Steven Landsburg is an economics professor at the University of Rochester. Formerly a Slate columnist, Landsburg is well-versed in the art of the high-minded counterintuitive take, like "Don't Vote: It makes more sense to play the lottery" and "Do the Poor Deserve Life Support?" With this as his background, Landsburg's students have come to expect a bit of intellectual boldness from the instructor, whom they once elected Professor of the Year, as Landsburg's own website is quick to note. But last week, one of Landsburg's thought experiments crossed the border that separates irreverent from rapey, and at least two students were offended in the process.
Within the past week, two different University of Rochester students have tipped us off to a post on Landsburg's personal blog. Dated March 20 and titled "Censorship, Environmentalism and Steubenville," the post attempts to compare and contrast potential "psychic harms" associated with pornography, environmentalism, and being raped while you are passed out. If one of those things, prima facie, doesn't sound like the others to you, well, Landsburg would like to understand "what is the key difference among them?"
You can and should read the whole post, pasted below, but the gist is this: After describing a scenario in which a character named "Farnsworth McCrankypants" is mentally traumatized by knowing other people watch porn ("Question 1"), and another in which "Granola McMustardseed" is distressed by the idea of wilderness desecration ("Question 2"), Landsburg poses "Question 3," which references the recently closed Steubenville rape case:
Let's suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, 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. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?
Later he writes (emphasis ours throughout):
I'm having trouble articulating any good reason why Question 3 is substantially different from Questions 1 and 2. As long as I'm safely unconsious 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? And if the thought of those benefits makes me shudder, why should my shuddering be accorded any more public policy weight than Bob's or Granola's? We're still talking about strictly psychic harm, right?
It is, I think, a red herring to say that there's something peculiarly sacred about the boundaries of our bodies. Every time someone on my street turns on a porch light, trillions of photons penetrate my body. They cause me no physical harm and therefore the law does nothing to restrain them. 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 (it's the same as the case for ignoring Bob McCrankypants's porn aversion). So for the issues we're discussing here, bodily penetration does not seem to be in some sort of special protected category.
To be fair, Landsburg does admit that it's "plausible" a person raped while unconscious might suffer from a different magnitude of psychic trauma than someone concerned about the environment, but he then wonders: "[W]ould you be willing to legalize the rape of the unconscious in cases where the perpetrators take precautions to ensure the victim never learns about it?"
One of our tipsters, a woman who says she is not in any of Landsburg's courses, wrote us in a brief email:
[W]hat about the implications of this on campus? The Department of Justice research supports that as many as one in four women will be sexually assaulted in her college career. With these statistics it's likely that there are sexual assault victims/rape survivors in Landsburg classes. ... A university is supposed to be a safe learning environment. How can student's feel safe if they know their professor thinks their potential rape is justified as long as they are unconscious?
A request for comment to Landsburg has thus far gone unanswered.
The last time Landsburg made headlines, it was for saying in another of his blog posts that Sandra Fluke should be "ridiculed, mocked, and jeered" for wanting contraception to be covered by health insurance. He also suggested she might be deemed a whore:
[Rush Limbaugh] wants to brand Ms. Fluke a "slut" because, he says, she's demanding to be paid for sex. There are two things wrong here. First, the word "slut" connotes (to me at least) precisely the sort of joyous enthusiasm that would render payment superfluous. A far better word might have been "prostitute" (or a five-letter synonym therefor)...
Update: University of Rochester spokesperson Bill Murphy reached out with this statement:
At the University of Rochester, we honor our Communal Principles: fairness, freedom, honesty, inclusion, respect, and responsibility. We are committed to academic freedom and free speech.
Professor Landsburg is entitled to his opinions and his independent publishing of them. His opinions do not represent the views of the University—we work hard to promote a culture of mutual respect and to combat sexual violence.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]