Laura Kipnis likes to butcher sacred cows. She's gleefully dissected the tortures of monogamy, that "domestic gulag"; stood up for Larry Flynt and Hustler; and spilled much ink teasing out the ambiguities and contradictions underlying contemporary feminism and gender politics.
In 2015, she turned her attention to the sexual climate on college campuses, proclaiming in The Chronicle of Higher Education that prohibitions on teacher-student relationships at Northwestern, where she is a tenured professor, were infantilizing and tantamount to "feminism hijacked by melodrama." Such melodramatic narratives, she argued, had led to a meretricious obsession with "helpless victims and powerful predators"—to the detriment of women, who are often automatically shoved into the former category and rendered rhetorically passive.
Read more: When Does Drunk Sex Become Rape?
The reaction to her article was swift. A little over a week after its publication, Kipnis found herself the subject of a federal complaint from two graduate students, who described her ideas as violent and "terrifying," and argued that, by expressing them, Kipnis had violated Title IX, which guarantees students the right to an educational environment free from gender and sexual discrimination. Kipnis' writing, according to the complaint, had contributed to a hostile sexual environment on campus. Protesters marched to the school's administration building, weighing themselves down with mattresses and pillows in a nod to Emma Sulkowicz.
Small wonder, then, that Kipnis became fascinated with the inner workings of the Title IX bureaucracy—and the difficult questions surrounding free speech and the role of the university in protecting students. Unwanted Advances, Kipnis's newest book, takes on what we've come to call the campus rape epidemic. But Kipnis takes a controversial position within the feminist discourse surrounding this phenomenon: She identifies with the falsely accused, and with others fallen prey to the system's overreaches, the ones she perceives as collateral damage in the fight against rape.
"The idea of rape culture has become the campus equivalent of 9/11," she argues. "In both cases, horrible real events take on mythic proportions, becoming resistant to precise analysis. On campus, the term rape culture, like the term terrorism, has become the rhetoric of emergency." Where most campus activists see the institution as a crucial partner in the fight against rape, Kipnis is focused on its excesses. She argues that a "profoundly conservative, law-and-order spirit" has capitalized on the perpetual state of emergency to ramp up on-campus policing, multiply the rules that govern sexual behavior on campus, and enforce the passivity of the protected.
On campus, the term rape culture, like the term terrorism, has become the rhetoric of emergency.
"The tough question becomes how colleges and universities can deal adequately with the external realities of sexual assault on the one hand and the inner realities of sexual ambivalence on the other," she writes. This is important work, because we're still developing a way to talk about all the things between enthusiastic consent and rape—sex that is consensual but bad in a way that seems to evince a basic lack of respect for you as a human being, for instance, or encounters where consent is more difficult to define. In their zeal to support survivors, Kipnis argues, campus activists all too often disregard these shades of gray—and brush by the fact that the office of a campus administrator, whose primary goal is to protect the institution, is often a terrible place to work through ambiguity and confusion. (In addition, Kipnis warns, when weighing university authorities as allies to campus feminists, we should remember that most are indifferent or actively opposed to the crucial feminist goals of living wages, paid parental leave, and free childcare for everyone on campus.)
When faced with such ambiguities, misogynists simplify matters by claiming that women are always lying—unless, perhaps, the assault fits in with an extremely narrow view of what sexual assault looks like. Campus anti-rape activists strive for a similarly straightforward equation: Women don't lie about rape. But, Kipnis asks, what if they mostly don't—but sometimes they do, and more often aren't sure of the degree to which they consented, or to which they feel something constituted a violation? What if someone was raped, but doesn't feel existing models of adjudication provide anything close to justice or resolution?
Kipnis makes the case for a much more fine-grained analysis of power dynamics than we are accustomed to seeing in college sexual assault cases, or at least in media reports about them. The archetypal story of assault, Kipnis is quick to point out, rests on an assumption of feminine passivity, where the asymmetry of power only goes one way. Questions of who dominates and who is dominated are never slippery, as they are in life. Taking issue with the assertion that women are always structurally powerless, Kipnis provocatively suggests that comparative beauty, force of personality, and personal ethics can disrupt the expected paradigm of male-female power. I would add to her list the crucial factors of race, class, and social position.
There's something dangerously naive about encouraging women to get into fist fights with would-be assailants.
She asks what might happen if we began treating female students as if they were powerful. Kipnis recounts the story of a female graduate student who filed a Title IX complaint after going out to a bar and feeling one of her lecturer's and a fellow grad student's hands on her knee. At the time she was too "frozen" to say no. "What would happen," she asks, "if we stopped commiserating with one another about how horrible men are, and teach students how to say, 'Get your fucking hand off my knee'?"
I was struck by this story. I know too many women—myself included—who have ended up having sex they didn't want because they felt like they couldn't say no, or because, at the time, they weren't sure what they wanted. I also know women who have been assaulted after saying yes to an initial request they'd rather have refused, like letting someone into their room. What if part of what I had learned at college had included how to know what I desired, and how to communicate it, up to and including yelling no and breaking someone's nose with the palm of my hand?
This suggestion, of course, immediately invokes an implicit (and legitimate) chorus of criticisms: Women shouldn't have to be taught how to not to get raped, and education in self-defense can easily fall into the tired pattern of blaming the victim. It also offers no solutions for women who are punished for acting in self-defense against powerful men, or for simply refusing their advances. There's something dangerously naive about encouraging women to get into fist fights with would-be assailants, considering the treatment women get when they dare to say no to men much more delicately.
Both Kipnis and campus activists are seeking sexual freedom: the ability to build a sexual life as you wish, and the capacity for sexual self-determination. However, their visions of how to achieve it look radically different. Kipnis argues for a theoretical dismantling of the myths around rape culture, for recognizing that sex is complicated and that navigating power and pleasure is never quite so simple. Campus activists, conversely, think that freedom can't be achieved unless students are actively protected from harm and molestation.
Paradoxically, this vision of a campus made "safe" relies on close collaboration with authority figures who are likely to be more interested in risk management than promoting the freedom and well-being of women on campus. It leaves undisturbed the gender roles dictated by rape culture—predatory men, vulnerable women, with a big, strong institution to act as a mediator.