A University of Rochester professor’s hypothetical question about whether the rape of an unconscious person should be illegal has led to demands he be censured or fired.
Professor Steven Landsburg’s blog post followed the conviction last month of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, on charges they raped a drunken 16-year-old girl.
“As long as I’m safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?” Landsburg wrote in a blog entitled “Censorship, Environmentalism and Steubenville.” The question was posed as part of a series of questions asking whether psychic harm should influence public policy.
Although published last month, the blog has gained recent widespread attention since appearing on the website Gawker late last week.
By Thursday, an online student petition seeking Landsburg’s censure had more than 500 signatures and the women’s rights group Women Organized to Resist and Defend had called for Landsburg’s firing. A protest is planned for Monday outside Landsburg’s class.
“The illegality of rape is not a debatable issue, that’s the bottom line,” said graduate student Daniel Nelson, who posted the student petition on change.org.
In a lengthy follow-up blog post on Wednesday, Landsburg, an economics professor, said the original post “was laden with unrealistic hypotheticals” and that he regretted some things about it.
“These things are dashed off pretty quickly, not pored over for months the way a journal article might be,” he wrote. “They’re meant as fodder for thought, and sometimes they work better than other times.
“It was a post about where to draw lines between purely psychic harm that should receive policy weight and purely psychic harm that shouldn’t,” he said.
Landsburg said by email Thursday that the follow-up post said everything he had to say on the topic.
The original post referred to the Steubenville case in parentheses:
“Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar,” he wrote, “is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.)
“Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result,” he wrote. “Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?”
He compared the situation to a neighbor turning on a porch light and causing “trillions of photons (to) penetrate my body.”
“They cause me no physical harm and therefore the law does nothing to restrain them,” he wrote. “Even if those trillions of tiny penetrations caused me deep psychic distress, the law would continue to ignore them, and I think there’s a case for that.”
University of Rochester spokesman Bill Murphy said the university had taken no action against Landsburg, whose comments were made on his personal blog.
University President Joel Seligman indirectly referred to the outcry Wednesday while addressing a previously planned conference on confronting sexual assault.
“Academic freedom is a core value of our university and vital to provide assurance that one can hold unpopular or provocative views in safety,” Seligman said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “This is not always an easy balance, but it is a balance vital to uphold in a university that both values respect for all of our students, faculty, staff and visitors and intellectual freedom.”
A year ago, Seligman responded to another of Landsburg’s blog posts, this one agreeing with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s branding of Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” after she testified to congressional Democrats that she wanted her college health plan to cover her birth control.
“I am outraged that any professor would demean a student in this fashion,” Seligman wrote.