In a now-infamous 1991 Newsday essay, Camille Paglia wrote that feminism “has put young women in danger by hiding the truth about sex from them.” “In dramatizing the pervasiveness of rape,” Paglia argued, “feminists have told young women that before they have sex with a man, they must give consent as explicit as a legal contract’s. In this way, young women have been convinced that they have been the victims of rape.” (“Convinced.” It’s a potent idea, regularly employed to insinuate a passive misconception of consent, evidence that the victim wasn’t really raped, just persuaded.)
Paglia did not stop there, of course. “Every woman must take personal responsibility for her sexuality, which is nature’s red flame,” she wrote. “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’s essay is an easy target perhaps. But as a cultural benchmark that we have not much progressed from, at least not in any demonstrable way, it is useful, compelling even. One could argue that in fact we have regressed. It was just in 2014 that the “prudent and cautious” remonstration reared its head in a Canadian courtroom, rather than a newsmagazine, when a judge, Robin Camp, asked an accuser, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” It is true that in the current melee of sexual assault accusations in Hollywood as well as the literary and media worlds, the question of consent has been pushed to the fore in public conversation. The outpouring of support for people who have survived sexual assault, and the growing numbers of those who have come forward about their experiences, all seem to suggest progress. And there is an undeniable momentum. Following the recent #MeToo campaign, which encouraged people to use the hashtag to indicate they’d experienced sexual harassment or assault, jewellery designer Moran Amir peddled a $56 necklace with letters spelling “Me too” dangling from a chain. (Proceeds were donated to RAINN, the Rape Abuse Incest National Network.) Music-streaming platform Spotify launched a #MeToo playlist featuring songs about abuse. The Wing, a network of members-only co-working spaces for women in New York City, sells hats and t-shirts bearing the words “Girls doing whatever the fuck they want in 2017.”
But what is not being said in these empowering-sounding yet ultimately nebulous slogans deserves a closer look. The rising volume of conversations about sexual assault is not, on its own, real advancement. The #MeToo campaign has been in many ways an awakening, yes. It has amplified the voices of women who have experienced gender-based violence and arguably cleared a path for victims of all genders to come forward, encouraged by the security of common ground. Still, it is an exercise moored in quantity. #MeToo required no specificity, just that users post two short words to their social media platforms. Anything from an unsolicited libidinous DM to a violent rape was fair for submission. In the scramble to make space for all, the weight of the worst gets lost. Vagueness is a cloak.
The speed and intensity of these past few weeks signal the need for a better conversation about sexual assault. The one we are having continues to be flawed, in part because—on a fundamental level—we lack an understanding of what that term even means. We still do not have an adequate vocabulary for abuse. The problem is not, as Paglia wrote in her 1991 essay, that we’ve hidden the truth about sex from women. It’s that we’ve hidden the truth about rape from everyone else.
It seems almost anachronistic to use the word “rape” now. In pop culture, especially in comedy, the word has currency. With jokes about rape, comedians like Sarah Silverman and Will Ferrell push against the edges of what can be said—it’s always “rape” in comedy, never sexual assault. The comedian Hannibal Buress harnessed the word’s incendiary power in a different way in 2014. “But you rape women, Bill Cosby,” he said onstage, in what launched the destruction of Cosby’s reputation. By using the word “rape,” he left no doubt about what he meant. He allowed—forced—us to talk about it.
In much of the public discourse, though, out of compassion and respect for privacy, we allow a wide linguistic berth when talking about sexual assault. In the vastness of this room, specificity is lost, and so too is our potential for real understanding. The ambiguity of the current conversation means we lack a comprehension of what sexual assault looks and feels and sounds like, how, where and when it happens, who its perpetrators are, and how the aftermath unfolds. Difficult as it may be, we need to talk, and write, about it more vigorously. That means more explicitly.
Take note of how many were stunned by the audio proof of Harvey Weinstein attempting to coerce the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez into his hotel room, or by the recording of Donald Trump saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…Grab ’em by the pussy.” But that is how it sounds. For another example, take the recent abuse allegations against Florida-based rap artist XXXTentacion; in September, the music press reported these accusations with disturbing exactitude, including details of how the rapper told a woman to choose which kind of barbecue tool he would put into her vagina. Instead being given vague phrasings like “lewd comments” or “accusations of assault,” the public was privy to a reality that is typically paraphrased and thus softened.
The case of Stanford University student Brock Turner is similarly instructive. In January 2015 Turner assaulted an unconscious student and was charged with two counts of rape, two counts of sexual penetration, and one count of assault with intent to rape. (The first two charges were dropped. He was convicted of the others.) It was a case that sparked international outrage, though only after the victim’s impact statement was published by BuzzFeed. Emily Doe’s powerful and brutally honest account made the abstraction of a sexual assault case incontestably real. “In public news,” she wrote, “I learned that my ass and vagina were completely exposed outside, my breasts had been groped, fingers had been jabbed inside me along with pine needles and debris, my bare skin and head had been rubbing against the ground behind a dumpster, while an erect freshman was humping my half naked, unconscious body. But I don’t remember, so how do I prove I didn’t like it.”
It is a sickening moral failure that we don’t register the horror of sexual assault until a survivor lays bare the proof. But as a counter to ambiguity and euphemism, the details become pivotal.
Around the time Brock Turner was charged, the cultural critic and professor Laura Kipnis waded into the morass of campus rape discourse when she responded to a policy statement issued by her employer, Northwestern University, that outlined new guidelines for romantic or sexual relations between faculty, staff, and students. “The Great Prohibition,” as she referred to the new policy in an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, stated that in order to protect the integrity of the university’s academic and work environments, “When a consensual romantic or sexual relationship exists or has existed between people in positions of unequal power at the university, the person with the greater power must not hold any supervisory or evaluative authority over the other person in the relationship.” Simply put: professors were not to have sex with students if they were currently grading them.
More from the policy: “When individuals involved in a consensual romantic or sexual relationship are in positions of unequal power at the university…there is the potential for a conflict of interest, favoritism, and exploitation.”
Kipnis disagreed. In that Chronicle article, titled “Sexual paranoia strikes academe,” she cited the American academic Jane Gallop, who suggested that in her day, sleeping with professors made young women like her “feel cocky.” Kipnis argued that “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’s Chronicle article makes reference to a Title IX complaint filed against another Northwestern professor, Peter Ludlow, who was accused of sexual assault by a student. Ludlow claimed the relationship was consensual; the student alleged that it was not. Following the essay’s publication, Kipnis herself became the target of a Title IX complaint, filed by the complainant in the Ludlow case, along with another student; she also became the focus of protests by female students, who alleged that the article created an uncomfortable campus environment. Kipnis’s own Title IX investigation and those of others became the basis of her recent book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, published this past spring. Its broader focus is what Kipnis perceives as a victim’s-eye vision of feminism: “I find myself wondering when this version of besieged womanhood came back into fashion,” she writes.
Much of Unwanted Advances focuses on Ludlow’s case. Following an investigation, Ludlow resigned without signing a non-disclosure agreement, and provided Kipnis with access to all documentation and correspondence, including text messages, related to his relationship with the student, both academic and otherwise. Kipnis uses those records and Ludlow’s perspective to piece together what she deems a more believable counter-narrative to the student’s. Rather like a defence lawyer yearning to shriek “Eureka” in a courtroom, she scours text messages, photographs, and social media for holes in the accuser’s story. Through that process she becomes a pontificating armchair detective-turned-self-appointed judge.
Kipnis’s abrasive, irreverent style—once so entertaining in her writings about gossip and shame (2010’s How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior) or the trap of romantic relationships (2003’s Against Love: A Polemic)—seems exactly the wrong tone for an exploration of the dynamics of sexual harassment and assault on campus. At one point, she recalls laughing with a fellow writer over the writer’s sister having been raped while passed out in a frat house. “We laughed because we’re feminists with a certain shared mordancy about female propensities for self-martyrdom, among other things,” she writes. It seems germane to note that in an interview with the New Yorker soon after her book came out, Kipnis said that she herself has never encountered sexism in the workplace.
The dissonance in her argument is hard to process at times. “Even lots of charisma can’t force a person to drink,” she writes at one point about the Ludlow case, in which the events in question occurred after a night of drinking. “I suppose a professor could pressure a student to drink. Still, there’s the sinister implication that if a professor could, he’d want to. Why exactly? Oh right—so that he could force her into sex.” Whatever Kipnis might think of Ludlow’s particular case, it cannot seem a stretch to anyone who has read a newspaper recently (or ever) that there are professors—or movie moguls, beloved musicians, high-profile magazine editors and aspiring senators—who try to force women and girls into sex, with the help of alcohol or not. Kipnis, an otherwise thoughtful and attentive thinker, seems to woolgather flippantly about what may or may not have happened, from a deeply skeptical starting point.
And it’s all too bad, because she does make a powerful case for refinement in terms of how we talk about sexual assault, on campus and off. “In the post-Title IX landscape, sexual panic rules,” she wrote in the Chronicle. “Slippery slopes abound. Gropers become rapists and accusers become survivors, opening the door for another panicky conflation: teacher-student sex and incest.” This is a point she explores in the book as well. Kipnis is writing, after all, from a sense that a broken system has failed her, as it has many women. The various Title IX officers in Kipnis’s book for example, did not follow a uniform process and lacked any common definition of what constituted sexual misconduct. They made it up as they went along. If you cut through all the polemic, Kipnis’ book is a call for clarity.
On this point, she is right. In the eyes of the mainstream public, the fatiguing oversaturation of the catchall term “sexual assault” has ended up making rape seem less traumatic than it is. Actions such as “cat-calling”—vile to be sure, and much too prevalent—now seem on par with rape, because we use the same vocabulary to discuss both. Online we have created a buoying support system for survivors of sexual assault. I have both given to and benefited from this compassionate digital community, in which women hold each other up, share resources, name names, and fight for a better society. But in conflating the experience of being sexually assaulted with the experience of being mistreated emotionally or psychologically, we attenuate the experience of rape. Being grabbed in a bar can be traumatic (and constitutes sexual assault, to be clear) and psychological abuse is too often overlooked. But we must draw a line in the terminology between cruel behaviour and abuse and rape. When we label everything “abuse,” we do unfortunately arrive at what Kipnis describes as “sexual paranoia.”
Our warm embrace of all people who have suffered across the spectrum has indeed come at the expense of clarity, which is vital for progress. With little opportunity for closure through the justice system, venting on Twitter has understandably become a norm. Ambiguity often veers into misconception. It is in this fog of accusation and half-communication that narratives are written overtop of truths.
As Sarah Schulman writes in her book Conflict is Not Abuse:
Sometimes invoking the language of abuse is an avoidance of responsibility, just like speaking in metaphors. Like when people say, “I feel like I’ve been raped,” to mean they are upset. In reality, what they feel is nothing like what they would feel if they’d been raped. It’s a turn of phrase that means they don’t like what is happening and don’t know how to make it better. It’s an overstatement of harm using abuse tropes. And sometimes we are so insistent on our right to overstate that we do things that are not merited by the actual dimensions of the conflict.
Later, she continues: “Being the object of overreaction means being treated in a way that one does not deserve, which is the centerpiece of injustice…There is a continuum of pathology in blame, cold-shouldering, shunning, scapegoating, group bullying, incarcerating, occupying, assaulting, and killing. These actions are substitutes for our better selves, and avoid the work of self-acknowledgment required for resolution and positive change.”
The editors of the recently released Sexual Violence at Canadian Universities: Activism, Institutional Responses, and Strategies for Change avoid some of the pitfalls of popular discourse by defining their focus much more clearly; it is apparent right from the title what this book, a collection of essays and research by Canadian activists and academics, concerns itself with: sexual violence. The book presents a critique of existing responses, and actions that are being taken, or could be, to address the problem. Julie S. Lalonde, a Canadian social justice activist based in Ottawa, argues that campuses should allocate resources to prevention, not merely be spurred into action by the bad public relations of high profile incidents. “Evidently, if a campus’s approach to sexual violence only addresses high profile cases, then it is not adequately focused on prevention,” she writes, calling to mind the frenzy of apologia that’s followed the wave of male celebrities and public figures being exposed for sexual assault, and even the Brock Turner case.
“Focusing on everyone’s positive role in ending sexual violence rather than painting men as perpetrators and women as victims was a welcome change by community and campus groups alike,” continues Lalonde, detailing her research. In my mind, I do see everyone, including Kipnis and Paglia, nodding along to this, and that’s a good start.
In focusing on tangible actions—whether commendable or problematic— the book also presents a foil to the soft focus of the sexual assault “conversation.” It seems perplexing, given the unexplored potential suggested by such proposals, to devote such time and resources to the pursuit of investigations against someone like Kipnis. Sure, she may be irritating. But harmful? Is it possible we are we focusing on “rape culture” at the expense of addressing rape itself?
But perhaps we target what we can see and name, and in this moment, a “hostile environment on campus” may be easier to define than what constitutes sexual assault. It is also easier for universities to say, and believe, that they are taking action by creating safe spaces for women than to have processes and policies that actually serve vulnerable students, which would require effort beyond virtuous declaration. The softness of the language permits the illusion of improvement. In March 2016, the Ontario government passed Bill 132, which stated every college and university must have a sexual assault policy detailing how the school would handle and investigate reports of sexual assault. Many have criticized the law’s loose and varying guidelines, as well as the failure of post-secondary institutions to properly put the law into action on campus. Carleton University, for example, stipulated that filing a complaint with the school disqualified complainants from talking about their assault to the press, or discussing it on their own social media accounts. The province’s response was that it encouraged schools to write their own policies. History, and Kipnis, would suggest that women are not always beneficiaries of this approach. Brandon University’s sexual assault policy made news last year when it emerged that sexual assault victims were threatened with suspensions if they discussed their assaults with anyone but a school-affiliated counsellor.
“The erosion of rights can happen in a variety of ways, and manipulation of language is one of them,” Kelly Oliver wrote in “There is no such thing as ‘nonconsensual sex.’ It’s violence,” an opinion piece published in the New York Times last year. Indeed, the matter of language has begun to come into the light of late. Harvey Weinstein’s grandstanding damage-control statement used the term “non-consensual sex” in its denial of sexual assault allegations and was widely criticized for doing so. Many on social media have responded to the cascade of sexual assault stories by noting that “perverts” and “predators” are not the same thing, particularly after Senate-hopeful Roy Moore was labelled the former. Who doesn’t know the difference? I can’t help but wonder exasperatedly.
Yet rapists become perverts, sexual assault becomes locker-room talk, rape becomes non-consensual sex—or “20 minutes of action,” as Brock Turner’s father put it—and crimes become mere delinquency. Slippery slopes do abound, as Kipnis says, and clarity is crucial. Without it we really are hiding the truth.
Carly Lewis is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Maclean’s, and The Walrus. She is a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail.