I recently finished reading Northwestern Professor Laura Kipnis’s new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. It was a wild ride, with frustrating accounts of misapplied Title IX complaints (including, in her case, fighting two anonymous complaints filed… because of an essay) broken up by sharp insights and healthy skepticism (“How do you force someone to send you thousands of text messages?”).
But one point she made in Chapter 5: Sexual Miseducation (A Plea for Grown-Up Feminism) needs to be amplified.
No discussion about how to end sexual assault on college campuses is complete without addressing female passivity and assertiveness.
“In my forays into the sex assault prevention lit, what I’ve learned is that there are deep ideoligical schisms among the experts. On the one side are the “harm reductionists,” who want to educate potential victims about how to decrease their chance of victimhood -- using a buddy system at parties, not falling asleep with male study partners, and so on…
Though you may not be a sex assault prevention expert, you have probably heard of harm reductionists before -- it’s just, you probably heard them referred to by a different name. “Victim blamers,” perhaps. Or “slut shamers.”
Ring a bell?
I can easily understand why a harm reductionist might be mislabeled or misunderstood. When a rape happens, it doesn’t matter what the victim was wearing. It doesn’t matter why she went back to his room with him. It doesn’t matter that she’d texted him about sex.
If you rape someone, you are a criminal, and you deserve prison time.
We can all agree on this.
Except, I suppose, Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky, who is now the target of a recall effort after giving a ridiculously lenient sentence to rapist Brock Turner. If you weren't sure whether or not rape culture exists, you need to look no further than the Turner rape case.
But at the end of the day, facts matter a lot more than feelings. I love the idea of a world in which all men have been taught not to rape, and all sexual partners practiced affirmative consent. It would be wonderful if a woman could pass out drunk anywhere she wanted, and no one would violate or assault her.
But this is not the reality.
Condemning researchers and educators for teaching women how to keep themselves safe is like condemning Ralph Nader for saying people should wear seat belts. It’s like telling people they don’t need to lock their doors, because no one "should" steal from them.
In fact, the facts in this debate fall very much in favor of harm reduction. There’s growing evidence that “risk-reduction” programs decrease the likelihood of being assaulted by as much as 50%, according to the New York Times. In American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, sociologist Lisa Wade cites research that yelling, punching, or fleeing reduces the likelihood of a completed rape by 81%. (Though, Kipnis acknowledges, “It’s also the case that women are least likely to fight off attackers whom they know [the majority of attackers], which complicates the picture.”)
Not to mention that some men just are criminals. While the number of “gray rapes,” or non-consensual encounters that seemed ambiguously consensual to the accused, could be reduced by better prevention education, there will always be rapists -- just like there will always be thieves, murderers, and con artists.
In the name of “feminsm,” preventionists think we shouldn’t teach “risk-reduction.” But, when you consider the data, this viewpoint seems almost anti-feminist. (But, then again, so is a lot of feminism these days.)
Moreover, the idea that women are helpless recipients of male action, in Kipnis's words, “ends up, perversely, reifying male power. It becomes something fearsome and insurmountable, when it’s often pathetic and mockable.”
Yet, as discussed in Students of 2016 Were Exposed to Fewer and Less Provocative Ideas That Students of 2014, any policy or social intervention should be examined for possible unintentional harm.
In all psychology research and interventions, it is imperative that you prove, at the get-go and ongoingly throughout the study, that you are not causing harm. And self-report is not sufficient -- the Cambridge Sommerville Youth Study demonstrated that although people may say something helped them, objective measures demonstrate that the study actually caused harm. Read more >
By spreading the idea that men are fearsome and women can’t use their words or bodies to stop their advances -- nor is it in any way their responsibility to keep themselves safe -- we are sending a toxic message to today’s young women. Worst case, this message is harmful and leads to rape and unwanted sex.
Best case, we’re failing vulnerable young people who could benefit tremendously from basic assertiveness training. If you find yourself unable to say things like, “Get your hand off my knee,” or, “No, I don’t want to go on a date with you,” or, “I’m down to hook up, but I don’t want to do anything below the underwear,” then you are someone who needs to work on basic assertiveness.
(Contrary to the anti-feminist "feminist" opinion that men must "consciously and actively accommodate" women, men are not mind readers. Whether you're looking for orgasms or just consensual sex, communication matters. See also: The Orgasm Gap is Real -- But Don't Blame it on the Patriarchy.)
Yes, this may be due to the fact that women are “socialized” to be polite and passive. (And, apparently, to overvalue and glorify men; this hasn’t been true in my experience, but Kipnis makes the claim.) But, as per The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Gif ALL Women Need to See ASAP:
If you've said, "No," and the guy answered with, "Oh, come on!" -- or by simply ignoring you, or by pretending to comply for a moment before trying again, or in any way other disrespecting your wishes -- which of you is actually being rude?
There is also the possibility that female passivity is an innate shortcoming that women could be taught to overcome. Maybe men are naturally more aggressive. Maybe women are naturally more submissive. But that doesn’t mean that, with training and awareness and effort, women couldn’t develop a stronger sense of physical and sexual agency.
Kipnis gives the example of a post called “Surrounded,” on a website called Strategic Misogyny. In it, a female grad student describes going out for drinks with colleagues after a conference. At one point, a male grad student begins stroking her thigh. Then the lecturer put his hand on her knee.
“I felt quite scared, but also frozen. I was in public surrounded by other people, yet I didn’t feel like I could tell both of them to stop touching me. Why didn’t anyone else react? I was surrounded by people who taught me and people with whom I studied. Did they think this was okay?” Read more >
Obviously, this is inappropriate. Perhaps these men are pigs. Perhaps they’re just idiots, and they would benefit from a conversation about dating in the workplace. Actor and investor Ashton Kutcher tried to start this discussion recently… and people called him “anti-feminist” for daring to broach the issue.
But clearly it is an issue.
One that may never fully disappear.
Shouldn’t this grad student learn how to be comfortable looking someone in the eye and shaking her head -- or even saying, “Get your hand off my knee.” Or, “Don’t.” Or, “Stop.” Or, “Awkward!”
Here’s another example, and it’s not from Unwanted Advances:
Last winter, there was a huge scandal at the University of Minnesota. During a party in a student apartment after a football game, one female student began talking to two football players about the floor plans in the building. They lived upstairs, they told her. Want to check out our apartment?
She went upstairs with them -- and, apparently, became terrified the moment she arrived in the apartment. Instead of saying, “Okay, I saw it. Cool. Let’s go back to the party!” (or even a meek, “I forgot my phone downstairs,” or something)... she said she had to pee.
So she went into the bathroom and stalled for as long as she could. When she finally came out, one of the guys was standing between the bathroom and the exit to the apartment -- at which point, she became catatonic with fear and began going into and out of consciousness. When she came to, there were dozens of condom wrappers on the floor next to her, and several football players were accused of raping her.
Those familiar with the case know there are several things wrong with her story -- including the fact that there are cell phone photos and videos of her chatting happily with dudes between partners and participating. But let’s imagine that her story is 100% true. Is it normal and healthy to feel and act that way? Is it beneficial? Is it ideal? Or would this young woman be much better off with some kind of training meant to help her handle herself in real time in difficult, awkward, or scary situations?
Without assertiveness training, this woman will never be able to remove herself from an uncomfortable situation or end an unwanted encounter. She will never feel the joy of living independently or traveling alone. She will waste money taking cabs because she’s too afraid to walk at night. She will be unable to prevent preventable trauma.
Whether nature or nurture, female passivity is something that clearly needs to be addressed.
And while the problem of female politeness and passivity may be as old as time, part of me wonders if it might not be worse now than previous generations. Think about how much time children and teens spend on their computers, texting, playing video games, and watching porn, instead of developing social skills.
Remember: we are the social animal. But social skills are just that: skills. We’re not born with them. We’re simply born able to learn them. (Unless you’re autistic.) If you spend most of your childhood staring at a screen, how socially adept do you expect to be in some intimate, alcohol-fueled sexual situation?
No one is arguing that teaching women self-defense or assertiveness skills will successfully stop every rape -- if two big dudes on the football team decide they want to rape you, they probably will. But it’s very clear that it would change the outcome of many cases, sparing women feelings of trauma and victimization.
Young women are not the problem. But they are almost certainly part of the solution.
Want to know more? Order Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, by Laura Kipnis. It feels nice to be hooked on a book instead of a TV show, for once.