By Abby Kluchin
In a June 2015 piece for The New Inquiry, “Against Students,” Sara Ahmed—who is very much not against students—investigated how college students have recently come to be regarded as the cause of a constellation of problems. Here and elsewhere, Ahmed examines the sleight-of-hand by which an intransigent figure who calls attention to an ugly truth is herself taken to be the one responsible for the problem she exposes. Ahmed calls this figure the “feminist killjoy,” in spite of the fact that her concerns with the realities of difference are not limited to gender and sexuality. Thus, Ahmed’s killjoy can also demonstrate how, for example, a structure in which “those who perceive whiteness as a problem become the problem.” In “Against Students,” the feminist killjoy manifests as the “problem student.” Such so-called “problem students” have lately been caricatured in mainstream media across the political spectrum as ludicrously oversensitive, as demanding insulation from “triggering” ideas and texts, and as excessively identified with the position of vulnerability and victimhood. What’s more, they are charged with contributing to a culture of censorship and with foreclosing the possibility of genuine free speech on campus—that “free and lively exchange of ideas” which is taken by professors and pundits alike to be the highest ideal of American higher education.
This critique of contemporary college students and their “demands” for safe spaces, trigger warnings, and so on, is inextricably bound up with the structure of the neoliberal university and the vision of students as demanding consumers of the product that is higher education—another state of affairs, as Ahmed points out, for which students are taken to be responsible. Ahmed, however, refuses to assume an oppositional stance toward these students, noting also that claims of students’ power are often vastly overstated. “My own sense,” she writes, “is that our feminist political hopes rest with over-sensitive students. Over-sensitive can be translated as: Sensitive to that which is not over.” A year later, in June 2016, Ahmed resigned from her position as Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, “in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment” of students.
Earlier in 2015, another prominent feminist professor, Laura Kipnis, painted a vastly different picture of trust and power with respect to contemporary faculty/student relations in the first of two widely circulated essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” an eye-opening, troubling, and extremely funny essay, Kipnis—a cultural critic whose writing has always self-consciously positioned her as both provocateur and polemicist—lamented the current strictures around faculty-student relationships at her own university, Northwestern. In the piece, she evokes a campus culture of sexual paranoia verging upon “sexual terror” and describes the Title IX investigation of one of her colleagues in the philosophy department. She vividly contrasts the current moment with her own memories of a time when campus feminism could underwrite brash female sexual agency and resilience. Today, she sees instead a heightened sense of vulnerability and the creeping encroachment of an opaque bureaucracy regulating on-campus relationships that instills pervasive anxiety among faculty and students alike. “For the record, I strongly believe that bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square. Let no one think I’m soft on harassment,” Kipnis writes. “But I also believe that the myths and fantasies about power perpetuated in these new codes are leaving our students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life, because that’s simply part of the human condition.”
Kipnis also pointed out that the image of the all-powerful professor is a straw man—especially true in a time when most American college and university faculty members are contingent workers dependent upon student approbation (in the form of course evaluations) for their ongoing employment. She argued, too, for the importance of the erotics of the pedagogical situation, alluding to the relationship of asymmetrical power to desire. I suspect that any humanities professor who has even a passing acquaintance with Freud or, say, Plato, would have to concede both of these points if pressed. It might be an unspeakable truth in the era of Title IX, but it’s simply neither new nor even particularly controversial to understand education as a situation that is inextricably related to desire, to pleasure, and to fantasy. To learn requires that one desire to know; the student’s position is one of profound epistemological and sometimes emotional vulnerability, albeit not the form of it that Kipnis deplores. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a position that can involve a certain amount of projection onto the individual in the front of the room performing the function of the subject-supposed-to-know. This is only one of many reasons that the classroom is frequently a space in which everyday emotional and sexual dynamics are created, heightened, and transformed. It seems to me, however, that anyone as consistently astute as Kipnis on the subjects of both power and fantasy can surely see that the productive pedagogical functions of desire and fantasy can operate quite well without professors actually sleeping with their students, regardless of the extent to which (as we learn both from Paul in the Letter to the Romans and from Lacan, take your pick) prohibition creates desire.
Ironically, Kipnis’ “Sexual Paranoia” essay itself—performatively enacting her point better than anyone could have imagined—resulted in protests by Northwestern students and in Kipnis herself becoming the subject of a byzantine Title IX investigation. As she recounted in her second Chronicle piece, “My Title IX Inquisition,” student protesters, rather puzzlingly, appropriated the powerful symbol of now-Columbia University alumna Emma Sulkowicz’s 2014-15 senior thesis project, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)—in which Sulkowicz carried her dorm mattress everywhere she went on campus until her alleged rapist was expelled from campus. The Northwestern students protested Kipnis while carrying mattresses and pillows, as though she herself had committed an as yet unpunished assault. These feminist student protestors appear in Kipnis’ telling as misguided agents of the university bureaucracy, specifically of the inexorable Title IX machinery. Mattresses and pillows, once radical symbols of protest, effectively became pitchforks and torches; the position of grievance against an institution morphed into identification with it. Instead of focusing on how the system had failed them, students turned to it for protection and vindication. In Kipnis’ perspective, assuming the position of vulnerable victimhood leads not only to a retrogressive feminist politics; it also functions as a kind of lure, duping students into complicity with institutional power. If Kipnis wasn’t against students from the outset of the ordeal—trying, rather, to jolt them out of their comfort zones and think critically, just like any good professor—they made the choice for her when they literally came for her.If Ahmed’s resignation expressed not only solidarity but even a degree of identification with her students, Kipnis was forced into opposing hers.
It is against this roiling backdrop, at a time in which sexual activity on campus has perhaps never been more fraught, that Kelly Oliver’s Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape (Columbia University Press, 2016) arrives. Oliver, a distinguished feminist philosopher who specializes in Continental thought, here turns a critical and frequently psychoanalytic lens upon a barrage of contemporary phenomena, images, and films that represent anxiety, ambivalence, and aggression toward young women’s sexuality. Opening with a brutal image (from the 2012 cycle of America’s Next Top Model) of “sorority girls” posing as literal dead trophies in “a taxidermist’s lair” with their heads mounted on the walls, Oliver analyzes “creepshots” and other photos and videos that circulate on social media of actual students and other young women who have been sexually violated while unconscious—and who frequently learn about it only when they see the image online. Oliver reads these phenomena alongside the rise of the titular figure of the “hunting girl,” which is the book’s most important contribution to the conversations about campus sexual assault and about students’ sense of their own sexual agency and vulnerability.
The myth of the hunting girl has a long history. The Greek goddess Artemis is the archetypal version: she is a lone, powerful, virginal figure associated with wildness, with animals and nature, and with archery. But Oliver’s contemporary hunting girl owes quite as much to Sleeping Beauty. In what is perhaps the most compelling chapter, “A Princess is Being Beaten and Raped,” which tracks the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale from the fourteenth century onward, Oliver defamiliarizes this often-sanitized fairy tale, tracing the ostensibly romantic kiss that awakens the sleeping princess back to a series of stories in which wandering men happen upon sleeping or even dead women, have sex with them—interpreting lack of resistance as consent—and frequently impregnate them. (In one particularly memorable version from fourteenth century Italy, the prince leaves a note as to what the sleeping girl should name his son when she is awakened by the process of giving birth.) Sleeping Beauty, Oliver argues, “is the quintessential rape fantasy.” Indeed, traces of the fairy tale’s origins – as not only rape fantasy but cautionary tale about untrammeled male sexual aggression – remain even in the sanitized versions. (I will never forget watching the 1959 Disney film as a child and my mother observing to me and my mortified older sister that it’s not really a coincidence that Princess Aurora “pricks” her finger and that she does so on a symbol of traditionally female domestic labor.) These stories take on a new urgency for Oliver, however, in a landscape in which lack of consent is considered “hot,” where “pictures of sexual assault have become new forms of trophies mounted on the Internet,” and “rape has become a form of public entertainment.” She asks:
Has absolute powerlessness on the part of girls and women become the height of a new erotic fantasy? Has this form of pseudo-necrophilia become a new norm for sex on college campuses? Recent cases of sexual assault on unconscious girls suggest that something about the victim’s complete powerlessness and lack of agency has become erotic, fun, or even funny.
The combination of Artemis the virginal hunter and Sleeping Beauty the drugged and violated princess gives us today’s hunting girl, who appears all over both mainstream and YA fiction and film: figures like Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Bella Swan of Twilight, and her fanfic counterpart, Anastasia Steele of Fifty Shades of Grey. These hunting girls are at once predators and prey. They telescope the radical extreme possibilities of feminine subjectivity and sexuality (for the most part: young, white, heterosexual, cisgender) into a single paradoxical figure. The hunting girl represents unprecedented independence and power, a specifically feminine aggressiveness and violence. She can take care of herself and she usually has to take care of others, too, often through feeding them what she has herself killed, metaphorically or otherwise. And for this unprecedented display of self-sufficiency, she is brutally punished, beaten, and often raped. Although Oliver’s analyses are nuanced, her language is accessible and even blunt: “So,” she writes, “we live in a rape culture that valorizes lack of consent and sexual assault, especially of young high school and college age girls, but we also have images of ever-younger strong girls wielding weapons who can take care of themselves.” What are we to make of the recurrence of this figure and her appeal, Oliver asks?
The hunting girl is not only both predator and prey; she couples total agency with absolute passivity. Different iterations of this trope tend to emphasize one or the other. Consider hacker Lisbeth Salander, part abused child, part avenging angel, who ties up her sexually abusive court-appointed guardian, violates him, and tattoos “I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST” on his chest. Or Katniss Everdeen, the resourceful hunter from the Hunger Games, who learns the techniques of the Foucauldian hellscape that is the Hunger Games arena and weaponizes them against its makers. She not only survives, but also eventually launches a full-scale political rebellion, only to be viciously and creatively brutalized again and again. Indeed, the more explicitly agential these hunting girls are, the more ruthlessly and publicly they are punished. The passive girls—the ones who don’t fight back, or else resist quietly—seem to fare better, or at least to end up less visibly broken. Bella Swan from Twilight asserts herself more mildly, when at all; the most acute expression of her own desires arrives when she begs her gorgeous but controlling vampire fiancé to deflower her, a consummation that leaves her bruised, beaten, and wanting more, and the horror of which pales in comparison to the violence of the birth of their child, who physically claws its way out of her. But at the end, Bella, herself turned into a vampire, becomes, as Oliver observes, “both beauty and the beast”; she is rewarded with marriage, immortality, and boundless riches, even if her happily-ever-after does come with a side of mountain lion blood. Likewise, though I could not bring myself (even for the sake of scholarship) to spend more than one book’s worth of time in the company of the truly insufferable Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades, who never had a desire she didn’t second-guess, I am given to understand that after enduring an abusive relationship with a kinky billionaire who doesn’t get what consent means, she ends up with a domesticated version of him in a relationship that passes for love, plus endless orgasms and the aforementioned boundless riches.
“In these contemporary fairytales,” Oliver writes, “for the first time we see fiercely independent, strong smart girls who are agents of their own lives; but at the same time, as never before, we see teenage girls beaten almost to death, for displaying such pluck.” To which I would add that the degree of their agency not only correlates with the extent of their punishment, but also maps directly onto how they deal with being assaulted in explicitly sexual terms. The hunting girls are problem students turned into action heroes, but to the extent to which they call attention to an institutional atrocity, they are themselves understood to be the problem, and are punished accordingly. Bella and Anastasia close their eyes and think of England through the pain and wind up on the right side of the marriage plot; Lisbeth and Katniss speak out and fight back against their assailants and end up traumatized and broken.
At the end of Hunting Girls, Oliver turns her attention away from fairytales, and addresses issues of free speech on campus, trigger warnings, Title IX, and even the Kipnis affair specifically. I found her commentary by turns disappointing, illuminating, and heartening. Oliver does succumb to a certain amount of what is by now a familiar kind of hand-wringing over students’ desires for safe spaces and trigger warnings. But her analysis helps to make sense of the most bewildering aspects of the Kipnis affair: why would ostensibly feminist students protest a feminist professor using the instrument of Title IX, the purpose of which is to protect against discrimination on the basis of gender? Oliver identifies a displacement of the kind that Ahmed locates in the “problem student”: the person who calls attention to the problem is treated as the problem. “Trigger warnings,” Oliver worries, “….displace the problem of sexual assault onto discussions of sexual assault. The problem seemingly becomes talking about sexual assault rather than sexual assault itself.” She adds,
In a culture that increasingly values feelings and legitimates sensitivity to triggers and traumas caused by words rather than by deeds and embraces the power of language to injure, the equal legitimation of all feelings becomes a form of political leveling. Feeling reduced to mere sentiments uncritically held as true moves us dangerously close to a form of reactionary politics that closes down discussions that are too difficult, on the one hand, and cannot distinguish between sexism or racism and critical discussions of them, on the other.
The state of affairs Oliver describes here is surely distressing, and on one level, she’s not wrong. This is precisely the discursive slippage that, for example, opens up a space for white supremacists to claim the mantle of marginalization, or for pundits far away from campus or other sites of political struggle to bemoan “the failure of identity politics.” But in fact, students are talking about sexual assault—and about racism, misogyny, misogynoir, homophobia, transphobia, and transmisogyny—on campus all the time; a lot of people just don’t like the way they’re doing it. What’s more, resistance is just as much baked into the pedagogical situation as desire. Yet I have never once seen students “demand emotional safety from feelings they don’t like,” as Oliver claims—with the noteworthy exception of students who object to being exposed to so-called “diversity.” There is no inherent conflict between free speech and an insistence on recognizing and bearing witness to individual and collective trauma. Students remain quite capable of both having feelings and talking about ideas.
The truth is, trigger warnings aren’t the problem—the problem is the misguided “trigger warning” controversy. All too often, this pseudo-debate presents the phenomenon of students’ being triggered as the primary issue, over and against any consideration of what their reactions articulate or reveal. Reactionary contempt for trigger warnings—which are recognitions, however flawed, of the messy reality of human vulnerability on campus and beyond—becomes a way to simultaneously dismiss that vulnerability while also doubling down on the systemic erasure of its causes. In other words, the problem, kids, isn’t the epidemic of sexual violence on campus; the problem is that you’re a shrill special snowflake demanding that the world coddle you. The debate is a red herring, a displacement: it’s a proxy battle for the same old culture wars arguments about who ought to be represented in the curriculum, in the classroom, and among the faculty, re-emerging in the guise of concerns about freedom of expression and students with insufficient character armor. The more interesting question raised by the Kipnis affair is rather: Why would it appear desirable for students to identify with—and organize around—a politics of vulnerability rather than a politics of resilience? To which Oliver’s own figure of the hunting girl offers a suggestive answer. Resilience and agency will not protect you from vulnerability. They will not stop you from being beaten or raped; they may even invite it.
Reading Ahmed, Kipnis, and Oliver together, and tracking their configurations of possibilities for how feminist professors can situate themselves with respect to their students, I am left with a series of questions. Must we really choose to be for or against our students? Are relationships of either identification or opposition really the only options? Why on earth, if our purpose as educators is ostensibly to equip students with a critical apparatus, ought we then expect our feminist (or any other kind of) politics to neatly align with theirs? Finally, in the context of the contemporary university: when girls—and not only girls—are being hunted, who should take care of those who are likely to be harmed? Is it necessarily paternalistic to believe that colleges and universities should care for and even protect their students and their faculty? Why not invoke instead the good old-fashioned feminist values of care, solidarity, and even coalition-building as a model for faculty-student relations in a moment when many faculty are embattled, precarious workers earning poverty wages, and students are paying a quarter million dollars for a bachelor’s degree and a one-in-four chance of being sexually assaulted on campus? Oliver ends Hunting Girls with a gesture toward the necessity of thinking intersubjectively—specifically toward re-imagining the vexed notion of sexual consent as a “journey” together rather than a contract to be upheld or broken. “Consent, then,” she writes, “means being sensitive to each other, sensing and perceiving the agreement of the other.” It is a sentiment that might go a long way not only in re-thinking consent, but also in organizing a politics of faculty-student relationships that doesn’t require us to choose between identification and opposition, or between thinking and feeling.
 “Emma Sulkowicz: “Carry That Weight” posted on YouTube by The Columbia Daily Spectator on September 2, 2014 and “Meet the College Women Who Are Starting a Revolution Against Campus Sexual Assault” by Vanessa Grigoriadis in New York Magazine, September 21, 2014.
Abby Kluchin is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Ursinus College and Associate Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.