In 2018 I was awarded a SSHRC Insight Grant for a research project on the topic of "Sexual Assault, Knowledge, and the Epistemology of Testimony". As part of that project I will produce a series of academic and non-academic outputs on connections between issues in traditional analytic epistemology and issues having to do with rape culture and sexual assault policies.
Here are some project-related thoughts and outputs (some of which predate the project). Below, I reproduce the summary of the project I gave in my grant proposal.
This project is an application of analytic epistemology to central elements of contemporary rape culture. Rape culture is collection of societal features that make society conducive to sexual assault (Brownmiller 1975, Burt 1980, Buchwald et al 2005). Obstacles to collective knowledge of sexual assault and related harms contribute to rape culture. Analytic epistemology, which concerns the nature, acquisition, and transmission of knowledge, has a central role to play in diagnosing these obstacles. In this project I’ll attempt to explain some of the most important obstacles to understanding sexual violence—particularly among those who haven’t experienced it, but are in positions of responsibility for reacting to it.
One way of bringing out the relevance of analytic work in epistemology to these topics runs through the epistemology of testimony and the links between knowledge and action. Ordinarily, when someone knows something, they can transmit that knowledge to others via testimony. Pure testimonial knowledge is possible. (By ‘pure’ testimonial knowledge, I mean testimonial knowledge uncorroborated by independent evidential sources.) But the general assumption that one can know that which one has been told does not always extend to assertions of serious wrongdoing like sexual assault. When someone tells about serious misconduct, they are often not believed as a default—instead, there is a suggestion that one ought to withhold judgment unless and until further evidence is forthcoming. As Leigh Gilmore emphasizes in Tainted Witness, the “he-said/she-said” label is often used to carry the implicit suggestion that the two testimonial sources effectively cancel each other out. Deborah Tuerkheimer calls this phenomenon a “credibility discount” for sexual violence testimony—it is a genus of Miranda Fricker’s “testimonial injustice”.
This sceptical treatment is particularly tempting when—as in many sexual assault allegations—there are likely disruptive consequences to believing the allegations. Such cases are particularly likely to bias one towards suspending judgment as the “safe” choice—the burden of proof is treated as particularly high. But in addition to perpetuating rape culture, this temptation is epistemically questionable; it assumes that declining to believe an allegation itself carries no disruptive costs. Literature on sexual assault reports makes it clear that this is far from true.
Moreover, even if one conceded that in some cases one can’t be said to know that an assault occurred, because the consequences contemplated are too severe—when considering criminal convictions, say—there are many other important kinds of situations where different actions are contemplated, and it would be fallacious to conclude that knowledge is impossible in these cases. For example, university sexual assault policies concern (among other things) how universities will react to sexual assault allegations; one shouldn’t infer, from the unavailability of evidence sufficient for criminal conviction, that universities do not know what happened. Philosophical work on epistemological contextualism can help diagnose this fallacy.