What We Lose When Sex Is All About Danger

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The week after The Bell Curve author Charles Murray was prevented from speaking at Middlebury College by angry students and the professor meant to moderate ended up with a concussion following a violent melee, I was scheduled to speak at Wellesley College. Though Murray and I couldn’t be more politically opposed, I wondered nervously if I’d be getting a similar reception, since I too was talking about controversial matters: in this case, the growing climate of sexual paranoia on campus.

But the talk went fine and the students I met were great — tough-minded, super-articulate. It was only later that I heard that other students had made a video denouncing me, ahead of my arrival, for being a white feminist (“white feminism isn’t feminism”), among other crimes. Once home, I heard that some of my critics were threatening to file Title IX complaints against the professor who’d invited me and had started a letter-writing campaign to get him fired on account of my visit, or at least deny him a pay raise.

This is par for the course on campus lately, even if you’re not a right-wing alleged eugenicist. You can be a left-wing feminist and still find yourself at the center of a melee.

This I know from experience. 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 published, 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, whereas I’d been criticizing 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 weren’t being said for fear of repercussions. Still, 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 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 of someone’s ideas — which seemed to prove my point.

The president announced that he’d consider the petition. Shortly afterward, I received an email from our university’s Title IX coordinator informing me that two graduate students had filed Title IX complaints against me on the basis of the essay and “subsequent public statements” — this turned out to be a tweet — and that the university had hired a team of outside investigators to handle the case. There were various ominous warnings about keeping the matter confidential.

Perhaps you’re wondering how an essay falls under the purview of Title IX, the federal statute meant to address gender discrimination and funding for women’s sports? I was wondering that myself, and continued to wonder during the 72-day “investigation” that followed. The answer, in brief, is that the culture of sexual paranoia I’d been writing about isn’t confined to the sexual sphere. It’s fundamentally altering the intellectual climate in higher education as a whole, to the point where ideas are construed as threats — my essay created “a chilling environment,” according to my accusers — and intellectual freedom is being whittled away. Sexual paranoia has converted the Title IX bureaucracy into an insatiable behemoth, bloated by its own federal power grab, though protests are few because — what are you, in favor of rape culture or something? Also, paranoia is a formula for intellectual rigidity, and its inroads on campus are so effectively dumbing down the place that the traditional ideal of the university — as a refuge for complexity, a setting for the free exchange of ideas — is getting buried under an avalanche of platitudes and fear.

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.

Let me attempt to briefly sketch the backdrop. There are two conflicting stories about sex on campus at the moment. The first story is all about license: hooking up, binge drinking, porn watching — my students talk knowingly about “anal,” and funnily about “dormcest” … They’re junior libertines; nothing sexual is alien to them.

Layered on top of that is the other big story of the moment: Sex is dangerous; it can traumatize you for life. Rape is endemic and predators are everywhere.

It’s not a happy combination.

For my generation, coming of age in the all-too-brief interregnum after the sexual revolution and before AIDS turned sex into a crime scene replete with perpetrators and victims — back when sex, even when not so great or when people got their feelings hurt, fell under the category of life experience — words like pleasure and liberation got tossed around a lot. These days the metaphors seem to veer toward the extractive rather than additive — sex takes something away from you, at least if you’re a woman: your safety, your choices, your future. It’s contaminating: You can catch trauma, which, like a virus, never goes away. The slogans lately are all about sexual assault and other encroachments: “Stop Rape Culture,” “No Means No,” “Control Yourselves, Not Women.”

Sexual assault is a reality on campus, though not exactly a new one. But despite all the recent attention and the endless flurry of statistics, it’s still an incredibly underexamined reality, permeated by speech taboos. One such taboo would be mentioning the fact that sexual assault isn’t actually rising, it’s what’s defined as assault that keeps expanding. We’re never going to decrease unwanted sex — 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 than is currently permissible.

Here would be a place to start. To begin with, the endangerment story produces huge blind spots, which are reproduced in every new policy meant to reduce unwanted sex. The policies are ineffectual because the endangerment story and the realities of sexual assault are two entirely separate things. That’s blind spot number one. About those realities: The underlying gender dynamic is blind spot number two — the dynamic between men and women, I mean. Men and women. What I’m saying is that policies and codes that bolster traditional femininity — which has always favored stories about female endangerment over stories about female agency — are the last thing in the world that’s going to reduce sexual assault.

Whether or not college students are actually having sex any differently from generations past, clearly the emphasis has changed. Shifting the stress from pleasure to danger and vulnerability doesn’t just change the prevailing narrative, it changes the way sex is experienced. We’re social creatures, after all, and narrative is how we make sense of the world. If the prevailing story is that sex is dangerous, sex is going to feel threatening more of the time, and anything associated with sex, no matter how innocuous (a risqué remark, a dumb joke), will feel threatening.

Teaching under these conditions can feel like a tightrope walk. I teach film. A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a class about a movie — The Opposite of Sex, fittingly enough — and everyone was assailing the female lead’s poor sexual choices and sexual risk-taking (resulting in an unplanned pregnancy). My students are all writing screenplays and making films, and the consensus startled me: first, because I spend a lot of energy trying to get students to understand that moralizing about characters isn’t a great way to go about writing interesting ones — characters aren’t supposed to be upstanding citizens — and second, because we all knew that some percentage of the class was making similar sexual choices not infrequently, which is why Plan B birth control is available on demand at the student health service.

My own education was in art schools, where the pedagogical style was admittedly pretty casual. The teachers who influenced me the most were gnomic oddballs. Some of them were brutal — I recall one guy, a painter, yelling, “This is shit!” during a critique, though thankfully not at me. I also recall drunken parties at his loft — students and teachers getting plastered together was a regular event. You didn’t feel that your teachers were remote, all-powerful beings — they were messy, opinionated, depressed, monumentally flawed. We took them seriously because of their ideas, not their institutional roles. Safety, the watchword of the contemporary campus, would have been a term of derision for us, reserved for a painting that matched the sofa.

Among the many things wrong with the sex-as-danger preoccupation on campuses now — and here I’m speaking as someone teaching on the creative side of the curriculum — is that zealous boundary-drawing and self-protective preciousness don’t augur well for the imaginative life. But I try not to lecture about such things to my students; at most, I confine myself to pointing out (tactfully, I hope) when I think they’re coasting on clichés.

The class’s moralizing about the pregnant female character seemed to be such an occasion. Moralizing isn’t thinking; it comes too easily, it’s too smug, especially coming from moralizing libertines. I said, just to offer another angle, “Gosh, I feel sorry for you guys. When I was in school we thought about sex in terms of pleasure; your generation seems to think about it all in terms of risk.”

A student (male) exclaimed, “Well, yeah, sex can kill you!”

I’ve thought about that remark a lot since then. It was a great lesson in the obvious, which is that this generation of students, millennials, is also the first post-AIDS generation. God knows what horrors they’ve been exposed to in their sex-ed classes — necessarily, I suppose, but still, with what effects? Not vastly increased levels of self-acuity. And though we’re all stragglers when it comes to sexual honesty, I suspect, from what I’ve observed, that this generation has it far worse. (Possibly contributing to the stratospheric levels of binge drinking — who wouldn’t want to shed a few layers of doomsaying on the weekends?)

The danger of sex may be a recurring cultural script, but what’s still worth pointing out is how it shapes gender roles and colors how gender is lived, especially for women. Women are situated differently from men when it comes to sexual danger. Still, for my generation of women, there was hardly the same sense of danger and violation lurking in the background.

For us, post-Pill and after second-wave feminism had made at least a few provisional inroads into female shame and the double standard, sex wasn’t exactly uncomplicated, but even when it was bad (as it often was), it was still educational. Even today’s cardinal danger, sex with teachers, which many of us dabbled in without too many horrible consequences, was educational. A high percentage of the women I know have a teacher or two in their past; most, as far as I can tell, regard these experiences fondly. Or, even when feelings are mixed, it wasn’t some sort of awful trauma. When I look back on it now, I wonder who I’d have become without all the bad sex, the flawed teachers, and the liberty to make mistakes. I got to take risks, which was a training ground for later creative and intellectual risks, precisely because we didn’t think of sex as a harm.

Everyone lies about sex, though maybe every generation lies about sex differently, or so I’ve been thinking of late. All we can say is that the “truth” of sex has been different at every point in history, that every era believes its own sexual narrative to be the truth of sex, and at this point the dominant narrative, on the nation’s campuses anyway, is all about sexual hazard.

The problem is that this shift in sexual culture isn’t confined to sex; it’s more like a land grab, gobbling up vast swaths of real estate along the way, including the very definition of what it is to be a woman. No doubt the slogans about pleasure and liberation were our little lies about sex. The realities were often more complicated, especially for women. But today’s hazard story, too, comes with its own evasions, namely, a large blind spot about women’s agency. In a sexual culture that emphasizes female violation and endangerment (“rape culture”), men’s power is taken as a given instead of interrogated: Men need to be policed; women need to be protected. If rape is the norm, then male sexuality is by definition predatory; women are, by definition, prey. Regulators thus rush in like rescuing heroes, doing what it takes to fend off the villains — whatever it takes, since when women are imperiled, vigilantism is the better part of heroism.

And here’s where I say, as a feminist: This is terrible for women. We all, men and women both, want the law to protect us from unequal strength and exercises of violence: The brute can’t be allowed to rule because he’s larger or stronger. But why treat sexual assault as the paradigmatic female experience when there are plenty of other female experiences in which women’s embodied, physiological differences from men materially impede gender equity? As a feminist, I want to see the government step in to remedy those too. I don’t mean just pay equity, the conventional demand. I mean making child care and maternity costs free, which would obviously be the fastest path to real equity for the greatest number of women. This is an issue you hear pretty much zero about on American campuses lately, by the way. Instead, all historical inequities between the genders have been relocated to the sexual sphere and displaced onto sexual danger.

It’s long been true of mainstream American feminism that the most supposedly radical factions have been closet conservatives, dedicated to recycling the most conventional versions of feminine virtue and delicacy. There have always been puritanical versions of feminism competing with more emancipatory versions. The so-called radical feminists of the second wave — the designation was always a misnomer — were short-sighted puritans, even aligning themselves with Christian conservatives to fight the demon pornography (just as some first-wave feminists joined with Prohibitionists to fight the demon rum). Breaking with the radicals, “liberal feminists” were the faction focused on pay equity and workplace issues. The problem was that, liberal feminism having also broken with the male-dominated New Left (not without good reason: They tended to be jerks to women), class and race mostly dropped out of the discussion. While European feminists with a social-democratic tradition behind them were demanding and getting subsidized day care, winning resources from the state and employers, their American liberal counterparts favored “networking” (more recently, “leaning in”). The new goal: breaking into the ranks of corporate CEOs. Result: Every American mother still has to figure out for herself what to do with the kids while she’s at work, since given the new winner-take-all economy, it takes two or more jobs to support a family.

Meanwhile, a new generation of student activists, legitimately dissatisfied with the legacies of liberal feminism, rather than looking to revitalize the socialist or left-emancipatory traditions are instead joining arms with campus administrators as the fast track to empowerment. But even if the rhetoric borrows from radicalism, the substance is far from it. Ah, look: There’s the familiar anti-porn keenness for female-captivity narratives in an updated guise. Sure, the updated version nixes the anti-porn agenda per se, which would seem old-fashioned — even suburban housewives these days claim to love porn — though the shopworn tale of women held hostage by male sexual impulses still gets a lot of play.

How is it that the most reactionary versions of feminism are the ones enjoying the greatest success on campuses? For one thing, those are the versions reaping the institutional support, not least in Washington. And no doubt there’s something reassuringly familiar — at least timeless — about these tales of female peril, even amidst the supposed sexual free-for-all of hookup culture.

From the book UNWANTED ADVANCES: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis. Copyright 2017 by Laura Kipnis. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

What We Lose When Sex Is All About Danger