“Sexual Paranoia” and Trigger Warnings: Speech and Power

I have been watching the recent response to this Laura Kipnis piece in the Chronicle with knots in my stomach. Then I developed a sprain in my eyeballs from the rolling.

At the end of February, Laura Kipnis argued in “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” that new codes governing sexual conduct between professors and students exhibit a “feminism hijacked by melodrama,” a kind of hysterical feminism that exaggerates the vulnerability of students and constructs a “fiction of the all-powerful professor.” Against this dour picture of the current state of sexual affairs on campus, Kipnis reflects nostalgically on her own art college experience in the mid to late 1970s: “When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum… Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to [Jane Gallop], because it was a way to experience your own power.” She argues that policies such as these – as well as trigger warnings – are part of a climate of sexual paranoia on campus that ill-serves students in preparing them badly for the “boorish badlands of real life” and treats professors as predators, making it far too easy to destroy their lives. Far from defending an antifeminist position, Kipnis argues that she herself would want to see sexual harrassers “chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the town square.” She suggests that if universities want to deal with sexual assault, we shouldn’t ban professor-student relationships, but rather fraternities; and that if we want to deal with sexual favoritism, we should end spousal hires, “where trailing spouses are getting ranks and perks based on whom they’re sleeping with rather than CVs alone, and brought in at salaries often dwarfing those of senior and more accomplished colleagues who didn’t have the foresight to couple more advantageously” (too which – I’m just not even).

The center of this piece is a series of lawsuits and counter-suits surrounding a case of sexual assault between an undergraduate student at Northwestern University (where Kipnis teaches) and her philosophy professor. Obviously many of us from philosophy departments (present tense or past) know about this case, and the role that it has played – or the ways in which it has been used – to shape responses to activism within the discipline to create a better climate for the women who work in and study philosophy. So I think that we at xcphilosophy are in a particularly good position to think about this, and to parse what’s going on in this conversation about feminism, speech, sex codes, trigger warnings, etc., from the perspective of what’s going on in philosophy – rather than the perspective of a resuscitation of the culture wars of the 1990s, complete with an Andrea Dworkin v Wendy Kaminer cage match.

So, I just want to say a couple of things about this.

First, in this piece, Kathryn Pogin, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Northwestern, points out that she contacted the Chronicle to address several misrepresentations about the Northwestern case in Kipnis’ piece. This includes the claim that the accused professor is also suing a graduate student that he previously dated for defamation, since the student alleges that he sexually harassed her. Pogin points out that it is the accused professor who claims that he was dating the graduate student as part of his defense; the graduate student herself says that they were not dating. Kipnis took this claim on its face; that is, she believed the claim the professor makes in his lawsuit against the graduate student. So, okay. Moreover, in email exchanges about Pogin’s request for corrections of these misrepresentations, she was referred to in an email sent to her by mistake as a “girl” “splitting hairs” in an “incomprehensible tirade.”

Also, as this piece points out, I have literally never heard students complaining about campus feminists violating their right to sleep with their professors? Like, never. I have more than once heard hysterically defensive claims from professors, like: “But what if the student in class is leading me on with what she is wearing?” and “We don’t need a sexual harassment policy. The pretty ones won’t mind and the ugly ones don’t need it.” If all of this worry about coddling and abridgments of free speech or whatever is truly all about affirming the agency of our students, then why aren’t we hearing much from them about protecting their rights to sleep with their professors, rather than hearing about professor’s rights to sleep with their students? The erotics implied between professors and students here are themselves a confirmation of the power imbalance: after all, do people in equal relationships often threaten each other, or feel threatened by, sexual blackmail?

These conversations are not merely theoretical for many of us in philosophy. We have heard the stories about how women in philosophy in generations before us were expected to sleep with their advisors. It was just how things were done. It’s not a big deal, really; we should be cool about it. We should in fact be so feminist about how not a big deal it is that we should prove it by sleeping with our professors (or so they said). Women who are successful in philosophy are as a result often hobbled by implications that what is valuable about them is not exactly their intellect. And many of us have  students who come to us now, crushed and filled with self-doubt, when they realize that their professors’ attention was grooming, not mentorship. Many of us therefore carry what Sally Haslanger refers to as a “deep well of rage” inside of us at the accumulation of these stories and experiences.

Kipnis’ piece generated several responses, including one from Michelle Goldberg in The Nation, and Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Shulevitz uses Kipnis’ piece as evidence of an overall trend towards coddling college students from scary ideas, alongside campaigns to designate certain areas or whole campuses as “safe spaces,” and the use of trigger warnings on syllabi and in classrooms. There is a lot to be said about trigger warnings – where they came from, what they have developed in to, what they do and don’t do – and some interesting and productive things said about them are here and here.

What I am most concerned about in all of this is the total lack of attention to the role played by the university’s neoliberal risk-management culture. That is, there is a huge difference between the origins of trigger warnings in online feminism – requests for warnings about content, discussions and arguments about what they mean and whether they are effective, the meanings of accessibility and difference, and the inevitable joke content warnings about Justin Bieber – and the adoption of trigger warnings or content warnings in syllabi or in the classroom as policy enforced by university instructors’ contracts.

Even further than that, my university – like many – has decided in the wake of the “new legal environment” following the “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 addressing guidelines for compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act, to make reporting of “sexual misconduct” mandatory for all faculty on campus. We are designated “responsible reporters,” meaning that we cannot keep confidential any conversations about assault that may have taken place between university students, staff, or faculty confidential. This policy is one adopted wholesale from the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), a subsidiary of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, whose CEO, Brett Sokolow, has argued that such blanket reporting structures are necessary to ensure that there is no “confusion” about compliance.

This effectively means that my syllabi, my office, and my classrooms are not safe spaces for survivors (or “accusers,” if Kipnis prefers). And if a university with this policy provides a so-called “safe space” for those triggered by particularly graphic speech on campus (as in the Shulevitz piece), given the blanket “responsible reporter” policy, it is probably not a safe space for students who report that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted on campus.

What this means is that, in several respects, this conversation about coddling students and attacks on free speech on campus is using feminism as a front. While individual feminists might advocate the adoption of trigger warning policies, or safe spaces, or better policies for students who are victims of rape and sexual assault, I don’t know any feminists who begin from the presumption that we should take away choice from survivors, and put them through a process that is not meant to ensure their healing but rather the indemnity of the institution, whether they want it or not. Let’s not get confused about who is in charge here, and whose interests are at stake.