Culture

A ‘Left-Wing Feminist’ Attacks the Climate of Sexual Paranoia on Campus

(Image: Wessam Eldeeb/Dreamstime)
Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis recalls her experience with the student speech police.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Laura Kipnis’s new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. It is reprinted here with permission.

Lately I’ve been thinking that future generations will look back on the recent upheavals in sexual culture on American campuses and see officially sanctioned hysteria. They’ll wonder how supposedly rational people could have succumbed so easily to collective paranoia, just as we look back on previous such outbreaks (Salem, McCarthyism, the Satanic ritual abuse preschool trials of the 1980s) with condescension and bemusement. They’ll wonder how the federal government got into the moral panic business, tossing constitutional rights out the window in an ill-conceived effort to protect women students from a rapidly growing catalogue of sexual bogeymen. They’ll wonder why anyone would have described any of this as feminism when it’s so blatantly paternalistic, or as “political correctness” when sexual paranoia doesn’t have any predictable political valence. (Neither does sexual hypocrisy.) Restoring the most fettered versions of traditional femininity through the back door is backlash, not progress.

I didn’t mean to stumble into the middle of all of this, and I hope that doesn’t sound disingenuous. Sure, I like stirring up trouble — as a writer, that is — but believe me, I’m nobody’s idea of an activist, quite the reverse. Despite being a left-wing feminist, something in me hates a slogan, even well-intentioned ones like “rape culture.” Worse, I tend to be ironic — I like irony; it helps you think because it gives you critical distance on a thing. Irony doesn’t sit very well in the current climate, especially when it comes to irony about the current climate. Critical distance itself is out of fashion — not exactly a plus when it comes to intellectual life (or education itself). Feelings are what’s in fashion. I’m all for feelings; I’m a standard-issue female, after all. But this cult of feeling has an authoritarian underbelly: Feelings can’t be questioned or probed, even while furnishing the rationale for sweeping new policies, which can’t be questioned or probed either. (I speak from experience here). The result is that higher education has been so radically transformed that the place is almost unrecognizable.

There are plenty of transformations I’d applaud: more diversity in enrollments and hiring; need-blind admissions; progress toward gender equity. But personally, I dislike being told what I can and can’t say. Beyond that, there are pretty important freedoms at stake that are worth fighting to preserve. Hence this book, which I suspect is going to test the limits of what can and can’t be said about the sexual and intellectual situation on campus and beyond at the present moment. If this sounds like activism, well, I’ve been driven to it — entirely against my own nature — which shows how bizarre it’s gotten in higher education these days.

Higher education has been so radically transformed that the place is almost unrecognizable.

When I first heard, in March 2015, that students at the university where I teach had staged a protest march over an essay I’d written about sexual paranoia in academe, and that they were carrying mattresses and pillows, I was a bit nonplussed. For one thing, mattresses had become a symbol of student-on-student sexual assault — a Columbia University student became known as “mattress girl” after spending a year dragging a mattress around campus in a performance-art piece meant to protest the university’s ruling in a sexual-assault complaint she’d filed against a fellow student — whereas I’d been talking about the new consensual-relations codes prohibiting professor–student dating. I suppose I knew the essay would be controversial — the whole point of writing it was to say things I believed were true (and suspected a lot of other people thought were true), but weren’t being said for fear of repercussions. Still, I’d been writing as a feminist. And I hadn’t sexually assaulted anyone. The whole thing seemed incoherent.

According to our student newspaper, the mattress carriers on my campus were marching to the university president’s office with a petition demanding “a swift, official condemnation” of my article. One student said she’d had a “very visceral reaction” to it; another called it “terrifying.” I’d argued that the new codes infantilized students and ramped up the climate of accusation, while vastly increasing the power of university administrators over all our lives, and here were students demanding to be protected by university higher-ups from the affront to someone’s ideas — which seemed to prove my point.

The president announced that he’d consider the petition.

In retrospect, maybe it was shortsighted, but I hadn’t actually thought about students reading the essay when I wrote it — who knew students read The Chronicle of Higher Education? I’d thought I was writing for other professors and administrators. Despite the petition, I assumed that academic freedom would prevail — for one thing, I’m tenured (thank god) at a research university. Also, I sensed that students weren’t going to come off well in the court of public opinion, which proved to be the case. Marching against a published article wasn’t a good optic — it smacked of book burning, something Americans generally oppose, while conveniently illustrating my observation in the essay that students’ assertions of vulnerability have been getting awfully aggressive in the past few years. Indeed, I was getting a lot of love on social media from all ends of the political spectrum, though one of the anti-PC brigade did e-mail to tell me that, as a leftist, I should realize that these students were my own evil spawn. Yes, I was spending more time online than I should have.

— Laura Kipnis is a professor of media studies at Northwestern University.

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