• Recently TV psychologist “Dr. Phil” McGraw promoted an upcoming show regarding sexual assault via a question on his Twitter feed that asked his audience if it would be okay to sleep with a drunk female. From my vantage point, Dr. Phil’s question seemed crass, given that he was asking for a Yes or No response to an inquiry that should provoke us to consider the complex question of where we draw a line in the long and grey spectrum between consent and assault. However, I am much more disconcerted (although not surprised) by the politically correct club’s outrage that Dr. Phil had the audacity to ask his audience for their opinions on this topic: clearly (yelled the critics, in their usual fervor of trial by “ism”plication) Dr. Phil was looking to promote sexual assault in university dorm rooms.

    As Ottawa Citizen commentator Angelina Chapin noted: People immediately labelled Phil McGraw… a rape apologist. It was like watching a minnow dropped into a piranha tank. Aside from the innocuous snark that characterizes Twitter — “Aren’t you married?” — the criticisms were an ugly distortion of the original message.

    “Why are you looking for a green light to rape from Twitter?” asked Twitter.com/SettlerColonial and “You know good and goddamn well that ‘asking’ when a girl ‘deserves’ to be raped is a destructive question in itself,” tweeted Twitter.com/@femme_esq…

    The message spurred a change.org petition demanding Dr. Phil apologize and “produce a show that shines a light on survivors of rape and sexual assault and… a national conversation about the specifics of consent.”

    The change.org petition is the work of activist Carmen Rios, who was subsequently a guest on CKNW’s The Simi Sara Show. She argues that Dr. Phil’s inquiry is akin to the police asking a possible rape victim the ridiculous and irrelevant question, “What were you wearing [to potentially provoke this assault]?”; this is a straw man argument of the worst kind because she associates a question that apparently seeks to blame a victim with an important philosophical one that society ought to, and has a right to, ask. Even if this topic is as simple as Ms. Rios suggests (that there is no grey area between consent and assault), what has happened to our moral conversation that we cannot ask about it?

    Apparently, we’re now living in a moral orthodoxy that will ostracize not only those who disagree with it, but also people who have the temerity to inquire about it, by assuming the most sinister interpretations of their questions. And yet, I think Dr. McGraw’s inquiry (or, at least, the actual implications of it) is one of the most daunting in all of moral philosophy: how do we define consent? Finding an answer that takes into account our elusive line between protecting our citizens and allowing them the right to choose is tough work, and I fear any results arrived at through censored discussion.

    I think most moral philosophers would agree that a passed out or barely conscious person cannot give consent, but suggesting that people who are slurring their words can no longer choose, in that moment, to take someone home provokes difficult questions. For instance, where is the line between sobriety and the point at which a person is no longer aware of their circumstances enough to consent? (I’m not saying there isn’t a line, but it’s a tricky one for a reasonable person to define.) What about cases where two people are in a relationship? If a women comes home drunk from a work party, and initiates something with her husband and he consents, has he sexually assaulted her? Also, are inebriated males victims of sexual assault, too? If not, then we’re saying that drunk male citizens have the ability to choose while intoxicated female citizens do not. That’s a scary conclusion for both genders. Moreover, if both members of a sexual encounter are drunk, have both of them assaulted each other? These may not be the cases intended by arguments that one must be sober to consent, but they are logically in its catchment area, so how do we deal with them?

    The outraged social policy rulers are unwilling to consider any contemplation that does not fit within their rules of acceptable thought. Along with demanding an apology from Dr. Phil, Ms. Rios wants him to tailor his show to fit the philosophy she has prescribed for this topic; indeed, she notes that various media outlets need to do a better job, when covering such debates, of focusing on the victims. So, along with curtailing free discussion, she wants journalists to cast aside their oaths of objectivity when describing the conversation that remains. No need to look at more than one aspect of an issue, just read Ms. Rios’s blog and report her infallible opinion as fact.

    The new censorship is upon us.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 2:29 PM

  • 10 Responses

    • Natalie Says:

      I agree that the automatic, blanketing conflation of the phrase “has been drinking” with “has not consented” is far too simplistic to account for mature adult relationships, in addition to being applied in a sexist way. Still, I am sympathetic to the idea of drilling such an inflexible and unnuanced one-rule-fits-all idea (making sure that it applies equally to both sexes, of course) into the minds of teenagers (via school posters, assemblies, etc.), who are new and immature drinkers and may initially need such binaries of consent to adhere to in lieu of their own judgment. Still, this is no excuse for the discussion to be as closed as it is today in the media.

    • Tom2 Says:

      Natalie started two consecutive sentences with ‘still’ so I’m not sure I can take her opinions seriously.

      One not having an intelligent opinion

    • Tom Durrie Says:

      As I believe you make clear, the question itself is meaningless. What do we mean by “drunk” and is it only females who get drunk? And at what point of drunkness can one be said to be incapable of making a decision? I’m sure many of us have heard the old “excuse”: I was drunk, I didn’t know what I was doing. Anyone who gets that drunk shouldn’t be drinking in the first place. Our society, unlike so many others, has a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol. As I see it, most young people drink only to get shit-faced drunk and, consequently, do stupid things like rioting, breaking windows, driving cars, and engaging in sex. It’s not a pretty picture.
      (This also suggests our society’s unhealthy relationship with sex. The more you prohibit, control, disapprove,and misinform, the greater the trouble you’ve created.)

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, Natalie, Tom2, and TomD.

      Natalie: I think you make an excellent case for telling young people that the answer to this question is as simple as black and white; since many of them may be too young and/or dim-witted to navigate any nuance of grey, it may be safest not to give them that option. Nevertheless, I’m afraid of teaching new generations that complicated matters are so simple because such a policy nourishes the already flourishing prevalence of (as you say) binary thinking. I don’t have an argument to prove that such one-dimensional thinking is a greater danger than that of confusion over complicated rules resulting in catastrophic decisions, so I admit that I could be wrong about this; nevertheless, I think we need to at least question the status quarantine of thought so that we can be looking for better options than demonizing sexuality – in particular male sexuality – in cases where common sense would tell us they have done nothing morally wrong. (i.e. The girl is not passed out, and she invites someone home with her.)

      Tom2: thank you for attempting to destroy Natalie’s argument via noting an apparent flaw in her rhetoric; however, given that her presentation was so expertly rendered in all other aspects, I am forced to conclude that the double “still” was done for a particular purpose (admittedly, I cannot myself understand what it might be, so I can only hope that Natalie will rejoin the conversation to articulate her reason ;).

      TomD: It is refreshing to read your perspective on this point. Anyone who follows your blog knows you are a radical living far on the left side of the fence, and yet you seem to part company here with a position that appears also to be of left-wing descent. Lost in this discussion of protecting young women is what we’re saying to young men: that their sexuality is wrong, and that, even when a girl seems to enthusiastically take them home, he is a villain.* As you say, when we start prohibiting sexual relationships between consenting adults (in the conventional sense of the word, not in the rejiggered alcohol-destroys-consent definition), we are setting a scary, freedom-limiting precedent.

      *Even if we have decided that it’s illegal to spend the night with a drunk person, the crime is far removed from the genuinely criminal and despicable behaviours of the young men that provoked this discussion by sexually assaulting a passed out female, and then posting photos of of their cruel work on the internet. Along with trying these young men for sexual assault, I think such publication of any sexual images without a person’s consent – no matter how old they are – should itself be outlawed because it’s a violation of a person’s privacy.

    • Tamsen Says:

      I agree wholeheartedly! I was a bit surprised when I heard there was outrage over the asking of the, albeit (as you said it) crass, question. I thought he could’ve phrased/couched it better, but it seemed to me just an inquiry… likely a topic for his show?
      Well said, Seth!

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Tamsen. I am still amazed by the rage against this question. I do think taking offence is sometimes a currency that agencies use to forward their opinions. Thus, it’s likely, I think, that some of them are biased in favour of being offended, because such outrage is good for getting them into the public eye; we should therefore be skeptical and always double check the rationale behind any offence taken. Not that people don’t sometimes have a good reason for their anger, but given that it will benefit them, we shouldn’t take its legitimacy for granted. Otherwise the auto-offended will continue to rule the conversation.

    • megan Says:

      Ok, I take this topic very seriously, and I agree with the thoughtful commentary on it being a grey spectrum… but a little giggle may have escaped when I read your question “if both members of a sexual encounter are drunk, have both of them assaulted each other?”

      I can’t imagine the suing and counter-suing headlines for that one.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Megan. No, no, it’s simple. Who ever complains to the Dean first is the victim. There we go: nice and black and white. 😉

    • Tarrin Says:

      I’m a little late to this discussion, but just wanted to add my two cents to the discussion of the relationship between alcohol and sex.

      Interesting take here on the growing heresy of advising women to avoid drinking to incapacitation, to avoid associated dangers including the increased risk of being the victim of assault:


      While I can appreciate the dangers of victim-blaming whenever the victim’s actions are examined, surely dangerous activities such as binge-drinking are worthy of fair warning / examination? Falling off balconies being an example the article points out.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Tarrin. An interesting article. As they seem to be suggesting, the conflation of victim prevention and victim blaming is unfortunate. And, as you say, the avoidance of victim blaming is a worthy cause, but when all nearby topics are rendered taboo for fear of offending it, useful discussion is silenced. I made a similar argument here in regard to the rage against a police advisory for students to be careful when there was a sexual predator attacking female students at UBC.

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