My main problem with Laura Kipnis’ much-discussed essay “Sexual Paranoia” is the excluded middle it outlines. Practicioners of dialectic modes of argument often claim that this approach is necessary in order to locate and recommend that middle. It’s the “Untouchables” theory of rhetorical struggle: they put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue! Until it’s all over and everybody gets to live in peace and drink because Prohibition was repealed, or something like that.
I think Kipnis is right that building rules and formalisms that encode a particular kind of person who depends upon institutions and governments to protect them from harm is a mistake in a great many ways. I think she’s wrong in imagining that the alternative is an empowered human subject who makes decisions about sex, erotics and love within the alternative formalism we’ve chosen to call “consent”, a sort of contractual relation between autonomous self-owning individuals. In the new rules, we forbid relationships that we definitionally hold to be non-consensual because of how we describe power as a function of formal institutional roles. In the old rules that Kipnis extols, we sort every erotic and sexual relationship into consent and non-consent and apply an if-then assessment. If non-consent, criminal; if consent, allowable.
The excluded middle here is the messiness of being human, which Kipnis says she prizes (and her powerful, important scholarship throughout her career backs that statement up). But that messiness has to include the possibility that acts, feelings, relations which satisfy even the new rules as being “affirmatively consensual” could be nevertheless profoundly objectionable in those same messy, human terms. And some of them are sufficiently objectionable that they would not just be a “you say tomato, I say tomato” kind of matter for individuals to sort out on their own, but that institutions might in totally human and subjective terms decide to act upon. Kipnis is against the new rules, but in many ways implicitly is defending the old rules (which are just as much rules): that you might suffer the contempt of friends and colleagues, but you should never fear the discipline of institutions. I think the most human thing would be for institutions to act as humanely as we dream of individuals acting: as judicious, wise, complex, sensitive but also strong, decisive and resolute where need be. To act not just because they must (the lawyers say!) or not act because they mustn’t (the lawyers say again!)
Kipnis doesn’t name him by name, but the case of Peter Ludlow at Northwestern is clearly on her mind. In the excluded middle, why not just say what clearly should be said? That he should not have done what he himself admits that he did, and that the wrongness of its doing doesn’t depend on the particulars of consent? That an ideology that maintains that we own ourselves, that we can give consent or refuse it as autonomous individuals, is also an ideology that should allow that we can and should own ourselves sufficiently to keep our zippers zipped in many circumstances? If we’re to hold on to liberal autonomy, let’s hold on to most of it. The worst of all worlds would be to hold on to consent as a liberal form of contract but to dispense with its associated aspiration for self-control and self-mastery. The specter of a self that can consent but cannot be expected to act differently across different social and professional worlds, that has its desire spilling over the walls because that self is a dark romantic kernel inside the rational contracting shell is a familiar ghost, but we shouldn’t welcome its recurrent haunting.
The case that makes this point most clearly for me is of the Yale moral philosopher described by a graduate student who had an affair with him. The details are depressingly familiar, as the author herself recognizes as the essay wears on: an older man who lies proficiently about his marital status, about his sex life, about his intentions. Who turns out to tell the same lies to many women. If that were all of it alone, then that alone is worth writing about, worth sharing, worth accusing. Why not? Why should serial deceit be rigorously private and protected? Surely real individual freedom, especially in matters of sex, love and desire, should include the freedom to share our stories–and our warnings. But also in this case, and all cases of relationships between people, power matters. Because it turns out that the Yale moral philosopher isn’t just a serial liar and intellectual hypocrite, but very possibly is also in breach of the old rules of consent that Kipnis agrees are still vitally important to maintain and enforce. She says of them that the real harassers should suffer all that is coming to them: but we should hardly wait to see a fire break out every time there’s smoke in the air. In all our institutions in modern life, the air is thick with smoke. The lies that old men tell, the advice that fraternity brothers give about drunk women at parties, and so on: our lives are often like the former mining town of Centralia Pennsylvania, where coal seams burn underground unchecked, the fire of harassment and assault always underneath. Kipnis invokes Andrea Dworkin as if to laugh at where we’ve arrived, making mainstream institutional systems of discipline and punishment that affirm her view of all heterosexuality as contaminated by power. Kipnis is right to reject the essential gloominess of Dworkin’s view of so many human relationships as fundamentally contaminated and irredeemable, but Dworkin’s description of power being everywhere in sexuality (and otherwise) is fairly on the mark.
So why not a Yale University which in human and humane terms says to that moral philosopher: we don’t approve of what you’re doing with your reputation as a scholar and teacher, of what you’re doing as a human being, even if you’ve been careful enough to follow some writ, to discipline your desire just enough so as not to hurt and lie to a person who is at this moment your student, to follow the rules just enough. We don’t approve in general of how you use your influence and your power, we don’t think very much of a moral philosophy that applies so very little to your own conduct. And so: go somewhere else? When did a few books full of moral philosophy and a bunch of lectures become so valuable that they earned someone a lifelong place no matter whom they’ve hurt or how they act? Why not imagine institutions that could be just wise enough, just knowing enough, that they might act in human terms, just as we expect from our wise and knowing friends and acquaintances? (Even, perhaps, from our wise enemies.) Why not imagine institutions less as stern sovereigns, or as machines that protect us from both messy desire and weary wisdom? Why not imagine communities–including communities of work–as legitimately collapsing public and private together, as being just as messy as individuals are in how they reward and forbid, act and fail to act? If we want the notion of individuals consenting–and individuals being responsible for their consent–then perhaps we should add to that another shopworn idea, that with great (or even modest) power comes great (or even modest) responsibility.
A defense of the necessary, even desirable, messiness of human life is not about painting a huge unknown “grey area” and saying that everything within it is nobody’s business but the people in the grey. It’s not saying that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. It ought to be the opposite: a brutally honest commitment to humanistic empiricism, to the vivisection of the human heart, to the unflinching witnessing of what we do, what we are, what we feel. And if we see, when we see, lies and pain and suffering, we shouldn’t rush to call it desire and pleasure and freedom.