Thursday, August 3, 2017
UNWANTED ADVANCES Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus By Laura Kipnis 245 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.; THE CAMPUS RAPE FRENZY The Attack on Due Process at America’s Universities By KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor Jr. 370 pp. Encounter Books. $27.99.
Two Books Explore the Furor Over Rape on Campus
A protest against sexual violence at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C, on April 7, 2015.CreditRicky Carioti/The Washington Post, via Getty Images
According to our last president, several sitting senators, feminist activists and female college students all over the country, sexual violence on campus is one of the most pressing issues facing young American women. Statistics promulgated by the Obama White House declare that an estimated one in five college women will be sexually assaulted. To combat this scourge, universities have hired new administrators, mandated anti-rape training sessions at freshman orientation and sped up the disciplinary process for accused assailants. Prominent feminists and lawyers say many schools are still doing too little to protect female students and far too much to protect male ones.
But according to the Northwestern professor and cultural critic Laura Kipnis, the opposite is true: It’s now men who are the victims of a nationwide sexual panic, one seated more in traditional views of women as vulnerable and sexually passive than in a feminism that recognizes young women to be self-sufficient independent actors (who are also human enough to make, and learn from, stupid sexual blunders).Photo
Kipnis’s “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus” focuses on one professor whose career was ruined by accusations of sexual assault and the ensuing Title IX investigation. Kipnis is drawn into this man’s professional drama after she too was on the receiving end of two Title IX complaints stemming from an essay she wrote deploring her university’s policy of frowning on relationships between teachers and students. Her book is a look at the secretive and largely unaccountable processes by which campus sexual assault allegations are investigated and adjudicated, using a handful of real incidents to illustrate her broader argument that complex interpersonal relationships and dumb drunken mistakes are now the quasilegal purview of well-paid administrators more interested in protecting a university’s reputation — even if it means ruining a few men’s lives — than seeking either truth or justice. The high-volume conversation about campus sexual assault, she says, is a kind of black-and-white gender traditionalism dressed up in feminist clothes, obscuring ambiguities and power plays inherent to human sexual desire, and instead casting adult women as innocent victims (or victims-in-waiting) and men as either rapists or potential predators
The book, per Kipnis’s style (this is the woman, after all, who wrote a book called “Against Love”), is polemical and often outrageous — she writes, for example, that professors who date students are a “newly outlawed sexual minority more or less where gays were pre-Stonewall.” While the men in her book are often stumbling into “male sexual stupidity,” the women are scheming, vengeful and “histrionic.” Though she rightly points out the feminist hypocrisy of casting women as inherently sexually vulnerable, she falls into her own stereotypes of jilted lovers sinking their claws into bumbling, sex-drunk men. She seems to think the feminist directive to explain clear standards of consent (a yes, not just the absence of a no) and to shift male behavior is a pipe dream, but telling women to change their behavior to avoid being sexually assaulted (for example, to quit drinking to excess) is eminently realistic rape prevention. As a feminist writer and (nonpracticing) lawyer relatively well-versed in the details of Title IX and campus sexual assault, I couldn’t help reading her book with pen in hand, furiously scribbling in the margins.
And yet I loved reading it. Kipnis’s book is maddening; it’s also funny, incisive and often convincing. Her observations on “the learned compliance of heterosexual femininity,” how campus hookup culture remains “organized around male prerogatives” and the necessity of allowing ambiguity to exist in sexual relationships reframe feminist visions of consent, sex and male sexual entitlement. She unmasks the Title IX adjudication process as shadowy and baffling on many campuses, and not just in how accusers are treated; she also makes a powerful case that a student-led demand for intellectual safety has too often encroached upon academic freedom and even the work of teaching itself.
Kipnis pushes her argument beyond the realm of what’s reasonable in part, it seems, for professorial aims — to force readers to really consider their position and to see if they can fully defend it, or at least to think beyond feminist platitudes. It is a discomfiting process, and surely many feminists will come away, as I did, deeply disagreeing with her; others will, as I did, nonetheless find her book a persuasive and valuable contribution to the continuing debate over how to deal with sexual assault on college campuses.Photo
If only the same could be said about “The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America’s Universities,” by KC Johnson, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Stuart Taylor Jr., a contributing editor at National Journal. An in-depth look at how universities compromise due process norms in adjudicating sexual assault cases — and it is clear they do — is overdue; instead, the authors choose a handful of egregious examples to make the case that campus sexual assault isn’t all that common and that the bigger problem is innocent young men railroaded by promiscuous women who get drunk and regret their choices, or flat-out lie at the behest of conniving campus feminists. Instead of an honest analysis of the complex issues and competing values at play, the book teems with vastly overstated claims, questionable statistics and quotes massaged beyond their original meaning.
Johnson and Taylor describe the sexual histories and relative state of drunkenness — often according to bartenders or other observers not conducting breathalyzer tests — of the various female accusers, as well as the “flirtatious” nature with which those women either talked to or texted the men they later charged with sexual assault; the men are given no such treatment. Being falsely accused of rape, it seems, is just as common, and just as terrible, as being actually raped. Men who are penalized in any way for their own bad behavior (like the Yale fraternity that was suspended after pledges chanted, “No means yes, yes means anal!”) are victims of identity politics and infringements on free speech. But students who don’t shut down speech they find offensive but rather counter with their own speech (for example, by planning an event on “rape culture” for the same time as a debate on whether “rape culture” exists) are part of “a new generation’s contempt for civil liberties.”
The only way, at least theoretically they say, for men to truly defend themselves from women who “have been propagandized and lobbied to believe that they should make claims against you whenever they end up unhappy about sexual contact, even if it was clearly consensual,” is to be celibate or to videotape all sexual encounters. As they castigate the news media for being too deferential to alleged rape survivors and not investigating women’s claims independently, they adhere to no such standard for themselves, sympathetically sharing the story of one young man who “suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder,” after being “accused of rape and other sex crimes by a fellow student whose story kept changing, according to his mother.”
This is too bad, because the question of how campuses should combat sexual assault while upholding important principles of legal fairness is an important one meriting coolheaded analysis. The same is true of the seemingly growing consensus among social justice advocates that bigoted or simply emotionally triggering speech is akin to physical violence and should be regulated as such. But unlike Kipnis’s book, “The Campus Rape Frenzy” is neither thought-provoking nor revealing of uncomfortable truths — except, perhaps, in demonstrating that implicit misogyny continues to permeate American culture, contributing not just to sexual violence itself, but to the ways we understand, discuss and write books about it.