CW: sexual assault discussion.
Last Monday, Sydney University alumna Diana Reid appeared at a Philosophical Society event to talk about her debut novel, love and virtue. The novel and the discussion engaged in conversations about sex and consent on campus.
love and virtue is a coming-of-age novel set in a residential women’s college that questions privilege, consent, and morality, and depicts the tensions between contemporary relationships and personal integrity.
Reid questioned how philosophy can inform our thinking about relationships. “A lot of moral thinking is emotional,” he told guests. Where philosophy theorizes about our emotions, literature and fiction allow readers to engage intuitively and experientially.
There are two main violations of consent in the novel. The first is a sexual assault, the other, the theft of a personal history. When asked if there is any place for ethical ambiguity when it comes to consent, Reid replied, “I think we should strive to appreciate moral ambiguity.” Leaving room for nuance instead of attributing things to black-and-white terms can be helpful when engaging in intense conversations.
The novel’s two main characters, Michaela and Eve, maintain a tense and ambivalent friendship, marked by an underlying competitive streak, under the guise of being female and “supporting our sisters”. While Michaela represents moral uncertainty and is defined by her class as a scholarship student, Eve, with a wealthy family background, wears her conviction up her sleeve, flaunting her unimpeachable ethics with exorbitant purchases of sustainable fashion. . This conviction can be dangerous and risks confusing being ‘good’ with being a ‘better person’.
The friendship is broken by the couple’s class difference. Reid warned against combining moral certainty with objective goodness. The character of Eva is an excellent example of this conceit. Despite her class privilege, she directs her indignation against everything she considers immoral and espouses progressive theoretical critiques. Eve’s self-righteous tendencies are polarizing. Performatively, she employs “shock factor” jokes to elicit reactions, such as her portrayal of masturbation in a college monologue and her return from Europe with a shaved head as a supposed rejection of beauty conventions. .
The popular trope in college novels about the abuse of power in institutions and the predatory nature of illicit affairs is illustrated in the relationship between philosophy professor Paul Rosen and Michaela. She is almost twice her age and ironically teaches ethics classes. Eve looks at the student/teacher dynamic through the lens of patriarchy in moralistic terms. She maintains that the relationship between Professor Rosen and Michaela is completely wrong and she fails to empathize or support Michaela as a friend of hers. Instead, her utter conviction leaves her isolated.
Reid reflected on his own experience in college, where being “woke” equated to social capital among his peers. While being critically informed about the sociopolitical world is certainly an admirable trait, she criticizes the way “awakening” is used as a weapon to belittle others and secure a high moral standing, especially when so much of our depictions of awakening they are based on an inaccessible and costly symbolism. .
Reid was asked if he sees a future for residential colleges, in light of their endemic sexual violence. She responded that universities, as institutions, are made up of the people who make them up and their policies. Reid’s softness toward colleges and the suggestion that anti-college sentiment gets involved in sensationalism is difficult, considering the accusation of rape and sexual violence against women on college campuses within her novel.
This position also runs counter to the ‘Burn the Universities’ stance taken by left-wing students and radicals in the USyd this year, who have argued that the institution of university is riddled with misogyny, sexism and reflects the culture of privilege and rape on campus. Former women’s officer Madeline Clark said in a speech against sexual violence: “We have been telling the University for many years that sexual assault is common on campus, particularly in colleges.”
The National Survey of Student Safety (NSSS) released in March found that 1 in 20 students has been sexually assaulted since starting college, and half of the students surveyed knew little or nothing about the formal harassment reporting process. or aggression. Welcome Week is known for the hazing rituals and ‘traditions’ involved in grooming new students. According to The Red Zone report produced by End Rape on Campus Australia, St Paul’s College is alleged to have hosted ‘Bone Room’ parties; alcohol- and drug-fueled sexual gatherings where men would invite the most attractive women to their rooms and instruct them to dress the same before engaging in sexual activity.
Reid also referenced linguistic philosopher Rebecca Kukla, whose research on consent explores the nature of a request and how language is used in a variety of ways to negotiate the initiation of sexual activity. If someone denies her request, the nature of her response is to be upset. However, if you invite someone to do something and they say no, you have no right to be angry with them. The analogy of choice and invitation within the pragmatics of discourse intrigues me.
Reid stresses the importance of sensitivity and empathy in having conversations like these. She quotes Amia Srinivasan The right to sex stating that “Sex should leave you more human at the end of it.”