Laura Kipnis is provocative, and there’s a degree to which the deliberateness of her provocation and the joy she takes framing her argument in the most provocative way that makes her a provocateur. Nevertheless, in Unwanted Advances Kipnis offers an incisive diagnosis of, among other contemporary cultural issues, the bloated Title IX bureaucracy and the backdoor anti-feminism it sustains under the guise of feminism. The book jacket blasts this broadside at contemporary feminism with the forceful lack of nuance that characterizes her entire book: “If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama.” The point is made at greater length and with a bit more precision in the final thoughts.
Women want to have sexual adventures and make mistakes, but there’s a growing tendency, at the moment, to offload the responsibility, to make other people pay for those mistakes–namely, guys. Women don’t drink; men get them drunk. Women don’t have sex; sex is done to them. This isn’t feminism, it’s a return to the most traditional conceptions of female sexuality.
As evidence for this diagnosis, Kipnis offers two broad case studies. The first is that of Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern University professor of philosophy who resigned over issues related to sexual activities with two students. The official narrative (which you can read at length here) is that Ludlow abused his power as a professor to varying degrees to harass or assault these two students. Kipnis argues that this narrative is only believable as long as the secrecy of Title IX tribunals is held as sacrosanct, as is the “mantra” that “survivors must be believed.” (“The problem is the unacknowledged slippage between ‘survivors’ and ‘accusers.’) When the confidential evidence of the Title IX investigation is brought to light–which Kipnis takes almost puckish relish in doing–and when people are given the epistemic space to evaluate harassment or assault allegations the way they evaluate other truth claims, the story crumbles (or at least wobbles).
The other case study is Kipnis’ own Title IX investigation, the result of two Northwestern students who objected to an article Kipnis wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (and a subsequent tweet about the outrage it sparked). The students charged that Kipnis had created a “chilling effect” on the ability of students to report sexual misconduct and that the very act of mentioning the charges against Ludlow “was retaliatory and created a hostile environment” for the accuser.
Perhaps unwittingly–though doubtless not as unwittingly as she makes out–Kipnis had found herself in the middle of a larger cultural battle raging around campus sexual assault, one that people of her perspective and temperament had already functionally lost in the public discourse even as they continued to fight it out in front of Congress and the courts. On the one hand, the loudest voices in campus politics and on Twitter and in the culture at large, belong to a camp that Kipnis calls “primary preventionists.” These are people “who believe in targeting potential offenders [men] while promoting overall cultural change.” On the other hand, there are the “risk” or “harm reductionists,” the people “who want to educate potential victims about how to decrease their chance of victimhood–using a buddy system at parties, not falling asleep with male study partners, and so on.”
It’s really a debate about the relationship between agency and blame (or, as I’ve written recently with reference to Kipnis, causality and culpability). Risk reductionists worry that primary preventionists are so busy blaming men that they give them all the power and, in Kipnis’ words, “replicate the supposedly passé social idea that men have agency and women are people to whom things just happen.” Meanwhile, primary preventionists believe that the stress on women’s agency is a cover for (or at least tantamount to) blaming victims. Kipnis quotes one expert as saying, “Society needs to establish a zero tolerance for sexual violence. Instead of saying, ‘don’t get raped,’ which shifts the responsibility onto a potential victim, the message should be ‘don’t rape’ and focus on holding perpetrators accountable.”
Both characterizations (blaming victims vs. disempowering women) are parodies of the intent of the respective positions, and the students Kipnis talks to show clear signs that, in real life, their response to the sexual culture on campus are less ideologically pure and more mingled. Yet Kipnis offers a level of pragmatism and cynicism that resonates, at least with those who of us who are not naively optimistic about human nature.
Yes, there’s an excess of masculine power in the world, and women have to be educated to contest it in real time, instead of waiting around for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness–just in case that day never comes….Teaching affirmative consent is great–sure, keep doing it until it works. (It’s not going to.) Yes, harassment and assault are structural problems; yes society has to change….Nobody thinks self-defense training will be effective in every case. But it would change the outcome in plenty of cases, and we’re doing women no favors by not training them in how to deal with the range of situations they’re likely to face.
These are precisely the things policy makers and public intellectuals struggle to say. The idea of “training women to have more agency is somehow taboo,” Kipnis laments. This particularly true if you accept the statistics offered by Kipnis, from the New York Times, about the success of some risk reduction programs in reducing assaults by as much as 50%. There are, according to the author, no comparable statistics for the success of the currently en vogue primary prevention programs. If there is a campus epidemic of sexual assault (and Kipnis expresses measured skepticism), then women have a right to the best tools for preventing those assaults–not sometime in the bright and glorious future but now when it is happening. “‘I’m not excusing the male’s behavior by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that young women are part of the solution.'”
I came in to Unwanted Advances already both a cynic and a pragmatist (on this and many other issues), so Kipnis provided a wealth of new insights and anecdotal support for positions I already essentially held. This is perhaps the greatest flaw in her case, that it is entirely in the form of a diatribe argued from anecdote. As a feminist intellectual and academic cultural critic, Kipnis provides an unusual voice for a position normally stereotyped as fitting only for a “huffing and puffing…bow-tied neocon.” That in itself was reassuring for me, both personally and intellectually. But for every story of Title IX injustice, there is certainly a case of an assault victim who received no justice, a harasser who escaped both scrutiny and consequence. What then is the takeaway from Kipnis’ book even for those who do not, who cannot agree with her.
More than anything, Kipnis argues for transparency, epistemic honesty, education, and dialogue.
We’re never going to decrease sexual assault on campus–a goal I assume everyone shares–if we can’t have open conversations about it. Having control over your body is, especially for women, a learned skill; it requires education. It also requires a lot more honesty about the complicated sexual realities hiding behind the slogans than is currently permissible.
Unfortunately, our current climate of purity tests and public denunciations allows no space for any of this. It isn’t that I know I’m right–though I necessarily believe that I am. Conservatives have been wrong before. Men have certainly been wrong before. I’ve personally be wrong before. Kipnis, I hope, would have the humility to say the same about women, feminists, and herself as well. The problem is that campus administrators, politicians, and activities have come to the conclusion that wrong ideas can be legislated out of existence. They cannot be. Racism and sexism have found ways to resurrect and replicate in every generation without regard for laws and regulations.
Wrong ideas only go away when they cease to be useful, when the paradigm no longer functions meaningfully to interpret the world. In other words, if risk reduction (or pragmatism or cynicism) are wrong, the only way to rid the world of them is through suasion or obsolescence. They cannot be shouted down. They cannot be legislated away. If you want a bad belief to disappear, you must–and we stress the titular metaphor beyond the breaking point now–allow the unwanted argument to continue to advance until it becomes so absurd that not even its most staunch proponents will employ it anymore.
In the meantime, all Kipnis asks–all I ask–is that we do whatever needs to be done to stop some sexual assaults along the way.