'Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes To Campus' Was The Most Prescient Book of 2017 (And It's Equally Relevant Today)
Before #MeToo. Before DeVos and the Education Department formally rescinded Obama-era guidance on how colleges handle sexual assaults. Before trump's oddly hypocritical tweet about due process...
There was Laura Kipnis and her amazing 2017 book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
It started in 2015, when Kipnis, a Northwestern professor, penned an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education -- and was subsequently slammed with two Title IX complaints. The essay, Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe, discussed a new rule at Northwestern regarding professors dating students and graduate students.
I didn't agree with all of it -- her attitude about hooking up with professors "back in the day" was pretty cavalier. It should be a big deal. Precautions should be taken. There are power dynamics that must be taken into serious consideration.
But she asked, quite reasonably, at what point an adult is able to give consent.
No doubt some 21-year-olds are fragile and emotionally immature (helicopter parenting probably plays a role), but is this now to be our normative conception of personhood? A 21-year-old incapable of consent?
Moreover, she is absolutely not soft on harassment and assault. As she wrote in her original essay:
For the record, I strongly believe that bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square. Let no one think I’m soft on harassment. But I also believe that the myths and fantasies about power perpetuated in these new codes are leaving our students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life, because that’s simply part of the human condition.
It was a wonderful and challenging read. How could I agree so strongly with some parts ("these new codes are leaving our students disabled"), and disagree so strongly on others?
But not everyone shared my opinion, as evidenced by the Title IX complaints against her -- again, not for assaulting or harassing anyone, but for writing an essay. She reflects in Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus:
I suppose I knew the essay would be controversial -- the whole point of writing it was to say things I believed were true (and suspected a lot of other people thought were true), but weren't being said for fear of repercussions. Still, I'd been writing as a feminist...
The next several chapters go on to describe not only Kipnis' own experience with the mysterious, shady, subjective, unfair and unscientific "process" that is a Title IX investigation (including information about the enormous costs of each investigation -- no wonder tuition is skyrocketing!)... but also that of Peter Ludlow, a former Northwestern professor of philosophy.
Ludlow faced two investigations: the first by an undergraduate student (whom he was no longer teaching) who invited him to an art gallery, then later claimed he "forced her to drink" about 2-3 drinks, until she was blackout drunk, and then groped her; the second by a graduate student (not his graduate student) whom he dated for several months, and with whom he'd exchanged thousands of text messages. She claimed that the relationship wasn't consensual...
But, Kipnis asks, how does a professor force a student to drink? How does a professor force a 25-year-old woman to enter into a 3-month relationship with him, attend concerts with him, and message him multiple times per day, every day?
What, she asks, is the deal with the feminist obsession with "power"?
(In probably the sharpest and funniest way possible, it's worth adding.)
She also gives several other examples of students and professors who had similar experiences at the hands of Title IX officials. And one thing she reiterates, time and again, is that sex is messy.
Let's face it: sex, even under optimal circumstances, requires a certain amount of psychological resiliency. Being naked, exposed, physically handled by another human can be destabilizing and not always pleasant, especially when the other person is drunk, clumsy, and/or a complete stranger...
Don't get me wrong -- I hate the "regret isn't rape" argument. There's always some comment about how the woman/survivor/accuser/victim (call them what you will) willfully consented to something, then cried rape when she regretted it.
This is a dumb and limiting view of what's happening. A better characterization might be the girl from Cat Person or the Aziz Ansari girl. Something is, indeed, happening to a girl, but she feels paralyzed and voiceless and unable to stop it.
But is it really fair to prosecute a guy for not noticing your subtle, nonverbal cues? Is it really fair to say that Louis C.K. is a sexual predator for showing women his penis after asking for their consent?
Where is all this paralyzing fear coming from?
Laura Kipnis blames third-wave feminism.
I can think of no better way to subjugate women than to convince us that assault is around every corner. (p.12)
What a lot of retrogressive assumptions about gender are being promulgated under the guise of combating sexual assault! Not only was the woman's agency erased, note the unarticulated premise of the finding: 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. Another unarticulated premise: sex is injurious [to women]. (pp. 16-17)
There were already codes on the books prohibiting nonconsensual sexual relations or contact, so why prohibit consensual activity? It struck me as antifeminist, yet another puncture to female autonomy. (p.20)
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. Look, I too was raised female in this culture and am on intimate terms with passivity and internalized helplessness. I've had the usual range of female experiences and sexual assaults, which is why I feel pretty strongly that someone has to call out the codes of self-martyring femininity... not to mention the covert veneration of feminist passivity enshrined in our campus policies and initiatives. (p. 214)
It's almost like Kipnis knew Cat Person would go viral. It's like she saw the #MeToo movement coming. Her book came out in early 2017, and, as mentioned previously, due process is being restored on college campuses...
But when we look around at the problems with rape culture, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that are still being discussed today, it seems like Unwanted Advances is as relevant than ever.
Is there a solution?
Yes. There are many. Kipnis discusses a few in her book, including:
What would happen 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?" Yes, there's an excess of masculine power in the world, and women have to be educated to contest it in real time, instead of waiting around for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness--just in case that day never comes. (p.214)
In my fantasy Clery Act (which mandates "Interpersonal Violence Prevention and Education" courses for all incoming students), all institutions of higher education would be required how to teach freshmen women self-defense: how to yell, "No!" and how to physically fight off an attacker...
As someone who is all about sexual agency -- but also affirmative consent and also empowering women (I don't even like it when people ask women, "Are you okay?"), I agree with (much of) this message.
Which is why I think Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus is an important read.
2/14/2018 11:29:22 am
I'm pretty sure Laura Kipnis could make a book about any topic entertaining and funny.
2/14/2018 01:38:08 pm
I'll give this book a try, but I also find it hard to take people seriously when they claim the answer is "just say no!" If it were that easy and consequence-free, women would be doing it, but women around the world are killed for saying no all. the. time. It doesn't matter if a particular incident has zero risk of male violence because women everywhere are aware that other women have been killed or seriously harmed in seemingly innocent, low-stakes, "I don't even know that guy" situations. I have yet to see critics of the #metoo movement address that problem in a substantial way. That being said, if there were a better way to publicly humiliate creeps (i.e. a way to make the cost of aggressively hitting on women higher), I would be all for it. I'm just not sure how women should make a scene without putting themselves at greater risk for violence. As a class, men are dangerous and never more so than when they're humiliated.
2/14/2018 01:41:41 pm
Actually, I'll caveat that by saying that I think there is more room for self-agency and efficacy in situations where women do not feel afraid (either for their safety or for losing professional opportunities). Your old "the orgasm gap is real" article hits on that point really well. The problem is that women ARE afraid too much of the time and it's hard to know when it's "paranoid" or not.
2/14/2018 05:08:16 pm
I definitely agree that "just say no" is the worst idea ever. Most situations are a LOT more complicated than that. As I wrote in a previous post, we don't even "just say no" when someone invites us to a house party last-minute. We say, "Oh! I wish I could, but I promised my friend I'd get dinner with her, so...."
2/16/2018 08:41:02 am
Completely agree, especially the part about the adversarial relationship between protectionism and preventionism. I'll give the book a try!
5/24/2022 07:14:44 pm
I very much appreciate it. Thank you for this excellent article. Keep posting!
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