Between students and professors, for one.
In the winter of 2015, a group of university students armed with mattresses, pillows, and petitions staged a protest at Northwestern University. The props were meant to evoke the sexual assault protests occurring on other campuses. Yet the object of these students’ ire was not a lecherous male professor or a sexually aggressive frat bro, but a feminist cultural critic and professor of media studies, Laura Kipnis.
Kipnis had just published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education arguingthat the university’s newly minted code prohibiting professor-student dating infantilized students and teachers, and that university administrators should have no role in the private lives of consenting adults. She asserted that “bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square.” But “the myths and fantasies about power perpetuated in these new codes are leaving our students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life.” Kipnis triggered a storm of criticism from students, and shortly afterward she was told that two graduate students had filed Title IX complaints against her, alleging her essay and subsequent statements had created a hostile environment.
Thus began a 72–day investigation that inspired her book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, published today, about sexual politics and academic freedom at universities. “If this is feminism,” Kipnis writes, “it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama.”
Kipnis, the author of seven books, appears to relish taking on hard-to-win arguments. In her 2015 book, Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, she posited that Hustler magazine, which once featured a woman being put through a meat grinder on its cover, belongs in the “rabble rousing tradition of political pornography,” and that Anthony Weiner is “a humiliation artist.” She has even come out against love, which she says has become the “domestic Gulags” in our work-obsessed culture. “If sex seems like work,” she jokingly chides, “clearly you’re not working hard enough at it.”
With Unwanted Advances, Kipnis has placed herself at the nexus of two contentious battles playing out on university campuses: the debate over academic free speech and the approaches universities take in handling sexual-assault claims. “I can think of no better way to subjugate women than to convince us that assault is around every corner,” she writes, describing what she considers to be the paradoxically damaging effect of heightened consciousness about rape on college campuses. She compares closed-door, university-run sexual-assault hearings to McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials. “Zealous boundary-drawing and self-protective preciousness don’t auger well for the imaginative life,” she notes.
Kipnis knows her new book is controversial and suspects it “is going to test the limits of what can and can’t be said about the sexual and intellectual situation on campus and beyond.” I talked to Kipnis about her Title IX investigation, unwanted bedfellows (of both the intellectual and sexual variety), feminism, and the challenges of tackling these subjects.
Mother Jones: This was a really hard interview to prepare for. I kept hearing all your critics’ arguments in my head.
Laura Kipnis: I have the exact same problem. It’s a hard subject to write on because you find yourself preemptively answering the critics and then getting bogged down in some of these statistics or having to qualify what you’re saying. “Campus assault is a serious issue, but…” The chorus of voices in your head is definitely an impediment to trying to push past what the current conversation is. There is such an electrified sense around even discussing some of those things. People will automatically get accused of the victim-blaming and slut-shaming. This is why so many people are reluctant to start the conversation to begin with. You encounter all of these credential checks. Are you really a feminist? I was accused by somebody of profiteering off rape.