Workers Hammer No. 240
Anti-sex frenzy and bourgeois feminism
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus
The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard (no 1121, 3 November 2017), newspaper of our comrades of the Spartacist League/US.
Is the spectre of sex haunting the campus? Under the pretence of targeting sexual harassment and assault, university administrations have been whipping up a climate of fear and imposing neo-Victorian values. As the recent book Unwanted Advances — Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (HarperCollins Publishers, April 2017) argues, “The new campus codes aren’t preventing nonconsensual sex; they’re producing it.” Written by Northwestern University professor and self-described left-wing feminist Laura Kipnis, the book exposes the vastly expanded definitions of sexual assault, which criminalise anything from drunken hook-ups to student-professor romance and even allow for consent to be withdrawn retroactively.
Kipnis joins others who have blown the whistle on the Title IX “sexual misconduct” investigation apparatus. Title IX was originally enacted in 1972 to outlaw sex discrimination in federally financed institutions, to increase funding for women’s college sports and women’s enrolment in medical and law schools. Now it has been turned into a mammoth kangaroo court without any semblance of due process for the accused. In 2011, Obama’s administration issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” containing revised Title IX guidelines with which colleges had to comply or risk losing federal funding. Most striking of these guidelines was the adoption of the lowest standard of proof, a “preponderance of evidence”, in campus sexual assault hearings. By this standard, the accused can be convicted based on anything over a 50 per cent likelihood of guilt, as opposed to “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal cases. Students have had their scholarships withdrawn and been expelled, and professors have had their careers destroyed based on mere speculation.
With sexual harassment vaguely defined as “unwelcome conduct”, university bureaucrats have gone after teachers and students alike for controversial comments and misguided jokes or compliments. And though one would be hard pressed to find sex on campus that doesn’t involve some level of intoxication, under the Obama-era guidelines, any sexual act under the influence is treated as nonconsensual.
Kipnis herself witnessed firsthand a process that is normally cloaked in a veil of secrecy after she became a target of a Title IX investigation for having written an essay. Students complained that she had created a hostile environment with her Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” (February 2015), which opposed prohibitions on student-faculty relationships and other draconian campus sex codes. After documenting this sinister circus in a follow-up essay, “My Title IX Inquisition” (May 2015), Kipnis became an unintentional spokesperson for countless victims of the anti-sex bureaucracy.
To be sure, rape and sexual harassment happen, and universities are well versed in sweeping cases of criminal sexual violence under the rug to preserve their reputations. Kipnis goes out of her way to prove she’s not “soft” on rape. But it is no help to victims of real abuse for voluntary and involuntary acts to be lumped together under the umbrella-like designation of “sexual misconduct”, ie, to make no distinction between discomfort and coercion. As we wrote following the implementation of “yes means yes” legislation in California: “The suggestion that a misunderstanding — or for that matter, bad or unpleasant sex — is equivalent to rape is not only ludicrous but dangerously trivializing of actual sexual violence” (“Sex and Consent on Campus”, Workers Vanguard no 1056, 14 November 2014).
When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced in September that she would rescind Obama’s guidelines, feminists and Democratic Party politicos were quick to decry the move as yet another attack by an overtly racist and ultra-conservative administration. Trump and his right-wing cohorts have a sinister programme to eliminate women’s right to abortion and to wage a racist war on what little remains of affirmative action. But the Democrats represent the interests of the same bourgeois ruling class as the Republicans, and also push an anti-woman agenda, including sexual repression. In fact, expanding the powers of the government and its agents in the university administration, cynically done in the name of defending the vulnerable, is a gift to the reactionary forces that aim to dismantle Title IX and go after civil rights wholesale.
The uses and abuses of Title IX
The current anti-sex campaign is rooted in the bipartisan rollback of the limited but real gains won through struggles in the late 1960s and early ’70s amid the radicalisation during the fight for black rights and against the Vietnam War. But important concessions, such as the legal right to abortion, have since been undermined or overturned by the ruling class — see the massive erosion of Roe v Wade. Reforms are always reversible when power remains in the hands of the capitalist exploiters.
In the 1980s, a right-wing “family values” offensive was joined by a liberal/feminist auxiliary that went on to promote panic over “date rape” on campuses. The Title IX apparatus has become the latest tool in the rulers’ decades-long anti-sex crusade to justify augmenting the police forces of the state and legitimise intrusion into private life — from the demented accusations of satanic ritual abuse against day care workers in the 1980s to the permanent ostracising of hundreds of thousands of people branded “sex offenders” today. Stirring up mass anxiety conveniently diverts discontent away from the horrors of life for the bulk of society: unemployment, plunging wages and soaring costs of housing, healthcare and education.
Aside from Kipnis’s own story, which she relates with impressive wit, the central case of Unwanted Advances is that of Peter Ludlow, a highly regarded, tenured professor of philosophy at Northwestern. Ludlow was driven out of the university by the Title IX authorities who found him guilty of sexual harassment in two cases. One involved an undergraduate who accused him of forcing her to drink alcohol and groping her; in the other, a graduate student claimed there had been a nonconsensual act during their months-long relationship. Ludlow denied all accusations. During drawn-out Star Chamber procedures, he was banned from campus and smeared in the press as a rapist. Blacklisted, Ludlow resigned and moved to Mexico, dead broke from legal fees. He handed over all his documentation to Kipnis, which confirmed her suspicion that the case was a frame-up.
In page after page of engrossing detail, Kipnis describes the sexual misconduct inquisition: the accused has no right to know the charges, nor who made them, which makes mounting an effective defence nearly impossible; hearings are conducted in secret and typically conclude with a gag order on the accused; the investigators act as judge and jury, and can raise accusations based on hearsay. Kipnis exposes the rampant bias of the Title IX officers in favour of women they call “survivors”, a term that presupposes the charges to be true (and the man to be the aggressor).
In reviewing Ludlow’s case, Kipnis discovered a backstage adviser in the affair who has played a nefarious role in many other Title IX investigations, Professor Heidi Lockwood. Defying all logic, Lockwood denies that consent is the decisive factor in determining whether sex is consensual. In her schema, widely shared in feminist academia, consent does not exist if there are “differentials in power”. The logic of Lockwood’s construct is that women are never independent beings during heterosexual sex since we live in a patriarchy.
Sex — which under bourgeois morality is coloured by shame, fear and religious dogma, not to mention class and racial inequality — is often messy and complicated. But we do not believe that someone who is simply older, has a better job or is in a position of authority inevitably turns his or her “subordinate” into a passive automaton. As long as those participating consent at the time, nobody else, least of all the state or campus administrators, has the right to tell them if or how they can do it. For Marxists, the guiding principle in sexual relations is effective consent: what two (or more) people agree to do, regardless of age, gender or sexual preference, is no business of the government or campus authorities.
In her recent book and essays, Kipnis challenges how female students are infantilised as helpless victims of professors with whom they’ve had sexual relations. She harks back to her own years as a college student, before sex was considered dangerous and when screwing professors “was more or less part of the curriculum”. The number of students and teachers who have fallen for each other and acted on it over the years is legion. To condemn these acts is a blatant attempt to control and criminalise sex (or anything hinting of it) between consenting individuals. We oppose all “age of consent” laws that prohibit consensual sexual relations in the name of “protecting” youth; we do not accord the capitalist state the right to decree an arbitrary age at which people can experiment, desire or fool around. Likewise, we oppose all laws against “crimes without victims” such as prostitution, gambling, drug use or pornography.
Anti-sex hysteria intersects the racial oppression that is central to US capitalism. In a country where simply being a black man is enough for the cops to frame you up for something, blacks and minorities are particularly targeted as supposed predators. Panic over black male sexuality and interracial sex has long been used as a justification for (legal or extralegal) lynch rope terror — look at the Scottsboro Boys and Emmett Till. Unwanted Advances mentions in passing the story of a black college athlete charged with sexual assault for giving his girlfriend a hickey. The case was that of Colorado State University student Grant Neal. Although the woman emphatically reported that no nonconsensual act had taken place, a “friend” of hers reported the hickey to the Title IX authorities. Grant was suspended, his athletic scholarship was revoked, and no other college would admit him. He later sued the university for discrimination, settling out of court.
As reported by journalist Emily Yoffe in an article, “The Question of Race in Campus Sexual-Assault Cases” (Atlantic, 11 September), Colgate University was recently investigated for race discrimination in its sexual assault adjudication process. On a campus where only four per cent of students are black, during the 2013-14 academic year black male students made up half of those accused of sexual violations. Black and immigrant students, who more often than not lack the financial resources to mount an effective legal defence, are exceptionally vulnerable in the face of bigoted and zealous prosecutors. Title IX has also been used to railroad gay people and leftists.
The myth of “rape culture”: sex panic as social control
The ideological backdrop to sexual paranoia on campus is the notion of “rape culture”. Kipnis challenges two ubiquitous claims: that one in five college women is a victim of sexual assault, and that only two per cent of rape allegations are false. In fact, contrary to the image of universities as a hotbed for rapists and predators, students actually experience lower rates of sexual violence than their non-college counterparts. As far back as the 1990s, Princeton grad student Katie Roiphe challenged the notion of a so-called “epidemic” of date rape on campuses in her defiant book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus (see “The ‘Date Rape’ Issue: Feminist Hysteria, Anti-Sex Witchhunt”, Women and Revolution no 43, Winter 1993-Spring 1994).
The false “one in five” figure originates from Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, which infamously contended that rape or threat of rape is the main way in which all men control all women. Pervaded with racist and anti-sex filth, the book equivocated on the defence of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth who was kidnapped and lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Brownmiller presented the whistle by Till — whose killing was a galvanising incident for the civil rights movement — as a “deliberate insult just short of physical assault”.
Kipnis shrewdly argues that “rape culture” has become the university counterpart of the September 11 attacks that have been used as the justification for the wholesale shredding of civil liberties under the guise of the “war on terror”:
“On campus, the term rape culture, like the term terrorism, has become the rhetoric of emergency. Fear becomes the guidelines, promulgating more fear
. The failed war exacerbates the fears, which becomes the rationale for further expanding the security state: vast expenditures, increased layers of bureaucracy, surveillance, secret renditions, summary justice — like expelling a freshman for ‘emotional coercion’.”
Unwanted Advances touches on the social and economic backdrop to the regulation of sex. Today, where even a miserable $15 an hour is out of reach for millions of workers, college-age adults see a precarious future. Decent-paying employment is far from guaranteed even with a four-year degree, which in any case leaves graduates saddled with debt, chained to their parents’ housing and health insurance. Combine that with concern that a romantic encounter could end up with one being marked a “sex criminal”, and you have a solid means for the ruling class to push social conformity.
Part of why Kipnis was able to maintain her composure during her own farcical Title IX trial was because, as a tenured professor, she felt her job was secure. Today, the bulk of professors are not so lucky. Over half of all university instructors are part-time adjuncts — low-paid contract employees with no union representation or job security. If an adjunct instructor is brought up on even the flimsiest charges of sexual misconduct, their career is immediately on the line.
Title IX “sex offender” vendettas strengthen the power of the reactionary campus administrations to strip tenured faculty and staff of the few protections they have. Students, professors and campus workers should have more defence against misconduct allegations, not less. The fight to gain and extend protections on campus, including union rights, requires a fight against the administration, which runs the university on behalf of the anti-woman, anti-black, anti-worker ruling class.
Bourgeois feminism v revolutionary Marxism
In capitalist society, the prospects of justice for actual victims of rape are bleak. Women who report rape are routinely harassed by the police and practically put on trial themselves while the courts inspect their “morality”. In the bourgeois legal system, the prosecution of sexual offences has little to do with protecting women against violence and more to do with maintaining their subjugation within the family. The institution of the family is the main source of the oppression of women and children. For the bourgeoisie, the family is used to pass property on to the next generation. For working people, the family — in which women are consigned to running the household and rearing the next generation — inculcates and reinforces bourgeois ideology and morals and, above all, obedience to authority.
Anti-sex witch hunts not only bolster the family, but also provide an ideological basis for state repression. For Marxists, the capitalist state — including the cops, courts and prisons — is the instrument for the suppression of the exploited and oppressed by the exploiters. Alongside the family and organised religion, it plays a key role in enforcing the oppression of women and youth. Feminists, even radical or “socialist” ones, operate entirely within the framework of capitalist rule and reject this understanding. In fact, one form of feminism today is called “carceral feminism” because it pushes for more policing, prosecution and imprisonment as the solution to violence against women.
Kipnis denounces carceral feminism and paternalist feminism, ie, the concept that women should be protected and men policed, and argues in favour of “grown-up feminism”. For her, the feminism from her generation has been “hijacked”. She notes that college students in the 1960s and ’70s fought to end the in loco parentis prerogatives of campus administrations, while her students today invite college administration snoops into their bedrooms.
Yet feminists have often lined up with some of the most virulent reactionaries, including allying with religious fundamentalists, to support the bourgeoisie’s anti-sex witch hunts — from censoring porn to criminalising “deviant” sex. Feminism is based on the false consciousness of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women who seek to enter the straight male club of power and privilege. Their strategy has been to rely on the capitalist Democratic Party to defend women, which serves only to demobilise fighters for women’s rights.
While Kipnis bemoans the fact that abortion rights, equal pay, childcare and maternity leave have been relegated to mere side issues, she still relies on feminism to address such concerns. In fact, the fight for things like free, quality 24-hour childcare, equal pay for equal work, and free contraception and abortion must be tied to a struggle to overthrow the economic system that is the source of women’s oppression. The liberation of women requires a socialist revolution, which will uproot the private property system and replace the family with socialised childcare and housework, bringing women fully into social and political life.
Fake socialists join anti-sex frenzy
It is a mark of the reactionary political climate that Unwanted Advances has either been ignored or treated with contempt by the bulk of the left. Kipnis has instead been lauded by right-wing libertarian groups like FIRE and Reason, both with ties to the Koch brothers. These groups have been promoting the faux “free speech” agenda on campus as a cover for racist, sexist provocations. Kipnis is perplexed by such praise from those who want to destroy the left. By entrusting the capitalist state with powers that will inevitably be used against them, liberals and feminists have handed a weapon to the right wing. It is a measure of how much reformist socialists have adapted to puritanical “family values” that they march in lockstep with the feminists (read: Democrats) to promote bourgeois behaviour codes.
In the article “DeVos Is Turning the Clock Back on Survivors” (Socialist Worker, 13 September), the International Socialist Organization (ISO) laments DeVos’s latest action as one of a “series of attacks against survivors by the current administration”, and declares: “We will not go back.” The ISO hails Obama’s “Dear Colleague Letter” and retails dubious statistics about sexual assault in order to join what they hail as a “growing” movement against sexual violence on campus. That movement plugs the inherently racist, sexist and elitist bourgeois education system as a “space” in which women, transgender people or racial minorities can be “safe” from oppression.
Socialist Alternative (SAlt) [US section of the Committee for a Workers’ International] has latched onto the same movement, in particular at UCLA, where they have been active around the Title IX case of Gabriel Piterberg. An Israeli, pro-Palestinian professor of history, Piterberg was charged with sexual harassment by two grad students in 2014. While denying the charges, he made a settlement with the university, which included being fined, suspended for a quarter [term] without pay, and removed from his position as director of the university’s Center for Near Eastern Studies. But this was not enough for SAlt and its cohorts in the feminist Bruins Against Sexual Harassment. Student protesters repeatedly shut down his classes, railing that UCLA was protecting a “sexual predator”.
Whatever happened between Piterberg and his accusers, we oppose eternal punishment, akin to being branded a sex offender for life. Piterberg is also a well-known defender of the oppressed Palestinian people who has been targeted for years by powerful Zionist forces. His treatment raises the question of whether the Title IX apparatus is being used to do the Zionists’ dirty work.
While no one can fix all the problems of sexual relations in this rotten, decaying society, we oppose all attempts to fit human sexuality into pre-ordained “norms”. To create genuinely equal relations between people in all spheres, including sex, requires nothing less than the destruction of the capitalist system through a series of socialist revolutions internationally, opening the way to the creation of a communist world. In a classless society, social and economic constraints on sexual relations will be nonexistent, and in the words of Friedrich Engels, “There is no other motive left except mutual inclination.”