The Personalist Project

"People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent."

This resource link from the University of Michigan repeats the above statement multiple times in their answers to sexual assault misconceptions. They could say it a hundred more times and it wouldn't be too many.

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

Not because women dress seductively or men can't control themselves or out of sexual frustration or in response to loose sexual mores or because of the influence of alcohol or sexualized imagery or whatever else.

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

Sexual assault comes from the attitude that other people's bodies are objects for use. It comes from treating people as passive objects, not acting subjects.

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

Why do people commit sexual assault?

Why do we at the Personalist Project believe so fervently that our world needs an every-day personalism, needs examples and guides for an accessible, applied Christian personalism?

We so quickly fall into the error of treating our bodies as distinct from our selves, as vehicles for pleasure or use. From there, it's a short step to treating other people's bodies as incidental vehicles for pleasure or use, as with the young man who argued quite seriously to me a while ago that pornography use isn't objectification because it is about fantasy, not about the person who allowed their body to be photographed or filmed to create the fantasy--as though the body can be separated from the person and used without harm to the "real" person.

When we objectify the body, we objectify the person.

When we claim that desire or intoxication or sexual imagery or immodest dress or flirtatious behaviour or hormones are "causes" of sexual assault, we objectify assailants just as they objectify victims. Our bodies are us, and we act through and with our bodies as subjects, and our actions reflect us and form us.

When an assailant chooses to take what was not offered to him, his actions are his, body and soul together. He is not an object passively acted on by outside factors. He is an acting self. 

Why do people commit sexual assault? 

Because they believe other people's bodies are objects for use. Because they do not recognise or do not care about the subjectivity and autonomous self-hood of other people. 

Or, in other words: 

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

To quote from the late Terry Pratchett, from his novel Carpe Jugulum:

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is. 

“It’s a lot more complicated than that . . .” 

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.” 

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes . . .” 

“But they starts with thinking about people as things...” 

We all, at one point or another, find ourselves tempted to objectify other people--for entertainment, for pleasure, as a target for our frustrations, as a scapegoat, as a caretaker, as a project. We impose our will on others--for their own good, because we know better, to make our lives easier, to attain an ulterior end, to fix a problem or to build ourselves up. 

We seek positions of power, authority, or influence, and vulnerable people, so that we can get the things we want or have an advantage against a world that feels unfeeling and scary. 

We feel entitled, and we disregard others' agency. 

Why do people commit sexual assault? 

It "starts with thinking about people as things." 

Comments (13)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Nov 19, 2017 3:46pm

Thanks for this, Kate.

One of the things that bothers me in the response to this new flood of revelations is the number of men who treat the whole thing without any apparent regard for the women involved. They'll talk about a "witch hunt" mentality, about the lack of due process, about how many of us have done something stupid in the last 30 years... if it were something like getting drunk or failing a class or cheating on a test...

not assault against another human being. 

They talk about "30 years ago" from the point of the men—like is so far in the past that it should be disregarded. They don't seem able to consider what it's like for a women to carry around that kind of thing for 30 years....How very often the effects of sexual assault get worse over time, not better.

Rhett Segall

#2, Nov 20, 2017 10:09am

"David's son Amnon loved his (half-sister) Tamar..." (2 Sam. 13:1 Amnon forces himself on Tamar. I don't think this was exclusively  or even primarily motivated by Amnon's sense of proprietary rights over Tamar's body. One gets a sense of simple lust with opportunity-at least I get that sense form the reading. I find lust with opportunity  to be present also in the case of Potipha's wife with Joseph and also with the two judges in the case of Susanna in the book of Daniel.

I have no doubt that arrogant "entitlement" of men towards women may also be present.  But I don't think the University report you reference Kate gives enough credit to good old fashion lust.

Katie. Dawn Eden, a blogger and theologian,I suspect known to some participants in TPP , has written about the devastation of sexual abuse, which she her self experienced, and a way of healing.  I haven't read her work in this area-though I think her "Thrill of the Chaste" very good. But she does address your concern.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Nov 20, 2017 10:13am

Lust and opportunity aren't enough alone, though, right? If you retain a proper respect for the person, then you will consider them inviolable regardless of your own propensity for lust or the opportunity in front of you. To make "lust and opportunity" the cause, you must start from the assumption that all that prevents men from assaulting women is lack of sufficient "lust and opportunity," which, I think, degrades men a great deal. 

Instead, I would rather assume that while most men struggle with sexual temptation, they are prevented from crossing the line into sexual exploitation not by lack of opportunity, but by recognition that women are people who ought not to be violated and used. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#4, Nov 20, 2017 10:20am

This also keeps sight on the reality that not all assaults are motivated by desire for sexual gratification. As someone pointed out to me recently (thinking this to be a defense of a wealthy, famous man), the high-profile men accused of these things don't lack willing partners to slake their lust. But we know from example after example that some men want more than merely sex, they want a certain kind of power to take what they please. Power, anger, lust, obsession---these are all factors that have been implicated as motivations for sexual assault and other sexual violations. But without disregard for the person of the other and sense of entitlement to use the body of the other, none of those things on their own, as an emotional response or habit of mind, would be sufficient to drive a man to sexual assault. 

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Nov 20, 2017 10:59am

What particularly interests me in the cultural phenomenon we are witnessing now—the flood of revelations about how commonplace sexual assault is in our society—is not so much whether and how individual women (or men) can heal from it (though that's important too), but the underlying dynamics being exposed. 

And I agree with the implicit claim of this post, as I understand it, viz. that the answer to the epidemic of sexual assault is not increased modesty in women and decreased opportunity for men (that's the Islamic solution), but an increased appreciation in all of us of the dignity and sanctity of subjectivity. Each person is a sovereign moral agent with solemn, exclusive charge over his or her body.

It's not okay to take and use someone else's body. Ever.

And all of us, as a society, have to become much more aware of the problem of coercion inherent in men's physical advantage over women, which is not completely unlike adults' advantage over children, or a rich and famous person's advantage over someone poor and vulnerable.

We have to develop new laws, new customs and manners, to suit a new and deeper awareness.


#6, Nov 20, 2017 11:46am

CLassically, lust is not sexual desire.  Lust is just desire for something perceived to provide pleasure.  Lust can be desire for an experience, like sex, but also desire for physical objects like food or possessions, or intangible assets such as power.  Thus Tolkien could write “But [Shelob’s] lust was not [Gollum’s] lust.” and not being referring to sexual desire at all.

The unifying theme to the vice of lust is that it is a desire for a THING.  It isn’t a desire for the good, or even for another person.  It is explicitly utilitarian in its nature.

So, I think we can talk about BOTH the perpetrators of sexual assault as submitting to the vice of lust AND the victims of sexual assault’s experience of thingification as the objects of lust, and neither detracts from the other.  They ought to support one another, and it’s silly beyond belief to criticize the effects of submitting to one’s lust for not being the cause.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Nov 20, 2017 12:07pm

I'm not sure I'm following you rightly, GL, but while I find it true that lust and thingification go together, I think it's also true that we can draw a kind of distinction between a "classical" approach to sexual morality and a more contemporary one.

In other words, the specifically modern focus on subjectivity changes our apprehension of the evil of sexual assault and suggests new modes and avenues of resistance to it. 


#8, Nov 20, 2017 12:10pm

Katie, I’m not actually talking about sexual morality, classical or modern, at all - I was just trying to address Rhett’s comments about how sexual assault should be attributed to lust and not to thingificatjon.  Lust, when directed at a person IS thingifcation.  There shouldn’t be a conflict between talking about the cause (a person’s lust) and the effect (the objectification experienced by the victim of someone else’s lust).

Paul Rodden

#9, Nov 21, 2017 3:18pm

This phrase jumped out at me:

'...If you retain a proper respect for the person, then you will consider them inviolable regardless of your own propensity for lust or the opportunity in front of you. ...' (from Kate's 'Lust and opportunity...' comment, above)


I haven't thought it through completely, but it seems to me there's an intimate link between Personalism and Character-Based Ethics, yet often, talk in the culture is about external remedies, like changes in the law, sanctions, etc., as a response to these violations.

In fact, in the 'hook up culture', isn't it a mutual using-of-the-other on both sides of the equation taking place? That is, do both have defective views of the other? And what makes assault different? Just the fact that X does not have permission (to use me)?

In other words, until the culture grasps the full import of personhood - mutual understanding of each other's natures - wouldn't any punishment, at best, be seen as not much more than a temporary 'restriction of my freedom', rather than an insight into the correct ordering of relations between persons, which is what we really need, in line with Kate's rightly-ordered view of the other?

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#10, Nov 21, 2017 5:51pm

I think I reject the false dichotomy in your question, Paul, though I admit I don't have time to parse it all out properly right now. Changing law and changing culture are not either/or propositions. They need not be in competition; they can be (to use this awful word correctly for a change) synergistic. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#11, Nov 21, 2017 5:59pm

As for hookup, mutual use, assault, pornography use, etc....

These things can all be on the same spectrum, and I think they all have similar origins. But you'll see that I locate the root "thingification" as common to non-sexual sins as well, some of which are crimes, some of which are not. There are obvious differences in severity, harm done, and even in the degree of "thingification" (I think I might love this rendering of "objectification"--it's very accessible). And I think violations of autonomy are a level of violation of the person beyond other kinds of "use."

I'll have to come back to this, because there's also an entire set of assumptions in your question about the purpose and effects of law, and I have to feed my kids now. :-)


#12, Nov 25, 2017 9:22am

I agree people commit sexual assault because it starts with thinking as people as things.  But what adds to and fosters people thinking of people as things?  If I don’t respect my own body or I  support things that don’t respect the body of others, then do I hold some responsibility for the sexual assault problem in our culture today? 

 I recognize that a woman that dresses provocatively, gets smashed and starts coming on to a man does not want or deserve to be assaulted, but is she fully blameless?  She chose to objectify herself some, right?  When we start thinking of people as things, we foster a culture that breeds sexual assault.  If you don’t see your own personhood, should we be that surprised that others won’t either?   Seems like we can’t have that conversation.  Bring it up and you’ll hear your concerns quickly shut down and translated as, “the girl was asking for it”, which isn’t at all what I am suggesting . . . .



#13, Nov 25, 2017 9:23am

. . . . How can we foster the dignity of the human person without addressing divine filiation which brings us to see our bodies and our sexuality as gifts, which naturally leads to recognizing the importance of temperance and modesty?  I submit temperance and modesty is not blaming the victim, it is recognizing personhood. 

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