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)
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.