The Melodramatic Strain In Feminist Politics

Students suffer as social-justice signaling demands increasingly hyperbolic vulnerability.



I just came across this great February piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the current "melodramatic" strain in mainstream feminist politics. In it Laura Kipnis, a cultural critic and film professor, writes of a "sexual paranoia" that pervades academia, turning once typical behavior suspect and infantlizing students (especially young women) in the process. 

Kipnis, 58, has seen a few cycles of feminist thought and activism since her time as an undergraduate, now witnessing millennial politics firsthand from Northwestern University. The author of books such as Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America and The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability, she's very much a feminist herself. In a review of Kipnes' latest book of essays—covered and praised widely by major media—Salon book critic Laura Miller called her a "worldly, ambiguity-friendly thinker." This is all to say that Kipnis is no Phyllis Schlafly, or even Caitlin Flanagan. Her liberal-feminist credentials are solid, and she has no need to be provocative just to be provocative. 

Still, she's provoked many in the progressive community (including students at her own campus) with her Chronicle essay, which opens with a consideration of student/professor relationships:

When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum. Admittedly, I went to an art school, and mine was the lucky generation that came of age in that too-brief interregnum after the sexual revolution and before AIDS turned sex into a crime scene replete with perpetrators and victims—back when sex, even when not so great or when people got their feelings hurt, fell under the category of life experience. It's not that I didn't make my share of mistakes, or act stupidly and inchoately, but it was embarrassing, not traumatizing.

As Jane Gallop recalls in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (1997), her own generational cri de coeur, sleeping with professors made her feel cocky, not taken advantage of. She admits to seducing more than one of them as a grad student—she wanted to see them naked, she says, as like other men. Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to her, because it was a way to experience your own power.

But somehow power seemed a lot less powerful back then. The gulf between students and faculty wasn't a shark-filled moat; a misstep wasn't fatal. We partied together, drank and got high together, slept together. The teachers may have been older and more accomplished, but you didn't feel they could take advantage of you because of it. How would they?

For this, Kipnis has been accused of "victim blaming," lack of empathy, and being delusional.  

I was in college from 2000-2004, and while I didn't know any undergraduate students sleeping with professors, graduate students dated and slept with undergraduates, and professors dated and slept with graduate students. [Like Kipnis I should add caveats, I suppose: My frame of reference is mostly theater and film students and faculty, in a small Appalachian college town known for poverty and hippies.] Did some of these power-imbalanced relationships turn messy? Of course, though never in ways that seemed especially foreign from other interdepartmental or dorm romances gone sour. Occasionally someone crossed a line, and these incidents were passed around as departmental folklore, examples of how not to behave, or the possible perils of playing with fire in this way.

Hanging out and drinking with grad-students and sometimes faculty let us glimpse our elders as ordinary people, which is no small feat for 19- and 20-year-olds. We learned that their lives were messy sometimes, they didn't always drink responsibly, and they didn't have all the answers. We did some of that necessary growing-up thing where you kill your idols, question authority, and let up on the teenage narcissism that defines adults beyond age 25 as categorically dreadful. And, like Gallop, some of us "seduced" our superiors, or at least gleefully gave in to their seductions. 

That female students might feel thrilled, rather than victimized, by sex with someone older and more powerful is not a popular idea these days. The blame can't be placed solely at feminists' feet. The whole culture has gone a bit mad about teens and young adults, who just a few decades ago were routinely having babies and buying houses and dying in wars at the ages we now view as basically no different than children. But mainstream feminists specifically have popularized a vision of women as categorically stripped of agency when sex and social pressure are mixed. Under all but the right circumstances our consent is considered meaningless, and those who sleep with us outside of these circumstances as de facto predatory.  

"I think young women are shrewder and tougher than many older individuals give them credit for, generally, and then many older feminists specifically credit them with right now," writes Kipnis. "This, in turn, is creating expectations in young folks for how they should feel about these things."

Many of the most contentious campus rape stories to be popularized by the media involve students who didn't initially see themselves as victims. Only after talking with friends, professors, or others do they "come to view" the experience as sexual assault. This certainly isn't always lamentable—young, inexperienced women may be genuinely unsure about what's abusive or atypical sexual behavior. But it's clear that in at least some cases, young women are being steered into more sinister interpretations than may be warranted.  

"If this is feminism," writes Kipnis, "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." 

Kipnis is far from the only one to suggest that by treating students as "trauma cases waiting to happen," we're creating exquisitely fragile monsters, to students' own detriment—stunting their emotional growth and distorting their interpersonal expectations. 

In December, Megan McArdle excoriated the view that because young women tend to be uncomfortable saying "no" to sexual suitors, we need a new framework for sorting out sexual consent. "It is not the word 'no' that women are struggling with; it is the concept of utter refusal," wrote McArdle. "That is what has to change, not the words to describe it. … Unfortunately, no one else can bear the burden of deciding who we want to have sex with, and then articulating it forcefully." And a feminism that tries to compensate for this, rather than teach young women to be firm about their own sexual wishes, is counterproductive. 

The same goes for protecting students from pyschological "triggers," which they will certainly encounter in the real world. If someone is so traumatized by certain subjects or language that they can't cope upon exposure, it speaks to deeper psychological issues that should be addressed, not sidestepped and saved for a later day.

"Generalized trigger warnings aren't so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism," wrote longtime feminist writer Jill Filipovic at The Guardian last year. "They're a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues." But in singling out certain kinds of suffering—mostly that experienced by women and minorities—as especially deserving of trigger warnings, activists "imply that our experiences are so unusual the pages detailing our lives can only be turned while wearing kid gloves," Filipovic continued. "There's a reinforcement of the toxic messages young women have gotten our entire lives: that we're inherently vulnerable." 

It's not just young women who suffer. As social-justice signaling demands increasingly hyperbolic vulnerability, social justice causes come to appear absurd outside of rarefied circles. When offensive words are "violence" and an unwanted advance is "rape," people don't suddenly care more about offensive words and unwanted advances; they care less about inclusive language and rape. 

It also sets up vulnerability and victimhood as the only emotionally permissible parameters. It's all or nothing. If you talk in the language of trauma, people will listen. If you express more mundane feelings, tough luck. In the modern media narrative, you're either a victim, an ally, or a perpetrator. There's no room to discuss a sexual encounter you find ethically suspect without calling it a criminal violation. There's no room to suggest something makes you uncomfortable without someone else being willfully at fault. Is it any wonder, when given these options, that students seem increasingly comfortable casting themselves in the victim role?