Philosophy Prof. Gets Slammed by Feminists on Rape Definition

Philosophy and law professor Brian Leiter has drawn the ire of feminists after suggesting that “rape” and “sexual assault” are two distinct offenses, both legally and morally. Leiter’s comments arose after a court dismissed another philosopher’s defamation lawsuit against a newspaper, arguing that the word “rape” was acceptable in lieu of “sexual assault.”

The case concerned philosopher Peter Ludlow of Northwestern University, who was accused of sexually assaulting a student over two years ago. As Slate writes:

According to her complaint, the student originally accused Ludlow of getting her drunk, and then kissing and groping her while she blacked out. An internal investigation by Northwestern’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Office found in the student’s favor—Ludlow had broken the school rules that protect against sexual harassment, the university’s committee found. The student hoped he would be fired, or at least disciplined. Instead, she claims, Northwestern stood by ineffectually as Ludlow threatened defamation litigation. While she spiraled into depression and attempted suicide, Ludlow continued to work as a tenured professor with full privileges. And according to the blog Leiter Reports, he’s on his way to another tenured position at Rutgers University—his fourth such position in 12 years.

What results was a defamation lawsuit, not against the student, but against newspaper that covered the story. The issue? The headline described the allegation as “rape” rather than “sexual assault.” That lawsuit was dismissed, after a judge found that the terms “rape” and “sexual assault” were interchangeable.

Leiter took issue with this, writing “legal definitions aside, everyone knows that being accused of non-consensual groping is not as heinous as being accused of rape.”

He also notes, legally, that rape is defined as a specific kind of sexual assault that consists of penetration. That part is true, at least in some states.

As far as the first point, Heidi Howkins at Feminist Philosophers aptly notes:

As any victims’ advocate will attest, many victims are so profoundly impacted by “mere” nonconsensual sexual contact – even fully clothed sexual contact – that they have been diagnosed with the full range of post-traumatic symptoms: PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc. (Recall that the undergraduate student involved in the Ludlow case was so distressed by the incident that she attempted suicide in the weeks following. Is the fact that Ludlow didn’t penetrate her really of much interest?)

In other words, to put some special emphasis on penetration is, quite frankly, bizarre, and jarringly out-of-synch with contemporary mores and sensibilities. In both U.S. culture and U.S. law, there has been a distinct shift over the past couple of decades, away from a focus on penetration, towards the protection of sexual autonomy. As one advocate wrote in a message to me earlier today, “what is the point of compartmentalizing violent sexual acts, when they’re all violations?” To insist that unwanted penetration is worse than unwanted sexual contact is offensive because it dismisses and belittles the reality of the actual experiences of most of the victims and survivors

Leiter, who is regularly wrong about everything, was unsettled not only that a judge would find rape and sexual assault to be of the same criminal caliber, but that a judge lacking an Ivy League pedigree could mete out justice to someone as distinguished as Ludlow.

…the local judges in the Chicago state courts are, I have been told, mostly graduates of non-elite law schools and have contempt for elite academics.  Judge Flanagan, who handed down this decision, graduated from John Marshall here in Chicago, a regional school that ranks well behind other very good regional schools in Chicago.

Leiter, as a Nietzschean, understands that herd mentality and ressentiment are the only reason people would attend sub-par law school. Unlike their ubermench counterparts at the University of Chicago, by contrast, they cannot be trusted.

It should still be noted that Leiter, on multiple occasions, has blogged about problems of sexual harassment and assault in academia on his philosophy blog. Leiter’s misinformed advocacy is perhaps just what happens when well-meaning advocates take on a subject that they don’t fully understand.

As for Ludlow, he was slated to move to Rutgers University, but they later changed their minds as a result of the sexual assault allegations. Ludlow, who is still at Northwestern, is not scheduled to teach any classes.

  • Matthew Palynchuk

    Intuitively the (or maybe *a*) distinction seems appropriate, but the degree to which some judge the severity of sexual assault (that is, as *less* severe to rape) seems to be the real problem, no?

  • Matthew Palynchuk

    Intuitively the (or maybe *a*) distinction seems appropriate, but the degree to which some judge the severity of non-consensual sexual contact which is non-penetrative (that is, as *less* severe to rape) seems to be the real problem, no?

    • Critical Theory

      I think this analysis from another blogger is pretty spot on:

      “No, someone randomly groping a breast and walking away may not be as
      heinous as being accused of rape. Taking a blacked out girl into your
      bed over her objections and fondling her — which is more akin to the
      allegations at hand — well, that portrays someone with a much greater
      disregard for a woman’s sexual autonomy than the groper Leiter describes
      in his apples to oranges comparison. ”


      • Matthew Palynchuk

        That is actually very helpful! I am not too familiar with the literature around defining these sorts of crimes and abuses, but this seems to provide a constructive criticism of these overly simplistic moral and legal distinctions.

        Thanks! Something to think about.

  • I guess I’m lucky I took my philosophy courses at a community college where the courses were taught in such a boring way that it stifled the rooms libido.
    Seriously though dude’s stupid for seeking the title of the lessor evil while being evil.

  • Jeffrey Harrison

    Likely on leave with pay.

  • Todd

    You protest too much. The distinction between rape and other forms of sexual assault is important for the protection of women—their bodies, their autonomy. The language of “sexual assault” enables social and legal recognition of violations that, at least historically, have been invisible precisely because they did not legally constitute rape. This vocabulary, which includes terms like “sexual assault” and “sexual harassment” and various finer-grained distinctions therein, brings to our attention forms of violation that previously were not thought of as such because rape (i.e., non-consensual penetration) was the only sexual violation the law recognized. Conceivably, legal definitions of rape could be modified to incorporate other forms of violation, but why would that help anyone? It is in part thanks to these distinctions that at least some men are finally beginning to understand how activities short of non-consensual penetration are also violations.

    Also, it makes sense that the law would distinguish between sexual assault crimes according to their perceived severity. Perhaps the lines should be drawn differently in this and other cases, but the argument for collapsing distinctions because “they’re all violations” is antithetical to the demands of fairness. A fair system of justice requires symmetry between crime and punishment, and some crimes do more harm than others. That’s why three-strikes laws that put people behind bars for life on a shoplifting conviction are so shockingly wrong. That’s why it’s hard to stomach the fact that white-collar criminals who steal millions and billions get off scott free or do less time than petty thieves and corner drug dealers. Be careful what you wish for.

  • Hillhaus

    I bet philosophy departments would be more interested in the differentiation if Leiter released separate rankings for “top philosophy programs for sexual assault” and “top philosophy programs for rape.”

  • Guest

    Can you show us his actual comments, please?

    Thank you.

    • Guest

      Emotionally manipulating us by bringing up what the student accused him of instead of telling us the facts of what he said is grossly dishonest.

  • Jeanne Berry

    1. Rape v. Sexual Assault–one is not more worse or less worse than the other, just different shades of the same color.

    2. Rape = full penetration of an attacker’s sexual organ into a victim’s sexual orifice.

    3. Sexual Assault = every other type of overt, perverse unwanted sexually-oriented “attention” toward another, including, but not limited to nor exclusive of, rape.

    4. Victims of non-sexual abuse also suffer the full range of PTSD, depression and anxiety, and often attempt suicide. These are people who are just as completely abused, but NOT penetrated by a sexual organ or a body part imitating a sexual organ.

    5. Victims of traumatic accidents, wars, terrorist events and the like also suffer the full range of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and often attempt suicide.

    6. It is the weight of the trauma itself–be it rape, non-penetrating sexual assault, non-sexual abuse, accidents, wars, terrorist events and the like–that results it PTSD, etc.

    7. I don’t believe college pedigrees have anything to do with the merits of a case. They shouldn’t; it would violate ethics. I’ve no stance on whether this actually occurred or not. It’s conjecture.

    8. I’m curious to know the reasons behind Ludlow’s tenure-hopping activity.

    9. I consider myself to be a feminist, and I’m also a woman who has some experience with types of abuse, as well as PTSD.