Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 1

If you want to see some really frank talk about the regulation of campus sexuality, Laura Kipnis's talk at Wellesley last month is well worth the time. I want to draw attention in particular to the exchange between Kipnis and some students at the end of the Q & A. She is being asked to comment on the experiences of the friends of these students, which is difficult terrain in this sort of forum, but one that the conversation, in my opinion, has to cover if we're going to make progress. Kipnis apparently shares this view; she rightly tells one student not to apologize for pushing the point. "You're getting to the real nitty-gritty of it," she says.

The exchange had an interesting arc. Kipnis at first takes the sketches of the experiences at face value and suggests that, since these were negative experiences, we do well to think about how they could have been avoided. (I think Kipnis is right when she says—more clearly in answer to an earlier question—that some women need to learn how to say no assertively and how to defend themselves.) This elicits some pushback from another student who proposes to consider cases that, she asserts, are definitely assault.

During the course of the conversation the scenario she is describing becomes clearer. Apparently we are talking about a steady couple who begin to have (consensual) sex (as usual) but at some point it takes a violent turn. He holds her down and forces her to engage in something she does not want. At this point, Kipnis tersely remarks that that is just illegal and the conversation could perhaps have ended there.

But there is one important discordant element in the student's description of this episode. She says that the man would "genuinely not think of [it] as an assault", nor, as I understand it, was any attempt made to make him see it as such after the fact. That is, the assault is an uncontroversial fact among a group of female friends, but would be highly controversial as such if presented to the man who is supposed to have committed it. This sits oddly with something else the student puts into her description of the case later: the woman had said no. It is unclear to me how a man, faced with these facts, could both grant that they accurately represent what happened and deny that it was assault.

This is what the conversation seems to hinge on, although Kipnis (I think wisely) doesn't force the ambiguity to a resolution. The student who had put the example forward demands a response; she demands to know what Kipnis thinks should be done here. And she rejects a number of suggestions, both from Kipnis and another student, that go to the need for better communication between the sexual partners, and perhaps better judgment in the choice of sexual partners. It's clear that while Kipnis is not blaming the victim, she is raising the question of how she got herself into this vulnerable situation. (Kipnis rightly points out that sex just is a vulnerable situation.) "What 'situation'?" the student balks. While they might be appropriate in other situations, she insists, the case as described is not open to those responses.

At this point, Kipnis, granting, I suppose, the student the right to specify the facts of the case (it's of her choosing, after all), asks what she thinks a proper response would be: prosecute? And here the student becomes very categorical. "Yes ... if someone penetrates you forcibly after you've said no—which is what I said [happened]—[then] yes [he should be prosecuted], because that's what rape is."

Kipnis basically leaves it there, but here, really, is the rub. Because it will now be the woman's word against the man's. (Keep in mind that we're talking about two people who are alone together and naked and already engaged in sexual activity on an entirely consensual basis at the time that the alleged assault takes place.) Obviously, once the accusation of sexual assault is levied, he will insist that he had consent and that she did not say no or resist. Indeed, the student had previously said that his defense here would not even be dishonest. He would "genuinely" believe that he did not assault her. (Again, I find this hard to get my mind around unless he simply didn't hear her say no.) And yet there is supposed to be no doubt in our minds, i.e., the minds of people who are hearing this story from the point of view of the alleged victim (albeit third-hand), that this was indeed an assault. It is presented as cut and dried at one level, but also somehow still "problematic", an "issue". This obviously exposes the accused to the risk of being expelled (on one sort of standard) even where there is insufficient evidence to find him guilty of rape. Kipnis is right to wonder whether we want these situations adjudicated quasi-judicially.

The problem with the case that the student is putting forward is that it is supposed to be an entirely objective assault to everyone but the perpetrator. The man in the story would not feel like he "got caught", but that there was something he just doesn't understand about women. I think this captures very neatly the idea of a new kind of subjective "rape" that the Title IX culture has fostered on college campuses. It also has obvious parallels to the problem of harassment, which is increasingly being defined in terms of the subjective experience of the victim, not the more objective judgment of what the law refers to as a "reasonable person". In Part 2, I want to suggest ways that literature can help us understand the subjectivity of these situations.

[Part 2]


Anonymous said...

Some thoughts on the linked video.

Kipnis is a better writer than a speaker.

The (black) woman in the audience doesn't hold the microphone, but she has the most interesting and succinctly expressed questions and comments.

The (white) woman one row back holding the microphone struggles expressing herself, for at least four minutes, and presents a scenario which I imagine is as follows: a heterosexual couple has vaginal sex, but when the man initiates anal sex, she says "no" and tries to prevent it, but he forcibly has anal sex.

The right answer is also the easy and simple one: the man should know what "no" means (unless as you imagined, he didn't hear it, but in that case, body language or another louder "NO" should do it). [ Those that might be practicing more aggressive consensual sex acts should have a safe word to turn off role playing. ]

But these are tough issues. Hard to navigate. Your point is a good one that under Title IX he may very well get punished, but in the criminal justice system, he probably would not be tried, unless her anus was torn and his DNA was extracted from inside her. Even still, at the trial, the "he said, she said" would play out with respect to consent and when and to what degree it was revoked.

Kipnis alludes to it, but it can be stated again. Part of the problem with the scenario is that the man wants something badly enough to take it by force. If he was in a loving relationship, developed over many weeks, his opportunity cost is high enough that he's not going to force anal sex, because doing so may end the relationship, which he is invested in. If he and she met via Tinder a few hours before going to bed, and if he's a serial jerk/assaulter, then he may take her by force.

I recognize that "anal sex" is my own hypothesis for what the video does not name.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand, or I disagree with, your parallel between 1) the story of the woman that said "no" but the man proceeded anyway, and 2) Title IX's elastic definition of rape as anything the survivor feels was non consensual at any time after the event. The two situations are entirely different. In #1, she is saying "no" at the time - expressing clearly, verbally, and contemporaneously with the behavior that it is not consensual and not welcome. In #2, she (or he, but it's generally she) can act consensual during the act, after the fact, even continue in the relationship and text him about how great the act was, and her desire to do it again soon, and still if someday in the future she decides otherwise, that for whatever reason she feels he had influence over her, or she feels threatened by his power over her career, then it couldn't have been consensual and he will be sanctioned by the Title IX machinery. Such scenarios are described in Kipnis' book. One hopes they are anomalies.

Thomas said...

I imagine a similar scenario. In fact, the one you describe looks a lot like one that I will be going through in part two from Norman Mailer's short story, "The Time of Her Time". The important difference is that the man forces the woman to have anal sex because he believes (rightly) that this is what will finally give her the orgasm she wants and he has invested his pride in giving her. She struggles and resists for ten minutes, but he keeps going. In the aftermath, there's no hint that either party thinks an assault has taken place, even though she is angry with him (for only slightly more complicated reasons).

The parallel that I was trying to emphasise lay not in the objective fact of whether she says no, but in his subjective obliviousness about it being an assault. I agree that the situations are different; I guess the problem is that on Title IX's standard they aren't different enough.