This week, one of our featured titles is Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape. Today’s post consists of excerpts on the topics of consent and sexual violence, authored by Kelly Oliver in The Philosophical Salon.
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Contracts may require consent, but is consent a form of contract? From current informed medical consent policies to affirmative sexual consent polices, consent is being treated, explicitly or implicitly, as a form of contract. Yet, in both of these cases, the notion of consent as contract is problematic. First, if consent is a contract, it is presumed to be a kind of off-and-on switch: it’s either given or not, with no gray areas in-between. Second, as others have argued, consent as contract assumes autonomous individuals extracted from social circumstances and power dynamics that are relevant to the agreement at hand. Third, consent as contract disavows the changing dynamics of individual identity, desires and wishes. In short, this equation reduces fluid activities and life experiences to moments artificially frozen in time. These are merely some of the most obvious problems with the notion of consent as contract. There are deeper philosophical worries that take us beyond legal issues to questions of the very nature of our relationships with each other and ourselves.
An essential element of contract law is that a contract is entered into voluntarily and all parties agree to its terms. Contracts as they operate in law must assume individuals who freely choose self-binding agreements. The law assumes the formal autonomy, equality, and freedom of all individuals. But, as we know, these formal principles cannot account for dependency, inequalities, and oppression that are inseparable from our lived experience. So while contracts may require consent as a precondition of their legal validity, consent cannot be reduced to a form of contract.
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Much of the recent attention paid to sexual assault as a Title IX violation is the result of a lawsuit filed against The University of North Carolina in 2013 by Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, two undergraduates raped during their first weeks on campus. Both reported the attacks to the University, but they claim their statements were ignored or belittled. These two courageous women have made headlines for their anti-rape activism after they founded EROC (End Rape on Campus) to help other women file Title IX lawsuits against universities across the country. Their use of Title IX has changed the terms of discussions over sexual assault on campus. This strategy has forced even those who insist, “rapists cause rape” to rethink isolating perpetrators from the culture that protects them.
There are at least two profound philosophical implications to be drawn from this approach to sexual violence, signaling a major shift in how we view responsibility. First, educational institutions are held responsible for creating the environment allowing, if not fostering, sexual violence; or, conversely, and more to the point, they are held responsible for creating an ethos fostering women’s education, which is not possible when one out of four college women is sexually assaulted and gender-based violence is a constant threat. The new use of Title IX marks a dramatic change in the attribution of responsibility for sexual assault and rape. Rape survivors across the country are filing Title IX lawsuits against their colleges and universities for allowing serial rapists to remain on campus, making the environment unsafe for female students. This strategy targets the educational institutions that harbor rapists rather than the rapists themselves and therefore holds schools responsible for sexual assault on campus. Rather than excuse the problem with the argument that a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch, this approach looks to systematic policies of disavowal and denial, of a dearth of attention to the problem, and a lack of consequences for perpetrators, along with the ways in which fraternities and sports culture perpetuate rape myths that women want to be raped or that blame the victims. In a society that values individual over institutional responsibility, this is a turning point. How successful it will be is another matter. But, conceptually, it forces us to think about the culture that spawns serial rapists on campus, and protects perpetrators instead of survivors.
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Given the continued use of social media to target, harass, and humiliate young women, it is telling that these technologies were born out of sexist attitudes. In their inception, some of the most popular social media sites were designed to denigrate women. Of course lots of social media sites, like other forms of traditional media, bank on pictures of attractive girls and women looking sexy or cute, along with pornographic images. Creepshot sites in particular are a telling example of a new phenomenon, namely, the valorization and popularization of lack of consent.
“Creepshots,” are photographs of women’s bodies taken without their consent. Lack of consent is essential, as is outlined on websites that specialize in creepshots such as tumblr’s creepshooter, creepshots.com, and metareddit’s creepshots, which insists photos must not be posed and should not be taken with the subject’s knowledge. Clearly, girls and women are seen as unsuspecting “targets,” prey to be “shot” and “captured” on film. Some creepshot videos end up on pornographic sites.
Creepshots are explicitly valued because of the lack of consent on the part of the subjects. Indeed, insofar as they are unaware they are being photographed, subjects of creepshots cannot give consent… unless women moving through the world in their everyday activities wearing their everyday clothes (see yoga pants as a subcategory of creepshots) constitute consent, as if women were public property.
The same valorization of lack of consent can be seen on college campuses, especially in fraternity culture where chants and signs endorsing sexual assault with unconscious women, and fraternity Facebook sites filled with pictures of unsuspecting naked or partially clothed women, have become commonplace.