Hypatia – Ann J. Cahill Interview


Miranda Pilipchuk: Tell us about yourself.


Ann J. Cahill: My name is Ann Cahill, I’m a professor of Philosophy at Elon University. I work in feminist theory and my research interests happen at the intersection of feminist theory and philosophy of the body. I’m the author of Rethinking Rape, which was published in 2001 by Cornell University Press, and Overcoming Objectification, which was published in 2010—11?—one of those, by Routledge.


MP: How do you define feminism? What initially drew you to feminist theory?


AJC: You know, my definition of feminism really depends on the audience with whom I’m speaking. I’ll tell you the definition I’ve developed for undergraduates who are new to the profession, but even that’s a work in progress. I use a definition of a feminist that goes like this: a feminist is someone who believes that women are systematically disadvantaged in society by virtue of their gender, that that systematic disadvantage is not natural or necessary, and three, that that disadvantaging should be undone. To me that’s a good general definition, but it’s feeling more and more dated too, precisely because of the centrality of women to that definition. Mercifully enough, feminism is becoming more and more conversive with intersectionality, conversive with the ways gender as a hierarchal system disadvantages lots of people, not all of whom identify or present as women. So that part is feeling a little outdated, even though I still use it for people who are new to the field. Probably in a more sophisticated way, I would say that feminism is the systematic, or … let me start over. Feminism is the study of systematic injustice, primarily, but not solely, related to gender, and at its heart there is an interest in how injustice that’s related to gender intersects with, and is affected by, injustice on a variety of other axes.


I actually discovered feminism at exactly the same moment I discovered philosophy, and that was in high school. So the two, even though I wasn’t … the philosophy class I took in high school had nothing to do with feminism and the feminism that I was explained in my literature class didn’t have anything to do with philosophy. They were simultaneous discoveries for me, and they were just transformative. And so my first entry into feminism was The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and some other feminist texts, but that was the first one. And to me, feminism just had this power to explain my world in a way that nothing I had discovered until that point had been able to, and able to explain it in a systematic and intellectually satisfying way. I grew up in a very traditional family, which had lots of wonderful aspects to it, but it was fairly traditional in terms of gender norms. And I was starting to chafe against those, but didn’t really exactly know why. And suddenly here feminism was, a whole set of concepts, a whole just wonderful smorgasbord of language that I could attach to my experiences. And one of the really powerful things to me about it was the emphasis on systematic injustice: that this wasn’t about bad actors, this wasn’t about mean people, this was about systems of power in which we are all implicated in different ways. So that was just a very, very powerful discovery. At the same time I was discovering philosophy, and very fortunate in the United States to discover it at a high school—I went to a private high school with a one semester class in philosophy. And the discovery of philosophy for me, it was like walking into a room or a party where everyone was talking a new language, except I knew it, and I didn’t know these people were already here and having this conversation that I wanted to be part of, and had been going on for some time, that I could join. So in both cases, they were really intellectual homecomings and they have continued since that time.


MP: One of your areas of specialization is sexual violence. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in this area?


AJC: I started thinking about sexual violence in graduate school because I stumbled across this interview with Foucault, where Foucault said, “Well you know, sexual violence shouldn’t be any different than getting hit in the face.” And I had this immediate visceral reaction to it that said that that is so wrong. But what compelled me intellectually was the realization that that felt so wrong to me, and yet it resonated with a dominant feminist school of sexual violence, namely the one best personified by Susan Brownmiller. So here I was as a feminist and as a feminist philosopher saying that is so wrong, and yet it’s so similar to what not only a dominant philosophical school about sexual violence said, but a philosophical approach to sexual violence that had really filtered down to the culture. I mean it’s what you would hear on talk shows, right? “It’s not about sex, it’s about violence.” That’s what Foucault was saying. And yet I thought it so badly misrepresented women’s experiences and the meanings that sexual violence had in our contemporary society. So that’s where I started, and as I got into it, at the time when I was writing Rethinking Rape, there was a real dearth of feminist scholarship on sexual violence. From my perspective the conversation had almost completely come to a halt with Catharine MacKinnon in the 1980s. And her approach had been roundly criticized by lots and lots of different people, but as far as I could tell, no one had come forward and presented a better, more robust alternative. In the interim, we’d had all of this flowering of, especially, continental feminist theory that had all of these conceptual tools that I found so compelling, but that no one had used to say, “Well let’s take another crack at sexual violence and see if we can improve on these two dominant schools.” So that’s what Rethinking Rape tried to do. I’m really happy to say that in the last ten or twelve years there’s been this real growth in the feminist scholarship on sexual violence, and some just incredible books. Susan Brison’s book came out right after mine, although in my mind hers comes before mine—I thought it seems more foundational somehow. It’s just this incredible book, Aftermath, that is so insightful, not only about sexual violence, but also about trauma in general, and about human beings even more broadly speaking. But in more recent years, Louise du Toit out of South Africa has a book that I find really compelling, that just came out a couple of years ago. Nicola Gavey, who although though she’s a psychologist, does highly theoretical work, and I think her book Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape, is just really great. And in fact the article that we’ll talk about today is a response to that book. Sarah Clark Miller is doing work on genocidal rape. So there’s all of these new people producing new work, and really insightful work, on sexual violence, and I hope to continue to be a part of that.


MP: Can you explain to us the general idea behind your article “Recognition, Desire, and Unjust Sex”?


AJC: The article’s a response, first and foremost. So Nicola Gavey wrote in her book, Just Sex, that there was an important flaw in my argument, which, you know, always gets your attention. And she said that I too quickly assumed that women could tell the difference between rape and, for lack of a better term right now, non-coerced heterosexual interaction. And in fact, this move that I made was part of a critique of MacKinnon because I felt that MacKinnon’s approach—she conflates virtually all of heterosexual intercourse with sexual violence, or at least connects them so tightly that it’s hard to distinguish between the two. And I thought this was a real mistake that she made, and that it left her with a theoretical approach that made heterosexual female agency virtually impossible, which I found just contrary to women’s experience, and too despairing of what we can hope for in this world. So as part of dismissing—or not dismissing, as part of disagreeing with MacKinnon, I said, “Well this clearly wrong, women can tell the difference, and it’s important that they can tell the difference.” Well Nicola Gavey comes along and does this really wonderful book where she argues that there are sexual experiences that women have that exist in this grey zone and that my claim is incorrect, that women have experiences where it is not clear which category the interaction should fall into: consensual sex or rape or sexual assault. And then her book not only provides empirical evidence of these experiences but a really interesting analysis of how these experiences of what she calls “unjust sex” provide a scaffolding for rape culture as a whole. So it’s always good when you read someone and they say you’re wrong and you think, “Huh, they may be right about that.” There’s usually something to say, so I really had to take some time and think about it. And I concluded that she was correct, and that there are these in-between experiences and they demanded further analysis. So I tried to take on the challenge at least of articulating what might be the common ground—or some common ground—between these examples of what she calls unjust sex, and sexual violence. And it’s very important that she says that these examples of unjust sex are not the same sexual violence, are not the same as rape, but they are related. She’s thinking about examples, for example, of women who were pressured but maybe not coerced into having sex, or sort of gave in to requests to have sex regardless of whether they wanted it because fighting it would take too much energy, or it was the quickest way that they were going to get to sleep, or fear of how they may be retaliated against in their relationship, something like that. So, I took on that challenge. There remains a challenge that I did not take on in the article, and I was thinking about it today. I talk about the commonalities between unjust sex and sexual violence, what places them in a larger category of unethical sexual interaction, but I haven’t yet taken on the challenge of what distinguishes them. And I think that’s going to be even more of a challenge. I address the commonality by trying to ask what’s wrong in both cases. I dismiss pretty quickly the idea that consent, that the lack of consent is it, because in most cases of unjust sex, even the women who were describing them, would say “Yeah, I consented,” so it’s not that. And I land on the role that desire plays and I work that out in some detail.


MP: One of the central themes of your article is the distinction between unjust sex and rape. Can you explain this distinction? What makes this distinction so important?


AJC: Okay, so I can’t explain the distinction. Well, at least I can’t explain—I can’t provide a definition that would tell you in any given interaction, which category it falls into. What I can say is that unjust sex, these examples of sexual interactions in the grey zone, right, contribute—and I’m following Gavey with this—contribute to a culture where sexual violence is simultaneously tolerated and dismissed. So it’s part of rape culture. It’s certainly … but it’s very tempting to say, “Well maybe force isn’t used.” Well that doesn’t work because the definition of force is really troubling, and you get into all sorts of evidentiary problems with that. Consent doesn’t work. I don’t think consent even works when we’re talking about rape and sexual violence. I’m really with Carole Pateman on this one; I think consent theory is a terrible, terrible way to approach ethics of sexual interaction. It is the dominant one that we are presenting to our young people, to the extent that we give them any sex education worth having, which is almost nil, but I think it’s incredibly problematic. So I think they are related in that in both cases there is a dismissal of women’s active role in an intersubjective relationship. So my answer, my rather longish answer to this problem, is to say that both cases of unjust sex and sexual violence constitute a dimming, or an ignoring, or a stultifying attitude towards women’s full sexual subjectivity. Such that their choices, their desires, their preferences, their emotional status, are not seen or taken up as transformative of the dynamic that’s going on. So I think that’s what connects them. What distinguishes them? That’s the tricky part. I mean, at the moment, in my article what I really consider sexual violence actually to be a subcategory under a larger umbrella term of unjust sex. And what Gavey’s talking about is another category under unjust sex, in general, with the more grey zone areas. So I think the whole category can be understood as a failure to consider women’s desires. And that’s what I focus on in this article, but also preferences, meanings, experiences as fundamentally part and parcel of the interaction that’s going on, as marking that interaction, as shaping it, even though they are also being shaped by it, those very desires and preferences are being shaped. So I adopt a model of robust intersubjectivity as an ethical model of sexual interaction, and say that in all these cases of unjust sex, that principle is being violated.


MP: Your article challenges thinkers who define rape based on lack of consent. Can you explain the consent-based definition of rape? What is the problem with consent-based definitions?


AJC: So rape, or any act of sexual violence, is understood as wrong, if the woman usually—because we still think in this way and consent theory encourages us to think in this way—if the woman did not consent to the sexual action, if she did not give her consent. Antioch College, you know, had this policy twelve, fifteen, maybe even twenty years ago, where they articulated the need to get consent for every single sexual action. And they were roundly laughed at for this, even though our dominant approach to sexual violence makes that absolutely reasonable, right? So consent theory really—especially with, you know, regard to sexual violence—really assumes that there’s a male figure offering—and that may be even too positive, right?—proposing?, and then there’s a female figure who can either consent to this thing that is being proposed or withhold her consent. Now Carole Pateman has a really wonderful, detailed analysis of how consent theory is mired and masked in its assumptions. In some ways, especially when I’m teaching this, I go little bit more simplistic, and I say, “What kinds of things do you have to consent to, in what situations are you signing a consent form? Surgery, jumping out of a plane, right? Something dangerous. Something that someone is saying, “Now we want to know that you understand you could get really hurt by this. And generally speaking, you wouldn’t want someone to take a knife to your guts and take something out so we’re going to make sure that you say this is okay, right? You give your consent,” and we’re all sort of double checking. Consent theory assumes that sex is like that, assumes that heterosex is like that, assumes that hegemonic heterosex is like that. And when we adopt the consent model, we really leave no room for female desire because we’re never—in dominant culture—we’re never talking about women who are offering and men who are deciding to give or not give their consent. So consent theory really constructs sexuality in this very heterosexist way, this way that is centered on traditional gender norms that erase female sexual subjectivity. So that’s one reason I think it’s a bad idea. The other reason that it’s a bad idea is that we put so much emphasis on this: did she consent?; how do we know she consented?; what works, right? And yet, we are giving virtually no education to the youth in our society, either girls or boys, to talk about how to make that decision. We act as if, with the consent theory, that individuals have immediate access to their own desires and preferences, that they’re relatively stable, and that they’re easily articulable. Why would we assume that? Grownups with decades of sexual experience aren’t necessarily good at that. We’re not teaching our young people: here’s what you might be feeling; here’s how to make the decision; what might you think is important in making the decision?; how are you going to go about making sure that you’re considering things you ought to be considering?; what makes you feel secure in your own decision?; who else do you need to talk to? We’re giving them no language of their own sexual topography. Not to mention, we don’t give them a world which, in general, takes their consent seriously, and then we put all the burden on them in these cases to prove whether they did or did not consent. So I think when we focus on that in terms of sexual violence, we’re really abdicating our cultural responsibility. I don’t think it would be a good idea even if we did all that education better, because I think it sets it up in a problematic way. But it seems to me particularly cruel when we give so little education, so little training; and I don’t mean training in terms of telling them what’s right and what’s wrong. I mean training like how do you check yourself, learning how to feel what you’re feeling, learning how to put words to what you’re feeling, learning to talk to other people that you trust. This kind of fluency is what I’m talking about in terms of sexual subjectivity. So yeah, I think that consent is a terrible, terrible way to understand sexual violence.


MP: Your article argues for shifting the language of discussions of rape from consent to desire. What distinguishes desire from consent?


AJC: So as soon as we move to the question of desire, at least we have secured a place for feminine sexual subjectivity. We’ve secured a place where we’re able to say women, heterosexual women, might want sex. So this is very good. So we’re already, sort of, moving the football down the field. As opposed to the conversations that happen with consent. But we’ve got a problem. It’s very tempting to say that sexual interactions are ethical if both people, or more than two, want them. That it’s the desire that makes the sexual interactions ethical. And it would be forcing the sexual interaction on an undesiring partner that would be unethical. The problem with that is that doesn’t really work very well, as it turns out, from what we know about recent scholarship in sexology and sexology that focuses on women—and not solely, but mostly on heterosexual women. It certainly focuses on cis women; it’s really not at all sophisticated dealing with trans women. So there’s lots of flaws. And it’s pretty young. Most of the most recent scholarship was inspired by an article that’s no more than eleven years old, so it’s pretty young. But some of this scholarship notices that women are more likely to have what’s called “responsive” sexual desire: that is, desire that’s not spontaneous, but desire that is instigated by sexual actions on the part of another. And that this notion that first there’s desire and then there’s sex is really based on a masculinist model that is not likely to be shared with the majority of women. And it’s important to point out here that—and scientists are great about pointing this out, the people in mainstream journalism who take it up are not as great—the scientists are saying, “Now listen, there are plenty of women who do experience spontaneous sexual desire. It’s just that there is a marked difference between men and women as far as we can tell in this case.” And there are other differences, too, that I go into in the paper. But if this notion that desire proceeds sex is a masculinist model, then it’s really wrongheaded to require both partners to have desire prior to a sexual interaction to make it ethical because that’s going to leave women, once again, virtually out of the picture. So I argue in the article that we can’t just take out consent and throw in desire and expect desire to do the same work that consent did before Pateman and others, you know, cut it off at the knees. But I’m not willing to give up on desire because I think this notion of desire is so important in maintaining a space for feminine sexual subjectivity. And so what I argue eventually is that it’s not the presence or the absence of desire that renders an interaction ethical. It’s whether the presence or absence of that desire matters in terms of that interaction. A lot of the women in Gavey’s book, when they describe examples of unjust sex, use language like, “it just didn’t matter what I want,” “I was just there, you know,” “my experience was completely beside the point,” and that’s what I argue was a failure of robust and ethical intersubjectivity. So, I argue that we can imagine ethical sexual interactions where one partner either starts off without desire or, in fact, never really experiences independent desire for a sexual act, although that person might desire what—I end up using Rosalyn Diprose’s term “corporeal generosity”—wants to enable certain experience for their partner, and it’s more than just consent; it’s willingness and eagerness to actually be a part of this experience, even if they’re not feeling particularly sexual or sexually aroused themselves. So in that sense, the desire to give matters, it’s taken up. And, as Rosalyn Diprose says, the gift must not be forced, which means if that person does not feel like giving that gift, does not feel in a space where they can give that gift, that that has to be recognized too. So that’s what I mean by the efficacy of desire, or its relevance. Does it matter what each person is desiring and what they’re not desiring? If that is part of the sexual conversation, then I think that we’re probably in a pretty good space.


MP: What is the most important point you hope your readers will take away from your article?


AJC: One of the things that I’m proudest about in this article, honestly, is that it’s a modelling of philosophical conversation. It’s a modelling of how our thoughts can by influenced and challenged by critics whom we respect, and how our own thought can be improved by people finding flaws in our analysis. I think that’s very important to model in our profession, and we don’t model it enough. We often, in our profession of philosophy, I think we see—not always—but we see criticism as attack, and we don’t see it as productive and as truly, truly helpful. And I’ll just, as a sidebar here, say, this is one of the reasons I appreciate Hypatia so much, and one reason it’s so important in my career. You know, every once in a while I have to say to my dean, “I know I send everything to Hypatia, and I know that, you know, I’m risking not getting published because they have really high standards, but I get such good critique from Hypatia readers that it’s my best shot at doing the best philosophy I can do.” And I don’t see, at this point in my career, why I should settle for anything less than that. I love that Hypatia sends out to readers almost all of its submissions, even though it accepts very few of those submissions, because I think, in some ways, it’s in that in-between that the most influential work is done. And I know that … I’m just about to publish an article in Hypatia, and there’s no way it would have come together without the critical, helpful comments that I received from at least two, maybe as many as four, anonymous readers from Hypatia. But this article … often that’s hidden in our profession. We get maybe one line of thanks to the anonymous readers, but we don’t know what they did, and we don’t know what the difference was, right? It’s all erased. And I like in this article that I’m able to name a critic and I’m able to quote her and thank her for moving my thought forward. So that’s actually one of the really important things to me about this article. Other than that, I think, I really like the move of using some scholarship from sexology to have us think more carefully about sexual desire. It’s not … we’re going to have to think about it in many ways, and it certainly doesn’t do all the work that we need to do, but it has some important insights that I think philosophers need to deal with. And I think there’s still a lot of work to do on the question of sexual desire.


MP: Do you have any advice for the next generation of feminist scholars?


AJC: One piece of advice I would have is to be as conscious of, and knowledgeable in, the various venues, including Hypatia, that feminist philosophers have access to in this day and age, that literally didn’t exist thirty years ago. So to recognize how drastically our field has changed, and by changed, I mean literally come into being. And to recognize that the people who fought tooth and nail to bring this subfield of philosophy into being are not only still with us, they’re still producing, they’re writing great books, and they deserve our thanks. That is easy to lose sight of when Hypatia is so well established and when we’ve got FEAST conferences, you know, big, and wonderful, and lovely and we think it’s been here forever and always will be. Well it hasn’t been here forever, and we still have the opportunity—I feel like I’m sort of in between generations right now in my career—and all of still have the opportunity to thank our colleagues who created space for us to do the work that we love to do. So that’s one thing I would say. The second thing I would say is that, as a comparatively young field, we still have a lot of work to do, and we still have a lot of challenges if we’re going to live up to the promise that our field takes as its charge. We are not diverse enough. We are not fluent enough in the kinds of differences that are muted among us. We are not sufficiently attuned to the meanings of various differences, and our scholarship is reflecting that. So we’ve got a lot of work to do on that front. And so I guess that’s a very dual-sided message. A lot of people have laid the ground work, but there’s a lot more of the infrastructure that needs to be built, and we all need to be a part of that.



Transcribed by Bailey LePage.