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Rape, disability, and gender: A response to McMahan and Singer’s op-ed on the Anna Stubblefield case

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
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
, 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
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

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
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.


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