Laura Kipnis Analyzes Sexual Paranoia On Campus

Laura Kipnis Analyzes Sexual Paranoia on Campus
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How is it that the most reactionary versions of feminism are the ones enjoying the greatest success on campuses? – Laura Kipnis

Laura Kipnis is a hero. She has written a book that will benefit many while bring all kinds of grief upon her. She is also an excellent writer, which is a good thing, because detailed descriptions of bureaucratic codes are generally as interesting as reading tax returns, but in her hands they become real page-turners. She is also funny. If you share my political sensibilities you will really appreciate this, because without her humor the story she tells might drive you to despair.

Her new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, is in part the story of Title IX investigation of a sexual harrassment complaint filed against her at Northwestern University because of an essay she wrote.

Yes, you read that right: Kipnis was the target of a full-on sexual harassment investigation because of an essay she wrote. If you find that surprising, this book is for you.

To say that Kipnis never expected to be the target of of a sexual harrassment complaint from campus feminists is an understatement. She is a radical feminist of the post-1970s “pro-sex,” “pro-pleasure,” and pro-humor generation. Her previous books include Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation, Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics, and Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, a freewheeling and very funny analysis of the politics of pornography.

For the uninitiated, Title IX began as a federal statute meant to address gender discrimination in education. As Kipnis describes, “In 2011 the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) expanded Title IX’s mandate from gender discrimination to encompass sexual misconduct (everything from sexual harassment, to coercion, to assault, to rape), issuing guidelines so vague that I could be accused of ‘creating a hostile environment on campus’ for writing an essay.”

The essay in question, she explains, was “political speech, stemming from my belief, as a feminist, that women have spent the past century and a half demanding to be treated as consenting adults and now a cohort on campuses was demanding we relinquish those rights, which was a disastrous move for feminism.” Students at Northwestern who had never taken any of Kipnis’ classes filed a Title IX complaint alleging that just being on the same campus with a professor who had published such an argument was a form of sexual harassment that created a hostile environment for their education.

What followed for Kipnis was a trip through a rabbit hole in which “the accusee doesn’t know the precise charges, doesn’t know what the evidence is, and can’t confront witnesses. Many campuses don’t even allow the accusee to present a defense.”

A Title IX accusee is also forbidden from speaking publicly about the fact that they are under investigation. Kipnis, however, was not having any of that, and spoke out in her characteristically thoughtful and humorous way. One result was that she was inundated with communications from other, publicly silent targets of Title IX investigations, and thus became a sort of informal one-woman clearing house for Title IX horror stories. Read ‘em and weep.

She learned that hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent investigating violations of rules which don’t exist. “Being investigated for something there’s no rule against probably sounds strange to anyone who hasn’t spent the last year hearing about the cases of professors and students in precisely the same predicament, but not much would surprise me at this point on the due process front.”

Kipnis tallies the cost of all these investigations at over $60 million and counting, “leaving aside the hundreds of millions spent yearly on attempted compliance.”

More broadly, Kipnis tells the story of the current ins and outs of sex on campus.

There are two conflicting stories about sex at the moment. The first story is all about license: hooking up, binge drinking, porn watching—my students talk knowingly about “anal,” and funnily about “dormcest” . . . they’re junior libertines, nothing sexual is alien to them. Layered on top of that is the other big story of the moment: sex is dangerous; it can traumatize you for life. It’s not a happy combination....
For my generation... even when not so great or when people got their feelings hurt, fell under the category of life experience—words like pleasure and liberation got tossed around a lot. But campus culture has moved on and now the metaphors veer toward the extractive rather than additive—sex takes something away from you, at least if you’re a woman: your safety, your choices, your future. It’s contaminating: you can catch trauma, which, like a virus, never goes away. You don’t hear much talk about liberation anymore; the slogans are all about sexual assault and other encroachments: “Stop Rape Culture,” “No Means No,” “Control Yourselves, Not Women.”

Kipnis argues that the core problem with the narrative that has formed around “campus rape culture” is that it erases female agency. “Policies and codes that bolster traditional femininity—which has always favored stories about female endangerment over stories about female agency—are the last thing in the world that’s going to reduce sexual assault, which is the argument at the heart of this book.” The “unarticulated premise” of both the rape culture narrative and the administrative codes built up around it is that “women students aren’t men’s equals in emotional strength or self-possession, and require teams of campus administrators to step in and remedy the gap.”

Rape culture mashes together all different types or degrees of unwanted sex, resulting in ineffectual, hamstrung educational efforts. Vast resources are being directed toward useless assault education and prevention programs—call it the “sexual assault industrial complex,” such are the fortunes to be made. The whole enterprise is a terrific boondoggle for the consultants and entrepreneurs who saw opportunity beckoning, got in early, and now wage public relations duels with one another over whose dubious prevention strategies are better. None of them has the stomach for tough discussions about on-the-ground sexual realities, so they hide behind alarmist statistics that generate the funding that keeps them all in business, regardless of how little effect they’re having on anything.

Not only has a vast and expensive bureaucracy usurped the agency of female students (”the irony about this insistence on student vulnerability is how successful it’s been as a tactic for accruing administrative power”), the whole thing has been a complete failure on its own terms. “According to all the research, including a recent meta-analysis of sixty-nine different empirical studies, there’s no demonstrable relation between prevention efforts and reducing [sexual] assault levels... The minimal success of any of these programs has been no deterrent to continuing them however.”

What would work better? Education. “Having control over your body is, especially for women, a learned skill; it requires education. It also requires a lot more honesty about the complicated sexual realities hiding behind the slogans than is currently permissible.”

There is a double whammy here: not only is female agency displaced by bureaucracy, but “training women to have more agency is somehow taboo.” This is a catastrophe, because “if anything’s going to make a dent, it’s education, and the educational system is failing to educate anyone, largely because speaking honestly about sexual realities has become taboo.”

Even worse, “the current approaches to combating sexual aggression end up, perversely, reifying male power. It becomes something fearsome and insurmountable, when it’s often pathetic and mockable.”

If this is what feminism on campus has come to, then seriously, let’s just cash it in and start over, because this feminism is broken. It has exactly nothing to do with gender equity or emancipating women—a cynic might say it actually has more to do with extending the reach of campus bureaucracy into everyone’s lives. It’s a vast, unprecedented transfer of power into the hands of the institution. But whatever the agenda, and whoever the secret beneficiaries, hard-fought rights, namely the right for women to be treated as consenting adults in erotic matters, are being handed back on a platter.

Kipnis makes this point again and again in different ways.

Another of the weirder features of campus life now is witnessing a generation of students demanding more regulation over their lives from the administration, in contrast to the demands of previous generations of activists that campus officials get out of their lives.

And again:

The question of adulthood—how adult are students?—is one of the central issues under renegotiation on campuses at the moment. A previous generation of student activists fought against the in loco parentis policies of universities; today’s students are fighting to extend them.

One of the many reasons this book resonated so strongly with me is that I have been struggling to frame the very same dynamics as they play out in today’s LGBT politics on campus. Much of what Kipnis has to say about heterosexual sexual relations on campus can be easitly transported into the LGBT world, where a generation of queer students are “demanding more regulation over their lives from the administration, in contrast to the demands of previous generations of activists that campus officials get out of their lives.”

This would be a different essay, or perhaps a different book. But when Kipnis says, “My question is the extent to which this [woman student] sense of vulnerability is learned on campus,” she is taking words out of my mouth. There is now an “LGBTQ Ally Program” at campuses nationwide, where straight people who have gone through officially sanctioned trainings in how to be an “LGBT ally” put stickers on their doors or clothing so that queer students know “who would be a safe person to talk to.” This despite the fact that campuses are now safer spaces for queer people than ever before, and certainly safer than pretty much any other space a queer person might encounter. To what extent was this profound sense of vulnerability learned on campus?

Of course, just to pose the question opens the door to a barrage of criticism from the (following Kipnis) “LGBT vulnerability industrial complex.” But nothing like what I suspect Kipnis will face. Kipnis went first, wrote a book, wrote better, more articulately and with wonderful humor. Thank you.

Much of the criticism that will be directed toward Kipnis will portray somehow portray her as a right-wing feminist apostate. But as Kipnis notes, “Despite the endless talk about unbridled leftism on campuses, campus political culture of the moment throws all traditional left-right distinctions up for grabs.” What, exactly, is “left” about learned personal vulnerability that demands the protection of bureaucratically organized institutions of professionals?

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