Richard Stallman's political discourse on sex November 25, 2023 on Drew DeVault's blog

Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, has been subject to numerous allegations of misconduct. He stepped down in 2019, and following his re-instatement in 2021, a famous open letter was published in which numerous organizations and individuals from throughout the Free Software ecosystem called for his removal from the Free Software Foundation. The letter had no effect; Stallman remains a voting member of the FSF’s board of directors to this day and continues to receive numerous speaking engagements.

Content warning: This article discusses sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and all of the above with respect to minors, as well as the systemic normalization of abuse, and directly quotes statements which participate in the normalization of abuse.

This article presents an analysis of Stallman’s political discourse on sex with the aim of establishing the patterns that cause the sort of discomfort that led to Stallman’s public condemnation. In particular, we will address how Stallman speaks about sexual assault, harassment, consent, and minors in his discourse.

I think that it is important to acknowledge this behavior not as a series of isolated incidents, nor a conflict with Stallman’s “personal style”, but a pattern of behavior from which a political narrative forms, and draws attention to the fact that the meager retractions, excuses, and non-apologies from both Stallman and the Free Software Foundation as a whole fail to account for that pattern in a meaningful way.

The failure of the Free Software community to account for Richard Stallman’s behavior has a chilling effect. The norms set by our leadership influence the norms of our broader community, and many members of the Free Software community look to Stallman as a ideological and political leader. The norms Stallman endorses are harmful and deeply confronting and alienating to many people, in particular women and children. Should these norms be adopted by our movement, we risk creating a community which enables the exploitation of vulnerable people.

Let’s begin to address this by considering Stallman’s retraction of his comments in support of pedophilia. The following comment from Stallman in 2013 drew harsh criticism:

There is little evidence to justify the widespread assumption that willing participation in pedophilia hurts children.

stallman.org, 04 January 2013 “Pedophilia”

Following much of the criticism directed at Stallman, he had a number of “personal conversations” which reframed his views. Of the many comments Stallman has made which drew ire, this is one of the few for which a correction was made, in September 2019:

Many years ago I posted that I could not see anything wrong about sex between an adult and a child, if the child accepted it.

Through personal conversations in recent years, I’ve learned to understand how sex with a child can harm per psychologically. This changed my mind about the matter: I think adults should not do that. I am grateful for the conversations that enabled me to understand why.

stallman.org, 14 September 2019 “Sex between an adult and a child is wrong”

This statement from Stallman has been accepted by his defenders as evidence of his capitulation on pedophilia. I argue that this statement is misleading due to the particular way Stallman uses the word “child”. When Stallman uses this word, he does so with a very specific meaning, which he explains on his website:

Children: Humans up to age 12 or 13 are children. After that, they become adolescents or teenagers. Let’s resist the practice of infantilizing teenagers, by not calling them “children”.

stallman.org, “Anti-glossary”

It seems clear from this definition is that Stallman’s comments are not a capitulation at all. His 2019 retraction, when interpreted using his definition of “children”, does not contradict most of Stallman’s past statements regarding sex and minors, including his widely criticized defenses of many people accused of sexual impropriety with minors.

Stallman’s most recent direct response to his criticism underscores this:

It was right for me to talk about the injustice to Minsky, but it was tone-deaf that I didn’t acknowledge as context the injustice that Epstein did to women or the pain that caused.

fsf.org, April 12, 2021, “RMS addresses the free software community”

Stallman qualifies his apology by explicitly re-affirming his defense of Marvin Minsky, which is addressed in detail later in this piece. Stallman’s doubling-down here is consistent with the supposition that Stallman maintains the view that minors can have sexual relationships with adults of any age, provided that they aren’t “children” – in other words, provided they’re at least 13 or 14 years old.

Stallman cares deeply about language and its usage. His strange and deliberate usage of the word “children” is also found many times throughout his political notes over the years. For example:

It sounds horrible: “UN peacekeepers accused of child rape in South Sudan.” But the article makes it pretty clear that the “children” involved were not children. They were teenagers.

stallman.org, 30 April 2018 “UN peacekeepers in South Sudan”

Here Stallman again explicitly distinguishes “teenagers” from children, drawing this distinction especially in the context of sexual relationships between adults and minors. Stallman repeats this pattern many times over the years – we see it again in Stallman’s widely criticized defense of Cody Wilson:

Cody Wilson has been charged with hiring a “child” sex worker. Her age has not been announced, but I think she must surely be a teenager, not a child. Calling teenagers “children” in this context is a way of smearing people with normal sexual proclivities as “perverts”.

stallman.org, 23 September 2018 “Cody Wilson”

And once more when defending Roy Moore:

Senate candidate Roy Moore tried to start dating/sexual relationships with teenagers some decades ago.

He tried to lead Ms Corfman step by step into sex, but he always respected “no” from her and his other dates. Thus, Moore does not deserve the exaggerated condemnation that he is receiving for this. As an example of exaggeration: one mailing referred to these teenagers as “children”, even the one that was 18 years old. Many teenagers are minors, but none of them are children.

The condemnation is surely sparked by the political motive of wanting to defeat Moore in the coming election, but it draws fuel from ageism and the fashion for overprotectiveness of “children”.

stallman.org, 27 November 2017 “Roy Moore’s relationships”

Ms. Corfman was 14 at the time Roy Moore is accused of initiating sexual contact with her; Moore was 32 at the time. Here we see an example of him re-iterating his definition of “children”, a distinction he draws especially to suggest that an adult having sex with a minor is socially acceptable.

Note that Stallman refers to Ms. Corfman as Moore’s “date”. Stallman’s use of this word is important: here he normalizes the possibility that a minor and an adult could engage in a healthy dating relationship. In this statement, Stallman cites an article which explains circumstances which do not resemble such a normalized dating experience: Moore isolated Corfman from her mother, drove her directly to his home, and initiated sexual contact there.

Note also that the use of the phrase “step by step” in this quotation is more commonly referred to as “grooming” in the discourse on child sexual exploitation.

Stallman reaches for similar reasoning in other political notes, such as the following:

A British woman is on trial for going to a park and inviting teenage boys to have sex with her there. Her husband acted as a lookout in case someone else passed by. One teenager allegedly visited her at her house repeatedly to have sex with her.

None of these acts would be wrong in any sense, provided they took precautions against spreading infections. The idea that adolescents (of whatever sex) need to be “protected” from sexual experience they wish to have is prudish ignorantism, and making that experience a crime is perverse.

stallman.org, 26 May 2017, “Prudish ignorantism”

The woman in question, aged 60, had sex with her husband, age 69, in a public space, and invited spectators as young as 11 to participate.

Stallman has also sought to normalize adult attraction to minors, literally describing it as “normal” in September 2018:

Calling teenagers “children” encourages treating teenagers as children, a harmful practice which retards their development into capable adults.

In this case, the effect of that mislabeling is to smear Wilson. It is rare, and considered perverse, for adults to be physically attracted to children. However, it is normal for adults to be physically attracted to adolescents. Since the claims about Wilson is the latter, it is wrong to present it as the former.

stallman.org, 23 September 2018, “Cody Wilson”

One month prior, Stallman made a statement which similarly normalized adult attraction to minors, and suggests that acting on this attraction should be acceptable to society, likening opposition to this view to homosexual conversion therapy:

This accords with the view that Stendhal reported in France in the 1800s, that a woman’s most beautiful years were from 16 to 20.

Although this attitude on men’s part is normal, the author still wants to present it as wrong or perverted, and implicitly demands men somehow control their attraction to direct it elsewhere. Which is as absurd, and as potentially oppressive, as claiming that homosexuals should control their attraction and direct it towards to the other sex. Will men be pressured to undergo “age conversion therapy” intended to brainwash them to feel attracted mainly to women of their own age?

stallman.org, 21 August 2018, “Age and attraction”

A trend is thus clearly seen in Stallman’s regular political notes, over several years, wherein Stallman re-iterates his position that “adolescents” or “teenagers” are distinct from “children” for the purpose of having sex with adults, and normalizes and defends adult attraction to minors and adults who perform sexual acts with minors. We see this distinction of the two groups, children and adolescents, outlined again on his “anti-glossary”, which still published on his website today, albeit without the connotations of sex. His regular insistence on a definition of children which excludes adolescents serves such that his redaction of his controversial 2013 comment serves to redact none of the other widely-condemned comments he has made since.

Stallman has often written political notes when people accused of sexual impropriety, particularly with minors, appear in the news, or appear among Stallman’s social circle. Stallman’s comments generally downplay the abuse and manipulate language in a manner which benefits perpetrators of abuse. We see this downplaying in another example from 2019:

Should we accept stretching the terms “sexual abuse” and “molestation” to include looking without touching?

I do not accept it.

stallman.org, 11 June 2019 “Stretching meaning of terms”

Stallman is writing here in response to a news article outlining accusations of sexual misconduct directed at Ohio State athletics doctor Richard Strauss. Strauss was accused of groping at least 177 students between 1979 and 1997 during routine physical exams, accusations corroborated by at least 50 members of the athletic department staff.

In addition to Stallman’s regular fixation of the use of the word “children” with respect to sex, this political note also draws our attention to the next linguistic fixation of Stallman I want to question: the use of phrases like “sexual abuse” and “sexual assault”. The term “sexual assault” also appears in Stallman’s “Anti-glossary”:

Sexual assault: The term is applied to a broad range of actions, from rape on one end, to the least physical contact on the other, as well as everything in between. It acts as propaganda for treating them all the same. That would be wrong.

The term is further stretched to include sexual harassment, which does not refer to a single act, but rather to a series of acts that amounts to a form of gender bias. Gender bias is rightly prohibited in certain situations for the sake of equal opportunity, but that is a different issue.

I don’t think that rape should be treated the same as a momentary touch. People we accuse have a right to those distinctions, so I am careful not to use the term “sexual assault” to categorize the actions of any person on any specific occasion.

stallman.org, “Anti-glossary”

Stallman often fixates on the term “sexual assault” throughout his political notes. He feels that the term fails to distinguish between “grave” and “minor” crimes, as he illustrated in 2021:

“Sexual assault” is so vague that it makes no sense as a charge. Because of that term, we can’t whether these journalists were accused of a grave crime or a minor one. However, the charge of espionage shows this is political persecution.

stallman.org, 21 July 2021, “Imprisonment of journalists”

I would like to find out what kind of crimes Stallman feels the need to distinguish along this axis. His other political notes give us some hints, such as this one regarding Al Franken’s sexual misconduct scandal:

If it is true that he persistently pressured her to kiss him, on stage and off, if he stuck his tongue into her mouth despite her objections, that could well be sexual harassment. He should have accepted no for an answer the first time she said it. However, calling a kiss “sexual assault” is an exaggeration, an attempt to equate it to much graver acts, that are crimes.

The term “sexual assault” encourages that injustice, and I believe it has been popularized specifically with that intention. That is why I reject that term.

stallman.org, 30 July 2019, “Al Franken”

Stallman also wrote in 2020 to question the use of the phrase again:

In the US, when thugs1 rape people they say are suspects, it is rare to bring them to justice.

I object to describing any one crime as “sexual assault” because that is vague about the severity of the crime. This article often uses that term to refer to many crimes that differ in severity but raise the same issue. That may be a valid practice.

stallman.org, 12 August 2020, “When thugs rape people they say are suspects”

In the article Stallman cites in this political note, various unwelcome sexual acts by the police are described, the least severe of which is probably molestation.

More alarmingly, Stallman addresses his views on the term “sexual assault” in this 2017 note, affording for the possibility that a 35-year-old man could have had consensual sex with an 11-year-old girl.

Jelani Maraj (who I had never heard of) could be imprisoned for a long time for “sexual assault”. What does that concretely mean?

Due to the vagueness of the term “sexual assault” together with the dishonest law that labels sex with adolescents as “rape” even if they are willing, we cannot tell from this article what sort of acts Maraj was found to have committed. So we can’t begin to judge whether those acts were wrong.

I see at least three possibilities. Perhaps those acts really constituted rape — it is a possibility. Or perhaps the two had sex willingly, but her parents freaked out and demanded prosecution. Or, intermediate between those two, perhaps he pressured her into having sex, or got her drunk.

stallman.org, 13 November 2017, “Jelani Maraj”

Another article by Stallman does not explicitly refer to sexual assault, but does engage in a bizarre defense of a journalist who was fired for masturbating during a video conference. In this article Stallman fixates on questions such as whether or not the genitals being in view of the webcam was intentional or not, and suggests that masturbating on a video call would be acceptable should the genitals remain unseen.

The New Yorker’s unpublished note to staff was vague about its grounds for firing Toobin. Indeed, it did not even acknowledge that he had been fired. This is unfair, like convicting someone on unstated charges. Something didn’t meet its “standards of conduct”, but it won’t tell us what — we can only guess. What are the possibilities? Intentionally engaging in video-call sex as a side activity during a work meeting? If he had not made a mistake in keeping that out of view of the coworkers, why would it make a difference what the side activity was?

stallman.org, November 2020, “On the Firing of Jeffrey Toobin”

Finally, Stallman elaborated on his thoughts on the term most recently in October 2023. This note gives the clearest view of Stallman’s preferred distinction between various sexual crimes:

I warned that the stretchable term “sexual assault”, which extends from grave crimes such as rape through significant crimes such as groping and down to no clear lower bound, could be stretched to criminalize minor things, perhaps even stealing a kiss. Now this has happened.

What next? Will a pat on the arm or a hug be criminalized? There is no clear limit to how far this can go, when a group builds up enough outrage to push it.

stallman.org, 15 October 2023, “Sexual assault for stealing a kiss”

From Stallman’s statements, we can refine his objection to the term “sexual assault”, and sexual behaviors generally, to further suggest that the following beliefs are held by Stallman on the subject:

The last of these may be covered under Stallman’s 2019 retraction, even accounting for Stallman’s unconventional use of the word “children”.

Stallman’s fixation on the term “sexual assault” can be understood in his political notes as having the political aims of eroding the meaning of the phrase, questioning the boundaries of consent, downplaying the importance of agency in intimate interactions, appealing for the defense of people accused of sexual assault, and arguing for sexual relationships between minors and adults to be normalized. In one notable case, he has used this political angle to rise to the defense of his friends – in Stallman’s infamous email regarding Marvin Minsky, he writes the following:

The injustice [done to Minsky] is in the word “assaulting”. The term “sexual assault” is so vague and slippery that it facilitates accusation inflation: taking claims that someone did X and leading people to think of it as Y, which is much worse than X.

(…)

The word “assaulting” presumes that he applied force or violence, in some unspecified way, but the article itself says no such thing. Only that they had sex.

We can imagine many scenarios, but the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing. Assuming she was being coerced by Epstein, he would have had every reason to tell her to conceal that from most of his associates.

I’ve concluded from various examples of accusation inflation that it is absolutely wrong to use the term “sexual assault” in an accusation.

— Excerpt from Selam G’s recount of Stallman’s email to MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory mailing list, September 2019. Selam’s quotation has been corroborated by other sources. Minsky is, in this context, accused of having had a sexual encounter with a minor facilitated by convicted child trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell. The original accusation does not state that this sexual encounter actually occurred; only that the minor in question was instructed to have sex with Minsky. Minsky would have been at least 75 years old at the time of the alleged incident; the minor was 16.

There is an important, but more subtle pattern in Stallman’s statements that I want to draw your attention to here: Stallman appears to have little to no understanding of the role of power dynamics in sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Stallman appears to reject the supposition that these acts could occur without an element of outwardly apparent violent coercion.

This is most obviously evidenced by his statements regarding the sexual abuse of minors; most people understand that minors cannot consent to sex even if they “appear willing”, in particular because an adult in this situation is exploiting a difference in experience and maturity to manipulate the child into sexually satisfying them – in other words, a power differential. Stallman seems to reject this understanding of consent in his various defenses of people accused of sexual impropriety with minors, and in cases where the pretense of consent cannot be easily established, he offers the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt.

We can also find an example of Stallman disregarding power dynamics with respect to adults in the following political note from 2017:

A famous theater director had a habit of pestering women, asking them for sex.

As far as I can tell from this article, he didn’t try to force women into sex.

When women persistently said no, he does not seem to have tried to punish them.

The most he did was ask.

He was a pest, but nothing worse than that.

stallman.org, 29 October 2017, “Pestering women”

In this case we have an example of “quid pro quo”, a kind of sexual harassment which weaponizes power dynamics for sexual gratification. This kind of sexual harassment is explicitly cited as illegal by Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act. A lack of competence in this respect displayed by Stallman, whose position in the Free Software Foundation board of directors requires that he act in a manner consistent with this law, is alarming.

I have identified this blindness to power dynamics as a recurring theme in Stallman’s comments on sexual abuse, be it with respect to sexual relationships between minors and adults, managers and subordinates, students and teachers, or public figures and their audience. I note for the reader that Stallman has held and currently holds several of these positions of power.

In addition to his position as a voting member of the Free Software Foundation’s Board of Directors, Stallman is still invited to speak at events and conferences. Stallman’s infamous rider prescribes a number of his requirements for attending an event; most of his conditions are relatively reasonable, though amusing. In this document, he states his preference for being accommodated in private, on a “spare couch”, when he travels. At these events, in these private homes, he may be afforded many opportunities to privacy with vulnerable people, including minors that, in his view, can consent to having sex with adults.

In summary, Stallman has a well-documented and oft-professed set of political beliefs which reject the social and legal norms regarding consent. He is not simply quietly misled in these beliefs; rather he advocates for these values using his political platform. He has issued no meaningful retractions of these positions or apologies for harm caused, and has continued to pursue a similar agenda since his return to the FSF board of directors.

This creates a toxic environment not only in the Free Software Foundation and in Stallman’s direct purview, but in the broader Free Software movement. The free software movement is culturally poisoned by our support of Stallman as our ideological leader. The open letter calling for Stallman’s removal received 3,000 signatures; the counter-letter in support of Stallman received 6,876 before it stopped accepting submissions.

Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985, and has performed innumerable works to the benefit of our community since then. We’ve taken Stallman’s views on software freedom seriously, and they’ve led us to great achievements. It is to Stallman’s credit that the Free Software community is larger than one man. However, one’s political qualifications to speak about free software does not make one qualified to address matters of sex; in this respect Stallman’s persistence presents as dangerous incompetence.

When we consider his speech on sex as a discourse that has been crafted and rehearsed methodically over the years, he asks us to consider him seriously, and so we must. When we analyze the dangerous patterns in this discourse, we have to conclude that he is not fit for purpose in his leadership role, and we must acknowledge the shadow that our legitimization of his discourse casts on our community.


  1. Stallman consistently refers to police officers as “thugs” in his writing; see Stallman’s Glossary↩︎

Articles from blogs I read Generated by openring

Status update, May 2024

Hi! Sadly, I need to start this status update with bad news: SourceHut has decided to terminate my contract. At this time, I’m still in the process of figuring out what I’ll do next. I’ve marked some SourceHut-specific projects as unmaintained, such as sr.ht-…

via emersion May 21, 2024

Automatic case design for KiCad

I don't generally get along great with CAD software with the exception of KiCad. I guess the UX for designing things is just a lot simpler when you only have 2 dimensions to worry about. After enjoying making a PCB in KiCad the annoying for me is alwa…

via BrixIT Blog May 15, 2024

The floor is lawa!

And now for something completely different… When was the last time you were excited about a simple window with nothing but a single background color? Well, I currently am. Let me tell you about it… This window is notable, because it was created using the ”pu…

via blogfehler! May 8, 2024