A Conversation with Laura Kipnis
Laura Kipnis is a cultural critic and former video artist whose work focuses on sexual politics, aesthetics, emotion, acting out, bad behavior and various other crevices of the American psyche. She is a professor in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University, where she teaches filmmaking, and has authored seven books on such thorny topics as pornography, love and scandal. Her latest book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Harper Collins) will be released in April.
Conscience: You are clearly a feminist who values a world in which men and women are treated equally. And yet you write books and articles that seem designed to incur the wrath of feminists and other liberals. Why do that to yourself?
LK: I don’t believe there is only one brand of feminism, and it’s important to explore what is the most advantageous form. I’m more of a left-wing or socialist feminist.
Conscience: Has feminism gone wrong? Are there always parts of a philosophy or ideology that need to be challenged from the inside?
LK: Yes, on both counts. Unfortunately, “women as victims” has seized the imagination, and that definitely needs to be challenged. I believe in a feminism that is influenced by psychoanalysis.
Conscience: What draws you to issues that are so difficult to discuss—pornography, desire, sex, academic freedom, rape? And what makes so many of us resistant to engaging in conversations about them?
LK: I tend to look at issues that follow my own ambivalences and aversions. I wrote a book about pornography because I was put off by it but equally put off by antipornography feminists. The first thing I read was a copy of Hustler, and I had to throw it away. It had a very powerful impact on me. I am most interested in the histories of an issue as opposed to my initial response, and I’m interested in taking those histories apart. I look at these things from an analytical perspective. As for the second question, the rise of identity politics on campus gives people a selfhood that prevents incursions and self-examination on many of these issues.
Conscience: In Unwanted Advances, you use a story of a professor and student to illustrate the complexity of sexual relationships—the imbalance of power, the perceptions of truth and even mass hysteria. What are the main points you want readers to take from the book?
LK: A key point is that an accusation doesn’t make someone guilty, even though due process has been abandoned on college campuses. The rise of a regulatory atmosphere on campus is producing accusations rather than cutting down on unwanted sex. The victimization of women is another consequence. Secondly, there is a lack of sexuality education in all senses, particularly for young women. They are caught between competing currents of the hook-up culture on the one hand and a sense of vulnerability on the other. We need to teach them how to negotiate these things. How do they say no or this doesn’t feel good? This makes more sense than prosecutions after the fact, which don’t stop anyone from being injured, but instead create more and more regulations.
Conscience: As Donald Trump takes the White House, it is clear that the rights of women—and even perceptions of our place in this country—are imperiled. How do you think politics, art, literature and journalism will push back? Are we heading into a time that is ripe for change or one in which we will retreat?
LK: It is harder and harder to use the term “we” when referring to women. What we thought were consensus viewpoints about the language and behavior of Trump were clearly not a consensus. There were a lot of women voting for Trump and ignoring all the things we thought would sink him. I do believe that we sometimes overreact to male sexual importuning. And sometimes we need to laugh at male excesses, but that certainly doesn’t include actual groping. On the other hand, there are college professors who are being brought up on charges for telling a joke or kissing a student on the forehead. It is important that we fight against real incursions against women’s autonomy and not perceived ones.
Conscience: What price do we pay for challenging orthodoxy?
LK: Of course, it is situational. In the new book, I write about a professor named David Barnett who lost his job, so one price we pay is high. I’ve run into a number of women writers and professors who are afraid to speak out for fear of Twitter flaming, of transgressing some feminist cabal and being shamed. There is a perception of online feminists having enormous power over what you can say.
Conscience: What are you reading at the moment? And what book shaped your ideas when you were young?
LK: I’m reading a novel by a Colombian author about a political cartoonist, Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. As for an influential book from my younger days, I ran into Erica Jong recently and gushed over Fear of Flying. I read it in high school and was taken by its intellect and the sexual experimentation. It took place on a road trip and gave me such a sense of possibility.
Conscience: What do you do in your free time? And what is your favorite beverage?
LK: I do the usual things: catch up on periodicals, watch serial TV shows. As for the second question, the older you get, the less allure cocktails have. My liquor capacity is definitely on the decline. But I am heading to Mexico, so I intend to drink my fair share of margaritas.