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Thursday, June 09, 2011

The latest at The Stone

There's an interesting post at the NYT's philosophy blog by Linda Martín Alcoff, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York - When Culture, Power and Sex Collide - which asks the question of whether sexual harassment/violence is intrinsically wrong or rather only perceived be so depending on our own cultural backgrounds. Here's part of the post ....

When Culture, Power and Sex Collide
- Linda Martín Alcoff

The recent events swirling about the ex-next-president of France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, have revived old tropes about how culture affects sex, including sexual violence ...... [the] question is whether relativism is relevant to those domains we generally want to put in the non-benign category: harassment, sexual coercion, even sexual violence. Could it be that offensiveness is relative to the perspective of the recipient, based on her own cultural sensibilities? More troubling, could it be that our very experience of an encounter might be significantly affected by our background, upbringing, culture, ethnicity, in short, by what Michel Foucault called our discourse? ..........

The slide toward a complete relativism on these matters can be halted on two counts. First, there is the question of the physical body. Sex, as Lenin correctly argued, is not akin to having a glass of water. It involves uniquely sensitive parts of the body around which every culture has devised elaborate meanings, from adulation to abomination ......

Second, there is the question of power. Differences in status and the capacity for economic self-sufficiency — not to mention the capacity for self-regard — compromise the integrity of consent, no matter the culture. Status differences can occur along the lines of age, class, race, nationality, citizenship and gender (all of which apply to the alleged attempted rape by Strauss-Kahn of an immigrant housekeeper). Power differences alone cannot determine whether something is benign or harmful, but they do signal danger. It cannot be the case that cultural context can render power differences completely meaningless. Obvious power differences in sexual relations should raise a red flag, no matter which color one’s culture uses to signal danger ........


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