Sexual melodrama on campus: The real story about college assault that David Brooks and Laura Kipnis don't understand

Speech codes aren't the issue. Sexual assault is. The media's attack on campus activism is designed to obscure that

By David Palumbo-Liu
Published June 3, 2015 6:39PM (EDT)
Emma Sulkowicz
Emma Sulkowicz

Carrying mattresses, wearing gags, adorning mortarboards with red IX’s to draw attention to Title IX complaints—these are all part of the protests over sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses.  And a large part of the protest is against what critics say is lack of meaningful action on the part of college administrators. People want their voices heard, and these moments of street theater have proven effective attention-getters.

But recently, a highly inflammatory essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education has indicted protesters with the charge of melodramatically fixating on their status as victims, or potential victims, and has accused universities of puritanically stifling the healthy expression of sexual desire and activity between professors and students.  And those who condemn the essay for its casual and at times snarky dismissal of the issue of sexual assault have now been labeled as politically correct censors of free speech and academic freedom.

Since its publication in February of this year, Laura Kipnis’ essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” has not ceased to create controversy.  Kipnis, a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University, asserts that new rules against faculty-student dating are playing to students’ exaggerated and self-destructive feelings of vulnerability, and attempting to legislate the sexual lives of adults.  If students get hurt or harmed as a result of their liaisons with their teachers, Kipnis tells them to consider it a “life lesson.”   Thanks, Prof.

Kipnis seeds her essay with plenty of accusations, ranging far and wide across a lot of terrain.  But it would appear that, according to Kipnis, the most egregious thing those deeply concerned about sexual harassment and assault on campus are guilty of is the sin of being melodramatic.  This, from the person who writes in that same essay, “For the record, I strongly believe that bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square.”  Or who titles her recent follow-up piece in the Chronicle, “My Title IX Inquisition.”

If melodrama is a sin, or a symptom of something not psychically right, then Kipnis is just as prone to using melodramatic rhetoric as anyone.  And that is a huge problem when we venture into the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus—for many of the modes of expression that people use to help draw attention to these critical issues often end up in fact drawing attention away from them.

I appreciate Kipnis’ attention to the issue, and her passionate investment. And I defend her right to speak and write about these issues without being censored or pilloried.  What I am deeply troubled by is the way her rhetoric, meant to provoke, ends up obscuring whatever value her critique might offer and clouds the issue.  Drama does not always work in the way we intend it to--we can get too caught up in the momentum of our language and gestures to produce the effect we wish.

For example, back when I was in college at Berkeley, I attended a lecture by then bad-boy, self-advertised anti-feminist, self-proclaimed macho-man, world-famous novelist and essayist Norman Mailer. I should mention that he had been preceded a week before by Gloria Steinem. The stage was set.  As soon as Mailer took the podium there was a smattering of shouts, signs flashed up, a protest began. He looked over the crowd and held his hands up, and said, “OK, OK.  I get it.” Things quieted down a bit.  Mailer continued,  “So everyone who thinks I’m an asshole, hiss.”  Of course the room was soon filled with violent hisses.  When they stopped Mailer smirked and said, “Obedient little bitches.”

While that seemed a point for Mailer, it did not negate the fact that many people still thought he was an asshole. It was a melodrama that achieved nothing, no matter which side of the fence you were on.  No one was convinced that sexism was bad, or a non-issue.

That is a very brief example and not consequential at all.  Conversely, the Kipnis case has turned out to be a protracted storm, gathering generational issues, issues of academic freedom, freedom of speech, the actual tenets and breadth (or narrowness) of Title IX law, of so-called political correctness, and trigger warnings along in its wake.

This is one of my main concerns—people latch onto this “event” and take whatever part works to advance their own agenda, completely ignoring the actual issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault, a discussion of which has been preemptively dismissed by Kipnis as wrongheaded.

David Brooks uses the Kipnis case as an example of zealots on campus unschooled in philosophy overreacting; the always reliable Jonathan Chait uses it to trot out his favorite hobby-horse, political correctness; Jezebel sees it as a lamentable instance of feminism feeding on itself.  Any of these issues can indeed be found in Kipnis’ piece, but see how the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault has been used merely as a pretext.  No one is considering for a moment if Kipnis’ accusations actually have any validity.  And that is partly her fault.

While Kipnis insists that these are not phantom issues, the melodramatic mode of expression she chooses to use leeches them of substance and seriousness.  She wants to have her cake and eat it too.  And she does it by placing an awful lot of weight on the term “melodrama.”

Just to be clear, here is how the venerable Oxford English Dictionary defines melodrama: "2. More generally: any sensational incident, series of events, story, etc.; sensationalist or emotionally exaggerated behaviour or language; lurid excitement."

The problem is not only that Kipnis indulges in staging a melodrama, in which she plays a key role, it is moreover that, after suggesting that “bona fide harassers” should be “chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square,” Kipnis never tells us what a “bona fide harasser” might look like.  Without providing us with any working definition for this central term, we are left without a clue as to what constitutes “real” sexual harassment in her opinion.  Based on her invective, we are charged with assuming that the protesters are overreacting.  Her melodramatic rhetoric completely takes over, to the omission of any actual facts, and thus she is guilty of exactly the same sin she accuses the students of indulging in—aiming for a big, melodramatic “affective” blast, but without providing any substance.

Besides relying nearly entirely on anecdotal evidence (mostly unattributed, except when she cites her own), it is clear that Kipnis is wistfully living in a bygone age. In her self-dramatization, which turns out to form the basis for an argument, she writes, “Forgive my slightly mocking tone. I suppose I’m out of step with the new realities because I came of age in a different time, and under a different version of feminism, minus the layers of prohibition and sexual terror surrounding the unequal-power dilemmas of today.” Kipnis is claiming the mantle of “real” feminism, not whatever degraded version exists today.  Compared to her nostalgic recollection of the good old days, feminism today is dried, sterile, puritanical.

This is actually not a new argument at all.  As long ago as the mid-'90s women critics were accusing feminism of being a killjoy, of depriving women of their sexual agency.  The only contribution Kipnis really adds to this long-standing issue is the criticism of melodrama: “It’s the fiction of the all-powerful professor embedded in the new campus codes that appalls me. And the kowtowing to the fiction—kowtowing wrapped in a vaguely feminist air of rectitude. If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.”

There are serious and I would say insurmountable problems with this argument.

In the first place, how, exactly, does she know that students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing, and, just as important, how does she know that this sense of vulnerability is not a reasonable reaction to actually existing and substantial issues?  Kipnis cannot admit logic or substance into her melodrama.

Again: “What a mess. And what a slippery slope, from alleged fondler to rapist. But here’s the real problem with these charges: This is melodrama. I’m quite sure that professors can be sleazebags. I’m less sure that any professor can force an unwilling student to drink, especially to the point of passing out. With what power? What sorts of repercussions can there possibly be if the student refuses?”

Are these real questions? Of course not—they are rhetorical ones and this is perfectly consistent with Kipnis’ mode of expression.  Make a melodramatic gesture and then wait for the effect to sink in, then plow ahead, sans facts.

Now her supporters will certainly say, it’s just an opinion piece. True.  And that’s the issue.  Kipnis skillfully (or not so skillfully) plays the role of “mere” opinion-piece author, free to say what she wishes, no matter how outrageous, just to voice that opinion.  And yet for that opinion to matter much, she needs to sprinkle in the language of social science, psychology, history.  As a provocation, this clearly works.  But by making such huge and potent claims, which she knows will then bleed out to all sorts of others, one would expect either some facts or some nuance.

However, there is one moment when the momentum of her writing falters, and that is when she actually admits that sexual-harassment codes have some use:

“Indeed, these are precisely the sorts of situations already covered by existing sexual-harassment codes, so if students think that professors have such unlimited powers that they can compel someone to drink or retaliate if she doesn’t, then these students have been very badly educated about the nature and limits of institutional power.”

Here, in a nutshell, is precisely the problem with Kipnis’ whole take on sexual harassment on campus. If we allow (as she seems to) that existing sexual harassment codes are legitimate, and should work, then what do we do about the fact that they fail to prevent sexual harassment?  Doesn’t the fact that professors have indeed been found to have compelled female students to drink (some under the legal age for drinking), and that some have indeed retaliated against students, prove that these “codes” do not in fact effectively constrain these errant professors?  And if this is the case, aren’t students entitled to feel unprotected by existing codes, and therefore vulnerable?

Consider another instance where Kipnis’ melodramatic effort, coupled with her own sense of logic, forces her to this rather contorted statement:

“Nothing I say here is meant to suggest that sexual assault on campuses isn’t a problem. It is. My concern is that debatable and ultimately conservative notions about sex, gender, and power are becoming embedded in these procedures, without any public scrutiny or debate. But the climate on campuses is so accusatory and sanctimonious — so ‘chilling,’ in fact — that open conversations are practically impossible. It’s only when Title IX charges lead to lawsuits and the usual veil of secrecy is lifted that any of these assumptions become open for discussion — except that simply discussing one such lawsuit brought the sledgehammer of Title IX down on me, too.”

First of all, open and often difficult discussions are not “practically impossible.”  At an event I organized with Anita Hill, we had plenty, and colleagues elsewhere attest to the same.  Second, to blame students for whatever difficulty there might be in having open conversations is to simplistically isolate them from the broader context wherein there are actual, real and persistent issues regarding sexual harassment and assault.  And as I read this last pronouncement from Kipnis, it is hard not to find it precisely accusatory, sanctimonious and chilling.  More important: It should be noted that Kipnis was exonerated of the charges.  So—it works.  The “chill” was removed once the “veil of secrecy” was lifted by the Title IX process.

There is no one I can think of who would argue that Title IX is perfect, or even acceptable in any absolute sense.  No one feels that processes and instruments that determine innocence or guilt, or assign punishment, are fail-proof or even satisfactory. And any system is open to being abused and used frivolously. And let there be no mistake about it—I consider the Title IX complaint filed against Kipnis to be wrongheaded.  But this article is not about free speech, it’s about the actual content of Kipnis’ writings on the subject of sexual harassment remedies on campus.

Let’s leave Title IX aside for the moment. What many feel is really most important is to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the first place. And that is my major objection to Kipnis’ writings on the subject. To attempt to, in one broad sweep, paint those who are seriously concerned with these issues as conservative, paranoid prigs who are imposing a life-dulling, victim-rewarding regime upon the campus for no apparent reason is high melodrama, and counterproductive to the “open discussion” Kipnis rightfully wishes to have. I wonder if she has spent any time with survivors of such harassment and violence, and one in every five college students can expect to be one. And that is a fact.


David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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