Critical ThinkingLesson PlansPedagogy

Rape is a sex act – can I say that?

This is not an article about rape, or even sex.  It is about what we as teachers can or should say about controversial issues when we present them in class.  Or if we should even try to present them in class.

As someone who has spent the majority of his research career studying how animals interact, this often involved considering “nice” behaviors.  Parental care and devotion.  Self-sacrifice for the good of the group.  Sharing of food, water and living space.  But there are also many “not nice” things animals do to each other.  In my undergrad days I heard case studies on male ducks raping females, necrophilia in rodents, chimps murdering each other, bluebird females cuckolding their mates, and even cross-dressing fish.

All of the unpleasantries among animals have their human analogs.  Indeed, the florid terms we originally used all came straight from descriptors of human behavior.  Since my undergrad days, however, my field has rigorously worked to move away from human-derived terminology – and for good reasons.  Such terms, when describing human interactions are loaded with psychology and motivation that may be irrelevant or completely misleading when trying to understand why a bird is doing something.  Also, discussing the evolutionary advantages for a male bedbug to “rape” unwilling females when some number of your student audience may have been raped or assaulted is quite frankly emotionally and unnecessarily cruel.

Yet all the behaviors, no matter what you call them, occur in nature.  And humans do rape, murder, deceive their mates, and have complex sexualities.  As someone who studies animal behavior from an evolutionary perspective, I want to understand why such behaviors have appeared and are maintained in populations.  More seriously, as someone who views us humans as evolved animals, I also want to understand why we do what we do.

Thus in my class on “Animal Behavior”, I have also several lectures on human sociobiology, including one on rape.  In 2000, Thornhill and Palmer published A Natural History of Rape, an extremely controversial book.  The central thesis was that males forcibly copulating with females is or was an evolutionarily adaptive reproductive strategy in a wide variety of species.  Because it can result in increasing the number of offspring a male fathers, a genetic propensity for such behavior can be selected for.  Add in the central belief that humans are an evolved animal, and this leads to the book’s most controversial element: Rape can be an adaptive part of human male behavioral repertoires.  As one can imagine, the pushback against this hypothesis was considerable.

I viewed teaching about this controversy as an excellent way to have my students see how science can be relevant to their lives, and especially to generate a fuller understanding of the evolutionary concept of adaptation (i.e., adaptive is not a synonym for good, nor is adaptive behavior inflexible and non-malleable).  I would present the Thornhill and Palmer view on why rape exists, the counter arguments to it, and most importantly that rape in humans is a conflict of adaptiveness.  Even if one accepts the proposition that rape is adaptive for the rapist because a child might result, rape is most certainly non-adaptive for the rape victim, their genetic relatives (both males and females), and the victim’s mates.  Thus even if we were to base our society on purely maximizing evolutionary benefit, we should work to eliminate rape as counter to the interests of the majority of individuals.  Independent of whether rape behavior is purely cultural or has a modicum of a genetic basis, evolutionary biology tells us that if you structure a society such that the costs of being a rapist exceed the payoffs, it will eventually disappear from human behavioral repertoires.

Since I first wrote this lecture, the courses I teach have changed.  In my current portfolio, this lecture does not really fit in.  So, I haven’t given it in about a decade, and before our current emphasis on “trigger warnings”.   In my view I always had a trigger warning by publishing a detailed syllabus before class began.  The students knew this lecture was coming.  I would never spring such a topic on an audience with no advance announcement!

Again the point of this essay is not to defend any particular view on why humans rape.  Instead, my question is whether I can even talk about it in the manner I have in the past, in an increased climate of hypersensitivity?  Many people view the Thornhill book as unredeemingly objectionable and misogynistic.   Yet by scientific standards, the simple proposition that rape continues to exist in human populations due to being occasionally successful in transmitting one’s genes is valid for consideration.  Can I teach or present an objective truth, when it subjectively offends some fraction of my student audience and some of the conclusions may be unpalatable, even to me?  Would I now risking being hauled before a University board for a Title IX violation through presenting disagreeable ideas that caused discomfort and stress?  Or even be sued because of what I may say as a Professor in a public venue such an entry in The School of Doubt?

In previous essays I have argued that Creationism’s central dogma – that the Earth is 6000 years old – is a valid hypothesis for testing.  Obviously the creationist position comes off quite poorly in any lecture that I give, but by even mentioning it, am I potentially opening myself to an offended student suing me on the basis of separation of church and state because creationism is now so closely aligned with a religious point of view?  Or by a different student that finds me being intolerant of their religion?  Both sides seem equally sensitive these days!

In closing, I could not have imagined having written this essay even five years ago.  Still today the issues of what you can and cannot say in a classroom seem somewhat distant to me in biology teaching.  It is much more an immediate concern to my Humanities and Social Science colleagues (North campus in UCLA parlance) who focus so directly on the human condition.  But I can easily see the same issues migrating southward into the Sciences at UCLA.  When next I give my “human sociobiology” lecture, I will undoubtedly tread much more carefully, with ample trigger warnings (all in all, probably a good consequence).  I, however, also worry that if the trends continue, I shortly might lack the courage to risk tackling the issue of rape ever again.  Moreover, maybe even talking about the sexual activities of ducks, fish or bugs might give pause.  It is easy to draw analogies between them and human behavior.  And feel offended and threatened!

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

15 Comments

  1. June 10, 2015 at 4:46 pm —

    I think there’s a big difference between you discussing creationism scientifically and you discussing rape scientifically.

    Creationism is ultimately a belief, and having beliefs challenged is a large part of what college is about. And however much they might not like having their cherished beliefs challenged, it’s not actually traumatic (assuming you’re not a jerk about it.)

    Rape is, for many of your students (=most or maybe all the women, and some men, too), a real and personal threat that they have to deal with on a daily basis, and something that some of them will have experienced. You cannot expect them to treat it as an intellectual debate topic. (Well, you can, but it’s a real “dick move.”)

    What’s more, I gather from your name that you are male. That’s going to make it even harder for those students to accept your treating rape as some sort of abstract topic, because you’ll be seen as someone who can treat it impartially precisely because you are unlikely to be raped or to be threatened by the possibility of being raped.

    I’m not saying that there’s no way to discuss rape in a classroom setting. But you do have to be sensitive to the fact that the topic is very personal and possibly traumatic for some of your students. And that they’re likely to see any theory or article that seems to justify it as you trying to justify their being raped or threatened with rape.

  2. June 10, 2015 at 8:18 pm —

    In your last sentence “justify” is one of the main reasons why I first put this lecture together. How often have you seen the following equation: Darwin = Atheism = No morality? So as an evolutionary biologist I can steal, lie, rape, murder, whatever because as long as it increases my fitness, it is justifiable behavior. Well, NO! An explanation for a behavior, be it evolutionary or otherwise, is not a justification. It is just an explanation. Neither one’s genome nor personal experience excuses or justifies becoming a rapist. If you hear anyone using evolutionary biology to justify violence, bigotry, racism or rape. They are wrong. If anyone claims that adopting an evolutionary viewpoint about humanity inexorably leads you to justifying and doing evil. They are wrong. This is where I am going with the lecture: Evolutionary biology can and should be informative about the human condition, but that is never to be confused with destiny.

    The broader point is that beliefs about “rape” abound and could be swapped out as a lecture topic with any number of other human interactions that deeply affect individuals on an extremely personal level: homophobia, racism, sexism, etc. The list I guess could be depressingly long. I’m not sure whether you are suggesting that only a person of a specific gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation that matches the topic at hand is suitable to lead a classroom discussion or give a lecture. Or if it is OK only as long as the proper level of sensitivity is displayed. But what if the presenter does it badly using “dick moves”? Should the college shut them down? Or maybe is it just that the classroom is not the place for any hot-button issue that has the potential of triggering a negative reaction no matter who presents or how? And if not in a college classroom, where???

    Just as an aside – I do think you are underestimating how potentially traumatizing having the central tenets of a religious faith can be for some people.

    • June 14, 2015 at 3:51 pm —

      I think what he’s saying is, just because it happens doesn’t mean it’s inherently good.

      I have noticed this problem. I now encounter people who say they’re triggered by something they didn’t even encounter, which can hardly qualify as post-traumatic stress disorder.

      It’s all symptomatic of a very simplistic attitude toward social justice. (And hardly unique. Look at how many Native American studies professors are actually Indian. Naturally, the MSM say they all represent us.)

    • June 21, 2015 at 3:08 pm —

      I would say that those making the argument that knowing biology means you can justify atrocities are wrong anyway. By what metric exactly, the one where we have very little clue what society was like pre-religion, save for rare outlying hunter gatherers (of which most are not even that), where the less hunter gatherer they are, the more likely they are to get violent over property and ownership, while.. the rest of the world seems to use “we are special, and chosen” to justify every atrocity imaginable, including mass extinction? Yeah, not buying that knowing our biology somehow “justifies” anything – it just represents an excuse for people that are, on some level, already anti-social, to either claim a) no one would follow rules, without err.. rules, or b) by gosh, I wouldn’t even have rules, if society didn’t have this idea of religion! Neither of these are arguments against human nature, or Darwin, or evolution. They are attempts to either justify wrongs already being committed (such as oppression, for the “good” of society, because, somehow, not oppressing would lead to worse), or to justify wrongs certain people, disturbingly, would commit, if they didn’t have an imaginary friend looking over their shoulder – i.e., purely about themselves, not humanity.

      Yet, when we look at actual biology, well, its not so simplistic. Sure, Chimpanzees showed violent tendencies, in the wild, only… they did it under an artificial condition, in which they where given a well liked, limited, resource, to draw them in, for observation, and more than one social group showed up. So, yeah, big whoop… you just proved that, unlike within the social group, if you drop a huge pile of… what ever, money, bananas, or, say, a gold mine, between several groups of competing primates, and they decide they want it badly enough, they will go all violent, even if, the rest of the time, they might have *never* engaged in large scale conflicts, instead of just very rare ones. Or, you look at the bonobo, where, actual violence, or even stress, can cause the entire bloody troop to die off, because they can’t function under such conditions. Humans seem to contain people on both ends of this spectrum – those that will break, when stressed, and those who, when they see something they want, will fight for it, even when its irrational to do so. Neither case says anything about humanity as a whole, or grants justification for *anything* single individuals might do, nor, in any way shape or form, implies that, without some magic figure, our smart brains wouldn’t have come up with rules, to curtail these things, or punish them, anyway.

      Why? Because letting the ones that get too stressed out die, instead of protecting them endangers the group, and, if the danger you have to protect them from is some idiot that can’t keep it in their pants, or decides they want the last banana, then hell yes, you invent rules, and regulation, and punishment, to curtail these things.

      No, the “is” in this case is, “We would come up with morals anyway, even if they would be, in some ways, radically different than the ones we have now, some of which end up punishing the innocent, or even punishing those that do not deserve it, for purely harmless offenses.” There is no, “We ought to just do any evil thing we want, because there ‘is’ no rule against it.” That argument is self justification for the harm being already done, to people that don’t deserve it, in the name of the standard politics of morality (or politics in general), as was once described: “incorrectly applying the wrong solution, to the wrong, or non-existent problem.”

      On some level, the “high moralists” know this is the case – hence the need for the world to be worse, if they didn’t enforce their rules, or have some perfect source to justify why they **must** be right about the rules they are following. And, this prevents them from seeing the unintended consequences (which can include **creating** conditions for rape, violence, theft, etc.), the same way biologists, and anthropologists have, sometimes, failed to ask, “What are the likely consequences of me altering the conditions in which I am studying the subject?”, and then failing to work out that the behavior they see may be a direct result of that interference.

      Note: One of the big name, top, famous anthropologists seems to have done this, in at least one case, by undermining the local tribal taboos, to get information he thought he needed, and then reported that, “Inter-tribe violence and war was observed.” – never mind the fact that “he” introduced the conditions by which members of the two tribes got pissed off at each other, for breaking sacred taboos… Its only recently that these conclusions have been reexamined, as I understand it.

      We are very, very, good at making up excuses for why despicable acts must be because of the people committing the acts, and not the conditions we have created, which allow those acts. A number of European countries are, currently, trying this one with prostitution – attack not the seller, but the buyer, thereby “still” denying the sellers the right, or ability, to find help, when needed, but making certain that only the deviants, and criminals will buy the services – i.e., only those who can’t imagine being caught, don’t care about being caught, or possibly, intend harm to the person whose services they are buying, because they know they are less likely to be turned in for the crime, than they would committing it against someone who isn’t afraid of the police.

      Yeah… that can’t **possibly** make things worse… But, those implementing the policies are already claiming it won’t be there fault, when it goes wrong.

  3. June 10, 2015 at 11:49 pm —

    You’re making yourself look worse and worse. Remember the first rule of holes.

    The reason I mentioned “justification” is because we live in a society in which by and large people want to justify and excuse rape, but do so in a way that they can pretend they aren’t doing so. (This is called rape culture.) This goes on everywhere, including at UCLA. Most of the time when people bring up these rape-justifying evo-psych theories, they do so in order to minimize and excuse rape. If I were in your class and you brought up these theories, I would wonder why you’re bringing them up and start to suspect that you were in fact in sympathy with them and your protestations to the contrary were simply the usual lip service to “political correctness.” Particularly as you are in the social group that is least likely to suffer rape and most likely to want to excuse it. If I were a woman in your class, I would also worry that you’re the kind of professor I’d have to watch out for — professors sexually preying on students is very much a thing. (Cf. Hugo Schwyzer.) For women, who already get constantly reminded of the possibility of being raped, and especially people (men or women) who have been raped, rape cannot be simply a topic of academic debate, the way it evidently is to you.

    And why would you choose rape to make your point? Why not behaviors like murder or infantcide, which are more universally and honestly condemned, and which I believe have lots of examples in the animal kingdom? It rather sounds like you are doing so because you know it will get to some of your students and you want to prove that you’re not going to let the harm you cause stop you from doing it anyway. That is a “dick move.” And, yes, doing “dick moves” of that kind is a good reason for a college to shut a professor down. You’re in the classroom to teach, not to prove how obnoxious you can get away with being.

    Departments that routinely deal with hot-button topics (e.g., history, sociology, etc.) have ways of ealing with those topics so that students can be aware of what potentially triggering material will come up and mentally prepare themselves for it or, if necessary, choose a different course. And they don’t include such material just for the heck of it, or to prove some atheist debating point. It has not stopped them from dealing with hot-button subjects, but it does help make departments seem less hostile to people who are personally affected by those issues. The only real drawback is that it gives neo-cons and publications like National Review yet another pretext to claim that universities are abandoning Truth(tm) for “Political Correctness.”

  4. June 11, 2015 at 1:14 am —

    First off, you have no idea which theories I support or do not. I have not stated my opinions because they are fundamentally irrelevant to the issue I am raising. I chose to talk about my rape lecture rather than, say, my lecture on the evolutionary basis of homosexuality because it is something to which the strongest of emotions are quite obviously attached, including my own. My question is: Does science have anything it can possibly say on such issues, and more to the point, can we present such science in a college class when someone could take offense to it, as you obviously have? Clearly your answer is no you cannot, no matter what I may think the goal or purpose of my lecture is. Duly noted, and thanks for the feedback.

  5. June 11, 2015 at 2:10 am —

    The thing is, if work on controversial topics exists in the literature of a given field and is relevant to a college course topic, where else could possibly be a more appropriate venue to deal with it? At least in a classroom students have the guidance of a real expert to rely on in their efforts to determine how to view such work. It’s not as if a book or article stops existing if someone chooses not to teach it–it just means that students who encounter it will end up having to do so on their own without any expert guidance, or worse, through misuse by others who lack expertise or who want to deliberately mislead.

    It is especially important that problematic scholarship be covered in classroom environments precisely because we entrust professors with the responsibility of giving students the proper tools to handle it.

  6. June 18, 2015 at 3:50 am —

    I have no way of knowing whether your course is thoughtfully presented or not. It may very well be. However, your post does raise a few red flags for me – as a woman who has been raped, and has taken evolutionary psychology classes where we did cover the whole “why human rape may be adaptive” train of thought.

    First, the main question of the post is, “will I still be able to teach what I want to teach?” Realistically, yes. More so if you have tenure (except, perhaps in Wisconsin, in which case a lecture on rape would be, perhaps, the least of your worries.) You may or may not get push-back from students.

    I hear you saying that you have thought about your students who may have been raped, and you have decided that the benefit of your lectures is worth the risk of harm to them. There are some considerations I don’t see:

    – Is your class required? Trigger warnings aren’t always something that just let us prepare ourselves. Sometimes we have to walk away. If you are making it so that groups who are already harmed are put at a disadvantage if they choose not to take your class, then you are, indeed doing a disservice to them. Rape is not just about spreading sperm, it is a form of humiliation and social control, and it works quite well for that. Most of us who have been raped are not going to come to you and say, “hey, I can’t take your class, because I’ve been raped and am not ready to consider it dispassionately.” Nor are we likely to say, “there’s not a whole lot of reproductive advantage to the man who raped me before I had gone through puberty.” Our choice is to drop a required class, or sit through it and try not to throw up while you discuss things dispassionately with others who are not feeling ill. If your class is not required, you are in a better place to push those boundaries.

    – What level is your class? A graduate class with opinionated students? (That’s when I took evo-psych, and what made some of the topics doable for me. Seminar group, no strangers.) Is it an intro level class with tons of frat boys? Even if you have the best of intentions, you are going to put young women and men who have been sexually abused at a disadvantage. You may deliver the clearest lectures in the world, and still not reach some of your students the way you think that you are. If you have any reason to think that part of your audience might walk away thinking that they have a natural disposition to rape (especially if you have a chunk of students who don’t attend lecture regularly, but would skim a juicy sounding reading on the syllabus like “A Natural History of Rape”) you would do better to choose a different topic.

    – It concerns me that your worry is whether you can do what you want in a “climate of hypersensitivity”. It’s that “hyper” that worries me. You are saying that being encouraged to think twice before presenting something that might hurt an already hurt demographic is disturbing to you. Think twice about it. Do some real soul searching about how useful it is as a topic. Consider the setting and requirements, and don’t assume that students who object are just offended. I willingly took a class that included this topic in my mid-twenties with a set of people I didn’t always agree with, but knew and trusted. It was still incredibly painful, and I did not talk about my own experiences. Being “dispassionate” about something so painful was as much as I could manage in class time. If I had been required to sit through it as an 18 year old, in a large lecture hall with the guys who hit on me after class, I would have dropped the class, and quite likely whatever major it was a part of.

    Yes, sensitive topics should not be avoided. I take Dan’s point. However, you have to be reasonably certain that the good you are doing outweighs the damage. You may be there, I don’t know. But in order for you to know, you cannot just look at your own intentions and opinions about what you are saying. You absolutely have to see how it is affecting your students. Which means that you need to listen to their feedback without accusing them of being hypersensitive or just uncomfortable. For this class you might also consider looking at the demographics of who drops after they see the syllabus. There’s usually ebb and flow in the first week or so (depending on whether you are semester or quarter) but you might look for trends in this one class. Or notice if there are patterns in who stops showing up. Those who are most hurt are often not those who are most likely to speak up. They blame themselves for being weak and disappear.

    If you think self critically about it, look at whatever data you can muster, talk to colleagues who may see things differently to you and would not be afraid to say so and explain why, consider the venue and effects, if you do all of that and are certain that your presentation of the topic is worthwhile, then stick to it. You are not being wronged in being asked to do some hard thinking about what you teach. If you do the hard parts (and I mean the hard parts, like listening and really trying to understand other views, not digging your heels in and being offended or dismissive) then you will be a much stronger teacher, even if you keep the topic.

  7. June 18, 2015 at 11:58 am —

    Very good points. Let me try to reply in order.

    Required: no. The course counts toward the major, but there are other options.

    Level: Upper division, with pre-reqs of an Intro Bio and Intro to Ecology & Behavior. Also I gave this lecture in the last week of a 10-week course, so that students have had 9 weeks of applying evolutionary thinking to wide range of other problems presented in non-human species. I mostly teach the Intro E&B class now and I don’t do it there, because I don’t feel that I can do an adequate conceptual build up and preparation. I agree that it can’t be a toss-in lecture presented as just an intellectual exercise in “How to do evolutionary biology”. I wish I had data on why students drop, but there is a lot of churning at the beginning of and throughout a quarter here as students add and drop to better fit schedules (and a number of students leave my class on the rumor of hard tests!). I am certainly open to learning the degree to which students leave my class because of concerns over topics, but such info needs to be provided voluntarily and never has been in the past. Obviously I get anonymous student evals at the end of a course, and I’ve never had any negative comments about the human sociobiology lectures. Just positive ones that ask for more. But I also don’t know the degree to which this is self-selected. I.e., unhappy students have already left the class, or don’t feel comfortable in exposing their negative reactions.

    Hyper (yes, perhaps not the best term): With respect to moral issues in humans, I see evolutionary biology (my field!) misrepresented in 2 ways. By religious fundamentalists who claim I have no standing to oppose phenomena like rape, and by those who take a potentially “it’s in the genes” explanation to mean that it is somehow good for the species and there is nothing we can do about it. As an expert in the field, I want to want to take down both of these misunderstandings. And as Dan commented, is not a college classroom an appropriate venue? Indeed, it could be argued that it is almost my “duty” to take on potentially explosive issues rather than to ignore them and let misinformation about evolution and rape stand unchallenged.

    That’s the ‘noble’ Professor on his high horse. But there is another real part to me – the “Cover-my-ass” Professor. I don’t expect all my students to become my intellectual clones. I welcome discussion and even disagreement in my class. I do a rape lecture only because I do think the group good is likely to outweigh the possible discomfort raised to one or more individuals. But the usual class size for this lecture has been well over 100 students. The Cover-my-ass part of me now worries that no matter how I prepare the class, or give the lecture, and despite past positive feedback, there may be someone in the audience that goes nuclear on me and files a Title IX complaint or worse. The Cover-my-ass part might even worry that maybe I should omit all mentions of what happens between males and females in non-human species that could be interpreted as ‘rape-like’ and draw similar complaints. The Cover-my-ass part does not worry about good or bad outcomes for students – it just wants to avoid any potential hassles for the professor. If there is a central point/question to my piece then it concerns the balance between being noble and covering your ass. As a teacher do you still keep trying to take on controversial and potentially triggering issues in your field of scientific expertise, when doing so seems to be becoming more likely to create hassles and complications for you outside the classroom? Or just STFU, and get back to the research lab?

  8. June 18, 2015 at 4:10 pm —

    I have a view from both sides on this one. Spouse is a “noble” full professor at a large university. He is extremely outspoken, and not afraid to take the consequences if he feels that what he is saying is both important and overlooked. This has earned him respect at all levels, low to high. At the same time, he has had a phenomenally diverse group of individuals pass through his mentorship and he is well-loved. This hasn’t happened because he had any designs on proving his PC cred. People gravitate to his lab because he provides space where they feel safe. I am tempted to say that he does this unconsciously, and he does in the sense that he is not specifically aiming to increase diversity. He IS, however, concerned with and for people. This does NOT come at the expense of a willingness to take on difficult issues, nor does it come from a blind insistence on courting controversy. It happens because he is willing not only to listen to voices that other people ignore, but also to really process their perspectives. I have to admit, that there are times when I have held my breath because of his commitment to speaking truth to power. But when he speaks that risky truth, he makes sure that it is directed at those who do have broad power, not at the expense of the marginalized. Even when I worry for the consequences to our household, I respect his voice and actions.

    Now for the other side. You are concerned that you might have to STFU. I belong to a group who has been told, quite literally, as well as insidiously through the (often unconscious) exercise of power, to sit down and shut up. And rape has been one of the implements used to make that point. As I stated before, sexualized violence is an incredibly powerful tool of social control, and it is wielded to control specific groups, in particular in the U.S. (although not limited to) women, people of color, and people identified as outside the gender/sexuality mainstream.

    As an undergrad and grad student it was endless in classes, meetings and life. I’m guessing I’m about your age, so my experiences are not so out of date (and I’m privy to what Offspring deals with, so again, still relevant.) I had professors who lectured us on how women had babies and should consider careers in teaching, rather than science; I had professors who insisted on the use of the supposedly all-inclusive pronoun he (consequences for not doing so – one to two letter grades.) I was expected to participate in discussions in which it was debated (quite rationally and dispassionately) whether women (that would be me) were really capable of rational analysis. I had the honor, in front of my advisors, to be told by Owen Lovejoy that his hypothesis had been critiqued by more illustrious persons, and he had no intention of engaging with a (lowly) grad student about it. I was treated to a non-stop commentary on my appearance. Men at meetings used being female as a punchline in jokes. I got back student reviews when I taught classes saying that I was a really great teacher, but I’d be even better if I wore less clothing, and preferably none at all. I had a student from one of those classes turn in a term paper justifying rape in evolutionary terms. And I experienced all of this, not with rape as an external threat, but as an extremely real and painful memory.

    If I condense (and bear with me, because I know perfectly that this is not the only strand, but it is the one I want you to notice) our discussion to this point, it looks like this:
    OP: I am worried about myself
    me: You have justified worries, but you also need to consider other people
    you: Other people are not the point. I am worried about myself

    I have to admit that there is a tiny sense of schadenfreude on my part. I have never left the house, never stood in front of a group, never uttered a word as a student, presenter or teacher without consciously debating whether to speak, or not, without weighing every word, and without, quite literally never mind figuratively, covering-my-ass. In fact, without being aware that to a certain number of my audience, my ass was of more import than my words. When you say that you are worried for yourself and it is making you think about your choices, I really just want to say, “welcome to my world.”

    And here’s one of the things. This is not a matter of discomfort. I belong to some marginalized identities, but I also belong to privileged ones. Discomfort was having people justifiably point out my blindness and blunders. Discussions of rape don’t make me uncomfortable, they evoke all the feelings of shame, self-loathing, and fear that their perpetrators meant for them to evoke. Clearly, this doesn’t mean, at this point in my life, that I cannot do it. But it is neither trivial nor irrelevant.

    I am, most emphatically, not saying that you should, a priori, avoid some topics. I am suggesting that you do view your fear of having suit brought against you as an opportunity to think deeply about what you say and how. That is the point of the legislation. You, as a (possibly tenured) professor are in a position of power. The point of tenure should be to defend controversial opinions that would be suppressed by broader political power, not to get marginalized groups to shut up. My own experience (which is just the tip of the iceberg) shows that it has often been used for the latter. You can still cover the topics you want, but if you are only concerned with yourself, you will alienate the already alienated. In your post, not only did you use the “climate of hypersensitivity” phrase, you also included “cross-dressing” as “not nice behavior” and as one of a group of human “unpleasantries.” I would assume that you did not intend to give ammunition to potential bullies and that you were unaware that you had done so. But that is precisely the point.

    Yes, you have to be more careful. You do not have to shut up. You do have to work harder. It will improve your teaching and mentoring. Appreciate that opportunity, and use it to better understand other people’s experiences.

  9. June 18, 2015 at 6:16 pm —

    When one enters a minefield, one must live with the possibility of getting blown up. The fact that now even white males with Nobel Prizes have to worry about minefields does have its poetic justice – schadenfreude can be well earned! No, I don’t HAVE to STFU, but if I do STFU it will probably be because the easiest path is to avoid the minefield altogether. You pegged it 100% correctly. It would be all about me and my choices, and a very selfish desire to avoid any bad consequences that might result from a choice of opening my mouth. I have entered your world and am glad for the welcome (and the thoughtful comments).

  10. June 18, 2015 at 6:24 pm —

    Thanks for reading and engaging. Bon courage!

  11. June 21, 2015 at 5:38 pm —

    Okay, as a survivor who has experienced this sort of thing in classes, and had to drop out of many of them… I think that if you’re going to have this kind of discussion, one of the most important things you can do to help mitigate the damage is DO NOT bury your point at the end of the class, and try to make students go through your logic without knowing where you’re going with it. Make it very clear up front where you stand, that you are arguing against whatever views you’re presenting. Because sitting there through an entire class trying to figure out whether or not a teacher is going to end up supporting, defending, or justifying rape (a deeply traumatic memory) is an extremely terrifying experience, and it will lead to survivors being less able to mentally function through your class. Most of their energy will probably be spend trying not to have a panic attack instead of actually engaging with whatever you’re saying.

    So instead, let students know at the beginning of class what you’re going to cover AND what points you want them to get out of it—and for the areas where it sounds like you might be justifying rape, make sure to point out why the logic of doing so would be unsound.

    I think it’s best to remind students when that lecture is coming up at least one or two classes before the day, too. Many students don’t check the syllabus right before coming to class, and they may forget what the lecture is going to be about and show up for the day expecting something else, so I think it’s wise to try to mitigate that. I also think it’s best to make attending the lecture optional for that day, and let students know it won’t count against their participation grade if they decide not to attend. Most of us who would likely face serious psychological harm from discussions like these are not about to disclose that sort of thing to you—some of us may be officially accommodated by the school’s disability office, but the barrier of disclosure (and diagnosis too—remember that not all students can trust therapists) is so high that most won’t be. If necessary, you can plan to have some kind of alternative assignment available for those who decide not to attend this lecture, and give students the choice of the two.

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