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Pleasure, Consent, and Dignity: Peter Singer Is Wrong About the Sexual Assault of a Disabled Man

Two renowned philosophers, Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer, recently took to the website of the New York Times to defend a female academic convicted on two counts of aggravated sexual assault on a twenty-nine-year-old man with severe cerebral palsy. Much of their article focuses on whether the man in question is sufficiently intellectually disabled to be incapable of consenting to sex with professor of ethics Anna Stubblefield. Stubblefield claims that the sex was consensual and part of a loving relationship. The authors, as well as discussing the available evidence, also question the justice of the court proceedings which, they claim, barred evidence favorable to the defense.

My purpose in this article is not to examine the evidential case set forth by McMahan and Singer. Instead, I draw your attention to this argument they make:

If we assume that [the alleged victim, D.J.] is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. . . . In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed he may lack the concept of consent altogether.

This does not exclude the possibility that he was wronged by Stubblefield, but it makes it less clear what the nature of the wrong might be. It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him . . . it seems that if Stubblefield wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.

In order to see how people come to make such statements, it is worth taking a look at some of the philosophical assumptions guiding both McMahan and Singer.

Read more at The Public Discourse. 

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