Steven Landsburg, an economics professor at the University of Rochester, in New York, has a track record of igniting fierce debate over contentious subjects.
But his latest blog post, written to provoke thought over the shaping of public policy, has some wondering if he's crossed the line. Titled "Censorship, Environmentalism and Steubenville," the post asks readers to weigh three dilemmas: one on pornography, one on environmental degradation and one on raping an unconscious person "in a way that causes no direct physical harm."
Unsurprisingly, that third third dilemma has jumped the tracks from a mere thought experiment and has drawn real-word outrage, a transition undoubtedly aided by Landsburg deliberately linking his example to the Steubenville rape case, in which two teens were recently convicted of assaulting an intoxicated 16-year-old girl after a night of alcohol-fueled partying. Muses Landsburg: "As long as I’m safely unconsious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?"
The Steubenville victim, whose identity was not released, recalled in court that she woke up "with no clothes on in a strange house" and was unaware she'd been raped until she saw text messages, pictures and a video relating to the incident.
That point is not lost on Landsburg, who acknowledges her apparent ignorance in a parenthetical in his post. "Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later," Landsburg writes.
It is, I think, a red herring to say that there’s something peculiarly sacred about the boundaries of our bodies. Every time someone on my street turns on a porch light, trillions of photons penetrate my body. They cause me no physical harm and therefore the law does nothing to restrain them. Even if those trillions of tiny penetrations caused me deep psychic distress, the law would continue to ignore them ... So for the issues we’re discussing here, bodily penetration does not seem to be in some sort of special protected category.
Landsburg also asks a followup question. "If your answer depends on the ... assertion that the trauma from learning you've been raped is of a different order of magnitude from the trama [given in other examples]," he posits, "would you be willing to legalize the rape of the unconscious in cases where the perpetrators take precautions to ensure the victim never learns about it?"
In an emailed statement to The Huffington Post, Bill Murphy, Rochester's vice president for communications responded:
The University is committed to the academic freedom of our faculty and students. Their views are their own; they do not speak for the University.
In his personal blog, Professor Landsburg poses some hypothetical questions about an unconscious rape victim. He asks whether such rapes should be illegal. The University’s answer is that rape is abhorrent. It is and should be a crime.
Sexual violence is a concern on campuses across the nation. The University works very hard to combat sexual violence and to promote a culture of mutual respect.
Landsburg is no stranger to controversy. In 2012, the professor triggered a "deeply disappointed" response from Rochester administration for applauding Rush Limbaugh in his disagreement with Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke.
Speaking of Fluke's belief that health insurance should cover the cost of contraception, Landsburg wrote, "It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty."
(Hat tip, Gawker)