Sexual Assault on Campus: A Response to Laura Kipnis

by Kathleen Goodwin

IMG_1922_2At the end of February, Laura Kipnis, a professor in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University, authored a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” which explores the ban some schools have placed on sexual relationships between students and professors and how it relates to the current atmosphere regarding sexual assault on college campuses. Kipnis is funny and perceptive, and I find her essay troubling precisely because I agree with many of her points at the same time that I find some aspects of her argument to be problematic because she fails to acknowledge overarching problems with gender dynamics among college students. I admire Kipnis for writing about a topic that, as she points out, most professors are too terrified to comment on. However Kipnis does not seem to recognize that female students today continue to feel disenfranchised in comparison to their male peers and that sexual assault is just one tangible way the unequal power dynamic plays out. Ridiculing her students and university administrators as paranoid is counter-productive to a dialogue on college sexual assault that has only been given the beginning of its due in the public consciousness.

I don't feel, as some Northwestern students do, that it is the responsibility of the University to condemn Kipnis's article. I respect the students' right to disagree with Kipnis and respond to her opinions; however, as Michelle Goldberg points out in The Nation, “Kipnis could hardly have invented a response that so neatly proved her argument…the demands for official censure, the claims of emotional injury—demonstrated how correct she is about the broader climate.” One of Kipnis's central points is that conflating sexual assault between students with sexual relationships between professors and students reveals how misguided college administrators have become when it comes to handling sexual issues on campus. While many administrators used to try to sweep cases of sexual assault under the proverbial rug, the pendulum has swung so far that they now seek to regulate relationships between consenting adults.

Which leads to another one of Kipnis's points— it appears that both administrators and students themselves believe that undergraduates are not adults capable of engaging with the realities of the world. Kipnis brings up the example of the relationship of a 21 year old Stanford student, Ellie Clougherty and a 29 year old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Joe Lonsdale, as reported in the New York Times Magazine in February. The two dated for a year and after they broke up Clougherty accused Lonsdale of “psychological kidnapping” and asked that Stanford launch an investigation into her allegations of his sexual misconduct. It is undeniable that there were a number of problematic aspects of the relationship— Lonsdale was both significantly older and wealthier than Clougherty and had been assigned as her mentor in a Stanford class before they began dating. However, as Kipnis observes, in Clougherty's narrative of the events, “She seems to regard herself as a helpless child in a woman's body…No doubt some 21-year-olds are fragile and emotionally immature (helicopter parenting probably plays a role), but is this now to be our normative conception of personhood? A 21-year-old incapable of consent?”

Kipnis encourages students to view themselves as adults and to take responsibility for their decisions, rather than requiring their college to regulate their environment. I agree with her that current parenting techniques and college administrators seem to be preventing students from considering themselves fully grown adults who are both empowered and responsible for their decisions. With the example of relationships between students and professors she observes:

“Which isn't to say that teacher-student relations were guaranteed to turn out well, but then what percentage of romances do? No doubt there were jealousies, sometimes things didn't go the way you wanted—which was probably good training for the rest of life. It was also an excellent education in not taking power too seriously, and I suspect the less seriously you take it, the more strategies you have for contending with it.”

Kipnis points out that power dynamics will continue to be difficult to maneuver once in the professional world and that shielding students from that reality is inauthentic and ultimately does them a disservice. While this may be true when it comes to consensual relationships, Kipnis doesn't explore how unequal power also presents an opportunity for sexual assault. The situations that precipitate students sexually assaulting their peers, can often be traced to gender inequality on campus—something I doubt Kipnis believes is “good training for the rest of life.” It should be possible for students to consider themselves accountable adults and for colleges to create an environment where they are educated to fight the inequality of the wider world, rather than allowing the replication of unequal power distribution on campus among students.

I also agree with Kipnis's related argument that a consequence of the current atmosphere is that female students perpetually view themselves as vulnerable and there is an emphasis on victimhood. As she writes, “The feminism I identified with as a student stressed independence and resilience. In the intervening years, the climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability has grown too thick to penetrate; no one dares question it lest you're labeled antifeminist.” While there should be a renewed focus on empowering female students instead of encouraging them to think of themselves as victims, I think Kipnis, who was born in 1958, fails to recognize the generational difference that created this issue in the first place. Her generation of women did not expect to be considered the full equals of men—whether it be in an academic setting, in the workforce, or maybe even in a marriage. Instead they fought to achieve equality themselves. However, many women in my generation, the one that is currently college-age, went through childhood and adolescence believing that we would no longer face the barriers our mothers had allegedly overcome. Many of us arrived on campus to find that we may be proportionally overrepresented as students, but we continue to face both institutionalized and hidden obstacles that prevent us from the enfranchisement that our male peers enjoy.

In academia, we find few female role models as tenured professors, especially in STEM departments and we are less likely to receive responses from professors when we seek mentors. In class, we are called on less frequently than our male classmates and interrupted by them when we do speak. As I've written on 3QD before, these inequities are even more stark on weekends when on many campuses social gatherings and access to alcohol are overwhelmingly controlled by male-only organizations where women require the favor of their male peers in order to participate.

Kipnis is correct that attitudes toward sexual assault are in some cases devolving into melodrama and narratives of victimhood. Rather than empowering women to combat the inequality that enables sexual assault, it seems that the current lens is infantilizing them and in some ways disempowering them further. However, her essay fails to recognize that many women on college campuses today continue to feel as if their power is limited and feminism has evolved into something different than it was when she was a student as a reaction to that reality. Both faculty and administrators have a responsibility to acknowledge the stunted successes of second-wave feminism and continue to work to foster environments where men and women are given equal opportunities and advantages.