Controversial philosophy colloquium draws attention, criticism

Professor of philosophy Theodore Everett delivered a philosophy department colloquium on Wednesday April 24 where he presented a paper titled “Against ‘Sexual’ ‘Assault’ ‘Awareness.’”

Announced on April 18, the address immediately garnered attention from various Internet and television media sources, as well as a student petition and individual criticisms.

“What disturbs me is that these ideas are not purely academic,” said professor of English and theatre and Director of Women’s Studies Melanie Blood. “They have real life real world consequences for people on this campus so we need to be particularly responsible with how we put out information that have such consequences.”

Professor and Chair of Philosophy Carlo Filice introduced Everett at the colloquium, where he emphasized the philosophy department’s duty to support discourse concerning controversial topics.

“The problem of sexual assault is serious and real,” Everett began. “But [it] has been exaggerated in academic and government reports, in policies and law, in such a way that it has been burgeoned from a problem to a crisis, and from a crisis to a constant emergency.”

According to Everett, college women are being encouraged to see themselves as 
“vulnerable victims with less control than men over their lives,” and “as people with less autonomy and correspondingly less responsibility than men.”

Subsequently, he critiqued the spring 2010 campus-wide sexual experiences survey that suggests that 25 percent of women at Geneseo have been sexually assaulted while attending the institution.

According to Everett, there are three problems with the survey: sampling, framing and ambiguity of the questions.

Everett went on to address the three main slogans of sexual assault awareness: “Rape is rape,” “No means no” and “Don’t blame the victim.”

According to Everett, by defining rape as rape, society effectively ascribes to rigid categories of definition that are likely to lose sight of the fact that there are degrees of evil and legality.

He then questioned the problem with using ordinary language when discussing sex. He argued that “no” is ambiguous and not always definitive, suggesting that the tone of one’s voice is a factor in communicating conclusiveness.

In regard to “Don’t blame the victim,” Everett said that, while a victim cannot be blamed for a sexual assault, they may be “somewhat blameworthy” under the broad categories of provocation, recklessness and negligence.

“We ought to teach the girls and women we care about to not be reckless with sexual autonomy,” Everett said. “In particular not to get roaring drunk around a group of strangers. This is not to say she does have the right – of course she does – just as I have the right to risk my bicycle by leaving it in Central Park.”

“The point of sexual prudence is not to guarantee when you’re raped it’s someone else’s fault," he said. "The point is to not get raped in the first place if you can avoid it by taking reasonable steps.”

Everett dissected the tenets of rape culture theory. He argued that the theory, which he said is false, has negative consequences on socialization of women.

“If rape culture theory is false, or largely false, we are creating a generation of young women that have been indoctrinated into a fearful view of the men around them,” he said. “This makes it almost unavoidable college men and women will be as suspicious of each other as they are typically attracted to one another.”

According to Everett, we must repair the relationship between men and women that rape culture theory has destroyed.

Visiting assistant professor of philosophy Heidi Savage offered a response after Everett’s lecture from the perspective of a “philosopher, feminist and rape victim.”

“As a philosopher I am deeply depressed and terrified for the future of our intellectual progress based on the reaction to Dr. Everett’s talk,” Savage said.

Savage argued women are ultimately socialized to consent – as in being obligated to making themselves sexually available to men – so that even when women consent she is not always giving true consent.

“When does yes really mean yes?” she asked.

According to Savage, until a positive theory of consent is developed that doesn’t involve mind reading, it will continue to be controversial.

“I don’t need the shards of autonomy I have left taken away,” she said. “I’m saying no to a definition of consent that makes women conceive of themselves as victims … I’m saying no to how to be told how to understand my own sexual experiences. I’m saying no to being characterized as understanding myself as being a helpless victim of my circumstances. After all, no means no, right?”

Students who saw the colloquium had a range of opinions on it.

“I think that in general I’m pretty happy with how everything went,” said senior Andrew Christy following the lecture. “Having this talk – even though it is advancing a cause against sexual assault awareness – I think that the result will be to increase awareness and to increase dialogue.”