I don’t agree with much of this by Laura Kipnis – for instance, I have trouble being that casual about university teacher-student sexual relationships – but I think her article, “Sexual paranoia strikes academe” in The Chronicle of Higher Education is raising some worthwhile questions about vulnerability and power.
Reading this article it strikes me that the over-simplification of sexual abuse/assault/harassment means that victims are only victims if they are ‘good people’ and conversely, abusers can only be that if they’re ‘bad people’. Realistically, both are ordinary people and there’s vulnerability all over the place. And ok, the woman in this situation might have forgotten that the man is also vulnerable. But he has forgotten that the woman he desires in a fairly objectifying way is actually a human, like him.
What struck me most, hearing the story, was how incapacitated this woman had felt, despite her advanced degree and accomplishments. The reason, I think, was that she imagined she was the only vulnerable one in the situation. But look at the editor: He was married, with a midlevel job in the scandal-averse world of corporate publishing. It simply wasn’t the case that he had all the power in the situation or nothing to lose. He may have been an occluded jerk, but he was also a fairly human-sized one.
So that’s an example of a real-world situation, postgraduation. Somehow I don’t see the publishing industry instituting codes banning unhappily married editors from going goopy over authors, though even with such a ban, will any set of regulations ever prevent affective misunderstandings and erotic crossed signals, compounded by power differentials, compounded further by subjective levels of vulnerability?