Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kipnis on Sexual Assault and Sexual Agency

Thanks to all who engaged, here and elsewhere, with my post last week about Laura Kipnis's book. I continue to have more thoughts about the book, so I thought I'd write more. My last post highlighted Kipnis's endorsement of a harmful stereotype. It was of course only one small passage, but in my opinion it's representative. I thought it might be helpful to offer some corroboration for that opinion.

I'll be discussing sexual assault and related harms below.

One of the central themes in Unwanted Advances is Kipnis's suggestion that campus "sexual paranoia" stands in tension with a recognition of female sexuality and sexual agency. She attributes to the contemporary American university a Victorian sensibility, treating women as precious, featureless, sexless wards requiring zealous protection. I think this is a serious misreading of the cultural situation, and of the nature of agency.

Kipnis introduces this picture of her opponents early in the book, and returns to it many times. On pp. 15–16, she describes a male student who was found to have coerced a classmate into a nonconsensual blow job; Kipnis reports with disapproval a ruling that "he should have known that consent had to be 'voluntary, present and ongoing.'" She continues:
If incidents like these are being labeled sexual assault, then we need far more discussion about just how capacious this category is becoming, and why it's in anyone's interests. Including women's. What a lot of retrogressive assumptions about gender are being promulgated under the guise of combating 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 and the woman had sustained an injury in that thirty seconds, one serious enough to require official remediation.
(Bold emphasis mine. Below, italics are Kipnis's own.)

I do not see why one should think an allegation of an emotionally coercive sexual encounter should "erase" anyone's agency. (Nor FWIW do I see on what grounds Kipnis posits these other enthymemes.) But she returns to this kind of attribution over and over again. These are quotes:
  • Of course it's an article of faith at the moment that all such desires run strictly in the other direction: old people desire young ones, not the other way around. (29) 
  • A crush on a professor used to be the most ordinary thing in the world. Now, at least in public discourse, Eros runs strictly in the opposite direction: predatory professors foisting themselves on innocent and unwilling students, who lack any desires of their own. (44)
  • In the official version of events, causality can run in only one direction: Ludlow alone can be the prime mover; Cho can only be someone things happen to. (56)
  • Sure, sexual freedom sometimes means consenting to things we later regret. But who wants a return to nineteenth-century notions of true womanhood, which conferred moral superiority on females by exempting them from such corruptions and temptations, placing them on a pedestal they finally (thankfully) refused. The pedestal was always a lie, and its twenty-first-century resurrection on campus is no less a lie. Sexual honesty, about women as desiring beings, making our own sexual choices (sometimes even terrible ones), can be painful, but no semblance of gender equality is ever going to be possible without it. (95–6)
  • Speaking of power ... Let's be honest. It's a well-known (if, to some, unpalatable) fact that heterosexual women are not infrequently attracted to male power, and for aspiring female intellectuals of a heterosexual bent, this includes male intellectual power. Even feminists (feminist philosophers included) aren't immune. What use to anyone is a feminism so steeped in self-exoneration that it prefers to imagine women as helpless children rather than acknowledge grown-up sexual realities? (105)
  • Patricia Bobb would ultimately conclude, splitting hairs with the impunity of a papal inquisitor, that Ludlow hadn't forced Hartley into a relationship, but—echoing Lockwood—he did manipulate her into having one. Of course, to come to this finding requires Bobb to expunge all female intelligence, agency, autonomy, and desire from her calculations. This is supposed to be in women's interests? (122)
  • In Lockwood's world, women have no desires of their own; they're strictly the passive receptacles of other people's (men's) desires. (155)
  • Yes, Ludlow was guilty-though not of what the university charged him with. His crime was thinking that women over the age of consent have sexual agency, which has lately become a heretical view, despite once being a crucial feminist position. (239)
I think these passages project an opponent of Kipnis's pure imagination. She does not argue or demonstrate that students or administrators concerned about sexual assault think female students are never attracted to male professors, that younger people are never attracted to power, that women have no sexual interests, or that young women lack sexual agency. These are all just things she asserts about her opponents' views. As these are all ridiculous things to think, once she puts these labels on her opponents, she attacks them with gusto.

Returning to the theme of unarticulated premises, Kipnis's line of thought would make some sense if we attribute the tacit premise that attraction, agency, causal efficaciousness, etc. are inconsistent with sexual assault. In other words, Kipnis's argument seems to be assuming a principle like this one:

If the complainant's sexual agency is part of the explanation for what happened, then what happened couldn't have been assault.

I think something like this assumption is both necessary and sufficient for making sense of what would otherwise be a series of puzzling non sequiturs in the book. Kipnis goes to great length to argue that the students who would accuse the professor of sexual assault were very likely attracted to him. Set aside whether her case is compelling. (For the record: I think it's not.) Why on earth would it matter?

It would matter if the only picture you had of sexual assault was one of men too undesirable to win a voluntary partner, and so they had to take for themselves what no one would give. If so, photographs of a young woman smiling in the company of the same person she says assaulted her might be evidence that there was no assault (as is suggested on p. 65). This kind of picture could make sense of the assertion that, once we admit that women are sexual agents, the case for allegations of coerced sexual contact must collapse (as is suggested on p. 232).

If we do not make this assumption—which we shouldn't, because it is obviously possible to be attracted to someone without consenting to sexual activity with them—then we can maintain without tension all of the following: young female students have sexual interests, including, sometimes, sexual attraction towards older male professors; in a given case, a student may well have been attracted to a professor; in that same case, it is very credible that that professor coerced that student into an unwelcome sexual situation. There is zero contradiction between these claims, but Kipnis's whole book proceeds on the apparent assumption that this is impossible.

This is part of the reason why—as a number of readers have observed—it seems Kipnis isn't as clear as she should be about the distinction between sex and rape. Kipnis focuses a lot on what, in her opinion, young women really sexually desire (whether or not they admit it to themselves); she focuses barely at all on whether they are welcoming or consenting to sexual contact. I think this is the same confusion a lot of us mocked Rush Limbaugh for making last year. Her own rhetoric doesn't help emphasise the distinction. Here, for example, in comparing Title IX to the HUAC, Kipnis completes the parallel by analogising communism, not to rape, but to sex.
No doubt there are people who'd say he had it coming ... though I tend to think that's like saying John Proctor in The Crucible had it coming. The reference is to Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials. (Proctor was one of the accused witches, hanged by the community.) Seen as a parable of McCarthyism when it was first staged in 1953, the play was recently revived on Broadway—apparently someone saw it as relevant again. The Cold War blacklist, too, is being plumbed for current resonances. A recent biopic about Hollywood Ten screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (forced out of work and imprisoned after falling afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee's witch hunt investigation of communism in the movie industry) left me reflecting that sex is our era's Communist threat, and Title IX hearings our new HUAC hearings. (31–32)
See also the line in the first quoted passage in this post about the assumption that "sex is injurious". The assumption is that sexual assault is injurious. But Kipnis seems invested in denying even this. She wishes that today's women would be more like those in her mother's generation, who would shrug off such assaults and laugh at them.

I'm not exaggerating.
I don't want to sound cavalier about sexually gross professors, but I've heard my own mother describe once being chased around a desk, literally, by her astronomy professor, for whom she was working part time and who was trying to kiss her. This would have been the 1950s. Her hands were covered in mimeograph ink, and she left a mimeograph handprint on his forehead when she pushed him away, she recalls laughingly. 
[S]he was in no way traumatized; in fact, she wasn't even particularly outraged. "What ever happened to an old-fashioned pass?" she exclaimed when I filled her in on the responses of today's grad students to similar episodes. ... (Today's campus statistics gatherers would count her as an "unacknowledged" sexual assault victim.)
... [I]t seems worth asking why a woman of the pre-feminist 1950s felt so much more agency than grad students of today, so much more able to see a professor's idiocy as comic fodder, not an incapacitating trauma. (155)
I see this story very differently. In Kipnis's mind, her mother's laughing at occasions like these is an exercise of agency; why can't today's young women do the same, she wonders? I recently read a paper positing that humans have a tendency to attribute the values we approve of to someone's "true self"—when someone does something we disapprove of, we're more likely to look for incidental explanations for why they didn't do what they really wanted. Kipnis thinks a woman's true self will laugh at sexual assault; to do so is a pure manifestation of agency. If today's young women react in some other way, it must be because something is interfering with their own agency.

A different way of looking at things will treat a refusal to tolerate unwanted sexual contact as a purer expression of agency. And refusal can mean more than running around the desk and using one's hands to push someone's face away—it can mean calling out harassment and assault for what it is, and demanding accountability. Responding in that way would be, in many cases, a genuine expression of agency. This depends on the individual. I don't want to say it's impossible for someone, deep down, to not mind being chased around the desk by one's boss who is trying to kiss one—maybe Kipnis's mother was like this in the 1950s—but an alternative hypothesis is certainly available. Maybe her laughing it off wasn't an expression of her own agency. Maybe accepting her boss's violations of her autonomy was the only option available under the circumstances. On this way of framing things, women's increased space of options, and their willingness to exercise them, is indicative of their increased agency.

92 comments:

  1. Mother's generation is the problem. The kids all start school and almost instantly boys and girls declare each other gross, and then give each other a fairly wide berth for the rest of their education. And parents, teachers - anyone grown up - would rather die than talk about sex let alone encourage them to have it when clock strikes puberty, because a) sex is a gateway drug to taking actual drugs, and for those who get caught up in it instead of college and a career it'll be some venereal fatality and a litter of orphans; b) they don't feel that great about their own sex lives, and the body image issues never went away either; and c) talking to kids about sex is a good way to get called a predator (unless you're warning them about predators) and once you're on that list it's game over.

    So right from the start it's like they're committing a crime, like ocean's eleven. Couple of the guys manage to slip past the defences, grab the loot and escape to the safe house to share the spoils, and wait for the gals to realise they've been robbed.

    It's not heroin, it's sex, we're supposed to be doing it. I dunno how many generations it would take for it to not be the thing you have to be totally silent about, and only do in the dark where noone can see, but it's a stressful enough age given the rotten tournament we make them compete in for 12 years and tell them will determine their entire lives, and telling them god hates it is probably nicer than dumping our pathologies on them along with some condoms and then heading for the door.

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  2. Do you think this nonsense will really distract from Kipnis's revelation that the Ludlow case was a fraud? That Jennifer Lackey and Sandy Goldberg manipulated their students into filing a raft of ludicrous Title IX charges? Good luck with that.

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    1. I make no predictions as to who will be convinced by what. I do think that Kipnis's case for many of the claims in her book is very weak, and coloured by troublesome biases and assumptions. So I'll offer arguments to that effect. YMMV. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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  3. Thank you for posting this - Kipnis' arguments are utterly bizarre. Having agency should not mean that one is constantly having to exercise more of it than a male counterpart, nor that one should have to expend a high proportion of one's cognitive and emotional energy on constantly trying to recognise and attempt to prevent manipulative abuse. Further, this idea that one cannot both have active agency and simultaneously be a victim of an injustice is also a very strange one - I was recently referred to Soran Reader's 'The Other Side of Agency', which highlights in a very useful way the importance of non-agential features of personhood, and I think this could be relevant reading here.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation—this is a literature I know only a little about. This paper looks cool.

      Abstract: In our philosophical tradition and our wider culture, we tend to think of persons as agents. This agential conception is flattering, but in this paper I will argue that it conceals a more complex truth about what persons are. In 1. I set the issues in context. In 2. I critically explore four features commonly presented as fundamental to personhood in versions of the agential conception: action, capability, choice and independence. In 3. I argue that each of these agential features presupposes a non-agential feature: agency presupposes patiency, capability presupposes incapability, choice presupposes necessity and independence presupposes dependency. In 4. I argue that such non-agential features, as well as being implicit within the agential conception, are as apt to be constitutive of personhood as agential features, and in 5. I conclude.

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    2. No problem at all!

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  4. Nicely nuanced consideration here. Appreciated. I think it's also important to remember that there are also irresponsible researchers on the other side too. For instance, a pro (not a self-proclaimed one) actually didn't count open-ended responses of those who experienced harassment as something they could deal wit without the need for intervention as instances of false consciousness. This essentially immunifies the study from falsification and turns it into pseudo-science. Sad, but true. I read it myself.

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  5. The problem is, you're ignoring the core of the book, which is what does the most to support Kipnis's claim that women are denied agency in Title IX proceedings and on college campuses. Part of treating students as agents is taking seriously the possibility that they lied, exaggerated, changed their minds, took revenge, etc. etc. If you couldn't possibly have done any of that, then you're at most a "moral patient," not a "moral agent." And Kipnis offers extremely compelling evidence that investigators in the Ludlow case didn't take those possibilities seriously. They didn't seriously consider the possibility that Cho pursued Ludlow, instead of Ludlow pursuing Cho. They didn't consider the possibility that Cho lied about jumping into the icy lake in January. They didn't consider the possibility that Cho was so upset after that night out with Ludlow because she was turned down by someone she was pursuing, not because she had been groped. They didn't seriously consider various possible motivations Hartley might have had for denying she had ever dated Ludlow (despite the 2000 texts that make it quite clear she did), etc. etc. etc. If women are just about guaranteed to have a claim of being victimized accepted, then they are not treated as agents. You can't respond fairly to this argument, which is omnipresent in the book (why didn't you notice it?!) if you don't acknowledge it.

    Another point: this book has had a lot of very good reviews from perfectly respectable female reviewers (Jennifer Senior, Jill Filipovic, Hanna Rosin, Terry Castle, etc.). Do you really think that if Kipnis had written such utter nonsense as you've attribute to her, these reviewers would have been so impressed? I think smart female reviewers are capable of recognizing it when women are being grossly insulted and misrepresented--and no, the reviewers haven't seen it that way. Might you be guilty of a little mansplaining here?

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    1. I'm trying to limit my discussions to roughly one point at at a time—this blog post was long enough, don't you think? But I do think that the general observations I've been making are relevant to Kipnis's specific allegations about the Northwestern case. Throughout the book, Kipnis presents her opinions about the cases she's researched, but she doesn't even pretend to give us a picture of both sides. She's not putting us in a position to judge for herself; she's invite us to take her word for it. If you think, as I do, that the case I've made calls her judgment on these matters seriously into question, then that is pretty relevant for evaluating her more specific claims.

      I do not see any support in the book whatsoever, other than Kipnis's own flat assertions, that the proceedings at Northwestern ignored the possibilities that the students were lying, or confused, or the ones doing the pursuing, etc. On the contrary, the book makes it clear that people at Northwestern considered those questions, and came to a conclusion that Laura Kipnis disagreed with. But I perceive no argument to this effect in the book: just some assertions from someone who's judgment seems to me very questionable. I will probably have more to say about this in future posts.

      I'm not sure what you think mansplaining is, but if you think it's mansplaining any time a man expresses disagreement with a woman about stuff, then I guess you can charge me with mansplaining. I'm not too worried. I feel like that's kind of thing MRAs' cartoon villain versions of feminists think.

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    2. Just a quick point, Anonymous. You said, "Part of treating students as agents is taking seriously the possibility that they lied, exaggerated, changed their minds, took revenge, etc. etc." Indeed. But part of treating students as agents also involves taking seriously the possibility that they are telling the truth; it seems that various parties in this debate, yourself included, are failing to take that possibility seriously.
      You say that Kipnis offers compelling evidence that the possibilities you mention weren't considered, but I'm not so sure that's right. I think, as Jonathan points out, that what we have are Kipnis's assertions, and I'm not so sure these assertions qualify as compelling evidence here.

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  6. I have not read this book, but I find the quotes discussed in this and the previous post very disturbing. For what it is worth, I also find it interesting that in this comment thread all those who are supporting Kipnis are posting anonymously.

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  7. You "find that interesting," do you, Sonja? Why in the world would anyone identify themselves to the witch-hunt posse? So we can get chased out of the profession too, with pitchforks, like ya'll did with Peter Ludlow? Anyone who gave their name here would have dutiful apparatchiks like green-haired Itchy, or maundering termagents like Janice Dowell, howling for their heads. And not just online--to their Department Chairs and Deans in the real world. In the face of a mob mentality like this, discretion is the better part of valor. Not everyone is as brave as Laura Kipnis.

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    1. I know several professional philosophers who are speaking out publicly in defence of this book. I'm not calling for their heads. I am saying that they're wrong in ways that seem to me pretty important, but I don't think people should lose their jobs for it. I do wish that people on both sides of this debate felt securer speaking publicly about it.

      In expressing controversial views, one makes oneself vulnerable to moral criticism. I get why one might not want to do that—I'm getting some heat—but I think that, for those of us with the professional security to afford it, it's part of being a responsible member of the academic community.

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    2. Not all of us are well-placed philosophy profs, secure in our tenure. Some of us are lowly grad students, without powerful spouses to arrange jobs for us and protect us from retaliation. Not recognizing this crucial fact means ignoring your own privilege here. Also, some of us are gay—and, as Kipnis points out in her book, the bloated Title IX bureaucracy seems to readily target queer professors, perhaps because we are already marked by our sexuality and thus vulnerable to any accusation. You really should read her book more carefully instead of poking at the silly strawman you have constructed. There are many valuable insights in it, if you are open to learn.

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    3. "Not all of us are well-placed philosophy profs, secure in our tenure." Well yeah. That's why every time I open my mouth about how it's valuable for people to speak up, I qualify it with the kind of language I used in the comment you're replying to. I think you have to ignore quite a lot of what I say, here and elsewhere, to think I'm ignoring my privilege here.

      "...as Kipnis points out in her book, the bloated Title IX bureaucracy seems to readily target queer professors..."

      I take it you are referring to pp. 23–4—that's the only passage I noticed that puts forward anything close to this thought. After describing one thinly-described anecdote about a gay professor, Kipnis writes:

      "Apparently no one has mentioned to [student activists] how many of the professors being caught in these widening nets are, in fact, queer—or suspected of being so, anyway."

      However, Kipnis offers no evidence in the book that queer professors are disproportionally targeted by Title IX investigations. On p. 24 she describes an acquaintance who speculates that they are, but says explicitly that she has no way to know whether or not this is correct.

      But perhaps you read the book more carefully than I did? If so I'd be happy to be pointed to passages where this claim is actually defended, as opposed to merely tantalisingly suggested before being explicitly withdrawn.

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    4. She is basing her assertion on the evidence of numerous reports made to her by queer profs and students. How could there possibly be a more comprehensive database of evidence given the shroud of secrecy that has been clamped over the process by the authorities? Are you obtuse? I know personally of six queer professors who were brought up on Title IX charges for either teaching controversial material, which is not surprising given how the category of sexual misconduct has metastasized in the new OCR guidelines. Do you have any concern about this at all? (I suspect not, given your demand for evidence in a context where evidence cannot be produced, by overt design. What would you have Kipnis do--out the faculty and students who have reported to her?)

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    5. You are absolutely blind to your own privilege on this subject. Completely stone blind.

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    6. 7:11: I am no defender of the Title IX status quo. My priors on the proposition that it's used unfairly against queer people are pretty high. My point is that caring about gay rights is unrelated to my complaints about this book. One can care about gay rights and injustices against queer people without saying the many toxic things I quote in this post, or the additional many toxic things I didn't mention. There are some things I think Kipnis is right about, but I think it would be a terrible and harmful mistake to think on their basis that she's right about these things.

      7:15: I'm sorry you feel that way I guess? Obviously I disagree.

      More generally: I'm willing to continue to engage with anonymous people if they're actually engaging, but I don't see a lot of value in anonymous comments that do nothing more than insult. Such comments aren't part of the strongest case for the social or epistemic value of anonymous speech.

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    7. I do not expect you to examine yourself and your privilege. It oozes out of every word you write. You are glib and condescending at best, arrogant and dismissive at worst. You do not know how to honestly and empathetically engage, nor do you seem capable of sufficient introspect to really change.

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    8. OK, well you're entitled to your opinion. I'm going to ignore it. You are an anonymous commenter on a blog. You have no credibility. I'm going to continue to express my opinions, from the position that I occupy.

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    9. The "position you occupy" is a third-rate blogger and fifth-rate "philosopher" who has not yet published a single-authored book (and whose co-authored title is a dull, insipid tome) but who luckily got a job and tenure based on spousal accommodations. You have spent several blog posts mansplaining issues of gender and consent to a first-rate feminist thinker, author of seven books, whose influence in the field--and in the general culture--will always exceed yours by several orders of magnitude.

      You are writing these posts for two reasons: 1. out of envy at Kipnis's superior status, which eats at you in your savage mediocrity, and 2. to run cynical interference for the cabal of witch-hunt fanatics whose self-righteous arrogance of power destroyed a man's career. I'm sure your wife pats you on your little green head every evening for these noble efforts. The rest of us see right through you.

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    10. Now, now, Anonymous, don’t be so mean to Itchy. I’m not sure it’s true that our tattooed love boy goes home every evening for a wifely pat. Catting around is, after all, part of his “philosophy.” Besides, I think he’s cute. Cuter than Peter Ludlow, for sure. Here's hoping the witchfinders don't take it into their heads to drive him into exile too.

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    11. Glug glug glug my face is a bug. I'm anonymous neener neener neener.

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    12. Hey, I didn't say that! I'm not a bug.

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    13. Ha ha, but my FACE, that's a bug... my face.

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    14. No, seriously, just. stop. now. Not a bug.

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    15. I'm not a bug because I'm a feature!!!

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    16. Your a bug and you eat garbage.

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    17. "Your"!!! You can't even grammar!

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    18. I can't even

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    19. ...scratch my abdomen because segmented! HAHAHAHHAHA

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    20. Your an idiot.

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    21. No, I'm an idiot!!!

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    22. Your BOTH idiots, idiots. You are the reason that garbage was invented. Just crawl back into your hole and leave those of us who are Rational to our superior discourse.

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  8. I think Kipnis is trying to point out that the presence of sex is distorting our sense of how serious the physical confrontation is. Suppose I chased a female colleague around my desk in order to put an ice cube down the back of her shirt (imagine some context where this would be justified; don't tell me you can't). Or suppose a heated argument at a bar between two men comes to shoving match. I think we can "get past" both of these scenarios without the language of "assault" and "trauma". We can even imagine perfect reconciliations where everyone is friends afterwards. Why, Kipnis is asking, does it suddenly become a hanging (i.e., firing) offense is the motive is sexual, rather than playful or macho? Why do we immediately think there's a victim just because lust was the motivator? I think that's a good question. Even if it has a good answer. This issue about the different ways we answer that question.

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    1. Dude. If you chase me around my workplace and physically restrain me to put objects inside my clothing against my will, I will absolutely report it to your supervisor, call the police, and press charges. Whether or not I think you got off on it.

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    2. You don't know anyone at work that you can have this kind of fun with?

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    3. Speaking as a woman who's endured this manner of teasing, no. It's not "fun," even when my male colleagues think it is. I don't go to work to flirt. I can have fun at work, but I don't go to work to have fun.

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    4. Yes, yes, yes. Thank you Jonathan and Amy.

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    6. The next and obvious question is whether you (Amy, Jonathan, Kyla) have a *right* to be spared harmless teasing by your colleagues. I.e., whether, as Jonathan suggests, if someone pushes you out of your comfort zone, but into absolutely no danger at all, the police or your boss should be involved in the resolution of the conflict. Kipnis is not saying these things should be accepted; she asking what not accepting them implies, and what remedies should be available to people who have been ruffled a little but not harmed.

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    7. PS (@Amy): I am of course speaking as a man who has "endured" such things too. Sometimes I didn't like it; sometimes it was fun. (If you insist that you've never had this kind of fun, well, I'm just sad for you.) In no case would I involve, as Jonathan would, the police. (If you've ever reported a coworker who dropped an an ice cube down the back of your shirt to the police, well ... I don't know what to think.)

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    8. I'm sorry Thomas but I do not accept your characterization of "harmless teasing". A professional environment where people get physically chased to have mischief done against their wills to their bodies is totally unacceptable. This is true even if it is not part of a broader pattern of oppression—which frankly isn't very likely. (Some kinds of people are much likelier to be the targets of this kind of harassment than others.)

      The harm is even more unacceptable if, as it usually will be, it is targeted systematically against people with certain kinds of identities. If you chase someone around because they're a woman, then you're creating a hostile environment women. If you chase someone around because they're Chinese, then you're creating a hostile environment for Chinese people.

      I think you're very wrong to think there's no harm done in these cases. It's grossly misleading to describe being physically, literally, chased against your will as merely "pushing you out of your comfort zone".

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    9. You are imagining, I think, some specific case. But you sound like you're saying that harmless teasing at work simply doesn't exist. Or, I suppose, that it is never harmless if it is in the least bit physical. I think that is simply nonsense.

      We have all been harmlessly, physically teased all our lives, including at work. I thought that was uncontroversial. The interesting element, in the context of a discussion of Kipnis's book, is sex. Does teasing become automatically harmful if it is sexual? That question doesn't even arise for you, it seems, because any teasing is harmful.

      Or am I misunderstanding something? Can you really not imagine fun, physical high jinks in a work setting? Not at any time? Not with anyone? Because that is all I was asking you to imagine. I am perfectly aware that such things can be harmful when taken to certain levels, and especially when the motive is, not to have fun, but to humiliate. I'm just saying that's not always, or even mostly, what happens. And that includes when the motive is sexual.

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    10. I don't really care to get drawn into a long conversation about the boundaries of possibility. I don't think cases like the ones you describe are impossible, but I think it's going to be very easy for people to wrongly take themselves to be in such a position when in positions of authority. Moreover, I don't think that's relevant for my criticism of the book.

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    11. Dude. (If I may.) Maybe go back to my original comment and your first response and see who was drawing who into what. I was definitely not raising the boundary of "harmless teasing" as a discussion point. I was taking as given that such a boundary exists. I was then asking the question of whether sex in an of itself completely erases that boundary, creating a space of absolute vulnerability and, therefore, automatic victimhood. Answer that question however you like, it is certainly relevant to your criticism of the story about being chased around a desk.

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    12. Three points.

      1. As I said in my most recent comment in this thread, when harassment is targeted based on gender it is particularly damaging. This is one reason that sexualized harassment is more harmful than many other kinds.

      2. Although there is such a thing as harmless teasing, chasing someone around a desk in an attempt to kiss them by force isn't harmless teasing. It is assault.

      3. Even if we were talking about the exceptionally unusual circumstances in which the kinds of actions described in (2), and in the passage from p. 155, could be harmless—if, for example, it was in the context of an explicitly consensual and welcome friendship—that fact would make the anecdote irrelevant for the purposes of the point for which it's put forward. "What ever happened to an old-fashioned pass?", Kipnis recounts her mother saying, "when I filled her in on the responses of today's grad students to similar episodes". The similar episodes in question are certainly not harmless teasing. Harmless teasing does not result in Title IX complaints.

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    13. In ordinary talk, the difference between "he hit me" and "he assaulted me" is that the first suggests it can be worked out between the two parties and the second suggests that some sort of police intervention is called for. What Kipnis's mother is saying is that she wouldn't think of calling the police, because she was not harmed, nor felt she was in any danger, and she handled the situation herself. After she got "through with him" he knew where he stood. And so did she.

      After calling the police, by contrast, one might feel perpetually in need of their protection, because one assumed (wrongly) that the threat of police action is the only thing that prevented the "dude" from raping her. That's the troubling situation we're getting into. Any "unwanted advance" is now seen (by some) as lead-up to assault. But it isn't. No more than that ice cube I've been obsessing about.

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    14. PS: You are begging the question on whether harmless teasing occasions Title IX complaints. Many of the controversial cases are ones where consensual sex (which is *less* harmful than harmless teasing and actually enjoyable) is allegedly reinterpreted, months later, as sexual assault.

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    15. You are begging the question on whether such cases involve consensual sex, or whether, as the complainants say, they were sexual assaults.

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    16. No. I am *asking* that question. I'm saying that this is the issue, the controversy. I'm saying some Title IX complaints are legitimate (but perhaps still best dealt with by the police) and others are not. You seemed to be saying that if a complaint has been filed then the sex must have been non-consensual. That begs the question.

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    17. You said: 'Many of the controversial cases are ones where consensual sex (which is *less* harmful than harmless teasing and actually enjoyable) is allegedly reinterpreted, months later, as sexual assault.'

      This is true if many of the controversial cases are brought forward by lying liars who are making up false claims about what was in fact consensual teasing, and false otherwise. That's why I said you were begging the question.

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    18. As long as we agree that a Title IX complaint is not in itself proof that harassment has taken place, I don't think we need to belabor this point.

      In my original comment, I was assuming that harmless teasing (my ice cube example) would not lead to a Title IX complaint and that we would agree that (in the ordinary cases) it should not. I was surprised that you rejected this idea and said that, not only would it be the legitimate concern of the employer, the police should even be involved. I think that it unreasonable. I think a reasonable person would feel neither harmed nor threatened, though of course annoyed, which is the point of teasing.

      One question is whether anyone has a right not be teased or otherwise annoyed at work. The next is whether women have particular right not to be teased by men. And the third is whether such a right becomes more obvious when the teasing is sexually inflected.

      In the context that I am looking at these days (astronomy), people (officials, no less) are seriously suggesting that women have a right not to be propositioned at work, even at conferences, even at the bar late at night. I suspect they'd say, like Amy, that they "don't go to work to have fun". Given that other people obviously do actively pursue both fun and romance at work, it's worth discussing what the rules should be. I don't think the answer is as obvious as you seem to.

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    19. I am not sure if you are being serious or not.

      Again: I am disputing your assertion that an ice cube example would, in typical cases, be harmless teasing. (I am not denying that there is no such possible case.) I think that quite a lot of actionable harassment, sexual and otherwise, is perpetrated by people who falsely think that they're engaged in harmless teasing.

      A Title IX complaint is an excellent indication that we're not looking at harmless teasing. It's not impossible for someone to make up false allegations in such circumstances, but it's an incredibly bizarre possibility. For reasons I've already spelled out, a sexual component to the conduct worsens things in important ways.

      I don't know on what grounds you think I think it's obvious what one should say about whether there should be rules against workplace romance. I do not think it is obvious, nor do I think I've ever said it's obvious. On the contrary, I've often said that's a difficult question, and one with which I disagree with some of my feminist colleagues. I forget whether I've already said that elsewhere in this giant thread or not, but I've said it a lot of places.

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    20. I am being serious. I understood your first reply to me as a rejection of the possibility you are now granting. I did not say such cases needed to be typical, just possible (i.e., imaginable).

      I don't think there's any simple sense in which the sexual component invariably makes it worse. For example, I might do the ice-cube thing as a clumsy attempt to flirt or even a subconscious release of sexual tension. But I might also do it to break your concentration before an important meeting with our common boss in an attempt to gain advantage in some promotion that we're competing for. I think the non-sexual harassment case here is decidedly worse than the sexually motivated teasing.

      Social life is complicated. What Kipnis and I are worried about is drawing authorities into it too quickly, and thinking of these boundaries as ones that must be formally "policed" rather than managed between people.

      I guess I'm trying to say that, no, it's not always f***ing political. Sometimes it's a personal matter, to be worked out among adults without filling out any paperwork. What is happening today is that the boundary between the personal and the political is being moved too far, as it were, inwards.

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    21. I don't understand why you are so fixated on these very weak possibility claims. Yes, I am happy to grant that many strange things are conceivable. (I have no idea how you read my first comment as a denial of possibility.)

      Here is something that isn't just conceivable: it is factually very common: one person X harasses another person Y, and and X dramatically underestimates the amount of harm does to Y. Usually Y stays quiet and endures, because complaining about these things can be super difficult, especially if there are external power dynamics at play—as, for example, in the case we started out by discussing, when X is Y's boss. If Y does talk quietly to X about it, maybe it'll go well, but maybe not. Y doesn't know how X will handle such pushback. (Y has seen a lot of people lose their tempers over these things.)

      I think it is GREAT that Y has the option of going to HR. The paper trail is an important protection for Y against retaliation. Maybe it's not necessary. Hopefully it's not necessary! But if things escalate and Y gets fired in retribution, or if the behaviour gets gradually worse and worse until it is truly unbearable, and then Y goes and complains about this long pattern of behaviour, the fact that Y hasn't involved anyone else is going to make things super hard for them. "You say you've been harassed for years. Why didn't you complain about it?"

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    22. I think it is great (and necessary) that Y has *recourse* to HR. I don't think it's great that it's *common* (though I agree that it is increasingly common) that women "stay quiet and endure" behavior they find harassing because people are increasingly unclear about how to exert and handle pushback. Kipnis's mother and her professor had these competences, it seems. Somewhere along the line they were lost. (I'm not going to blame it all on so-called helicopter parenting, but I agree with Jonathan Haidt that cultural trends like that probably play a role.)

      I assume it's unintentional, but you have, once again, begged the question by saying "one person X *harasses* another person Y, and and X dramatically underestimates the amount of harm does to Y." If it is, indeed, harassment, then there's no question that HR is relevant. The point is that it's usually not clear it's harassment until the pushback happens and X responds in retaliatory manner. That's when you know. That's when you involve HR and start keeping records.

      I don't think Y should endure something she experiences as harassment. But in most cases, she doesn't have to. She just has to push back. At that moment she discovers an agency she will otherwise be unaware of.

      In your post you say that "...refusal can mean more than running around the desk and using one's hands to push someone's face away—it can mean calling out harassment and assault for what it is, and demanding accountability. Responding in that way would be, in many cases, a genuine expression of agency."

      We disagree about this. What you are describing seems, to me, less like agency and more like dependency on authority. Whether you are appealing to the mob ("call outs" on Twitter, for example) or HR, you are missing an opportunity to take care of yourself, to experience your own power and ability to handle yourself. And those competences are what we need (on all sides) if we want to maintain the space in civil, professional life that is rightly called "personal".

      The boundary between the personal and professional must be asserted on both sides. The sort of "agency" you describe depends entirely on an outside authority. It constructs the boundary as a "professional" one. If your personal space is entirely dependent on HR (or OCR in college) for protection, you are enormously vulnerable. That is what Kipnis is so worried about. She's worried about the ability of young women to literally take care of themselves, rather than being taken care of by the State or the Corporation.

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    23. Thomas, I think you're just wrong about what harassment is. It doesn't become harassment when one responds poorly to being told to knock it off. Chasing someone around a desk to manhandle them, when this is unwelcome, is harassment right from the start.

      I think you're also wrong about agency, for the reasons laid out in my post.

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    24. I generally think of harassment as severe or pervasive behavior that creates a hostile work environment. One-off incidents that end when the supposed harasser is told to knock it off are difficult to fit into that category.

      But the phrase "when this is unwelcome" is also telling here. How do I know it's unwelcome? By being told to knock it off, of course. And if I then stop, I think it's wrong to say I've harassed anyone.

      This is a substantial disagreement, and not just between you and me. The boundary is currently contested. It's worth talking about.

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    25. This is indeed a substantive disagreement. Most institutional and/or legal approaches I've seen side with me over you in this debate, although of course it's possible to argue that this is a mistake.

      I do have a lot of thoughts about how one knows whether one is engaged in harassment—the epistemologist in me is never far from the surface—but for now all I want to say is that that's not the only important question, or the most important question. In general, it's possible to do pretty much any X without knowing that one is doing X; this also holds for X=harassment. I am very confident that quite a lot of harassment is perpetrated by people who are unaware that that's what they're doing.

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    26. Yes, Kipnis and I are critiquing a disturbing institutional trend. I think there's still some hope in the legal arena, though. I can't think of any cases off hand where I disagree with the courts. The injustices I'm most concerned about happen at the level of OCR and HR decisions; some of these are even successfully challenged in the courts.

      Part of the trend we're worried about is the emergence of a category of crime without mens rea. Some Title IX advocates go so far as to say it is possible to rape someone without knowing it. Indeed, according to the emerging orthodoxy (and some OCR decisions) a violation can occur without either party knowing that is what has happened.

      I think we have a responsibility to communicate our discomfort with other people's behavior. Otherwise we're all going to be walking on eggshells, unaware of what makes other people uncomfortable, but constantly aware that we might be fired for our making them so.

      There's a gender issue here if it's particularly men who should worry about how they make women feel without knowing it. There are lots of women who don't want to interact with men at work under those conditions. They want to be treated as equals.

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    27. I think it is completely obvious that it is possible to rape people without knowing it. Beyond question.

      If you think it's pretty obvious that it's not possible to rape people without knowing it, then we may not have enough common ground to have a fruitful discussion.

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    28. Given the seriousness of rape, both for those that it happens to and those that stand accused of it, I don't think we should just accept this lack of common ground. I think intelligent people like you and I should work to establish it. The best way forward is for you construct a clear hypothetical case; think of this like a Gettier problem.

      To just not have this conversation misses an important opportunity. After all, my ethics and epistemology is presumably that of the typical "unwitting rapist". If we get this right, we might be able to prevent some rapes.

      But let me ask you a completely serious question: do you think *you* could commit a rape without knowing it? Or is this something that you imagine only a different kind of person could do? What kind of person is that? How would they be different from you ... and, I hope you'll grant, I?

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    29. OK. Let's try.

      It was too long to leave as a comment. So my answer is here instead.

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  9. Kathleen Lowrey4/26/2017 12:43:00 PM

    For all that Kipnis argues that the Ludlow case is somehow emblematic of higher education in our times, as far as I know she doesn't get into something that seems to me really key to all the discussions around it: the fact that he was a really prestigious prof at a really prestigious school.

    If the whole scenario had gone down at a community college, I think Ludlow would be similarly out on his ear (and rightly so), but we wouldn't get this whole "oh but what about the life of the mind and how to really be lived fully sometimes professors must be allowed to squeeze a few student bums, which the students secretly fervently desire anyway because starry eyed admiration". If the setting were less prestigious, there wouldn't be all of this pondering about the Days of Yore and the Seductions of the Intellect and Chin Stroking Harrumph Harrumph.

    It would just be like: gross dude macked on students, lost his job, doy.

    I also suspect that if Ludlow were black there would be infinitely fewer laments around how unfair it is that he is now "unemployed and unemployable". The huge attention to how dangerous and scary and sad and disproportionate it is that *his* life prospects have been infringed and diminished is predicated to large degree on the fact that they were, truly, socially glorious; that the lives of a woman undergrad and a woman grad were hit by a mack track is discounted because, after all, they were less socially prestigious to start with.

    It reminds me of the Onion piece, "College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed"

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  10. This is a good post. Thank you for writing it.

    Without referring to any specific comment above, I'd just like to observe: One can consistently think both that Ichikawa has made correct, important points in this post, and think that Kipnis has made many good points about ways in which Title IX proceedings are handled poorly, problematic ways in which women are discussed in these cases, etc. This is just armchair psychoanalysis, but I think that many people like what Kipnis says in general and in the abstract, and as a result of that are somewhat resistant to hearing critiques of more specific things she says, e.g., about the various cases.

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    1. Thanks Joshua. I wholeheartedly agree. Here's an excerpt from an email I wrote to Laura Kipnis as part of an exchange on my first blog post.

      "Incidentally, I am convinced, by your book and by other sources I've read over the years, that Title IX as administered has very serious problems, including the ones you highlight about due process and transparency. I suspect that many of the students you treat yourself in opposition to also agree about this. (I rather got the impression from the book that you thought students and administrators were prancing hand-in-hand through the Title IX wonderland of their shared creation; I didn't recognize the relationship you described.) I think that universities' reflexive CYA attitude serves everyone poorly—students and faculty, victims and accused. I felt that your book drew the battle-lines in a different place than I would have hoped."

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    2. Well, she wrote the book, you didn't. And my guess it it will be read by tens of thousands more people than will ever read all of your collected gibberish.

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    3. I don't really know what you're trying to do with this comment, Anonymous. It doesn't look like an engagement with my arguments. Are you saying I shouldn't bother saying things because fewer people will read them than will read some other thing? That's a weird thing for anyone to say, but it's an especially weird thing for the author of an anonymous and insulting blog comment to say.

      Maybe you're trying to make me feel bad? If so, (a) that's not really a very nice thing to do, and (b) it didn't work. Sorry. Try again if you want—though frankly I'd prefer if you didn't.

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    4. I think he is saying that you are criticizing Kipnis for not writing the book you would have written, which is always the worst fault of reviewers. She drew the "battle lines in a different place than [you] would have hoped." Well, who really cares? Her book is being read and is likely to change the discourse on Title IX, thank goodness. You will just be an idle carper on the sidelines. That's what I assume Anonymous was saying.

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    5. Oh. Well of course Anonymous, Anonymous, or anyone else is free to ignore me.

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    6. Hmm. When I wrote my own comment, I had assumed that it would be read by more people than will read Laura Kipnis' book. But Anonymous and Anonymous have just pointed out that Ichikawa's blog will almost certainly not be read by as many people as Laura Kipnis' book. This has filled me with dread and anxiety about my own blog and other comments, here and elsewhere. If Ichikawa's blog won't be read by more people than will read Laura Kipnis' book.... then what hope could there possibly be for me? Why should I do anything at all?

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  11. This is very useful Jonathan, thanks for the post. I think your diagnosis of the principle needed to make Kipnis's view hang together is dead on.

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  12. One of the main takeaways I've gotten from this Kipnis stuff, once we abstract away from nearly all of her commentary and assertions about reality is an argument like this:

    (1) Relationships both inside universities and outside universities come with them certain power relationships. This happens not just between professor and student but also between peers.
    (2) These power relationships can and often are valued by us, for a variety of reasons including mere instrumentality, but also because they often provide bases for attraction to people. And that these power relationships are valued not just by those who stand in the more powerful position, but also those who stand in the more powerless one.
    (3) To make it against the rules to engage in these types of relationships between professors and students is to ignore (1) the possibility that these relationships are consensual among both parties and (2) that the student recognizes that engaging in this type of relationship is a serious career risk and does so at his or her own peril.

    Of course this has little to do with the case at hand, but I think it's something to be learned from this whole thing.

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    1. I agree that this line of thought is present in Kipnis's book, although I don't know that I agree that it's particularly central. There is certainly a cost to blanket bans on student–professor relationships. I think there's room for reasonable disagreement as to whether that cost is worth it, to reduce the possibility of coercive and abusive situations.

      If Kipnis had written a book on this topic, I think that would have been interesting and helpful. I might have even agreed with her conclusion.

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  13. You know, people who disagree with you aren't necessarily defending "rape culture." They may have other good reasons for disagreeing with you, as I would hope you might acknowledge. Posturing as a paragon of virtue while creating strawmen for enemies is not a good look. Some of us may simply not believe that you're the God's gift to feminism you clearly think yourself to be.

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    1. I was pretty careful in this post to explain on what grounds I was attributing to Kipnis the views I did. I've seen a lot of people accusing me of attacking a straw man, but none engaging with my arguments as to why this is an appropriate characterization of Kipnis.

      As for rape culture—a term I didn't use in this post—I do think that Kipnis's book constitutes a defence of rape culture, although I recognize that she disagrees. Not all defenders of rape culture say "I like rape culture". (Pretty much none do.) But when one says the things Kipnis says—many of which I have quoted in this post—one is contributing to rape culture.

      As for my own moral character, I haven't said anything about it at all in this post. It's a topic anonymous commenters keep bringing up. And I mean, the attention is flattering I guess, but I'm not really here to talk about me.

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    2. This is just a vile slur. And of course you're here to talk about you. It's ALL about you, all the time. Your preening narcissism drips from every word you write.

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    3. Anonymous, you seem very invested in talking about me. Why?

      And which thing are you describing as a 'vile slur'? Was it something I said?

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  14. Jonathan, thank you for your insightful analyses and thoughtful discussion!

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  15. Jonathan, You are so logical and articulate. In two short blog postings you have laid bare the fallacious arguments of Kipnis' book. Thanks much for saving me from reading her awful book. Honestly, if Kipnis had just discussed some of her research ideas with you for fifteen minutes from the outset, she'd have been spared the year or two it took her to write Unwelcome Advances. Better yet, if your laser-sharp intellect had been applied to the committee that wrote Northwestern University's new and very reasonable policy that student and profs shouldn't fool around with each other, it's unlikely Kipnis could have written any words in opposition to yours. I bet your own University of BC will very soon recognize your potential and move you swiftly up the academic ranks into administration where they definitely need more like you. I hope you won't mind me adding that's a very handsome photograph of you on your website http://philosophy.ubc.ca/persons/jonathan-ichikawa/ - I especially like the patches on the elbows - very professorial - dean material if ever there was. Don't let the haters get to you, you know the haters gonna hate.

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  16. Hi, JJI! We're just popping in to congratulate you on a truly myrmecological effort towards justice for all. Keep it up! And, don't let the Anonymous Army get you down (not like it would anyways - their battalions are fatally lacking in premier ant content).

    All the best!

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  17. Gordon McMillan5/02/2017 08:26:00 AM

    I did the first post. Sorry, didn't realise being anonymous would be the way of the douche. So I'm now pseudonymous.

    We attribute (abstract) values we approve of to true self of fellow in-group individuals, and explain away concrete descriptions of negative behaviour. Vice versa forthe behaviour of people from outgroups.

    Question is: how and why do we make sure that boys and girls attach strong group identity to their genders, and harbour disgust responses to one another?

    What is the innocence we attribute to them, given that they regularly lie, cheat, steal, and are violent, if not purely based on their having (as much as we can make possible) no exposure to sex?

    If we hold that sex is to be first and foremost a source of threat - from disease, pregnancy (financial/career consequences thereof), social rejection, violence, etc. - would we not then treat as threat the commingling of genders in childhood as a way to protect them from the sickness that is sex?

    Is this sort of fear about the harms of sex, and the emphasis on demarcating genders based on sex, and separating the offender group from their intended victim group the very means by which this binary system is reconstituted with each generation?

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    1. Hi Gordon, to be honest, I have no idea what you're talking about. I just don't understand your comment.

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  18. 1. Unfortunately, I'm not sure this philosophizing is any longer convincing to anyone who isn't an idealistic/ideological academic. Kipnis' book, to my surprise, has been largely well received by the liberal mainstream. You're right that Kipnis doesn't offer a clear account of what consent is, or should be. And you're right that she relies on comparisons to an archaic cultural past. Those women on 'Mad Men' handled Don and Roger fine, right?

    But I took her descriptions of things like her mother being chased around a desk as counter-anecdotes about possibilities for alternative forms of agency, resistance, humor, comedy, and behavioral flexibility, and alternative cultural systems for reconciling gender, sex, desire and power.

    I think that's important because this new hyper-awareness of sex and power is probably a passing phase itself, one which will be looked back on as - agreeing with Kipnis here - a paranoid moral panic. So we need to think about what more reasonable and sustainable norms for sexual life should be, and to have a real discussion, rather than imposing a half-baked, out-of-touch vision of the world on young people through backdoor legislation.

    I'm glad you agree with Professor Kipnis that Title IX bureaucracy is a disaster. It fails victims, it fails the accused, it deprives men, primarily, of due process, and when it's not traumatizing women or failing to punish rapists, it's punishing innocent people.

    Focusing on Kipnis' interpretation of the Ludlow case, which is the tactic most of her critics within academia seem to be taking, ignores the fact that, if Ludlow was in a moral grey area, there are other cases where moral white was labeled black. She mentions some, and says her email has been a "clearinghouse" for stories. But because she's doing her "polemic" thing, she didn't offer a careful or exhaust catalog of the clearinghouse.

    But outside the liberal bubble we all stay in, you can look at FIRE, or Campusreform, Reason magazine, and it's not just that they're competing narratives and interpretations - conservative media is chock full of examples of Title IX abuses that liberal media just entirely omit. There are enough of them - some truly egregious - that saying Kipnis has been "misreading the cultural situation" is either uninformed or not entirely honest. On some level you recognize that, if you're in agreement with her about Title IX procedures - which puts you in agreement with a couple dozen faculty of Harvard Law School (who would presumably have a firmer grounding in due process than many philosophers).

    So, Title IX is a disaster, I'd add the "moral panic" claim very quickly, even if it's a witch hunt where there are some actual witches. Why? Because most of the statistics about sexual assault which became propagandized to build momentum for a cultural shift were irresponsible. The 1 in 4 claim is bogus, the claim that only 2 percent of rape accusations are false is so unsourced as to basically be a guess. The frequent complaint, too, about how only a small number of rapes exit the legal system with a guilty verdict ignores the fact that the same fact holds for murders and other crimes. So the narrative about sexual assault is incredibly skewed and distorted, and it's frightened and energized people, and primed them to be alert to anything that seems dangerous and to believe that they're tilting at a great systemic injustice by doing so.

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  19. 2. As for consent itself, it's true Kipnis doesn't theorize it in a compelling way. The idea that someone can't be raped or assaulted by a person they desire is silly, and it's possible for interest to turn into reluctance, or refusal, and to have one's desire and agency overpowered by another.

    Again, though, I don't think that's exactly Kipnis' point. She seems to be providing these scenarios in order to counter the moral and psychological crudity (or is it elegant simplicity?) of the reigning system. We're not transparent or translucent beings, and I think her kinda-Freudian premise is that we're opaque to ourselves, full of conflict, contradiction, and ambivalence, that communication is messy, that we can send mixed messages or have mixed feelings, that misunderstandings are rampant, especially in delicate contexts where our insecurities and baggage come to the fore, that words and actions can be received in varying ways. So an unexpected amorous avowal or an awkward proposition shouldn't be ripped from its context and cut to be the puzzle piece in a bigger conceptual picture, no matter how the cardboard frays.

    What does that mean for consent? I don't know. That it's never absolute, that it's sometimes ambivalent, that enthusiasm is one thing, and a good one, but that making unambiguous and consistent desire the standard for sexual propriety is just impossible, at least in a climate where any slight violation is likely to be put under the same umbrella as any major one. What if I get a little bored receiving oral sex? Can I retroactively categorize that as sexual assault? What if you bite your partner a little harder than they expected? If they don't tell you at the time, or expect you to differentiate between a noise of pleasure and pain, and then retroactively categorize the behavior as assault, is that fair?

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  20. 3. I don't believe in applying that kind of scrutiny to every marginal shift in power or comfort in a sexual encounter - the only reason I'm asking these questions is because it seems to be exactly the analytic method used in sexual assault deliberations, and the activist culture around them. There was one incident in the UK, IIRC, where a student leader resigned in distress and disgrace, because she had been kissing someone else at a party, asked permission to touch one breast, and then neglected to ask for permission before touching the other.

    Maybe these are outliers, or one end of the spectrum of what's happening, but they seem contained in the urgency about affirmative consent, the reminder that it can be withdrawn at any time. That's true, but it's always been true, and the application of that idea now seems sometimes to envision something like stop-motion animation sex, punctilious "Mother, May I?" sex, sex that scrupulously avoids passion, abandonment, flux, dissolving of boundaries, blurring of agency and self and other. Without any pleasure in unpredictability or surprise. Consent is like "tea."

    That's fine, I mean, if this is ultimately a drive to articulate the possibilities of female pleasure, if that's the norm that women prefer, there are easier ways to establish it. But it also seems like a version of sex which would appeal primarily to inexperienced people or to women who have been sexually traumatized and not yet healed from it psychologically. As if one makes love with a rape whistle in their mouth. It actually seems like a compelling normative question about whether the rules of the road for sexual life should be designed with the expectation that we all have healthy communication and coping skills and a capacity to tolerate minor scrapes, and that true trauma is rare and not easily predicted, or whether it should be designed with the sensitivities and fears of vulnerable people squarely centered.

    The latter option, though, seems to be placing an unfair burden on young men. They are always the aggressors and initiators, even if there are nods to other scenarios. They are tasked with performing incredible chivalry, and a bizarre Victorian deference to female diffidence and frailty. Women are absolved from the responsibility of communicating their own desires, or preferences, of ever saying “no”, and place men in a position of exceptional vulnerability to partners who might interpret or misinterpret or reinterpret acts or nuances as rape. It seems actually like it would be quite a power trip for women, if the enthusiastic consent standard, as it’s been applied, were made universal. But again, if there’s an actual desire, like to be a dominatrix, it’s better to ask than to renovate the entire sexual culture through back channels and make everyone panicked and miserable.

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  21. Now that's an anonymous comment! Actually three or more.

    If you don't want the Gordon McMillan's of the blog (5/02/2017 08:26:00 AM) to think you a [redacted] (sorry, I cannot use such a gendered offense), you can be pseudonymous by choosing the option above Anonymous in the pull down menu.

    It would have a practical benefit that if you post more than once, your pseudonymous identity is shared across the posts.

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    1. Anonymous Sense5/05/2017 09:23:00 PM

      Thanks, Bunnies, sorry. I've only posted these three, and one on Jonathan's follow-up, responding to an anonymous commenter, and 'Thomas', about her own rape.

      I would hope my comments do not make me seem like a [redacted].

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