Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Kipnis on believing rape survivors

There have been several recent feminist reactions to Laura Kipnis's book that I've found pretty insightful. Here's a Jezebel piece focusing on the lawsuit; here's a very solid review by Jeremy C. Young, focusing on the harm the book does to university culture. I started blogging at length about this book a couple months back because I felt like no one was publicly articulating some of the obvious feminist perspective; I'm glad to see that others have started to write about it too. I had thought that my previous post would be my last on the topic, but I did have a new thought today in response to something I read in this series of "Short Takes" by Signs. Unlike the other critiques I've read, this one included a response by Kipnis herself.

The exchange I want to discuss is about rape and rape culture and involves some specifics. So consider yourself content advised.

One of the Signs critiques, by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, begins with a description of her own experiences of sexual assault, both as a child and as a young adult. She includes this description:
I was on a study abroad program and broke all of the university’s rules to go out, very late at night, with the man who would become my rapist. I was raped in the hotel room for which I paid. I told the man who raped me, “I don’t want to do this. Please stop.” I didn’t violently fight back. I didn’t scream or yell at the top of my lungs because I was afraid. I didn’t want to make a scene. I blamed myself for saying yes, for breaking the rules about spending the night away from where we were housed, for paying for the hotel room, and for asking the man who raped me to put on a condom.
Afterward, she told her friends that the experience had been consensual. She withheld that she'd been frightened, and that she'd changed her mind, and that she'd asked him to stop. Even in her private thoughts, she didn't think of what had happened as rape. Simmons writes: "I thought rape was when a strange, unidentifiable man lurking in the bushes grabs you in the middle of the night. I didn’t know that rape could happen under circumstances like mine or that I could have the audacity to change my mind." She continues:
I share a part of my story because for many people who don’t have any understanding of what rape is, they would not define what happened to me in March 1989 as rape. Frankly, after reading Kipnis’s deeply troubling Unwanted Advances, I’m not sure she would define what happened to me as rape.
Simmons goes on to raise a number of critiques about Kipnis's book, relating it to the rise of Donald Trump and questioning her treatment of race and Blackness. It's all well worth a read (as are the other pieces), but it is the discussion of her own rape that I want to focus on.

In her response, Kipnis expresses incredulity at Simmons's description of her view. "Is Signs seriously asking me," she asks, "to respond to ... Aishah Shahidah Simmons’s [charge] that I’d deny she was raped? For the record, my central concern throughout the book is the content of sexual consent. If you tell someone to stop and they don’t, it’s rape. Rape is a crime."

I was surprised by this particular display of indignation. Based on what I've read and heard from Kipnis, it seems to me extremely plausible that she would have denied that Simmons was raped. Two details about her story stand out in this context. First, Simmons returned to her dorm after sneaking out to see a man, paying for a hotel room, and spending the night with him, then told her friends that she'd had an exciting and consensual evening. It wasn't until later that she even herself conceptualized herself as having been raped, or described it thus to others.

This looks quite a lot like the kind of situation Kipnis describes in her book as "retroactive withdrawal of consent", where she writes with scorn about the idea of someone deciding, months or years after the fact, that they'd been raped, thus "transforming" the experience "retrospectively" into a rape. She mocks the idea that the relationship between Ludlow and "Hartley" was nonconsensual, asking, "What would it mean to not consent to sending a thousand texts and emails?" (p. 95) One might as well ask, "What would it mean to not consent to sneaking out, renting a hotel room, and inviting a man to stay with you?" It would be just as irrelevant. On pp. 97–8 Kipnis also makes much of the fact that, shortly after the alleged rape, Hartley denies that she'd been raped—just as Simmons did. Kipnis thinks that accepting Hartley's story would require one "to expunge all female intelligence, agency, autonomy, and desire from her calculations" (p. 122). To her credit, Kipnis doesn't seem willing to say the same to Simmons in the face of her story. Perhaps the difference lies in which side of the story was made salient to her.

Second, Kipnis's self-attribution of the view that "if you tell someone to stop and they don’t, it’s rape," and her professed emphasis on consent, does not reflect the book. Nowhere in Unwanted Advances does Kipnis define "rape". On p. 16 she quotes with derision a university finding that "consent had to be voluntary, present, and ongoing." She mentions on p. 40 that there isn't a general scientific standard for what counts as rape. On pp. 120–1 she expresses some confusion and mistrust about the notion of "consent". On pp. 198–9 she describes categories that fall between consensual sex and rape, where ambivalent feelings are susceptible to multiple interpretations. On p. 202 she describes a "crazy expansionism about what constitutes rape and assault", mentioning the view that rape does not require penetration, but nowhere in the book does Kipnis articulate her own preferred—presumably more restrictive—view.

She has, however, articulated a view on the question in a May 2017 interview with Cathy Young:
CATHY YOUNG: So, in a way, this whole debate over “is this rape or is it not rape” is taking us in the wrong direction, isn’t it?
LAURA KIPNIS: I would have to say, and maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned on this point—I think the dividing line is the use of physical force to [make someone] have sex, and I do think that’s a criminal matter.
CATHY YOUNG: Or if we’re talking about someone who is not just intoxicated but physically incapacitated, to the extent that they are unable to remove themselves from the situation.
LAURA KIPNIS: Absolutely true. But then you get into questions that are complicated—how drunk is too drunk to consent, the fact that people can be in a blackout state and seem conscious. I think people are trying to draw hard and fast lines, and Title IX investigators are in that position of making pronouncements in fuzzy situations.
This is the only place I've seen Kipnis say what rape is. And what she says is, it's what happen when someone uses physical force to compel sex. (Given the remarks about penetration mentioned above, I'm guessing she's restricting "sex" to penis-in-vagina.) When pressed, she concedes that it's also possible to be incapacitated to the point where sexual activity would be rape, but emphasizes immediately that it's very difficult to know where to draw the line.

Simmons says she didn't use violent force to attempt to stop her rapist. She used her words. She told him to stop, but she didn't attempt to use physical force to make him stop.

(I hope this is 100% clear without my saying it explicitly, but just in case: I am not remotely skeptical about whether Simmons was raped. I take her at her word, and I think the case she describes definitely counts as a case of rape. I'm arguing that, from the perspective of someone who is skeptical about a lot of these cases, as Kipnis is, it would make similar sense (and be a similar mistake) to be skeptical about Simmons's case.)

So I think Simmons was perfectly justified in suspecting that her case was the kind of case Kipnis might say wasn't a rape. It looks quite a lot like many of the kinds of cases Kipnis spins into narratives about hysterical snowflakes who retrospectively some to regret their sexual decisions. Kipnis is certainly wrong to find this interpretation of her work to be shocking. It is the natural interpretation. Indeed, it follows from the things she's said.

In the book, Kipnis never seeks out the victims' side of the story. Her descriptions of cases—both the central ones involving Peter Ludlow, and the many briefer anecdotes throughout the book—are based entirely on what she's heard from people who were accused of wrongdoing. Under those circumstances, it's perhaps unsurprising that Kipnis doesn't experience much empathy for those on the other side of the stories. She never heard those versions of the story. It is telling that, when she starts on the survivor's side, as she does here, her sympathies shift. Obviously a case like that would be a rape. How dare you suggest I'd think otherwise?

But cases like that really are just like the cases she discusses. So of course victims of sexual assault who read Kipnis's book will think she doesn't stand with them. I'm glad Kipnis recognizes their humanity and their experiences when confronted directly with their stories. I just wish she'd exercised her imagination a bit more in writing the book; maybe she would have realized that stories like the ones she discusses look just like Simmons's, when seen from a different angle.


  1. You don’t offer any foundation for your surprise that Laura Kipnis finds the following unambiguous: "I told the man who raped me, 'I don’t want to do this. Please stop.'”
    Compare the above to the allegation that is at the center of Kipnis’s book: “Hartley now charged that Ludlow had raped her on one occasion when she was asleep in his bed after drinking too much, though she didn’t actually remember it happening.” Kipnis’s book centers on these kinds of allegations, ambiguous ones, not the unambiguous Aishah Shahidah Simmons ones.
    So… "Kipnis's self-attribution of the view that 'if you tell someone to stop and they don’t, it’s rape,' and her professed emphasis on consent, does not reflect the book." Of course it doesn't reflect the book, because an open and shut case of vocal non-consent, such as that remembered by Simmons, isn't at all the subject matter of the book.
    "I hope this is 100% clear without my saying it explicitly, but just in case: I am not remotely skeptical about whether Simmons was raped." So, if you were hearing Simmons’ allegations as a Title IX decision maker, would you decide immediately to expel the accused student, without hearing his side of things? You’re a philosophy professor, specializing in knowledge. Get a grip.
    First of all, Simmons’ recollection that in 1989 she believed it was not rape when someone you know forces sex on you even after you’ve said “No” strains credulity. Rape, including acquaintance and date rape, was a very common topic in movies and television in 1988-89. (Google “What’s Behind TV’s Obsession with Rape?”)That rape could be initiated by people you know was commonplace knowledge. Also, it matters when weighing credibility in a ‘she said he said’ case that Simmons told friends afterwards that the sex was consensual.

    1. So wait.

      John Haberstroh, your first point seems to be that Kipnis is right to be indignant at the suggestion that she might not have believed Simmons's experience of rape.

      In addition to ignoring the specific reasons for which I argued that Simmons's speculation about Kipnis's attitude about this case was well-justified—including her explicit statement to the effect that rape requires the use of physical force—you contradict yourself in your second point, which seems to be arguing that Simmons's account is not credible, and that we shouldn't believe Simmons's experience of her rape.

    2. Get a grip. <-- well said.