“Can we save hookup culture?”
The question landed heavily. Heads turned toward the male student who had voiced it, struck by either its novelty or its naivete. We were an hour into a difficult, disheartening conversation about the shortcomings of Title IX at a college tea featuring Laura Kipnis. Her criticisms had left us to uneasily contemplate the plight of female agency on a campus currently disturbed by numerous high-profile sexual assault cases from both within and without.
Quite a lot of things, I thought, should probably be saved first.
If it were up to Laura Kipnis, Title IX probably wouldn’t be one of them. A feminist cultural critic who has come under fire for openly faulting universities’ handling of sexual misconduct (most recently in her book “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus”), Kipnis argued that Title IX procedures — far from advancing feminism — have actually compromised female agency. She adduced instances of overreach or misuse of Title IX as evidence of its failure, including its escalation of regrettable sexual encounters to the level of assault (for example, a 2014 accusation against a gay Brandeis University student for kissing his boyfriend in his sleep that was made after their relationship ended). She urged greater responsibility and empowerment on the part of women in sexual situations, particularly regarding sobriety — whose involvement is often suppressed in campus sexual research.
“Women should f— the people they want to f—, and women should not f— the people they don’t want to f—,” she said bluntly.
But maybe it’s not that simple. Last month, an expose of Aziz Ansari’s gross sexual entitlement toward a woman on a date garnered viral attention, aggressively dividing feminists. Some accused the woman who disclosed the story of having misappropriated the momentum of the #MeToo movement to acquire visibility. When I discussed this case with other female friends, among whom were survivors, I realized that many of us shared this frustration at the demonstrated failure of feminists to distinguish between different levels of sexual misconduct. Worse still was the willingness demonstrated by the writers and supporters of the Ansari piece — and by those who misuse Title IX — to conflate criminal violation with lesser violations caused by sexual pressure or indecency.
Sexual liberation in this generation, equipped with the deficient vocabulary of “consent,” has placed a new premium on safety and comfort that seems to diverge from the liberation practiced in previous generations, as older feminists have noted. Within broader dialogues on campus sexual politics, students have demanded higher standards for decency, empathy, communication, consent — all behaviors intended to ensure maximum possible security in sexual experimentation. Such demands seek recourse from campus misconduct policies and feminist solidarity movements to ensure that comfort — even when engaging in hookups, which are obviously not without their risks, especially when alcohol is involved.
This recent surge of feminist outrage in the mainstream appears to be aiming at a broad cultural condemnation of male indecency. But attempts to appeal sexual assault cases to the already ineffective bureaucratic apparatus of Title IX or to take advantage of movements like #MeToo for uncritical self-amplification fall tragically short of feminist progress. Instead, they have further entrenched an inability to see women as responsible for their choices to participate — or not participate — in sex.
Our instinctive reliance on broader networks of support — be it the solidarity of #MeToo or the bureaucratic institutions of Title IX — reveals a naïvely optimistic attitude toward sex. We enter campus lacking familiarity with our own sexual desires or agency; before we can even form our own opinions, we are introduced to normative definitions of consent, violation and enjoyment via sexual education programs and a general campus climate that assume a general interest in casual sex. But optimism will not safeguard against the inevitable disappointment of inexperienced college students who are more likely to fear their own inexperience before they can even define meaningful intimacy. Far from it, it dangerously dismisses the risk inherent in expecting care from strangers in transactional relationships, when the object is clear but the intentions of both parties are often miscommunicated.
Holding men accountable for sexual entitlement must not come at the expense of empowering women, and believing in female sexual agency must not be mistaken as victim-blaming. The self-respect with which we must regard women’s sexual agency has to last longer than #MeToo — it has to last for our entire lifetime.
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at email@example.com .