Whatever you think of its influence feminism still has the power to drive an idea. Most recently, it has taken up the fight against what it has labelled a rape culture on college campuses.
It is easier to atttack rape culture than it was to defend hookup culture. I suspect that the brouhaha about rape culture is an effort to shut down the hookup culture, culture that was often promoted by sex-positive feminists but that was surely not in the best interest of women.
Given the current mood, it is nearly impossible for anyone of the male persuasion to take a stand against the idea of rape culture. Happily, several high-profile women have done so. They deserve considerable credit for their excellent work on the topic.
Among them Emily Yoffe stands out. Her articles in Slate have exposed the simple fact that the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses has been exaggerated.
And let us not forget that many liberal law professors have spoken out against the new college rules that are designed to deprive accused rapists of due process of law.
In order to increase the incidence of rape, promoters of the idea of rape culture have expanded the definition of the term to the point where almost any unwanted sexual advance can be considered a violation.
Now, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has written a long and detailed critique of what she calls the “paranoia” about rape on college campuses. She might have used the word “hysteria,” but that would certainly have gotten her expelled from the sisterhood for blatant sexism.
Kipnis begins with the concept of power imbalance, that is, with the idea that when a less powerful woman is seduced by a more powerful man she is being abused and exploited, even if she has nominally consented.
To expose the illogic in this idea, Kipnis notes that no small number of college professors are married to former students. Some are married to students who were in their classes as undergraduates. Some are married to students who were graduate students when they met. Some are even married to students who never attended their classes at all.
The new rules that are currently being proposed by college administrators would condemn all of these marriages.
You have to feel a little sorry these days for professors married to their former students. They used to be respectable citizens—leaders in their fields, department chairs, maybe even a dean or two—and now they’re abusers of power avant la lettre. I suspect you can barely throw a stone on most campuses around the country without hitting a few of these neo-miscreants. Who knows what coercions they deployed back in the day to corral those students into submission; at least that’s the fear evinced by today’s new campus dating policies. And think how their kids must feel! A friend of mine is the offspring of such a coupling—does she look at her father a little differently now, I wonder.
It’s been barely a year since the Great Prohibition took effect in my own workplace. Before that, students and professors could date whomever we wanted; the next day we were off-limits to one another—verboten, traife, dangerous (and perhaps, therefore, all the more alluring).
Of course, the residues of the wild old days are everywhere. On my campus, several such "mixed" couples leap to mind, including female professors wed to former students. Not to mention the legions who’ve dated a graduate student or two in their day—plenty of female professors in that category, too—in fact, I’m one of them. Don’t ask for details. It’s one of those things it now behooves one to be reticent about, lest you be branded a predator.
She describes the current policies at Northwestern:
According to the latest version of our campus policy, "differences in institutional power and the inherent risk of coercion are so great" between teachers and students that no romance, dating, or sexual relationships will be permitted, even between students and professors from different departments. (Relations between graduate students and professors aren’t outright banned, but are "problematic" and must be reported if you’re in the same department.) Yale and other places had already instituted similar policies; Harvard jumped on board last month, though it’s a sign of the incoherence surrounding these issues that the second sentence of The New York Times story on Harvard reads: "The move comes as the Obama administration investigates the handling of accusations of sexual assault at dozens of colleges, including Harvard." As everyone knows, the accusations in the news have been about students assaulting other students, not students dating professors.
Speaking of predators the most egregious instance of a very powerful male taking sexual advantage of a powerless female occurred when Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky.
One notes with chagrin that the champions of the power-imbalance theory of sexual abuse went to the mat to champion Bill Clinton and to destroy Monica Lewinsky. Hillary Clinton herself declared that the story had been ginned up by the vast right-wing conspiracy. Why does this make her the perfect feminist candidate for president?
To keep it fair and balanced, Kipnis notes that some women students took pride in their ability seduce their male professors. One tends to ignore this fact because it does not fit the narrative, but it is worth noting anyway.
As Jane Gallop recalls in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (1997), her own generational cri de coeur, sleeping with professors made her feel cocky, not taken advantage of. She admits to seducing more than one of them as a grad student—she wanted to see them naked, she says, as like other men. Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to her, because it was a way to experience your own power.
Feminists, Kipnis continues, are selling a fiction. And they are forcing everyone to live as though that fiction were true.
In her words:
It’s the fiction of the all-powerful professor embedded in the new campus codes that appalls me. And the kowtowing to the fiction—kowtowing wrapped in a vaguely feminist air of rectitude. If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.
To make college women weaker, schools have more recently discovered the concept of “trigger” words, words that can cause exceptional trauma.
Students were being encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark could impede their education, as such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke was likely to create lasting trauma.
Later, she adds this reflection:
But what do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life? What becomes of students so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life? I can’t help asking, because there’s a distressing little fact about the discomfort of vulnerability, which is that it’s pretty much a daily experience in the world, and every sentient being has to learn how to somehow negotiate the consequences and fallout, or go through life flummoxed at every turn.
The irony is rich indeed. For years feminists have insisted that no one should pronounce the word “woman” without adding the qualifier “strong.” They believed that their ideology would “empower” women beyond anything the patriarchy had imagined. Now, feminists are working to enfeeble women, weak, making them feel vulnerable and hypersensitive.
Unwanted fondling and groping have suddenly become rapes. And yet, as Kipnis says, how can a man know whether the touching was or was not wanted if he did not do it.
By these standards Joe Biden should have been indicted for his clearly unwanted manhandling of the wife of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
And yet, a disagreement or a misunderstand might now become a matter, not merely for campus authorities, but for public shaming. A woman feels she was taken advantage of. She denounces the professor who did it. He believes that she was consenting. He fondled her but they did not have carnal relations. He fights back in the courts.
The result: a public brawl that compromises the reputations of both parties.
Clearly, Kipnis notes, the power to shame is an extremely potent weapon, capable of destroying a person’s career and his life… without giving him very much recourse. It is even more powerful than the power imbalance.
For Kipnis, what matters is how well the people who get caught up in the public drama about whether or not an act was a violation play roles in a drama. Her analysis is excellent:
To a cultural critic, the representation of emotion in all these documents plays to the gallery. The student charges that she "suffered and will continue to suffer humiliation, mental and emotional anguish, anxiety, and distress." As I read through the complaint, it struck me that the lawsuit and our new consensual-relations code share a common set of tropes, and a certain narrative inevitability. In both, students and professors are stock characters in a predetermined story. According to the code, students are putty in the hands of all-powerful professors. According to the lawsuit, the student was virtually a rag doll, taken advantage of by a skillful predator who scripted a drunken evening of galleries and bars, all for the opportunity of some groping.
Kipnis, like Emily Yoffe and many others, believes that rapists and molesters should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Those who insist on keeping it all on campus—beginning with the federal government—believe that the court system unfairly protects the guilty at the expense of the innocent.
They protest because they feel that the court verdicts have often been unjust and because women are treated very badly by defense counsel in such cases.
To be continued.