What Laura Kipnis has to say about drinking and rape on campus is not going to go over well with young women, but she goes ahead and says it anyway.
"If you're to going drink 11 ounces of liquor, that's destructive on a lot of levels. In terms of self-protection, you just cannot know what's going to happen when you're comatose," the cultural critic tells me ahead of the publication of her risky new book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. "To say that women don't have to be part of the solution is almost perverse."
In hazarding that men alone aren't responsible for sexual assault, or what the book jacket dubs "mutually drunken sex," Kipnis is clearly not concerned with falling out of favour with mainstream feminists. Neither, predictably, is Camille Paglia, whose new book, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, reprises previously published essays. Kipnis and Paglia see "melodrama" and "hysteria" playing out on modern campuses, words that won't exactly endear them to their target audience – the young women populating those campuses, women who prefer terms such as "rape culture."
Welcome to the intergenerational feminist flame wars, in which women who might have marched for their rights in the 1960s try to instruct their younger charges on real, "grown-up" feminism – and those young women snap back.
Kipnis and Paglia are not the only voices in this unpopular choir. There was Emily Yoffe's much-maligned 2014 Slate article, College Women: Stop Getting Drunk. Far less literary was 2014's "Princeton Mom" Susan Patton, who offered this helpful 1950s nugget to female university students: "Be smart about managing your alcohol consumption … and your image!"
Even feminist rocker-chick Chrissie Hynde got in on the action. Divulging in her 2015 memoir Reckless that she'd been raped by a biker gang member at the age of 21, The Pretenders singer blamed herself for "playing with fire," later telling the Sunday Times magazine that women who wear high heels "entice" rapists – and better be good on their feet. Hynde was strafed by young women who were grossly disappointed in a feminist hero for whacking the victims.
Who wasn't turned off by Hynde's sexist diatribe? Paglia, who has been beating the victim-blaming drum for decades. "Every woman must take personal responsibility for her sexuality, which is nature's red flame," Paglia warned in an incendiary 1991 Newsday article, Rape: A Bigger Danger than Feminists Know, which makes an encore appearance in the new book. "She must be prudent and cautious about where she goes and with whom. When she makes a mistake, she must accept the consequences and, through self-criticism resolve never to make that mistake again."
Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, suggests less boozing and more "take-charge attitude" might spare young women from rape – or what she described in a 2014 Time article as "oafish hookup melodramas arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides."
Critics such as Paglia hazard – and for some it's a job-imperiling hazard in today's climate – that women play a substantial role in their own victimization. They blast women for putting themselves in vulnerable positions, for growing paralyzed during their attacks and for playing the "enfeebled victim role," as Kipnis puts it. They urge young women to exhibit more "personal responsibility" and "self-analysis." Through and through, the attitude is that young women should be alert like prey, in which case, they should be fine.
These positions infuriate young feminists. Paglia audibly recoils when I repeat some popular modern feminist talking points to her during our phone interview. One: that the end result of binge drinking should be a hangover, not rape. Another: that the common denominator between a woman who is sober and raped and a woman who is drunk and raped is the rapist.
"When will feminism stop enabling stupidity?" rails Paglia, calling for "defensive dating" the way others have called for defensive driving. Feminism, she says, has put young women at great risk by telling them they can do what the boys do, with impunity. The world is a dangerous place full of "psychotics," she yells shortly before hanging up on me.
At the same time, Paglia and Kipnis believe modern feminists have gone soft. They take serious issue with young women turning to college administrators with sex-assault allegations: This is "paternalism," not feminism, they say. They believe campus focus on rape culture stifles women's maturation and that it'll pose big problems for life after college in a working world teeming with jerks and gendered power dynamics.
What both want to see more of is female resilience, a concept they fixate on in their books. Paglia extols Hynde in our interview: "I applaud the way that Chrissie Hynde, typical of my generation, took personal responsibility for her own decisions and did not project this soap opera of female victimage and male oppression."
Hynde, she argues, comes from a long line of "strong women" who rank as her heroes. There is Katharine Hepburn, who had suffragettes in her family, the pilot Amelia Earhart, tough talking Dorothy Parker and Ava Gardner, who, incidentally, kicked off her shoes and binge drank often. In a 2014 essay on women from the American South, Paglia celebrates Southern women's "special assertiveness," describing how they attract men "while keeping them at an approved safe distance" (but offering no empirical proof to show that they get raped less often than anyone else).
Who else is tougher than "wispy, white middle-class girls on college campuses"? Working-class women and "street smart" drag queens. This is an especially odious statement, given what we know about transgender women of colour being particularly at risk for violence.
Kipnis wants predators held to account but, like Paglia, would like to see more grit and more introspection from women about these incidents. As a professor of filmmaking at Northwestern University, Kipnis applauds one of her students, a smart, jovial woman who told her about getting black-out drunk and waking up next to a friend. The young woman had no memory of the encounter but laughed off any suggestion that it amounted to rape: She had planned on hooking up with the guy at some point in time and joked that she only regretted "missing" the experience. After her freshman year, the woman decided to drink less and hook up less – the sex was usually really bad.
"Rather than being daunted, she learned about herself from the encounter," writes Kipnis, using the story to illustrate the kind of self-reflection she'd like to see from more female undergraduates.
What Kipnis says she wants is honest, realistic discussion about what students face. She asks smart questions about why black-out, vomit-all-over-yourself binge drinking is so prevalent on campus – among both genders. She also deftly mines the issue of women's sexual ambivalence about what it is they actually want in bed. Hers is a challenging book that acknowledges how women, including herself, would like the world and the men in it to be, and how things unfortunately stand now.
Viewed generously, the advice alternately doled out by Kipnis, Paglia, Hynde, Yoffe and Princeton Mom is well meaning. It is also ultimately borne out of fear: People convince themselves that the women they love will forever dodge this violent crime if they follow the playbook, if they have one less drink, travel with a posse of women and speak in a booming voice.
Sadly, it's little guarantee. Sober women get raped, as do black-out drunk ones. Women in short dresses get raped, as do women in ugly sweat pants (there are a number of photo essays that illustrate the slouchy clothing women wore when they were attacked). Strong women get raped too, including Madonna, Paglia's hero, who recently divulged that she was attacked at 19 in New York by a neighbour when she went up to his apartment to use his phone.
Young women do want what men have, it's true: They want to match their frat buddies drink for drink in beer pong and hook up with no strings attached. But the reason they refuse to "take responsibility" for their own sexual assaults isn't because they're bourgeois brats. They're trying to shift the long-standing focus in rape cases from accusers and turn the lens on perpetrators who target, survey and isolate victims, using alcohol as a tool.
Is the fix going to be a temperance society for women in 2017? That's not going over terribly well so far. Perhaps Paglia et al. should take a cue from a new cohort of lower-key "harm reductionists." These are professionals from many disciplines who are now hazarding the concept of sexual-assault prevention. The approach isn't predicated on blaming women. Instead, it expands the menu of options to help stem the tide of attacks.
It asks people to look out for each other as bystanders. It sees bar staff, male and female, all over the world, voluntarily intervening when they see creeps hovering around women who are staggeringly drunk. Some, such as Sarah Hepola, author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, offer compelling insights into the physiology of how women and men metabolize alcohol differently, as well as what it technically means to black out – when you might seem cogent to those around you but your brain's ability to form memories gets temporarily fried by all the booze in your system. The appeal is that Hepola doesn't moralize: She merely explains.
Charlene Senn, a women's studies professor at the University of Windsor, actively pushes self-defence as a prevention strategy and offers up empirical evidence to show that physical and psychological self-assertion works. These are realistic choices for women on campus, information that's grounded in research, not judgment.
During our brief interview, Paglia recalled her undergraduate days in the 1960s. School admin tried to impose an 11 p.m. curfew on female dormitories to protect women from "danger," this while letting the young men run free all night long. Paglia and her girlfriends told them to get bent. Today, young women are telling their critics to do the same, and rightfully so.