A new book by feminist media studies professor Laura Kipnis champions self-defense. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017) chronicles what happened to Kipnis and some others who have been scrutinized, investigated, gagged, and in some cases fired as a result of Title IX investigations. In Unwanted Advances, Kipnis argues that college campuses have a problem of administrative overreach and a related problem of cultivating helplessness in heterosexual college women.
Unwanted Advances describes a sort of childish martyrdom among heterosexual women, which feeds a growing administrative class of campus rape prevention educators and investigators who fuel a fear, if not downright sexual paranoia, of nonconsensual sex–without teaching women how to do anything about it (other than hope for the gallantry of a bystander to intervene, or expect to report it after the fact).
Say this stuff, as Kipnis too well knows, and you’ll be skewered as a slut-shaming, anti-sex, anti-feminist victim-blamer–no matter what sort of feminist activist or academic credentials you might have, an experience to which many self-defense advocates can relate. Kipnis makes clear that she seeks to blame no victims, and she’s as pro-slut as you get: As she says, “‘Fuck all the guys you want’ would be my motto” (p. 192).
Thus by her second to last chapter, Kipnis argues how utterly nonsensical it is for so many anti-rape educators and administrators on college campuses to be against self-defense training. Kipnis describes self-defense as “risk reduction” and argues that although it is not prevention it works to reduce the rape rate. Of course, any good prevention work ought to reduce the rape rate, and we have argued elsewhere that “risk reduction” and “prevention” is a false dichotomy. Indeed, self-defense fits all the criteria of “primary prevention” in the public health model.
Unfortunately, Kipnis is not aware of the scholarship on self-defense (outside of the New York Times’ coverage of Charlie Senn’s study published in the New England Journal of Medicine) or of the fact that many of us have been, for years, struggling to convince the campus rape prevention educators of the importance of self-defense. It’s the reason we created this blog, the reason we say “My Vagina Has a Dream,” the reason we wrote Miss Eliza Leslie’s Hookup Handbook for Ladies, and the reason, in all seriousness this time, we explain the difference taking self-defense class has made. Kipnis is not aware of the resistance to self-defense that we have faced. But it’s nice, in any case, to read such a well known and well respected scholar describe how downright reasonable advocating self-defense would be, how helpful it was to her years ago when she took Model Mugging self-defense classes, and how advocating self-defense and a broader sense of taking charge of one’s own fate is not victim-blaming but simply “grown-up feminism.”
Kipnis understands from both her own experience and her feminist scholarship what it’s like to be socialized into feminine helplessness and passivity. For her, this is all the more reason to support self-defense training, since it counteracts the gender norms so many embody unconsciously. As Kipnis puts it, “someone has to call out the codes of self-martyring femininity” (p. 212).
Kipnis is not making a conservative call for curfews, teetotaling, or a new chastity. Kipnis wants women to fuck all the guys they want to– but, crucially, recognizes that not fucking the ones you don’t want to fuck “is where things get tougher, since this requires women actually knowing what they want, and resisting what they don’t want. It requires a certain amount of self-coherence, which isn’t readily available when one is passed out” (p. 192). Despite partying like a guy, as if that is what’s feminist, let’s face it, to quote Kipnis, “self-induced helplessness isn’t gender progress” (p. 195).
Kipnis is perhaps even more aghast than we are that so few college women take themselves seriously and know how to say no. As she puts it, “One of the dirty little secrets of hookup culture is that a significant proportion of college women don’t know how to say no to sex, which is painful to anyone who thinks that, by this point in the long slog toward female independence, no would be the easiest word in the language” (p. 195). Self-defense instructors see firsthand women’s difficulty in and fear of saying “no”, and self-defense training helps make saying “no” far more accessible and appealing to women. Is saying what Kipnis writes out loud even allowed? If we can’t say this, then we are so scared of the victim-blaming charge that we are, ironically enough, leading women to get victimized. Perhaps we ought to risk someone feeling blamed over someone actually be victimized.
We love that women want to be equal to men, and that’s why we know they need to assert and defend this equality when facing a man who does not treat them respectfully. As Laura Kipnis put it, “Yes, there’s an excess of masculine power in the world, and women have to be educated to contest it in real time, instead of waiting around for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness–just in case that day never comes” (p. 214).
Unwanted Advances reminds us not to underestimate the power of a mindful awareness of one’s own motives and one’s own surroundings, of saying “take your hand off my knee,” and yelling, “No!”, or of pushing, striking, or biting to defend one’s boundaries. Doing so is defending one’s status as equal. Doing so is grown-up feminism.