Features, Review, Top Stories

Laura Kipnis, Camille Paglia and the Redefinition of Sex

Laura Kipnis

Reading Laura Kipnis’ Unwanted Advances is challenging. Not because Kipnis isn’t a gifted writer, but because her experience with Title IX administrators, today’s campus equivalent of a morality squad, is downright noxious. What landed her in trouble was an article she wrote, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2015). Many of us who remember the heady days of 70s and 80s campus life appreciated her candour about sex, especially when it came to the empowerment we felt then. Young campus feminists today, groomed to see themselves as victims disagreed, claiming they found the article “terrifying.” A campus petition to sanction Kipnis at Northwestern followed, as did a Title IX inquiry.

Kipnis’ cautionary tale dovetails with Camille Paglia’s collection of essays, Free Women, Free Men. Paglia also draws inspiration from her own life, although her analyses focus more on shifting cultural Zeitgeists, the kind that empower or disempower women. Loosely, both books form a subjective (Kipnis) and objective (Paglia) look at how current iterations of feminism are curbing freedoms and diminishing the quality of much academic thought.

Throughout her book, Kipnis emphasizes an amusing but important idea: she believes a lot of bad sex is being had on campuses everywhere, an admission few academics are willing to make, with most confounding “bad sex” and “rape culture” instead. Both she and Paglia also believe that unrealistic expectations, ignorance and a disinclination to give some men a break (see below) are what’s created the belief that campuses are havens for rapists, a belief crime statistics belie. While Kipnis’ own story is mingled with an autopsy of the case of disgraced philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, Paglia provides a series of alternate responses to sex and sexual misconduct.

Northwestern’s Peter Ludlow, like Kipnis, must have felt as though he’d stepped into an alternate universe when he first learned of the Title IX charges against him. It’s a fitting analogy for Ludlow, given his combined expertise in philosophy and online worlds like Second Life, a platform he used to teach one of his courses. Kipnis’ research into his ordeal is exhaustive because it has to be: his accusers’ narratives, frequently countered by their own electronic messages, deviate so fully from what Ludlow convincingly claims were consensual experiences. His is the retelling of the Inferno, with every revelation exposing yet another of Dante’s beasts on his descent into Hell.

The reference to beasts isn’t overstated. First to qualify is Jocelyn Packer, a goading mentor to one of Ludlow’s accusers, second is Heidi Lockwood, a “self-styled carpetbagging rape activist,” and third is Joan Slavin, a Title IX officer with the “psychological acuity of a mollusk.” Fourth and fifth are Patricia Bobb, a less than fully qualified lawyer when it comes to Title IX, and Professor X, a married, former paramour of Hartley’s, who supported her by “stirring the cauldron” in which his romantic successor was stewing.

All seemed driven by a desire to ruin Ludlow, an intellectual albeit naive man who hardly rose to the level of black-hearted villain. Equally dubious were the charges against him. First was an accusation made by “Eunice Cho” that Ludlow forced her to drink alcohol, which then caused her to attempt suicide; his second accuser, “Nola Hartley,” believed their three-month, consensual relationship was in fact disguised abuse. It’s clear both women have been thoroughly milled by malevolent, agency-stripping machinery. Kipnis leaves no doubt about whose.

And it’s machinery that encourages learned helplessness that Paglia does battle with in Free Women, Free Men. While the story of her 1950s upbringing is repeated a little too often in her collection, her early pursuits—an obsession with Amelia Earhart and childhood tendency toward androgyny—are telling precursors of her empowered vision of feminism.

Like Kipnis, Paglia speaks frankly about alcohol, arguing that keg parties and other instances of binge drinking are integral to the rise of perceived campus rapes. While Kipnis augments her argument with an analysis of the expanding definitions of rape, Paglia charges off in another direction, offering alternate cultural patterns of alcohol consumption that many of us with European backgrounds recognize.

Camille Paglia

More specifically, she’s against a drinking age of 21, noting that underage partiers often find other, more damaging substances to get high on. It’s a simple idea, and one that Paglia skillfully meshes with the temperance movements of the early 20th century–movements that allowed the mafia to thrive–and the later, misguided efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Paglia clearly favours the civilizing effects of early alcohol consumption as a replacement for the crazed partying of the uninitiated. It’s hard to disagree: alcohol is key in most cases of date rape, a fact consistently minimized by those looking to place the blame squarely on men.

An especially powerful essay in Paglia’s collection, “The Nursery School Campus: The Corrupting of the Humanities in the U.S.” frames our current academic malaise in political terms inimical to how most progressives see themselves. Starting with the 1960s, she writes:

The 1960s failed, I believe, partly because of unclear thinking about institutions, which it portrayed in dark, conspiratorial, Kafkaesque terms. The positive role of institutions in economically complex societies was neglected…[and] capitalism’s contribution to the emergence of modern individualism, and therefore feminism, has been blindly suppressed. This snide ahistoricism is the norm these days in women’s studies programs and chichi, Foucault-afflicted literature departments…universities led the way by creating a ghetto of black studies, which begat women’s studies, which in turn begat gay studies….each has simply made up its own rules and fostered its own selfish clientele, who have created a closed system in which scholarship is inseparable from politics.

Ahistoricism and misguided, chiaroscuro politics have created the context for Title IX inquisitions. Those of us who have been teaching for decades see the end results: we know that the rise of shallow identity politics, and the denigration of rich historical and literary canons, has not furthered the cause of women or minorities. In fact, what Paglia rightfully identifies as a chaotic battleground of diminished ideas has at least one manifestation in the inchoate theorising and haphazard application of the Title IX policies foisted on Kipnis and Ludlow. It begs the question: shouldn’t a legal instrument, with the power to decimate lives, be more coherent?

The true kings of the castle are now administrators in many Departments of Education, those coddlers extraordinaire who, if their mandates were truthfully articulated, would be standing at the gates of most universities handing out diapers. This is a class whose goal is not the accumulation of knowledge, but the accumulation of power. That we’ve ceded our right to govern ourselves to them is a state of affairs we should unite to rectify. As many academics know, the emotional fragility of students is often a cover for the fragility of their thinking. Among other things, universities are there to fix that. Protecting those young minds, by suppressing our critical voices, should be the first bad idea to go.

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Irene Ogrizek is a writer, teacher, and editor based in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Visit her website here: http://www.ireneogrizek.com