Elinor Mason – The Silencing of Sexual Refusal

Content note: academic discussion of consent, rape, and sexual harassment


PTRG 25/10/17

This week we welcomed Dr Elinor Mason from the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Philosophy. Elinor presented her paper entitled ‘Rape, Harassment, and the Silencing of Sexual Refusal’, which takes as its point of departure a well-known debate in the philosophy of language regarding the effect that mainstream pornography has on women’s rejections of sexual advances: this is the idea that pornography, along with other cultural representations of women’s sexuality, somehow renders the refusing ‘no’ ineffective, either by distorting its meaning or the credibility of the refuser. The focus of the paper is whether we might fruitfully conceptualise the persistent failure of women’s refusals as failures of their authority to refuse. To argue for this position, Elinor suggests that we can distinguish between a moral conception of authority – that which we always retain over ourselves and our bodies – and conventional authority. This is what fails when a man disregards a woman’s refusal, and it relates back to pornography’s and other media representations of women’s sexuality through their portrayal of women as sexually subordinate and ignorant of their own sexual desires.

Thanks to the rich mix of pertinent philosophical and political issues in the paper, a spirited discussion ensued. Several responses focused on the question of how to apply the related but analytically distinct concepts of blameworthiness and wrongdoing. One of the features of the paper was its attention to cases of rape where the perpetrator has, unwittingly or otherwise, failed to obtain consent, or where he has misconstrued a ‘no’ as a ‘yes’ but has lacked the intent to commit rape. This heralded a further consideration; namely, whether we need to take into account, for example, ideologically constructed gender roles – hegemonic norms of masculinity and femininity – and how these influence our cultural understandings of rape and consent. Discussion also centred around the different conceptions of authority: how can and should we distinguish between the conceptions outlined in the paper? Is the presence of authority a binary matter? How do we gain or lose authority? These were just a few of the many topics of discussion covered in a lively and productive session.