Last Monday, about thirty Northwestern anti-rape activists marched to their school’s administrative center carrying mattresses and pillows. The event was a deliberate echo of the performance art project of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who is lugging a mattress everywhere she goes on campus for a year to draw attention to the university’s failure to expel her alleged rapist. At Northwestern, the target of the protest was not a person accused of assault, but the provocative feminist film professor Laura Kipnis. Her offense was penning a February essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” which argues against her school’s ban on sex between professors and students, and more broadly against the growing obsession with trauma and vulnerability among feminists on campus.
“If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama,” she writes. “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.”
Including, apparently, their vulnerability to articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education. As the protesters wrote on a Facebook page for their event, they wanted the administration to do something about “the violence expressed by Kipnis’ message.” Their petition called for “swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article,” and demanded “that in the future, this sort of response comes automatically.” (University President Morton Schapiro told The Daily Northwestern, a student newspaper, that he would consider it, and the students will soon be meeting with the school’s Vice President for Student Affairs to further press their case.) Jazz Stephens, one of the march’s organizers, described Kipnis’s ideas as “terrifying.” Another student told The Daily Northwestern that she was considering bringing a formal complaint because she believes that Kipnis was mocking her concerns about being triggered in a film class, concerns she’d confided privately. “I would like to see some sort of repercussions just so she understands the effect something like this has on her students and her class,” said the student, who Kipnis hadn’t named.
Kipnis could hardly have invented a response that so neatly proved her argument. Not the argument about prohibiting student-teacher sex—there’s still a good case to be made for that. Certainly, Kipnis is right that some undergrads enjoy flaunting their erotic power, but such power is fleeting and ultimately no match for the institutional authority wielded by professors. Yet the reaction to Kipnis—the demands for official censure, the claims of emotional injury—demonstrated how correct she is about the broader climate. “The new codes sweeping American campuses aren’t just a striking abridgment of everyone’s freedom, they’re also intellectually embarrassing,” she wrote. “Sexual paranoia reigns; students are trauma cases waiting to happen.”
This atmosphere is intellectually stifling. “Every professor’s affected by the current climate, unless they’re oblivious,” Kipnis told me via e-mail. “I got many dozens of emails from professors (and administrators and deans and one ex college president) describing how fearful they are of speaking honestly or dissenting on any of these issues. Someone on my campus—tenured—wrote me about literally lying awake at night worrying about causing trauma to a student, becoming a national story, losing her job, and not being able to support her kid. It seemed completely probable to her that a triggered student could take down a tenured professor with a snowball of social media.”
What’s going on is as much a culture clash as an ideological divide. In some ways, the present moment recalls the feminist sex wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. It was the anti-porn feminist Catherine MacKinnon, after all, who best elaborated a theory of speech as violence. Yet MacKinnon’s broader ideas about porn and prostitution are utterly out of fashion. In many young feminist circles, criticism of sex work is dismissed as slut shaming or whorephobia. Lots of elite campuses have BDSM clubs. Just a couple of years ago, Slutwalks were all the rage. On the surface, it seems that feminists like Kipnis—author, among other things, of a sympathetic 1996 book about porn titled Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America—have triumphed over the bluestockings. Yet surrounding all this sexual bravado is a constricting earnestness that renders insouciant provocateurs like Kipnis anathema.
Kipnis is a cheeky, deliberately hyperbolic writer, as even her critics understand on some level. (Bona fide sexual harassers, she writes in the Chronicle, should be “chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square.” No one has demanded that she be reprimanded for supporting torture.) There are some things, though, that you can’t joke about. “[T]he climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability has grown too thick to penetrate; no one dares question it lest you’re labeled antifeminist,” Kipnis writes. “Or worse, a sex criminal.”
It’s easy to sympathize with the young feminists’ desire to combine maximal sexual freedom with maximal sexual safety. Yet there are contradictions between a feminism that emphasizes women’s erotic agency and desire to have sex on equal terms with men, and a feminism that stresses their erotic vulnerability and need to be shielded from even the subtlest forms of coercion. The politics of liberation are an uneasy fit with the politics of protection. A rigid new set of taboos has emerged to paper over this tension, often expressed in a therapeutic language of trauma and triggers that everyone is obliged to at least pretend to take seriously.
“It’s the infantilization of women fused with identity politics, so that being vulnerable, a potential victim—or survivor, in the new parlance—becomes a form of identity,” Kipnis told me. “I wrote a chapter on the politics of vulnerability in The Female Thing from 2006, and since then it strikes me that vulnerability has an ever more aggressive edge to it, which is part of what makes the sexual culture of the moment so incoherent.”
Northwestern junior Erik Baker, a member of Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault and one of the organizers of the anti-Kipnis march, naturally disputes the notion that the students are prigs. “She definitely paints this very overtly condescending picture of this new generation that has their feathers ruffled by her pushing the envelope,” Baker told me. In fact, he argues, millennials love satire and political humor. “We’re the Colbert generation. It’s not that we don’t have senses of humor or senses of wanting to push the envelope,” he says. “We just think that publicly belittling sexual assault survivors is in poor taste.”
All the same, Baker can’t quite contain his incredulity at Kipnis’s flippant approach to matters that he considers extremely grave. “She seems to think that it’s very silly,” he says about her attitude towards trigger warnings. “It’s not even like, Oh man, I really want to protect these students and make sure they’re safe, but I think the pedagogical value is…” he trails off. “She doesn’t even perceive how trigger warnings would work to make the classroom more safe, or to help students navigate the material in a way that would be better for them psychologically.” He’s right. She doesn’t. And therein lies a generational chasm.