Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jane Gallop reviews Unwanted Advances

Laura Kipnis. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 256 pp.

Review by Jane Gallop

In April 2017, Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus was published. Six months later, we saw the rise of #MeToo. Less than a year after publication, Kipnis’s book already seems out of step with the times. Reviewing Unwanted Advances in 2018 means trying to figure out the role of this book in our #MeToo #TimesUp moment.

To understand the book’s relation to this moment, we need to situate it in the history of the feminist struggle against sexual harassment. Even before #MeToo raised questions about the book’s place in this history, I could not help but bring a historical perspective to Unwanted Advances. In 1997 I published a book entitled Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment; now another feminist had written a book that arose from her Title IX investigation for sexual harassment (“hostile environment”). As I think about this 2017 book, I necessarily think about it not only in relation to 2018 but also to that moment in the 1990s when I found myself entangled with the history of the struggle against sexual harassment.

Unwanted Advances and Feminist Accused not only share their experiential origin, they also share a theoretical perspective: Kipnis and I are both pro-sex feminists (as it was called in the 1980s feminist “sex wars”). We both worry that the feminist opposition to sexual harassment has given way on campus to a protectionist stance based in a view of women as passive sexual victims; we are alarmed that feminist advocacy of women as sexual agents is being sacrificed in the bureaucratic takeover of the struggle against harassment. In the 1990s, this takeover was just beginning, and I wrote in the hope of warning feminists, reminding us that feminist sexual struggle must be double: against sexual victimization but also for women’s sexual agency. Reading Kipnis, I see to my horror that not only have all the things I feared come to pass, but that the bureaucratic understanding of harassment on campus has been completely taken over by what Kipnis identifies as “the most conventional versions of feminine virtue and delicacy” (p. 19), “dastardly men . . . bend[ing] passive damsels to their will” (p. 53).

From this point of view, the current #MeToo movement is particularly heartening: women today are condemning unwanted advances in the name of our sexual agency. Yet an awareness of the history of the campaign against sexual harassment reminds us that the necessarily double feminist sexual struggle continually risks being torn asunder, especially when feminists make common cause with bureaucrats and promoters of traditional sexual morality. It has historically been all too easy for feminist resistance to women’s sexual victimization to be coopted by traditional and sexist moral views of sexuality as a threat to women’s virtue.

A 2018 reader of Unwanted Advances is immediately struck by the contrast between what is happening on campus and in the realms of entertainment, journalism, and politics brought to light by #MeToo. Starting in the 1990s, universities took sexual harassment very seriously and have over three decades instituted bureaucratic solutions to the problem. What Kipnis reveals is that these solutions, while on the surface “feminist,” really revert to sexist ideas of protecting delicate women from sexuality. Given the longstanding cultural hegemony of that view of women as sexually passive, as we seek solutions to the rampant unwanted advances being uncovered in our current moment, Kipnis’s book can serve as a warning against settling for solutions too grounded in traditional femininity and women’s delicacy, rather than continuing to militate for full sexual agency for women.