JULY 25, 2015
I’VE BEEN TRYING to review Laura Kipnis’s latest book, I really have, but the intrepid author of Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation has been lately sighted at so many embattled barricades, sizzling soap operas, and star chamber courts, that I’ll be lucky if I can just update the dispatches from the front.
The most significant recent bulletin from Kipnis — 58, a professor of film studies at Northwestern University, and the author of a half-dozen iconoclastic books — appeared in February 2015 in the usually sedate pages and screens of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade journal for those of us in the teaching and learning business. Kipnis’s essay, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” is directed against what she sees as a present-day sexual panic on university campuses; in addition, she opposes prohibitions of faculty-student dating, and skewers the tendency to view students as potential traumatized victims who are in constant need of therapy and protection against predators in the groves of academe.
Before I cite Kipnis’s own argument at any length, I should say something about her writing style, a topic not irrelevant to the subsequent not-so-perfect storm provoked by her musings. Early in her “Sexual Paranoia” essay, explaining why she’s at odds with current pieties about sex on campus, she says, “Forgive my slightly mocking tone. I suppose I’m out of step with the new realities because I came of age in a different time, and under a different version of feminism, minus the layers of prohibition and sexual terror” surrounding the present state of debate. “When I was in college,” Kipnis recalls, “hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum”:
[…] back when sex, even when not so great or when people got their feelings hurt, fell under the category of life experience. It’s not that I didn’t make my share of mistakes, or act stupidly and inchoately, but it was embarrassing, not traumatizing […] Sometimes things didn’t go the way you wanted — which was probably good training for the rest of life.
If you happen to be unfamiliar with contemporary North American campus life, you may have little idea how blasphemous, shocking, “irresponsible,” “insouciant,” and “reckless” the above sentences and sentiments (and that “mocking tone”) are currently considered to be. (The quoted descriptions of Kipnis’s writing and thinking are borrowed from assorted tweets, of which there is no end, criticizing her.) To make matters worse, Kipnis not only crafts decent sentences, she regularly employs irony, sarcasm, satire, and even quips in her writing. In short, she’s often funny (maybe not always laugh-out-loud funny but droll, wry, subtle-funny). Yes, she’s a humorous feminist and a feminist humorist — and no, neither of those terms is an oxymoron. However, mild levity about matters many take as sacrosanct may be even more offensive than alleged “political incorrectness” in an era that Philip Roth, in his campus novel The Human Stain (2000), described as the revival of “America’s oldest communal passion […] the ecstasy of sanctimony,” in which the self-righteous are out there everywhere, “moralizing to beat the band.”
Though the “Sexual Paranoia” essay is much broader than its ostensible topic of professor-student dating, that’s where Kipnis begins, rather fondly recalling various faculty liaisons with both graduate students and, somewhat less frequently, undergraduates. Kipnis is dismissive of the claim that such relationships should be forbidden on the grounds of the power differential between professors and students, a power imbalance that faculty are allegedly prone to take advantage of in erotic dealings with students. Rather, she appears to take the view that since, after all, both parties are legally adults and as long as there’s meaningful consent between the partners, why not see teacher-student dates as ethically permissible relationships? And if such relationships don’t work out, well, that’s life.
“It’s the fiction of the all-powerful professor embedded in the new campus codes that appalls me,” Kipnis protests.
And the kowtowing to the fiction — kowtowing wrapped in a vaguely feminist air of rectitude. If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being promoted, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.
She adds that students are “being encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark could impede their education; as such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke was likely to create lasting trauma.”
Given her own “propensity for unfunny jokes, and given that telling one could now land you, the unfunny prof, on the carpet or even the national news,” about a decade ago Kipnis signed up for one of the voluntary harassment workshops offered on her campus, “hoping that my good citizenship might be noticed and applauded by the relevant university powers.” What follows is a fairly hilarious account of the hapless psychologists who run a seemingly simple-minded harassment workshop, featuring a seminar leader who engages in a good deal of unconscious change-jangling in his pants pocket as he becomes unnerved by the questions of uncooperative faculty attendees. Right off the bat, there’s a problem with the first guideline on the list: “Do not make unwanted sexual advances.”
Reports Kipnis, “Someone demanded querulously from the back, ‘But how do you know they’re unwanted until you try?’”, then confesses, “(OK, it was me.) [The workshop leader] seemed oddly flustered by the question and began frantically jangling the change in his pants pocket.” Kipnis duly notes that change-jangling is regarded in the therapy profession as unconscious masturbatory activity. “Another person piped up helpfully,” adds Kipnis, “What about smoldering glances?” As you can imagine, it’s all downhill from there.
The harassment workshop is one of several examples Kipnis draws on to make her case. She reprises tales of academics fearful of going against new orthodoxies, of students raising the issue of “trigger warnings,” of frank opinions against the cosseting of students now offered only under conditions of anonymity, and of one alleged sexual assault case at her own school that quickly got out of hand. For those who don’t follow these things, “trigger warnings” are alerts that professors are encouraged to give these days, warning students of topics that may be upsetting and even traumatizing to them, a version of the newscaster saying “some viewers may find these images disturbing” before airing videos of dead bodies. Many profs I know tend to pay lip service to trigger warnings in public, but privately regard them as philistine nonsense. All of the recounted episodes Kipnis provides are in service to her broad, central concern:
But what do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life? What becomes of students so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life? I can’t help asking because there’s a distressing little fact about the discomfort of vulnerability, which is that it’s pretty much a daily experience in the world, and every sentient being has to learn how to somehow negotiate the consequences and fallout, or go through life flummoxed at every turn.
Kipnis’s account of a contested student-faculty case still ongoing at Northwestern conveys some sense of the embattled atmosphere on many campuses today. An undergraduate had sued the university, alleging that it had insufficiently punished a philosophy professor who had subjected her to “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances.” The suit was eventually thrown out of court.
The short version that Kipnis provides of the sordid details (which I cite because it’s relevant to subsequent events) is as follows:
The two had gone to an art exhibit together — an outing initiated by the student — and then to some other exhibits and bars. She says he bought her alcohol and forced her to drink, so much that by the end of the evening she was going in and out of consciousness. He says she drank of her own volition. […] She says he made various sexual insinuations, and that she wanted him to drive her home (they’d driven in his car); he says she insisted on sleeping over at his place. She says she woke up in his bed with his arms around her, and that he groped her. He denies making advances and says she made advances, which he deflected. He says they slept on top of the covers, clothed. Neither says they had sex. He says she sent friendly texts in the days after and wanted to meet. She says she attempted suicide two days later, now has PTSD, and has had to take medical leave. […]
The aftermath has been a score of back-and-forth lawsuits. After trying to get a settlement from the professor, the student filed a Title IX suit against the university. She wants her tuition reimbursed, compensation for emotional distress, and other damages. Because the professor wasn’t terminated, when she runs into him it triggers her PTSD, she says. […]
And, almost needless to say, there’s a lot more so on and so forth.
“Title IX,” by the way, is a piece of American federal legislation (the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972; renamed in 2002, the Equal Opportunity in Education Act) that was originally designed to prevent gender discrimination in education, and particularly to ensure that federal money that went to university sports programs was fairly apportioned between men’s and women’s sports activities. During the Obama administration, the scope of the law was expanded on the grounds that “the sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ rights to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.” As a result it is now “the responsibility of institutions of higher education ‘to take immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.’” Finally, “should an institution fail to fulfill its responsibilities under Title IX, the [federal] Department of Education can impose a fine and potentially deny further institutional access to federal funds.” Many universities now maintain a quasi-autonomous Title IX office to handle complaints.
For Kipnis, the ensuing interminable he-said-she-said, and the plethora of competing law suits (most of which, at last report, have been thrown out of court), illustrate a conceptual/cultural quagmire. Some media falsely reported that the professor was accused of “rape,” and the accuser was frequently referred to by supporters as a “survivor,” not merely someone making a claim. “What a mess,” Kipnis observes. “In the post-Title IX landscape, sexual panic rules. Slippery slopes abound. Gropers become rapists and accusers become survivors […]. This is melodrama.” It’s as if everybody has seen one too many episodes of those old daytime TV soaps, “The Young and the Restless,” or “As the World Turns.”
Kipnis didn’t have long to wait for the predictable “pushback” (to cite one of the current cliches used to refer to criticism and reaction). In the time it takes to peck out a few social media tweets, some 30 or so anti-rape student activists at Northwestern had gathered and marched to the school’s administration offices, carrying pillows and mattresses. The odd protest paraphernalia was an echo of (or homage to) a student at Columbia University who lugged a mattress to all her classes as part of her thesis project and to protest that the school had failed to expel a student she said had attacked her; the university had investigated the case and decided not to formally charge him, as did the police. Kipnis later noted that the use of bedding at Northwestern to protest her essay struck her as “symbolically incoherent.”
If “students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing,” as Kipnis claimed, Nation magazine analyst Michelle Goldberg added, “Including, apparently, their vulnerability to articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The student protestors, as they wrote on their Facebook page, wanted the administration to take action against “the violence expressed by Kipnis’ message.” Violence? If you find yourself uttering an involuntary “Huh?,” you’re not alone. There was an accompanying petition. It called for “swift official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article.” One of the protest organizers told the local campus paper, The Daily Northwestern, that Kipnis’s ideas were “terrifying.”
Kipnis’s prophecy about offending profs landing “on the carpet or even the national news” was quickly fulfilled on both counts. Two graduate students at Northwestern filed a complaint with the university’s Title IX office, and the dispute was promptly reported by every media outlet from the local student paper to The New York Times, with commentary plastered across internet sites and blogs, also lighting up various instant messaging systems. A good deal of the response was social media sewage, as is frequently the case in a realm of often anonymous trolls and cyber-snipers. But I don’t want to leave the impression that all of the discussion was at the level of lower-order hominid chittering. There were some people actually willing to argue the issue in tones of civility.
The best of the arguments, I think, is Carol Stabile’s essay in Ms. magazine, the venerable feminist publication. Stabile is a long-time professor at the University of Oregon, where she teaches courses on gender, race, and class in media; in 2014, she chaired the university’s academic Senate Task Force to Address Sexual Violence and Survivor Support. Stabile begins by noting the gulf in perspective between herself and Kipnis, even though they’re of the same generation. “To judge from Kipnis’s article, readers would think that groups like the one I’ve been working with are motivated by ‘sexual paranoia’ and made up of uptight, earnest moral crusaders, intent on creating nookie rules so constraining as to take all the fun out of being young, sexually active, and eager to experiment sexually and intellectually.”
Nor does Stabile share Kipnis’s fond recollections of what Stabile satirizes as the “boozy puppy pile of love” of days gone by. In what is almost a de rigueur declaration of bona fides these days, Stabile adds, “I have never slept with one of my students or with a faculty member (either as a student or professor). Lest I seem like one of the hysterical, sexually puritanical feminists Kipnis conjures, I have slept with enough people to know how complicated sexual intimacies are on their own terms, much less overlaid with the complexities of workplace power dynamics.”
Stabile argues that the advocacy and practice of teacher-student amorous relationships tend to undermine the very purposes of the institution: to educate, to foster critical thinking about the world, to learn how to keep learning. Kipnis’s mistake, Stabile thinks, is to focus on the desiring couple and to forget the effects such behavior (once it becomes known, and it often does) has on the other students. Not only are the power differences between faculty and students self-evidently real, notwithstanding the shifting codes and narratives of the day that Kipnis cites, but the eroticization of pedagogical relationships, says Stabile, “creates an environment” that substantially weakens the ability of teachers to model “the equity, evaluative rigor, and trust” that are crucial to academic life.
Stabile’s views may not be to everybody’s taste, but at least they offer a reasoned argument about the issue, one that’s probably shared by a plurality of faculty and administrators at most universities. However, dealing with reasoned argument was the least of Kipnis’s problems.
By the time Stabile’s article appeared in late March, Northwestern University had already commenced what would turn out to be a two-month-long Title IX process against Kipnis. Except for a subsequent eyewitness account published by Kipnis, “My Title IX Inquisition,” whatever went on at Northwestern for several weeks of investigation would have remained utterly opaque. To put it mildly, Kipnis’s “inquisition” or investigation, or whatever you want to call it, was not a model of the much-vaunted value of our age, namely, “transparency.”
As reported in the Washington Post, Kipnis wasn’t allowed to have an attorney with her for her meeting with investigators, she wasn’t apprised of her charges before the meeting, and she had to fight investigators who wanted the session kept secret, with no recording of it. The investigators were lawyers appointed from an outside firm by the university. Much of the case against Kipnis apparently had to do with a couple of paragraphs, solely based on the public record and not naming anyone, that she’d devoted to the professor-student case at Northwestern. “I’d plummeted into an underground world of secret tribunals and capricious, medieval rules, and I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about it,” Kipnis writes.
There was a great deal more in the devilish details recounted by Kipnis. I’ll refrain from counting the number of them that can be crowded onto the head of a pin, or into a tweet. Kipnis even has to remind readers, more than once, “And I hadn’t sexually assaulted anyone.” She had written an essay. And then she wrote another one describing the trial for having written the first one. Perhaps these facts alone convey the absurdity of the situation. Whatever one thinks of Kipnis’s views about teacher-student dating, writing an essay about it shouldn’t lead to charges of sexual harassment, calls for institutional suppression of the author’s views, or processes that, as Kipnis herself notes, call to mind the phrase “kangaroo court.”
At the end of the bizarre procedure, the investigators promised Kipnis that “they’d issue a report on their findings within 60 days […] though on what basis I had no idea.” Apparently the standard that applied was “preponderance of evidence” — even though Kipnis was never presented with any of this evidence — as opposed to the legal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” All of this to be decided by investigators who “doubled as judge and jury.”
On the basis of her experience, Kipnis remained dubious about extending the mandate of Title IX legislation. It seemed to lead to too many unintended consequences:
Ambivalent sex becomes coerced sex, with charges brought months or even years after the events in question. Title IX officers now adjudicate an increasing range of murky situations involving mutual drunkenness, conflicting stories, and relationships gone wrong. They pronounce on the thorniest of philosophical and psychological issues: What is consent? What is power? Should power differentials between romantic partners be prosecuted?
Nor can Kipnis resist a final gallows-humor quip when she asks, “Should eliminating power differences in relationships even be a social goal — wouldn’t that risk eliminating heterosexuality itself?”
Two days after the appearance of Kipnis’s latest dispatch, at the end of May 2015, the Title IX investigators delivered their verdict. Kipnis, reported the Chronicle of Higher Education, “has been cleared of wrongdoing by the university under the federal civil-rights law, which requires colleges to respond to reports of sexual misconduct.” Kipnis told the media that she’d received two letters from the law firm Northwestern had hired, and “in each case, the firm judged that the ‘preponderance of evidence does not support the complaint allegations.’” Not end of story, but end of star chamber court for Kipnis. It was unclear, as Kipnis herself wondered, “whether this was the first instance of Title IX charges filed over a publication.” Maybe the whole thing was best summed up by the ironic headline for the story that appeared on the website Jezebel: “Feminist Students Protest Feminist Prof for Writing About Feminism.”
Like professor Carol Stabile (cited above), I also recognize that this is one of those topics where, these days, one is required to file — you can never do it too early — a personal profession of faith and/or a standard customs declaration before venturing any opinions, memories or tangential ramblings. Obedient citizen that I am, I’m happy to comply: as a veteran college and university faculty member, I attest that, as far as I know, I’ve never slept with a student, although, as former US President Jimmy Carter famously proclaimed, I too have occasionally experienced “lust in my heart.” Nor, by the way, have I had sex with any fellow or sister faculty members. Indeed, I was rather shocked to arrive at a new post-secondary post long ago and to quickly discover that a good number of my middle-aged colleagues had extensive carnal knowledge of each other. This will give you some idea of my unspectacular, distinctly vanilla sexual career in academia.
But of course, I’ve known lots of faculty members who have slept with lots of students and faculty members (although the latter category of faculty-faculty relationship doesn’t yet excite much disapprobation, unless there’s a messy divorce in the wings), and I’ve listened to various “graphic” tales told in and out of school. Oddly enough, despite my own bland behavior, I don’t have anything in principle against teacher-student dating. After all, as Kipnis suggests, both parties are legally adults and as long as there’s meaningful consent between the sexual partners … well, is it as big a moral deal as it’s currently made out to be?
Unlike Kipnis, however, I don’t regard the problem of power differentials between the participants in such relations as a mere “fiction,” but as a potential serious moral issue which everyone must take account of, particularly profs, who, being older and sometimes wiser, bear a larger degree of responsibility in these affairs. Still, I’m not persuaded that the best way to regulate such possible relations is by punishable prohibition. Even Task Force on Sexual Violence chair Stabile recognizes that “there need to be exceptions to these rules” about “romantic relationships between students and faculty or staff […] Of course, we know that people have pre-existing relationships and that sometimes people really do fall in love.” (I like that last phrase.)
My own inclination is to view such relationships not as morally wrong (although they indeed can go morally wrong), but generally unwise, both as a practical matter and as an ideal. Too many things can go wrong. I’ve refrained from attempting such relations not by virtue of being virtuous, but simply because the prospect seemed too complicated on a variety of fronts. However, given that universities have plenty of instruments to monitor faculty performance and conduct, especially when things do go morally wrong, I’m inclined to eschew prohibition in favor of self-regulation and discussion. While there are a good many student-on-student claims about sexual harassment and violence, cases involving profs and students, like the one at Northwestern, are comparatively rare. I’m aware that my “unwise”-but-not- necessarily-“immoral” stance will be seen as unsatisfactory, particularly by many of those involved in the present regulatory debate. Maybe, like Kipnis, I’m merely nostalgic for an era in which seduction was still an art and not an act of violence.
That brings me to Kipnis’s meant-to-be-humorous question in her “Sexual Paranoia” essay, “But how do you know it’s an ‘unwanted sexual advance’ until you’ve tried it?” In the louche spirit of Kipnis, wouldn’t a reasonable answer to the question be, “Couldn’t you just ask?” (rather than, say, dropping your paw on someone’s thigh). Naturally, approaches like, “Would you regard a sexual advance as wanted?,” are a bit clunky and formal. And the famous Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP) that the liberal arts Antioch College instituted back in the early 1990s, which mandated verbal consent for each instance of sexual activity and each level of activity in a given instance (e.g., going from kissing to anal intercourse) may be discouragingly cumbersome. But maybe desire can be “repurposed” as an opportunity for creativity in conversation. I began remembering some of the times I’ve successfully posed such questions. Once, when I was a student, I asked a fellow student, “Wanna fuck?” Naturally, I built a lot of “deniability” into the tone of the question in case of a negative response — so that its subtext read, “Just kidding.” But when I looked up, I was startled to see that he was considering my come-on line as a sincere empirical query. That one led to a five-year live-in relationship.
As a resident of bilingual Canada, I’ve also had fairly good luck with the tried and true French standard, “Voulez vous allez a coucher avec moi?” On another occasion, when I proposed to someone, “I’d like to lick your entire body, from head to …,” I received the encouraging reply, “Now, or immediately?” But wait, this isn’t about my Walter Mitty adventures, it’s about their adventures. Yes, I’m aware that my “just ask” rather than the “just do it” approach might not work for the present generation, and that I may be biased as a philosophy teacher who leans toward malleable social-contract theories in ethics rather than more rigorous approaches. College-aged people today are likely to more haphazardly stumble into intercourse, especially given the increased availability of abusable substances combined with currently reduced oral and written literacy, which makes asking questions more difficult.
As a faculty member of similar vintage to Kipnis, her reminiscences about harassment workshops reminded me that, like many others, I, too, had attended comparable ones at the institution where I work, which was a modest liberal arts college (it’s since burgeoned into a rather immodest business-oriented university) when the sexual harassment policy was being crafted. Held during the high-tide of “identity politics” in the 1990s, it was noticeable, even to feminist supporters like me, that there was a problem with the conception of sexual harassment being proposed: it conflated acts we wanted to prevent (ranging from unwanted touching to graver assaults) with notions of offensive (“sexist”) speech that a particular faction of feminist faculty wanted included in the definition of harassment.
The renewed debate that Kipnis is engaged in today was thoroughly prefigured in that earlier era, influenced by such feminist mentors as Catharine MacKinnon, author of Only Words (1993) and Andrea Dworkin, an anti-pornography activist and the author of Intercourse (1987). Both were leading theorists of what’s now regarded as the middle phase of the reinvigorated women’s movement of the late 1960s — the movement inspired by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, and articulated by Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, Susan Brownmiller, and sundry others. The point here is that the present discussion wasn’t born yesterday and has a history that is itself part of the argument.
At our school, the resulting committee-written harassment definition was a nest of ill-fitting and vague clauses (filled with “and”s and “or”s to enlarge the net) that, once parsed, could mean that sexual harassment was a remark (or discourse) by a professor in class that produced offence and a consequent alleged “poisoned atmosphere,” or “offensive environment.” It was possible (if unlikely) that discussing a legitimate topic in, say, an ethics course, such as abortion, could lead to charges of sexual harassment. And anyway, the final draft of the definition was ungrammatical, someone piped up from the back. (Okay, it was me. I suffer from a Kipnis-like irreverence.) Rather than providing for the separation of act and speech, objectors were supposed to be mollified by the promise that a reference to academic freedom would be inserted into the already overburdened contraption of a definition. As for the mangled grammar, dissidents were assured that the passage in question had simply been “copied” from the sexual-harassment-policy document produced at a large, neighboring, research university. (But isn’t copying bad grammar from the big research university a form of plagiarism nonetheless? Somebody, not me, piped up from the back.)
Joking and bad joking aside, the present “sexual paranoia” that Kipnis points to has its ideological roots, as she suggests, in the modern history of feminist thought. While I question the wisdom of Kipnis’s views on faculty-student dating, I’m dubious about the present punitive approach. I also suspect that Kipnis is right about the larger issue, her concern that the sexual violence debate at college campuses has become overwrought (to say nothing of over-bureaucratized).
To understand the impact of Kipnis’s essay as a kind of IED (intellectual explosive device), it’s necessary to take account of the context in which it turned up. The essay was published in the midst of a widespread, fairly angry national debate about what’s been called “rape culture” on college campuses. The term “is a concept within feminist theory in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality.” Further, “behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm of some forms of sexual violence, or some combination of these.” Sometimes, it’s all of the above.
At the time that Kipnis’s essay was posted, there were several prominent cases of such alleged behavior that were drawing scrutiny from the media and the federal government. Since they received extensive coverage, I can just briefly refer to them rather than reprise the incidents in detail. The most sensational of the cases was the allegation of a vicious gang rape at a University of Virginia (UVA) fraternity house party, which was reported in a long, detailed article, “A Rape on Campus,” in the December 2014 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, which had the effect of confirming seemingly widespread “rape culture,” and the ineffectiveness of university administrations in confronting it.
As the Guardian newspaper subsequently reported, “The story had become a flashpoint in a national debate about sexual assault on college campuses. The high-profile article shook the southern school and sparked outrage across the country.” The university responded “by temporarily suspending all fraternities on campus and requesting Charlottesville [Virginia] police open a criminal investigation.” The university board held a meeting about the campus rape problem, “during which [the accuser’s] story brought some members to tears. Students protested in front of the fraternity house,” and students at numerous other campuses demonstrated to show solidarity.
And then, the story started to unravel. The fraternity pointed out that on the evening of the alleged assault, contrary to the accuser’s claim of a raucous party that led to the sexual attack, no event had been scheduled or held at the frat house. In short order, contradictions about the facticity of the story piled up, and the possibility became apparent that the story was a journalistically amateurish concoction between a troubled young student and an overeager and green investigative reporter who brought her own presuppositions to the story. Eventually, Rolling Stone turned the story over to an independent investigation by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Four months after publication, Rolling Stone apologized and removed the article from its website, replacing it with the scathing independent review report, which unequivocally outlined and condemned a “story of journalistic failure” at Rolling Stone. The pop magazine, the story’s author, and the story’s editors had made every mistake in the book. The story was false.
The Rolling Stone fiasco did damage in both directions: at first, it excited a stampede to track down other instances of “rape culture.” Its debunking, conversely, tended to support a general dismissal of the extent of such claims, and to undercut the people (often feminist activists) pressing for more aggressive anti-rape programs at campuses. In both instances, the false story provoked confusion and “over-correction.”
To make matters worse, there was a slew of other reports that tended to over-represent ambiguous cases. Straightforward sexual assault cases are simply less likely to garner attention than disputed incidents. A lengthy article in Esquire magazine documented a case at Occidental College in Los Angeles in which two very inebriated freshmen at the school fumbled their way into intercourse. When one of the partners subsequently had erotic remorse, the encounter turned into a quasi-judicial matter within the school, and the male partner was expelled. You didn’t have to be a trained counselor to glean from the Esquire account that if there was any blame to be apportioned, it probably should have been directed at the alleged “victim.” The contemporaneous Columbia University mattress case and Northwestern’s own faculty-student imbroglio did little to dispel the sense of ambiguity in these matters, or the claim of “sexual panic” that Kipnis advances in her essays.
A good deal of the furor around Kipnis can, I think, be explained by the context in which her essay appeared. Furthermore, as the author of such works as Against Love: A Polemic (2003) and Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (1996), Kipnis probably knew, possibly with even a bit of mischievous aforethought, what she was getting herself into, although perhaps not the extent of the controversy that might ensue. Since her exoneration, she’s continued to travel the circuits of public intellectual life (Matt Welch and Jim Epstein, “Laura Kipnis on How Campus Feminism Infantilizes Women,” Reason.com, June 30, 2015), and to tweet away (sample: “Campus feminism does NOT infantilize women. SOME versions of campus feminism infantilize women, and this is what the debate is about,” Twitter, July 1, 2015).
Curiously, the one obvious outstanding question about “rape culture” and related topics was seldom discussed in the vast flood of coverage to which these issues gave rise, namely, How extensive is rape and sexual assault victimization on American campuses? Although it wasn’t mentioned in any of the articles I’ve referenced above, it didn’t take much searching to turn up the US Department of Justice’s latest report on the subject, “Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013.”
First, though, a couple of standard caveats: statistics are notoriously tricky in this area, and sexual assault is a widely under-reported crime. Much depends on interpretation when it comes to figuring out whether the problem is getting worse or being remedied. The political advances of feminism in recent years have encouraged victims to be less reluctant to report incidents than in the past, and most institutions and government agencies have become, willingly or not, more sensitive to the issue. The Department of Justice report contains an extensive and fairly persuasive discussion of comparative research methodologies which suggest that its survey is as reliable as possible and that its researchers don’t have an ideological axe to grind.
The standout finding is that female students, ages 18–24, are safer on campus than 18–24 year-olds who are not students. “The rate of rape and sexual assault was 1.2 times higher for non-students (7.6 per 1,000) than for students (6.1 per 1,000),” the report says. It’s conceivable that students report less than non-students, but statistics for all forms of “serious crime” show that young women are significantly safer as students on campus than non-student females in the streets or community. Furthermore, although it’s true that women 18–24 are the group most subject to sexual assault (compared to younger and older females), the Justice Department graphs seem to indicate that rates of rape or sexual assault have declined since the turn of the century. The data, as I read it, tends to support at least some of the argumentation of analysts such as Laura Kipnis.
While claims of a particularly acute or sudden crisis of sexual assault at post-secondary institutions would seem to be overblown or overwrought, the Justice Department does report that out of more than six million women students in the US, there are 30,000 cases annually of some kind of sexual assault. Since this is one of those crimes, like child abuse or torture, where even a relatively few crimes is cause for concern, nothing I’ve reported here is a suggestion to lessen efforts to combat rape. But the facts of the matter, in so far as we know them, also imply that Kipnis’s criticisms of the current mood on campuses is, minimally, plausible. I’m not advocating here any hard and fast conclusions about the broader situation other than to declare that attempts to stifle the freedom of essay writers strikes me as morally wrong.
And oh yes, there’s Laura Kipnis’s latest book, Men, which came out at the end of 2014, and which I’ve been diligently trying to review ever since. It’s a collection of essays, ranging over the last ten to 15 years, about various categories of men behaving badly, but for whom, improbably enough, Kipnis retains a sort of wry affection. The first chapter begins with Hustler publisher and pornographer Larry Flynt and the last chapter is about the late “radical feminist” Andrea Dworkin. Kipnis makes the case that, appearances to the contrary, the two are not ideologically all that far from each other, and that both, in their way, present an aesthetics of disgust in relation to sex. In between, Kipnis surveys “scumbags,” “juicers,” “gropers,” “cheaters,” “men who hate Hillary,” and “women who hate men.” Her work invariably offers an offbeat and interesting angle, it avoids didacticism, it’s almost always invitingly readable, and, yes, it’s often funny. Verdict: officially recommended.
The first thing I learned from reading Men turned out not to be about the subject matter of the book, but about Kipnis’s notorious recent essay on “Sexual Paranoia.” It turns out that a significant chunk of it, maybe 20 percent or more, is a word-for-word recycling of Kipnis’s decade-old essay, “Gropers,” which is collected in Men, about feminist Naomi Wolf’s long-after-the-fact public allegation of being groped, when she was a student at Yale, by famed literary lion Harold Bloom, and the psychological scars the incident left on Wolf, even half a lifetime later. Kipnis takes some of the air out of Wolf’s umbrage, and cheerfully rags on Bloom as an academic and erotic sad sack. (For those who want the total roman-à-clef portrait of Bloom, try Rebecca Goldstein’s fictional send-up in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, 2010.)
I have nothing against writers reusing previously written material (I frequently do it myself), but probably the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education should have included a footnote letting readers know that some of Kipnis’s present essay had previously appeared elsewhere. Other than that minor bit of etiquette, I don’t have any complaints. Maybe a couple of the older pieces are a bit musty, but Kipnis has a nice touch that more often than not is engaging, even in the case of somewhat forgotten male miscreants.
The typical essay in this collection neatly combines an extended self-reflection with the target of the piece, albeit seen from a slightly unexpected perspective. My favorite is “Juicers,” about those athletes who indulge in “performance-enhancing” drugs, for whom Kipnis retains an odd sympathy, recognizing that most of these athletes are already top-rank figures in their sport, but who are tempted by that drug-too-far that will ensure victory. But before she gets to the likes of Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, or Tom Brady’s deflated footballs, or those seemingly endless ranks of Bulgarian Olympic weight-lifters, she tells us a bit about Laura Kipnis.
It turns out that she struggles “with an embarrassing affliction, one that as far as I know doesn’t have a website or support group […] I can’t remember when I started noticing the symptoms — it’s just one of those things you learn to live with, I guess […] The irony, obviously, is having gone into a line of work in which this particular infirmity is most likely to stand out, like being a gimpy tango instructor or an acrophobic flight attendant.” Kipnis is able to spin out these shaggy-dog riffs ad infinitum. Eventually she “comes out”: the affliction is “moral relativism,[…] and you can imagine the catastrophic effects on a critic’s career if the thing were left to run its course unfettered or if I had to rely on my own moral compass.” Calling it “moral relativism,” she says, may be giving it too much dignity; “it’s more like moral wishy-washiness. Critics are supposed to have deeply felt moral outrage about things, be ready to pronounce on or condemn other people’s foibles and failures at a moment’s notice.”
In an age of readily available surfeits of moral outrage at the touch of a screen, Kipnis claims to suffer from lack of outrage, especially when it comes to “moral turpitude and ethical lapses.” “There I sit, fingers poised on keyboard, one part of me (the ambitious, careerist part) itching to strike, but in my truest soul limply equivocal, particularly when it comes to the many lapses I suspect I’m capable of committing myself, from bad prose to adultery.” She confesses that “once in a while, when I’m feeling especially jellylike, I’ve found myself loitering on the Internet in hopes of — this is embarrassing — cadging a bit of other people’s moral outrage (not exactly in short supply online) […] Sometimes, you just need a little shot in the arm, you know?” Like those juicing jocks about whom we’re so easily outraged?
Kipnis’s well-placed darts about the social fabric and its outrages are of course prefatory to dealing with the men who are trying to stay competitive. “They’ve lost it, apparently: their edge is gone, they’re lumpish, unemployed, and increasingly obsolete,” Kipnis suggests, quickly enlarging the scope to take in not only struggling male athletes, but the whole gender. Maybe, she adds, post-industrial society is better suited to information-age women than those dinosaurs of the other gender. In due course, Kipnis has some pertinent things to say about a cutthroat society that claims to thrive on competition, on ambition, on the unfairness of a genetic lottery that makes mockery of the notion of a meritocracy. She doesn’t let the juicers off the hook — they’re often jerks and problematic characters but, Kipnis recognizes, “none of them were talentless shlubs either.” Rather than outrage, Kipnis is regularly compelled to a kind of understanding of how people come to do many of the regrettable things they do in the regrettable contexts into which they are born. Such a sensibility (and such sensibleness) is perhaps lacking in melodrama, but for that you can turn on the soaps or visit your nearest college campus.