Get Published | Subscribe | About | Write for Our Blog    

Posted on April 12, 2017 at 8:59 AM

Unfortunately, there have been numerous cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault in academia and particularly in more male-dominated fields, including my home field of philosophy. In these cases, professors use their position of prestige and power to sexually harass and abuse their students. UC Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle is just the most recent example. To my knowledge, all of these cases have involved male professors victimizing female students. The lone exception is Anna Stubblefield, a former professor of philosophy at Rutgers. Here is a summary of her case from Current Affairs

At issue is the case of Anna Stubblefield, a Rutgers University philosophy professor convicted of sexually assaulting her mentally disabled pupil, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The case is, to say the least, extremely unusual. The student, D.J., was a severely impaired 30 year old man with cerebal palsy, who had never spoken a word in his life and communicated through “screams” and “chirps.” Stubblefield acted as his personal tutor, using a discredited pseudoscientific technique to elicit what she insisted were complex communications from D.J. Eventually, based on what she believed D.J. wanted, Stubblefield began engaging in sex acts with him, having become romantically attracted to him over the course of her time assisting him.  

Stubblefield’s case is not only different because she is a woman and her victim is a man, but also because she is one of the few professors to go through the legal system and be convicted.

There are many complexities to Stubblefield’s case and I don’t have the space to address them all here. Instead, I want to discuss a particular point Jeff McMahan, philosophy professor at University of Oxford, and Peter Singer, bioethics professor at Princeton, made in an op-ed piece in the New York Times regarding Stubblefield’s case. They argue that because D.J. is cognitively disabled, the sexual assault did not harm him in the same way or to the same degree as it would an individual who is not cognitively disabled because D.J. “cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation.” Not surprisingly, this op-ed piece has upset individuals in the disability community and advocates for individuals with disabilities. People such as Nathan J. Robinson have responded eloquently to the main argument of McMahan and Singer’s article.

I want to look more closely at a smaller point they make as part of their larger argument. They state, “It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him [D.J.].” The assumption that sexual activity was pleasurable for D.J. even though he was not able to consent to it is troubling and reinforces problematic gender norms. There is a dominant cultural narrative that men are always interested in sex and that sex is always pleasurable for them. This narrative contributes to the popular perception that men cannot be raped by women because an erection is a sign of their consent. Yet, men can indeed be raped by women and an erection can occur even if men are not aroused or consenting to sexual activity. If D.J. were a woman and Stubblefield were a man, I doubt McMahan and Singer would argue that we could assume the experience was pleasurable for the victim. Yet because of our dominant cultural norms regarding gender and sexuality – namely that men always want sex and that sex is always pleasurable for them – McMahan and Singer seems to assume that this is the case even when DJ does not have decision-making capacity.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.


Comments are closed.