“That’s Something We Could All Try to Unlearn”

Laura Kipnis on why we need to change our thinking—and teaching—about sex.

Laura Kipnis
Laura Kipnis.

Pieter M. van Hattem

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Laura Kipnis, an essayist and author whose books include Against Love, Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation, and, most recently, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. Although known for her writings about feminism and gender, Kipnis became the target of a Title IX campaign launched by students at Northwestern, where she teaches, after she decried what she called “sexual paranoia” on campus. More recently, she has written a long essay in the New York Review of Books on the wave of sexual misconduct stories roiling various industries.

Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss why it’s important to train women to fight back against aggressive men, why biology is not an excuse for bad behavior, and why she still has doubts about Bill Clinton’s accusers.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: When this whole wave of sexual misconduct stories started, what did you make of them, and how surprised were you by them?

Laura Kipnis: Well, I had heard some of this was coming. You know, rumors circulate. But I think what surprised me was the extent of the misconduct. At first when the initial stories broke about Harvey Weinstein and it looked like sort of run-of-the-mill sexual harassment, that was one thing. But as the extent of the issue emerged, both the numbers and the severity—the allegations of actual rape—were a complete surprise. Then, as more and more people started being accused, you started hearing about the vast numbers of women who were being subjected to such gross stuff. I think of myself as unshockable, and I have to say I was shocked.

Has it made you think differently about the way you conceive of male-female dynamics in society?

I think it’s made me go back to some of the feminist theory and also Marxist feminist theory that I came of age reading. Leftist feminists used to talk about women as the last colony, and I started thinking about the ways in which women still haven’t achieved full economic or civic equality if our bodies are going to be public property. It’s assumed that we’re kind of open for grazing. I started using the metaphor of the feudal lord who thinks of the collectivity of women as his vassals or his serfs or his own property. So it does seem like there’s this uneven development for women where we’re a couple centuries behind the freedoms that men won in the various democratic revolutions.

Had you originally thought that that brand of Marxist feminist theory was out of date, and now you’re thinking that it’s not as out of date as you thought? Or you’re looking at it in a new way?

Well, partly what made me start thinking this was a kind of excitement that I felt about this as a mass movement—the #MeToo campaigns and, despite some of the conceptual difficulties, you have all different levels of conduct and malfeasance squashed together. Still, for activism, I think that’s been really useful. So it does look like a mass movement of the kind that hasn’t been around for women since the Equal Rights Amendment or the suffragette movement or maybe some of the activism in second-wave feminism.

That does seem different and exciting to me—to start thinking about women as a class, rejecting the previous terms of the agreement and demanding various new rights like the right to not be groped. So it did start seeming like something other than the usual kind of jostling between men and women over inequalities and something more like a movement.

In your piece in the New York Review of Books about all this, you have this quote: “If we’re demanding that men overcome their gender socialization, are there aspects of femininity we might wish to ditch too? Cowering when a man mentions sex transforms it into the equivalent of the master stick. He merely has to wave it to keep you in line. It’s the internalized submission of a colonial mentality. And in fact, left-wing feminists, a dying breed in these lean in times, used to propose regarding women as quote ‘the last colony’ including those of us residing in the advanced metropoles. Perhaps if women unlearned this response we’d fair better. Just in case men don’t cease waving their sticks immediately.”

I think some people might read that as sort of saying that women, if not to blame, still have some role in mitigating this problem.

I do think women have a role in mitigating it. I wrote a book 10 or so years ago called The Female Thing and the subtitle was “Dirt, envy, sex, vulnerability.” And it was my attempt to grapple with some of these issues. I think I call it a colonized mentality in the New York Review of Books piece, but the ways in which there are these aspects of femininity that we’re subject to due to conventional socialization as women that I do think impede us in achieving equality. The tendency toward submissiveness or toward feeling vulnerable are ways in which I think we are kept subjugated.

And I do think that men, particularly the sort of men lobbying for advantage or the predator class, do play on that. You see that entirely in the Harvey Weinstein allegations, where he was in some cases using physical force, which I don’t think is something that’s that easy to contest, but a lot of the time he was riding this aura of power and manipulating women into doing what he wanted or playing along with him, due to the ways in which we’re socialized to be polite, to not make a fuss, to feel like it’s our job to take care of the world or whatever. And some women resisted that, but I think a lot of women ended up doing stuff they didn’t want to do because they were embarrassed or fearful of making a scene.

I think it’s a tricky line. I was talking to a friend about this subject, and she said what I thought was really smart: She understands why African Americans might tell their kids to behave a certain way around police because they may, in fact, be at risk from police. So she gets that on a micro-level of why that’s advice that people give to their children. But as a response to a social problem—i.e., saying the response to the problem of the criminal justice system being unfair is to tell black people to tell their kids to act a certain way—that’s very lacking as a social response to a widespread problem. That seems to apply here.

That’s why we do have to be capable of making smart distinctions. So the difference between state power, or a cop with a gun, and male power—you know those are different things. There’s also a difference that I tried to talk about in the piece between force and power. So a man manipulating a woman into submission is a different situation and one would want to deal with it differently than somebody trying to physically force someone into submission.

I talked about this in Unwanted Advances, my last book. In my 20s I took a couple of self-defense classes, and we were taught that fighting back physically actually was the best response to physical assault. And I really do recommend that all women do this. Because collective action is fine, and lobbying for social change is fine, but we also do confront these sorts of situations as individuals, and I think the more confidence and even willingness to try to fight someone physically if you have to is not a bad thing for women. And I think it also helps kind of mitigate the socialization toward submissiveness, as we saw in a lot of the reporting about these sexual harassment cases—a lot of these men played on women’s submissiveness.

You tell a story, your piece in the New York Review of Books, which is ostensibly a review of Gretchen Carlson’s memoir.

Thank you for the ostensibly.

I know how this works. It seemed like it was a good excuse.

It was a leading-off point, yeah.

You tell the story in the piece, which is from her book, where basically she’s in a car with some guy she works with. Not someone above her on the food chain, but some guy she works with who gives this entire graphic monologue to her, and she says she felt sheer terror about this and was hoping she wouldn’t have to jump out of the vehicle. And you sort of say, “Come on. This guy wasn’t above her. He was almost very likely not going to cause her physical harm. She should have just told him essentially to shut up.”

I hope I didn’t write in quite such a finger-wagging way as you’re describing it. But I was actually really asking the question: What stopped her from telling him to shut up? He wasn’t physically threatening her, and she describes herself as cowering in terror and wondering if she was going to have to jump out of the car. It is really the case in conventional femininity that a sort of fearfulness about sexual matters is part of the deal. I do think that’s something we could all try to unlearn. Particularly women who are the most afflicted by it.

If we’re asking men to unlearn elements of male socialization, the question I ask is: Are there elements of female socialization that we also might want to ditch and that impede us in the workplace or moving comfortably through the social world?

I think the answer to your question about why she didn’t just tell him to shut up is that it’s really hard for people to do that. And not just around gender issues, but just that sort of confrontational attitude, which I personally think is probably helpful in a lot of social situations if people could just be more upfront and firm, but it is just really hard for a lot of people.

Well, it’s harder for women, don’t you think?

I probably can’t speak to that. But that intuitively makes a certain amount of sense given the society we live in.

Yeah, and I think that these guys play on that. That’s the issue: These guys were manipulators; they took advantage of women. I’m not excusing anything, but I’m kind of a pragmatist, and you can, in theory, say they shouldn’t do this. There’s a lot of questions to be answered about why they do do it, and I think there’s a lot we don’t understand about that kind of behavior. But still, in the meantime, up until the point that all men on the planet get the message to stop harassing women or stop treating our bodies like property, we are going to be faced with these situations.

It’s interesting that you said “female socialization” and then you referred to “male socialization,” because one of the conversations that has been going on about this has been not so much that men are socialized to behave in this way but that men are genetically programmed to behave in this way and it’s sort of men’s fundamental nature to be like this. What have you made of that aspect of the debate?

I think it’s an incredibly unhelpful discussion. I think it’s always inherently conservative to refer to some sort of ingrained or inborn gender traits. I always use the example of toilet training. We don’t take a crap in the front yard. We all could have that instinct—that’s a natural instinct—but we’re toilet-trained, which is where the bottom line of socialization is, so our instincts are socially modified. I think to resort to these socially biological explanations is always when people are trying to instill the most conservative version of gender relations.

What has this wave of stories made you think about what’s going on on college campuses and if you think it casts it in a different light at all?

I think that they’re very different contexts, and I really do think the journalists try to rush to collapse everything together. And one of the distinctions I would make is the effect that Title IX has had on campus and the way that there’s this whole level of the administration that [is] set up to encourage accusation-making. We’re having these discussions about consent and what is and isn’t consensual in the cases that have come up in the noncampus context. We’re talking about behavior that’s clearly not consensual.

On campus, it’s a different situation. What I wrote about was the ways in which, because of the Title IX apparatus, consent is being renegotiated after the fact. Things people consented to are being reconceptualized as not consenting. Or you have situations of drunken sex between equals, like undergrads. Where somebody then later changes, usually it’s a woman, her mind about whether that was consensual. My point there was overall I think it’s very bad for women because women feminists fought for a long time to give women sexual agency and erotic control over our bodies, and now administrators are kind of back-peddling on that with the consent of student activists, who are joining forces with say, Title IX officers, to say, Oh no, that woman didn’t really know what she was doing at that moment. So these are different situations.

Do you have some idea about how to change this problem on campus of women being mistreated?

I think we’re doing a terrible job of educating students, and that includes women, about the realities of sexual life as a young adult. The context of a lot of this is hookup culture and the confusions of that and binge-drinking and the effects of that. I think that instead of slogans about rape culture, you’ve got to have really honest discussions about what’s going on, on the weekends, in private, and what people want from these kinds of sexual encounters and what they don’t want.

What really surprised me in talking to a lot of my own students is that women in particular actually don’t know how to handle themselves, including how to say no in situations where they could. So most of the situations do not have to do with physical force. I mean nobody is holding somebody down. People are getting blotto drunk and not knowing what they’re doing and doing stuff they wish that they hadn’t done. But a lot of it has to do with bad education and dumb thinking about sex. To some degree the educators are responsible because we’re just not realistically educating students about sexuality.

What you have made of the reappraisal of Bill Clinton by a bunch of people on the left, and how do you look back on the way feminists in the late ’90s responded to the accusations?

To start out with the Monica [Lewinsky] situation, Monica always said that her involvement was completely voluntary. I think she says she made the first move. And I think the codes about “there shouldn’t be any workplace involvement” probably came later. So making some distinction there is useful. She was victimized less by Clinton, or not by Clinton but by [Ken] Starr and his team. In terms of the other accusations, I have difficulty with this because I’ve written about it.

And the amount of money that people like Richard Mellon Scaife poured into digging up dirt or creating accusations against Clinton in order to do exactly what they accomplished, which was create a perjury trap by digging up Paula Jones and these other accusations. It was so politicized from the beginning. The thing that is interesting about this is whether Gloria Allred is going to go forward in trying to hang Trump with the same sort of tactics. Create a perjury trap for him because the Supreme Court allowed that case against Clinton to go forward.

So that would be an interesting outcome in all of this. But as far as all of the other accusations, it was always so politicized, and to the point that his accusers are touring or did tour during the campaign with Trump, what am I supposed to make of that as an observer? If they were sexual assault survivors, why are they in with Donald Trump? It did speak to me about how politicized the thing was.

One answer would be that they are hypocritical and not consistent the way all of us are. Especially when it comes to politics, people have double standards, and they do as well, and that shouldn’t necessarily impact the way we feel about the accusations they made.

That’s the part I’m not sure about. You know, I can’t really go along with the believe-all-accusers line partly because having investigated Title IX accusations, I have seen how specious a lot of these accusations are. People have a lot of motives for accusing other people of stuff, particularly on campuses where there are not any particular onuses on making an accusation or repercussions. I have seen cases and I’ve seen the documents where people in the midst of breakups or for whatever reasons accuse people of stuff that actually just didn’t happen. There’s just an incredible amount of documentation on this, and I know that’s not a popular line among my fellow feminists, but it’s documented.

Just to bring the conversation full circle, of course, there are false accusations as there are with everything, but it’s been surprising in a lot of these big media cases how few people have vehemently denied it.

Except for Trump.

Right, except for Trump. I mean he sort of denied it—I guess he said it was “locker-room talk.” But almost everyone else in almost every field has either completely apologized or given a half-apology, which we’ve seen from Weinstein and Al Franken and different people, but there have been very few people who’ve sort of stood up and said “I’ve been wrongly accused. This is outrageous. My name is being smeared.”

Like I said, I do think you can’t extrapolate from that to the campus situation because they’re just different contexts. The mechanics of the accusation procedure are very different.