photo blog_head_zpsfzwide7v.jpg
Valar Qringaomis

Get email updates of new posts:        (Delivered by FeedBurner)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe

Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe

"It’s been barely a year since the Great Prohibition took effect in my own workplace. Before that, students and professors could date whomever we wanted; the next day we were off-limits to one another—verboten, traife, dangerous (and perhaps, therefore, all the more alluring).

Of course, the residues of the wild old days are everywhere. On my campus, several such "mixed" couples leap to mind, including female professors wed to former students. Not to mention the legions who’ve dated a graduate student or two in their day—plenty of female professors in that category, too—in fact, I’m one of them. Don’t ask for details. It’s one of those things it now behooves one to be reticent about, lest you be branded a predator.

Forgive my slightly mocking tone. I suppose I’m out of step with the new realities because I came of age in a different time, and under a different version of feminism, minus the layers of prohibition and sexual terror surrounding the unequal-power dilemmas of today.

When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum. Admittedly, I went to an art school, and mine was the lucky generation that came of age in that too-brief interregnum after the sexual revolution and before AIDS turned sex into a crime scene replete with perpetrators and victims—back when sex, even when not so great or when people got their feelings hurt, fell under the category of life experience. It’s not that I didn’t make my share of mistakes, or act stupidly and inchoately, but it was embarrassing, not traumatizing.

As Jane Gallop recalls in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (1997), her own generational cri de coeur, sleeping with professors made her feel cocky, not taken advantage of. She admits to seducing more than one of them as a grad student—she wanted to see them naked, she says, as like other men. Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to her, because it was a way to experience your own power.

But somehow power seemed a lot less powerful back then. The gulf between students and faculty wasn’t a shark-filled moat; a misstep wasn’t fatal. We partied together, drank and got high together, slept together. The teachers may have been older and more accomplished, but you didn’t feel they could take advantage of you because of it. How would they?...

It’s the fiction of the all-powerful professor embedded in the new campus codes that appalls me. And the kowtowing to the fiction—kowtowing wrapped in a vaguely feminist air of rectitude. If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. 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...

We were warned in two separate places that inappropriate humor violates university policy. I’d always thought inappropriateness was pretty much the definition of humor—I believe Freud would agree. Why all this delicacy? Students were being encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark could impede their education, as such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke was likely to create lasting trauma...

We were handed a printed list of "guidelines." No. 1 on the list was: "Do not make unwanted sexual advances."

Someone demanded querulously from the back, "But how do you know they’re unwanted until you try?" (OK, it was me.) David seemed oddly flustered by the question and began frantically jangling the change in his pants pocket...

Another person piped up helpfully, "What about smoldering glances?"...

A theater professor spoke up, guiltily admitting to having complimented a student on her hairstyle that very afternoon (one of the "Do Nots" involved not commenting on students’ appearance) but, as a gay male, wondered whether not to have complimented her would have been grounds for offense. He mimicked the female student, tossing her mane around in a "Notice my hair" manner, and people began shouting suggestions about other dumb pretest scenarios for him to perform, like sexual-harassment charades. Rebellion was in the air. The man sitting next to me, an ethnographer who studied street gangs, whispered, "They’ve lost control of the room." David was jangling his change so frantically that it was hard to keep your eyes off his groin.

I recalled a long-forgotten pop-psychology guide to body language that identified change-jangling as an unconscious masturbation substitute. If the leader of our sexual-harassment workshop was engaging in public masturbatory-like behavior, seizing his private pleasure in the midst of the very institutional mechanism designed to clamp such delinquent urges, what hope for the rest of us?

Let’s face it: Other people’s sexuality is often just weird and creepy. Sex is leaky and anxiety-ridden; intelligent people can be oblivious about it...

I’m quite sure that professors can be sleazebags. I’m less sure that any professor can force an unwilling student to drink, especially to the point of passing out. With what power? What sorts of repercussions can there possibly be if the student refuses?

Indeed, these are precisely the sorts of situations already covered by existing sexual-harassment codes, so if students think that professors have such unlimited powers that they can compel someone to drink or retaliate if she doesn’t, then these students have been very badly educated about the nature and limits of institutional power.

In fact, it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around, which is pretty much what happened in the case of the accused philosophy professor...

According to the code, students are putty in the hands of all-powerful professors. According to the lawsuit, the student was virtually a rag doll, taken advantage of by a skillful predator who scripted a drunken evening of galleries and bars, all for the opportunity of some groping.

Everywhere on campuses today you find scholars whose work elaborates sophisticated models of power and agency. It would be hard to overstate the influence, across disciplines, of Michel Foucault, whose signature idea was that power has no permanent address or valence. Yet our workplaces themselves are promulgating the crudest version of top-down power imaginable, recasting the professoriate as Snidely Whiplashes twirling our mustaches and students as helpless damsels tied to railroad tracks. Students lack volition and independent desires of their own; professors are would-be coercers with dastardly plans to corrupt the innocent...

My eye was struck by the word "survivor," which was repeated several times. Wouldn’t the proper term be "accuser"? How can someone be referred to as a survivor before a finding on the accusation—assuming we don’t want to predetermine the guilt of the accused, that is. At the risk of sounding like some bow-tied neocon columnist, this is also a horrifying perversion of the language by people who should know better. Are you seriously telling me, I wanted to ask the Title IX Committee, that the same term now encompasses both someone allegedly groped by a professor and my great-aunt, who lived through the Nazi death camps? I emailed an inquiry to this effect to the university’s general counsel, one of the email’s signatories, but got no reply...

In the post-Title IX landscape, sexual panic rules. Slippery slopes abound. Gropers become rapists and accusers become survivors, opening the door for another panicky conflation: teacher-student sex and incest. Recall that it was incest victims who earlier popularized the use of the term "survivor," previously reserved for those who’d survived the Holocaust. The migration of the term itself is telling, exposing the core anxiety about teacher-student romances: that there’s a whiff of perversity about such couples, notwithstanding all the venerable married ones...

I teach in a film program. We’re supposed to be instilling critical skills in our students (at least that’s how I see it), even those who aspire to churn out formulaic dreck for Hollywood. Which is how I framed it to my student: If she hoped for a career in the industry, getting more critical distance on material she found upsetting would seem advisable, given the nature of even mainstream media. I had an image of her in a meeting with a bunch of execs, telling them that she couldn’t watch one of the company’s films because it was a trigger for her. She agreed this could be a problem, and sat in on the discussion with no discernable ill effects.

But what do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life? What becomes of students so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life? I can’t help asking, because there’s a distressing little fact about the discomfort of vulnerability, which is that it’s pretty much a daily experience in the world, and every sentient being has to learn how to somehow negotiate the consequences and fallout, or go through life flummoxed at every turn...

What kind of education prepares people to deal with the inevitably messy gray areas of life? Personally I’d start by promoting a less vulnerable sense of self than the one our new campus codes are peddling. Maybe I see it this way because I wasn’t educated to think that holders of institutional power were quite so fearsome, nor did the institutions themselves seem so mighty...

Societies keep reformulating the kinds of cautionary stories they tell about intergenerational erotics and the catastrophes that result, starting with Oedipus. The details vary; so do the kinds of catastrophes prophesied—once it was plagues and crop failure, these days it’s psychological trauma. Even over the past half-century, the story keeps getting reconfigured. In the preceding era, the Freudian version reigned: Children universally desire their parents, such desires meet up with social prohibitions—the incest taboo—and become repressed. Neurosis ensues.

These days the desire persists, but what’s shifted is the direction of the arrows. Now it’s parents—or their surrogates, teachers—who do all the desiring; children are conveniently returned to innocenceThese days the desire persists, but what’s shifted is the direction of the arrows. Now it’s parents—or their surrogates, teachers—who do all the desiring; children are conveniently returned to innocence...

Among the problems with treating students like children is that they become increasingly childlike in response... After they broke up, she charged that their consensual relationship had actually been psychological kidnapping, and that she’d been raped every time they’d had sex. She seems to regard herself as a helpless child in a woman’s body. She demanded that Stanford investigate and is bringing a civil suit against the guy—this despite the fact that her own mother had introduced the couple, approved the relationship every step of the way, and been in more or less constant contact with the suitor.

No doubt some 21-year-olds are fragile and emotionally immature (helicopter parenting probably plays a role), but is this now to be our normative conception of personhood? A 21-year-old incapable of consent? A certain brand of radical feminist—the late Andrea Dworkin, for one—held that women’s consent was meaningless in the context of patriarchy, but Dworkin was generally considered an extremist. She’d have been gratified to hear that her convictions had finally gone mainstream, not merely driving campus policy but also shaping the basic social narratives of love and romance in our time.

It used to be said of many enclaves in academe that they were old-boys clubs and testosterone-fueled, no doubt still true of certain disciplines. Thanks to institutional feminism’s successes, some tides have turned, meaning that menopausal women now occupy more positions of administrative power, edging out at least some of the old boys and bringing a different hormonal style—a more delibidinalized one, perhaps—to bear on policy decisions. And so the pendulum swings, overshooting the middle ground by a hundred miles or so.

The feminism I identified with as a student stressed independence and resilience. In the intervening years, the climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability has grown too thick to penetrate; no one dares question it lest you’re labeled antifeminist. Or worse, a sex criminal...

The new codes sweeping American campuses aren’t just a striking abridgment of everyone’s freedom, they’re also intellectually embarrassing. Sexual paranoia reigns; students are trauma cases waiting to happen. If you wanted to produce a pacified, cowering citizenry, this would be the method. And in that sense, we’re all the victims."
blog comments powered by Disqus
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Latest posts (which you might not see on this page)

powered by Blogger | WordPress by Newwpthemes