When Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis wrote her post for the Chronicle of Higher Education, she must have anticipated that some folks would not take kindly to her thoughts. After all, it was about gender, and had a “slightly mocking tone.” When it comes to gender, some people just can’t see the humor.
But the reaction on campus could not have been more pitch-perfect. Not for those who raised their metaphorical torches and pitchforks, but for Kipnis.
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.
That the “anti-rape activists” would choose Sulkowicz as their martyr heaps irony upon irony, as she persists in her performance art despite having her accused “rapist” cleared twice of wrongdoing, and having provided the bulk of the evidence of his innocence herself, albeit conditioned on the usual excuses that make all men guilty because of their innocence.
In what Kipnis called “feminism hijacked by melodrama,” the students protested her exploitation of their vulnerability.
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.”
It’s not enough that the students, the anti-rape activists, vehemently disagree with Laura Kipnis, but that Northwestern officially condemn its professor for her failure to toe the students’ fashionable flavor of neo-feminism, the one where women are too fragile to be responsible for their own actions and therefore demand that the patriarchy protect them from mean old-school feminists like Kipnis.
Yet, even that isn’t sufficient, as condemning a professor for being politically incorrect in their eyes leaves open the possibility that another professor, maybe even 28 of them, will someday utter words that will traumatize these fragile students. They demanded as well that condemnation come automatically. Not even the need to think, to take a deep breath, should slow the condemnation for a second.
So did their cries for her head make Laura Kipnis cry? Not exactly.
Kipnis could hardly have invented a response that so neatly proved her argument. . . . 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.”
While the students crying over what mean, ol’ Prof. Kipnis had to say are unlikely to have the metacognitive skills, or honest self-assessment, necessary to understand what they’re actually seeking, Michelle Goldberg spells it out for them:
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.
In other words, they want it all, but it’s rank hypocrisy and just can’t work that way. Either you’re strong, bold women in charge of your sexual freedom, or you’re vulnerable, traumatized fragile women in need of societal and patriarchal protection from harm. You can have one or the other, but you can’t have both.
“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.”
Notably, when George Will wrote that victimization had become the new coin in the feminist realm, that to be a victim was a “coveted status,” progressive lawprofs ripped him a new one. Yet, that’s where Kipnis goes as well, with vulnerability used as a sword rather than a shield, and this time to attack her.
And if this suggests it’s limited by gender, that would be a gross misstatement:
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.”
So it’s not that kids have no sense of humor (“millennials love satire and political humor“), but that there is no humor section in a feminist ally bookstore. Somehow, I suspect that if Colbert found out that Baker was living in his nation, he would banish him immediately for Truthiness in the First Degree.