. I’m merely affirming that it’s legally and ethically appropriate to distinguish different forms of sex crimes of varying severity.)

I’d say the same, by the way, if the offender were a man and his partner a woman. This is not a gendered argument, in legal terms. I do think that sexual assault is gendered culturally, in at least two ways: 1) Women as a class suffer from a kind of “sexual terrorism” – an ongoing fear of rape – that doesn’t affect most men as a class. 2) We’ve been socialized to think that men are unrapeable because they’re supposedly always up for it. As a result, we’ve got a new rape myth: no never means no, coming from a man. However, the legal standard needs to be consistent for men and women alike, as well as for cis and trans people.

But even if Pluralist’s friend didn’t commit sexual assault, that doesn’t mean that we should condone her actions, either. At a minimum she appears to have acted manipulatively. At a minimum she behaved like an asshole. Just because there’s no legal term for “assholery” doesn’t make it okay.

Instead, stories like this show that the law is a necessary but not sufficient instrument for transforming sexual relations. We need a feminist sexual ethics as well. To that end, I teach my students about the importance of enthusiastic consent. If they take it to heart, their chances of committing a crime ought to be nil.

And yet, as the discussion at Feministe shows, there’s an area between sexual assault and enthusiastic consent. I don’t want to call it a gray area, because I don’t want to endorse the notion of “gray rape” (which is just a euphemism for defining acquaintance rape out of existence). Still, people are going to continue having sex under conditions of consent that’s defective or problematic or just lukewarm. We need to find ways to discuss this problem without either trivializing it or calling it “rape” or “assault.” In other words, we need a feminist sexual ethics that recognizes the complexity of social and sexual relations, affirms pleasure and autonomy, and emphasizes compassion and communication. “Yes means yes” is a good start, but it’s only a start.

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Crazy Caturladyday

So I took the Crazy Cat Lady quiz (via the Smirking Cat). Key question for me:

Do you bring your boyfriends home so the cats can meet them?

That’s past tense for me, but yes, I brought him home, and yes, Grey Kitty approved. Reader, I married him.

I scored 67%, well above average. This is cause for grave concern, given that I haven’t actually had a cat of my own since 2001.

From ICHC?

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That’s the headline of a new study I chanced upon today.** My gut reaction: Excuse me, but I thought the most important goal was the safety of mother and child!

This is not a screed against epidurals. I had a planned epidural with both of my babies. The article appears to be touting the benefits of an epidural plus nitrous oxide. (Hey, it’s a British study. For decades, the Brits have gone in for laughing gas in labos. For why it’s not caught on here, see OBOG) I’ve got no fundamental problem with representing epidurals’ advantages, as long as women aren’t being buffaloed into interventions they don’t want.

What I find profoundly odd is how the title of the study harnesses the values and language of the natural childbirth movement while actually arguing for a highly technocratic approach to pain. I realize hospitals have been co-opting “natural” approaches since they started introducing homey birthing suites in the 1980s. However, this article strikes me as at least a local high point in the co-optation process.

Patient satisfaction actually strikes me as only a tertiary goal – albeit one that’s important for a hospital’s bottom line, as well as a woman’s well-being. Along with assuring safety, birth attendants should honor the agency and personhood of the laboring woman. That doesn’t mean every birth plan will be followed, for instance; labor isn’t that predictable. It does mean treating women as subjects, not as objects. It means taking their needs and wishes seriously. It means not infantilizing them. If birth attendants accord women this basic respect, “satisfaction” should follow.

**I haven’t read the whole thing because the article’s not yet available through my libaray. But this is one case where the title and abstract suffice, since I’m concerned with rhetoric, not science.

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… so why, then, did my whole Women’s and Gender Studies faculty laugh ourselves silly over this clip at today’s lunch meeting?

Seriously! It’s not just an inside joke, though it’s extra precious for us who recall the era of womyn-identified-womyn. If you’ve ever been involved in leftish politics, or lived in a co-op house run by consensus, or hung out with hippies in Northern California, or just survived the late 1970s and early 1980s,** this should tickle you. (Don’t be deterred by the 30-second intro.)

Trouble viewing the clip? Click here.

** All stuff from my personal history, by the way. That co-op house had 45 members, not counting the backyard chickens.

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The kids got back to school today, after a stretch of nine schooldays that featured two delayed starts and seven outright snow days. And just in time!

From ICHC?

Actually the kids weren’t on the verge of fratricide, but they have been way too cooped up. The Tiger’s arm is still in a cast that must stay dry. Ergo, throwing them both outside wasn’t the default option.

I’m getting by with the help of my neighbors, whose wonderful 12-year-old babysat when I had to go teach. The rest of the time it’s been mostly me holding down the home fort. My husband had dozens of meetings last week (he has massive advising obligations). He carried the load Monday, then flew off to Germany for a conference.

Last night I finally finished grading 75 bluebook exams, which only took until 2 a.m. because I plugged my kids directly into the TV for four hours yesterday and fed them McDonald’s for dinner.

Thank goodness for my sitter, because the alternative would’ve been to take my kids to my classes where the topics this week were contraception, abortion, sex work, pornography, and violent images of masculinity. Usually my husband and I schedule our classes such that one parent is always available for emergencies. But once, when the Bear took ill suddenly and his dad was out of town, I schlepped him to two back-to-back two-hour intro to WGS classes. He dutifully watched Mary Poppins on my laptop with headphones while I showed a film on the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban. No way the Tiger would sit still for that. I can just imagine the questions: “Mama, what’s Two Girls and a Cup?” (If you’re wondering along at home, I will just say: Google at your own risk. It is gross. Not funny gross. Not satirically gross. It is vile. After a student brought it up today, one of the girls said she’d seen it without knowing what to expect, and it made her sprint for the toilet. Consider this fair warning.)

Anyway, I’m still disgracefully behind on grading, so if I’m scarce for a while yet, that’s why.

In the meantime, please join me in petitioning the Ceiling Cat to keep that cold white fluffy stuff in the ceiling, where it belongs.

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What if the Senate Finance Committee – Max Baucus’ baby – weren’t obstructing “Obamacare”?

What if Obama had instead designated Baucus’ committee as ground zero for crafting the deal – the incubator for the winning legislation?

What if Obama’s campaign promise to reform health care was just a prelude to cozy deals with the pharmaceutical industry?

Cenk Uygur has the whole story, and it’s depressing as all hell. I’m betting there’s a drug to make us feel better. Too bad lots of recent studies have found anti-depressants to be no better than placebo.

(Via the wonderful Holly of Self-Portrait As.)

This is a much longer video than I’d normally post. It’s wonkish, ranty, and somewhat rambling. It also feels excruciating truthful. If you don’t need blood pressure meds by the end of it, you probably have undergone a conscience-ectomy.

Aargh.  I feel a Rahm Emanuel rant coming on. Time for my meds!

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I have a good friend from my time in Berlin who teaches at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. When I was pregnant for the first time, she helped instigate a baby shower for me. Last fall, she had a baby of her own.

When I heard about the murders at UA-Huntsville yesterday, I was nauseated with fear for her. I checked her Facebook. She’s okay. Never thought I’d be so grateful for Facebook.

But six other people are not okay. A biology professor, Harvard-trained Amy Bishop, is charged with murder after opening fire at a faculty meeting in her department. Three of her colleagues are dead, including her chair. Of the survivors, two others are in critical condition, and one is hospitalized in fair condition. My thoughts are very much with them today, and with their grieving and frightened families and friends.

Two aspects of this atrocity are unusual (and really, it’s sick that we should be so accustomed to shootings that there are actually norms for them, however twisted). Unlike most other university or school killings, the shooter was female. At Montreal’s Polytechnique, Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois, the perpetrators were all men (and in Montreal, the motives were explicitly misogynist). As far as I could tell from Wikipedia’s information on school shootings, there are two less famous cases – at Penn State and Louisiana Technical College – where the shooters were female students.

Prior to release of the suspect’s name, many media reports referred to a “female shooter” or “female faculty member.” They don’t as often discuss “male shooters” because anyone armed with a gun is presumed to be male. Historically, that’s proven to be a pretty sound presumption. But it wouldn’t be bad if the term “male shooter” were commonly used; it could underscore that in most cases, the perp is a man or boy. Current practice generally erases the gender of the shooter, except when she’s female, thus obscuring how gender functions in most of these mass murders.

The second, more surprising oddity in the Huntsville atrocity is that Bishop is a faculty member. I don’t know of other instances where a faculty member of either gender has opened fire at work (though there are cases of professors committing murder, for sure). [Addition, 2/14/10: I got schooled in comments! Jennifer E. points out that back in 1992, a (male) engineering prof at Concordia University shot and killed fellow co-workers over workplace issues.]

Why could push a professor over the edge? Academia has lots of weird pressures, but one of the harshest is the race to earn tenure. Before much news was out, I was already wondering if tenure was part of the mess. And sure enough,  Bishop allegedly had just learned that she’d been denied tenure, according to the New York Times:

The shootings opened a window into the pressure-cooker world of biotechnology start-ups, where scientists often depend on their association with academia for a leg up. Ms. Bishop was part of a startup that had won an early round of funding in a highly competitive environment, but people who knew her said she had learned shortly before the shooting that she had been denied tenure at the university.

On Friday, Ms. Bishop presided over her regular class before going to a biology faculty meeting where she sat quietly for about 30 or 40 minutes, said one University of Alabama faculty member who had spoken to people that were in the room. Then, she pulled out a gun and began shooting, firing several rounds before her gun either jammed or ran out of bullets, the faculty member said.

Why was Bishop denied tenure? Her scientific credentials seem to be sound. She was involved in creating an award-winning new mobile cell-culturing system that was being marketed through a start-up. Her university would almost certainly have been a beneficiary of the patent. Usually a scientifically productive professor doesn’t need stellar teaching evaluations to gain tenure. Oddly, her page is still up at RateMyProfessor.com. The scores at this site likely skew toward malcontents who are motivated to get some revenge, the sample is definitely not representative. For what it’s worth, her ratings were mostly bifurcated between enthusastic students and those who advised avoiding Professor Bishop. I don’t see any red flags for truly abysmal teaching.

So the question remains: why was Bishop refused tenure? This is obviously speculative, but I wonder if “collegiality” was a factor. Some departments allow collegiality to enter into decisions; it covers everything from being a good team player to, well, not being a danger to one’s colleagues. In light of her apparent psychotic break (she has made statements denying that anyone is really dead), it seems likely that Bishop was already displaying erratic behavior before the shooting.

My friend wrote on Facebook:

I cannot mourn yet, but knowing who did this, and knowing how incredibly unsurprising it is, makes me want to vomit and scream both. I cannot move past rage right now to any kind of grief.

Clarification  from my friend via email, 2/14/10, 5:30 p.m.:

I would never have expected her to be violent.  Yet, discovering that there had been an act of violence on that floor of that building, my thoughts immediately went to her.  So, by unsurprised, I did not mean that I or anybody else had expected or feared violence from her, just that she was “off” enough and obsessed enough with her tenure case that it wasn’t hard to make the mental leap once one heard violence was underway.

So there appears to have been warnings, and yet no one realized the full extent of the threat.

Like any workplace, academia has its share of unstable people. While most people denied tenure find ways to rebuild their lives, it’s not uncommon for tenure battles to get ugly. From grad school onward, young professors make huge sacrifices of time, foregone income (compared to other fields), and often family and personal life. Junior people are frequently saddled with unreasonable workloads and impossible expectations. It’s devastating to anyone when that investment doesn’t yield the reward of tenure. Denial of tenure – which often means the end of a career – comes as an existential threat. If someone is already losing their grip on sanity, violence might well feel like self-defense.

Seen from that angle, it’s not so surprising that a faculty member went postal. The surprise is that it hasn’t happened until now.

Here in Ohio, there’s virtually nothing to stop a determined shooter. No registration of weapons. No permit required. No license. Down you go to Wal-Mart, where you can buy a handgun on the spot! The law does require a permit for concealed-carry, and it bans guns from college campuses. Oh, and it prohibits shooting a gun off in a cemetery. In other words, if someone loses their grip on reality, the state of Ohio will happily hand them a firearm.

It’s hard not to feel a little jittery at the possibility of copycat shootings.

The solution, obviously, isn’t a return to the Wild West. A year ago, I argued against a pistol-packin’ professoriate. Historiann comes to the same conclusion today.

We need, instead, to be aware. To realize it can happen here, no matter how idyllic the campus. To trust our instincts. In Bishop’s case, someone might have been able to see a red flag the size of a stadium, had it not been hushed up two decades ago. When she was 20, Bishop shot and killed her younger brother, aged 18. The current police chief is suggesting that procedural rules were unconscionably broken in the aftermath of this killing. Bishop was released to her mother without being fully booked. The case file went missing. The matter was quietly dropped

Whatever the truth about that incident in 1987, this much seems clear: Bishop has not just allegedly killed three (and maybe more) innocent people. She has left her four children motherless (if she’s convicted). She has squandered her scientific talents, including her research on ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Alzheimer’s. She has left the families of her victims bereft and grieving. She has deprived the world of her colleagues’ gifts. Remember, these were research scientists in biology! They studied life! What a cruel irony that in pursuing the secrets of life, they became vulnerable to a violent and early death. I’m praying, in my own odd agnostic way, that the survivors of this atrocity will find peace and healing.

Update, 2/14/10, 5:45 p.m.: My friend in Huntsville keeps sending links.

Eric Seemann, a psych professor at UAH, has given an interview (against the wishes of the university) that confirms my speculations about why Bishop lost her tenure case:

Despite her excellent research ability, Seemann was not surprised she struggled to obtain tenure.

“Amy was kind of hard to get along with,” he said. “I’ve talked to people who said, ‘Wow, she can be really arrogant,’ or be really headstrong. I knew that to be true. But at the same time she was brilliant. She was really one of UAH’s rising research stars. People I know in biological sciences would say, ‘She’s a great researcher, but she’s lousy to work with.’ ”

She was brilliant and she knew it.

“At one meeting I was with Amy, she was complaining to a group of us. She said she was denied tenure not because she was a lousy researcher — she’s not, quite the opposite — and not because she didn’t have good classes, she believed she did — I think some might say otherwise — but because she was accused of being arrogant, aloof and superior. And she said, ‘I am.’

“She said, ‘I am arrogant, I am aloof and I am superior in my attitude. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to get along with people.’ “

Obviously academia is home to lots of arrogant assholes. Most of them never inflict more than psychological misery.

The difference here? A long-standing propensity for violence. It’s not just her killing her brother (though that would be quite enough). Back in 1993, while still a grad student, Bishop was suspected in an attempt to mail-bomb a Harvard prof with supervisory authority over her dissertation. Wow. I’m astonished that her husband didn’t wonder more about her stability. Well, maybe he did, but just kept his worries to himself. Publicly, he is saying that he had no inkling.

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