Theses Doctoral

Law's Erotic Triangles: A Conversion, Inversion, and Subversion

Swan, Sarah Lynnda

The erotic triangle, in which two men compete for a desired woman, is a foundational archetype of Western culture. This dissertation, through its three separately-published articles, examines how this cultural archetype is manifested in law and legal structures, and the relationship between law’s erotic triangulations, gender inequality, and third-party responsibility. Each of the three articles of this dissertation focuses on a different manifestation of third-party responsibility, and each offers its own self-contained argument. At the same time, the “graphic schema” of the erotic triangle analytically enriches each of them. The erotic triangle is a “sensitive register […] for delineating relationships of power and meaning,” and using it in this context illuminates the shifting ways gender, power, and legal responsibility circulate in these male-female-male legal structures. Together, the articles suggest that law both replicates and reproduces erotic triangulations in ways that contribute to gender inequality, but also that it may be an important site for their renegotiation.
The first article, A New Tortious Interference with Contractual Relations: Gender and Erotic Triangles in Lumley v. Gye, explores how the tort of interference with contractual relations was created out of a factual scenario involving an erotic triangle (two rival opera-house managers competing for the services of a renowned chanteuse). The court converted past regulations of erotic triangles (in particular, criminal conversation, which allowed a husband to bring an action against a man for sexual interference with his wife) into a new cause of action, one which removed a triangulated woman’s responsibility for breaching a contract, and instead assigned responsibility to the man who induced her to breach. While this first iteration involves the removal of responsibility from a triangulated woman, the second article, Home Rules, involves an inversion of this responsibility allocation: here responsibility is removed from a usually male wrongdoer and instead imposed upon a triangulated woman. Home Rules examines how, through a series of ordinances, local governments are imposing responsibility on female heads of household for the wrongful actions of their typically male household members. In so doing, local governments disrupt kinship structures and assert the state’s dominance over the family and intimate life. The third article, Triangulating Rape, evidences a more positive shift in responsibility. It traces the transformation of rape law as a progression from a tradition of erotic triangulation to a subversion thereof. Unlike the historical rape law triangle, in which rape is legally constructed as a wrong that one male does to another through the body of a woman; and unlike the criminal rape law triangle, in which rape is legally constructed as a wrong that one man does to the state through the body of a woman; civil actions in which women bring claims against both perpetrators of sexual assault and the third-party entities that facilitate or fail to prevent those assaults allow harmed women to assert their own subjectivity and climb out of their traditionally passive role in the erotic triangle. In so doing, this reconfigured triangulation ultimately challenges the gender status quo that produces sexual harms, and suggests that subverting the usual functioning of triangulated patterns may hold promise as a tool of social change.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Emens, Elizabeth Francis
J.S.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 5, 2016