Sexual Violence Is Even More Complex Than We Think

September 7, 2018

In her latest book, Professor Linda Martín Alcoff seeks to correct the misleading language often found in the press and in public debates about sexual violence.

In her recent book, Rape and Resistance, Professor Linda Martín Alcoff (GC/Hunter, Philosophy) seeks to correct the misleading language often found in media reports and in public debates about sexual violence — by showing how complex experiences of sexual violation can be.
Alcoff will discuss Rape and Resistance at a September 12 book salon at The Graduate Center. She will also be a featured speaker at the philosophy department’s upcoming conference, “#MeToo and Epistemic Injustice,” from October 5 through October 6.
Alcoff recently spoke to the GC about her book, the #MeToo movement, and the need for nuance in discussions of what has become a topic of intense media attention.
Graduate Center: In your book, you discuss the importance of hearing from more victims and gaining “a more complex understanding of the constitution of the experience of sexual violence or the sometimes complicated nature of culpability.” Could you discuss the complexity and nuance you’d like to see in how we define and/or discuss sexual violence?
Alcoff: The problem of sexual violence is so painful it produces a kind of terrorizing effect. The result is that sometimes we want easy answers, quick solutions, protections we can rely on (we think). We want to know who the “bad people” are so we can punish them and protect the population from them. But what if the problem is more systemic, structural, cultural? What if the causes are in the normal everydayness of sexual relations in our society?
There are many instances of sexual violation that are clear-cut, without much ambiguity about what happened. But there are also some cases that are not so clear and that campus activists began calling “gray rape” some years ago. The idea here are experiences that are not morally harmless but may not rise to the level we would want to call rape, such as the one Mary Gaitskill describes that I talk about in the book. This category worries some people, but silencing any discussion of it actually inhibits some survivors from coming forward, and then we lose the opportunity to have their experience and analysis inform our understanding of the problem. Sometimes it is true that survivors may be in denial about the fact that what happened to them really was a rape. But not always. We have to trust that survivors can deal with nuance and ambiguity — and not be paternalistic to their capacities in this regard.
GC: How important is working toward changing structural conditions? Could you explain how the linguistic environment “enables the epidemic of rape and sexual violence”?

Linda-Martin-Alcoff-Podcast-Photo faculty
Alcoff was a recent guest on The GC's "The Thought Project" podcast. 

Alcoff: The structural conditions are more important than anything. For example, women’s economic dependence on others and the role of powerful men in controlling most types of work environments and careers means that consent is very difficult. One can consent to a transactional experience when one feels this is the only way to get the job, the better schedule, the mentoring, or just to be accepted as a player.
Consider Hollywood: It’s not just that Weinstein (and others) harmed individual women. These were also the powerbrokers deciding which scripts were made, and how the scripts portray women and sex (see Salma Hayek’s story of how Weinstein forced her to do a sex scene in Frida). So these are the men having a huge impact on mainstream culture, the backdrop of our lives, that can affect what we take as normal sex, normative sexual relationships, acceptable gendered forms of subjectivity.
Structures, then, refer to the way in which the economy is organized that control what we can say so much of the time, but also refer to the culture that inculcates children into the norms of gendered behavior.
GC: What do you think will happen with the #MeToo movement in the near future? What would you like to see happen?
I don’t think its going away anytime soon, as much as the media seems to be competing over being the first to announce its demise. This is a real issue that impacts lives at all levels. Just when we might think the revelations about the Catholic Church have been exhausted, we get new heinous reports. It’s worldwide — with different forms in Latin America, Asia, Africa. I would like to see more avenues for lower class, working class women to be able to speak out without losing their jobs or facing violent backlash. This is what we have to move toward.