DURING THE SUMMER OF LOVE, vanguardist May 1968ers thought that they invented new and revolutionary ways of experiencing sexual pleasure. They did not. They thought they were the first sexual adventurers in the course of human history. They were not. Sex has always been a messy affair, but during the eighteenth century in Europe, especially but not exclusively in France, the mostly male libertines who took sexual freedom seriously were writing about scientific inquiry into the observable world, the death of God, the worthiness of non-European cultures, and desecrating the sacraments while they flouted Christian morality by living in differing degrees of sin. They were part of a sexual revolution, and they were very conscious of its political consequences.
In the eighteenth century, French libertine literature was filled with anthropomorphized clitorises, detailed accounts of foot fetishes, and deep discussions of the pleasures of anal penetration. The sexual revolutionary to whom we owe many of our progressive ideals about sex is the Marquis de Sade. An aristocratic class traitor and a hopeless sexual deviant, he was a supporter of the French Revolution who spent much of his life in miserable prison cells writing pornography. Adorno and Horkheimer noted that the modern, European demystification of sexual behavior began with Sade’s reasoning about human sexuality and its probing, restless search for pleasure. In a remarkable pamphlet, contained in his pornographic novel of ideas Philosophy in the Boudoir, he writes, “Frenchmen, try harder if you want to be republicans.” Sade argued that the 1789 revolution may have overturned church and monarchy but that it should go farther if it wanted to free the people and seal its abolition of superstition and oppression. Sexual knowledge—that is, knowledge of how to obtain pleasure with one’s body and the bodies of others—should be available to all without prejudice. Libertinage, the exercise of absolute sexual freedom on the part of avowed atheists, had been the exclusive purview of aristocrats under the ancien régime. Sade wanted sexual freedom for all, and he warned that if the revolutionaries did not overturn the idols of sexual morality and demand sexual freedom for the people, the powers of church and king would lie in wait, ready to overturn the revolutionary achievements of Danton and Robespierre and the French masses who had finally overthrown both king and church. In short, Sade warned of a counterrevolution if the sexual revolution did not take the logic of emancipation to its limit.
In Philosophy in the Boudoir, a bright, fifteen-year-old virgin named Eugenie is initiated into the mysteries of erotic pleasure with men and women by an experienced twenty-six-year-old libertine, Madame de Saint-Ange, who teaches her how to “maximize” her pleasure in sex: in the pamphlet within the novel, Sade argues that adultery, sodomy, prostitution, incest, and rape should all be decriminalized. He turned out to be partially prescient. In 2020 in the United States, sex before and outside of marriage is no longer taboo: outside of extreme religious sects, mothers and fathers do not weep about deflowered sons or sexually experienced daughters. Furthermore, homosexuality has been decriminalized in almost every industrialized democracy in the world, while gay marriage has been legalized in many of these countries as well. The normalization or at least decriminalization of prostitution is seen in liberal democracies as a boon for sex workers and a final step in a liberal, sexually enlightened society. It is hard to deny that Sade was a political visionary—in part. Not all of the taboos Sade listed as oppressive have been lifted by enlightened societies. The dark aspect of his sexual enlightenment, the systematic misuse and abuse of others for one’s own pleasure, or sadism, for example, has not become socially acceptable in any situation. Sadism was for Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer at the end of World War II a philosophical system that justified the radical coldness of the Enlightenment as the rampant instrumentalization and exploitation and abuse of others—workers, chattel, serfs, and slaves. Adorno and Horkheimer argued that eighteenth-century sentimentality was the obverse of sadism. Both value systems were necessary for the expansion of capitalism: do-goodism and good intentions masking a world conquering reduction of life to profit margins.
The sexual revolutionaries of the 1960s replicated in part the Sadean enlightenment, without acknowledging their Western predecessor: they preferred citing Eastern sexual arts in their innovations. The New Left sexual revolutionaries believed that they had forged a new relationship to pleasure that they wanted to share with the world. Just as they rejected the paltry satisfactions and mass-manufactured goods and TV dinners provided by the affluent society, they rejected old-fashioned ways of having intercourse. From the muddy fields of Woodstock to the fragrant groves of Ken Kesey’s compound, the counterculture and the New Left proudly experimented with allegedly novel forms of hedonism that most of the time turned into polygamy for one charismatic male and submission of a group of wan women to his will.
Feminists, unhappy with the primal horde antics of New Left men, discovered that women had to take back their own bodies and, in so doing, their relationship to pleasure. When the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective published Our Bodies, Our Selves, a female-oriented guide to women’s health, they promoted the idea that the establishment had been keeping information about female anatomy and female experience from women. They believed that a compilation of critical information shared in networks of women would lead finally to the full emancipation of female sexuality. If the Sadean heroine was liberated by orgasms, PMC feminists believed instead that it was information about achieving orgasms that was truly emancipatory. College-educated New Left women really thought they were at the vanguard of sex and social life. Our Bodies suggested that everything a woman did—learning to repair her car, taking a long hike, going kayaking—was a personal leisure activity that contained incredible political significance. Our Bodies insisted that women need to understand their bodies because men deny them access to this magical, frightening, unruly thing. The authors were addressing PMC women when they complained about visiting condescending ob-gyns who were visibly impatient to run off to their tennis matches after quick looks down the speculum. The authors overlooked the fact that most women in the world did not receive regular medical care at all. In a further twist on their “privilege,” the authors of Our Bodies earnestly told women to explore the pleasures of physical labor, ignoring the fact that the majority of women in the world performed physical labor not out of choice but out of necessity. Throughout human history, women have broken their backs carrying water and farming, while nursing their babies, harvesting fields by hand, washing clothes in rivers, and so on. When women lived in homes without electricity or running water, they did the kinds of work necessary to survive in agricultural economies of the sort that college-educated urban and suburban women could not imagine—except as exotic places to visit in their gap years. The Industrial Revolution only created more kinds of work for working-class women, some of it physical, some of it based on fine motor skills, but all of it routinized and punishing in its rhythms of production.
In reaction to the hyperbolic ambitions of the women’s movement, conservative culture warriors of the 1970s and 1980s promoted a moral panic about the impending dissolution of marriage and the family. But as time passed, countercultural PMC men and women did not become sexual libertines. In fact, the majority of college-educated Americans abandoned promiscuity and nontraditional romantic arrangements as they became more successful in their professions. They were incentivized to settle down and stop cycling through partners as their incomes and assets increased. The protection of PMC socioeconomic status created opportunities for sacrifice and compromise that precarious working-class people abjured. In 2020, it is among non-college-educated people that we find growing rates of divorce and single parenthood. It is truly an ironic reversal in values, upending the logic of the culture wars when PMC families, whether straight or gay, embrace monogamy and family values with greater zeal than their working-class counterparts.
For PMC feminism, the revolution in sex was mostly a revolution in information and education. It was a revolution that could be made by reading a book, or in a consciousness-raising group about reading that book. It was a revolution that made orgasm and pleasure objects of PMC moral and pedagogical refinement (remember the G spot?). To be part of this revolution, you had to accept that the private experiences and lives of elite PMC people were the most important sites of meaningful political and cultural activity. In sex-positive PMC feminism, the best sex could be had in a social vacuum: it would take place in a comfortable bed with clean sheets, between consenting partners free of economic or social anxiety. In such an optimal situation, a woman could finger her clitoris, labia, or perineum in a leisurely manner, all the while communicating her needs and desires to a sensitive and receptive partner. Good sex became suffused with the logic of information and communication theory upon which ideals of consent are built.
In stark contrast to sexually enlightened PMC people, working-class men and women were represented in popular culture of the 1970s as trapped in misogyny, homophobia, prejudice, and violence, out of touch with their feelings and unable to communicate their erotic needs.1 For New Left creatives and liberals working in Hollywood in the 1970s, working-class people were living in the sexual dark ages. Working-class men were hopelessly authoritarian and working-class women unwittingly submissive to the patriarchal power of a family wage earner. Whereas at the turn of the nineteenth century, the working class had been undeniably at the vanguard of political struggles against capitalists and their proxies, the PMC after 1968 asserted that it alone was at the vanguard of all revolutions, including and above all the sexual revolution.
Under the Obama administration, the state became intensely involved in the enlightened regulation of sex. From 2008, PMC triumphalism under the well-spoken and well-read president channeled the collective energy of liberals to focus on sex in one of the most important sites of class formation: university campuses, especially elite university campuses. Instrumentalized obsession with sexual violence and sexual excess is an important part of American Puritanism: moral and virtuous superiority in the sexual enlightenment makes up an important part of the countercultural inheritance of the PMC. Rather than focusing on economic malfeasance, an ascendant PMC elite under Obama pursued sexual crimes—not at work or in the workplace but on college campuses—with a zeal that liberals reserve for any policy that diverts attention away from economic redistribution. In short, rather than break up the banks or reform the financial sector after he took office, Obama wanted to use his electoral victory to eliminate sexual violence on college campuses. In 2011, his Department of Education Office for Civil Rights sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to more than seven thousand universities warning them that if they did not take action to prevent and remedy sexual violence and sexual assault on their campuses, they would risk losing their rights to all federal funding. Legal commentators today admit that college administrations reacted to the letter with overcompliance. Many Title IX offices rejected innocent-until-proven-guilty principles that form the democratic rule of law and set up campus investigative panels and bodies that became little more than kangaroo courts.2
At the same time, sensational stories of sexual violence and sexual abuse on college campuses emerged in the mainstream media, as if to confirm the necessity of the Obama administration’s stringent new policies. In 2015, at the height of the Obama-era sex panic, Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground was released by—wait for it—the Weinstein Company. Dick’s documentary presented college campuses as terrifying places for young women to live. Dick, with the help of Harvey Weinstein, pandered to his liberal audience’s thirst for stories about campus sexual violence. In 2016, Amber Frost cited the National Crime Victimization Survey numbers showing that non-college-going women were 1.2 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their college-going counterparts.3 Sexual violence on college campuses attracted liberal PMC elites to a new front in the culture wars, far away from inequality, oppression, and workplace sexual harassment and discrimination. Fighting sexual violence on campus allowed the PMC to reinforce its belief that white-collar professionals and lawyers like Atticus Finch were the true heroes in low-risk struggles against anything but economic abuse.
Rolling Stone, a magazine born in the crucible of the rock ’n’ roll, drug-fueled, libertine counterculture of San Francisco in 1967, covered one of the most lurid campus sexual violence stories of the Obama era. The magazine was once a highly successful media outlet for the rock ’n’ roll–fueled generation of middle-class consumers with growing buying power. By 2014, it had become just another mainstream magazine competing for eyeballs on the internet. The economic crisis of 2008 hit the magazine particularly hard. Ad revenues for print magazines peaked in 2007 and declined steadily year after year, with no respite from either digital sales or the supposed economic “recovery” engineered by the Bush and Obama administrations.4 It is quite understandable that when contributing editor Sabrina Erdely uncovered the story of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia (UVA), Jan Wenner and Rolling Stone’s editorial board rushed to publish her piece, “Rape on Campus.” The nine-thousand-word story detailed from the point of view of “Jackie,” the alleged victim, a horrifying gang rape that had taken place at the Phi Beta Kappa Psi fraternity house in 2012. The story got 2.7 million online views on Rolling Stone’s site, more than any other noncelebrity feature the magazine had ever published. When the Washington Post decided to launch an independent investigation into Jackie’s story, it became apparent that Erdely had not corroborated any of the details that Jackie had given her. Among the many gaps in Jackie’s story, the Washington Post reporters discovered that there was no record of a party at the frat house on the night Jackie alleged she was raped. In 2015, the magazine published a retraction of the story along with a detailed forensic investigation into Erdely’s journalistic failings performed by a team from the Columbia School of Journalism.5 Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erdely were then sued by the fraternity Phi Beta Kappa Psi and by Nicole Eramo, dean of students at UVA, for defamation. The wider, cultural and political consequences of such a flagrant case of professional failure are difficult to assess, but the Right certainly knew how to inflame popular hatred and resentment of the “mainstream media” and professional journalists and it took full advantage of this flagrant failure in reporting. Far right news site The Daily Caller became obsessed with the case and gloated over Rolling Stone’s and Erdely’s disgrace and legal troubles. For the Conservatives and the far right incubators of incel anger, the UVA story confirmed their narrative: liberal media were filled with sensation-seeking hypocrites looking to cash in on fake news stories demonizing young men.6
Fifty years after the Summer of Love, college-going women were armed with more information and more sex education than any generation before them, but they seemed less capable of assuming sexual agency and more in need of protection than previous generations of women, who had had to deal with sexual autonomy and male desire without the help of university Title IX officers. For Laura Kipnis, self-described “left-wing feminist,” “rebel,” and freethinker and professor at Northwestern University, we were living through a new period of sexual paranoia. Kipnis’s account of her own Title IX investigation and the case against her former Northwestern colleague Peter Ludlow, make up the heart of her book on this topic, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.7 Kipnis presents a clear, evenhanded account of the Kafkaesque Title IX investigation launched against her after she published a series of articles about Northwestern and Peter Ludlow’s case in the Chronicle of Higher Education.8 The first half of Kipnis’s book is about the accusations against the philosophy professor and the Title IX investigation that Northwestern launched against both Ludlow and Kipnis herself. Kipnis concludes that section with the observation that even though Ludlow was certainly guilty of inappropriate behavior with an undergraduate and a graduate student, the loss of his job as punishment was entirely incommensurate with his crime, which Kipnis describes as motivated by naive childishness rather than raw abuse and exploitation. In the second half of Unwanted Advances, Kipnis summarizes many of the stories of the abuse of Title IX that she heard after going public as the subject of a Title IX investigation herself. For her trouble, Kipnis became a target of campus feminists and activists, but Kipnis would not be silenced. She is a liberal, a high liberal, which is the very best kind of liberal there is. She believes in robust debate and vigorous public dissent in the university, and her presentation of the abuse of Title IX is a courageous act in the cancel culture demonization of anyone who dares to question the protocols and assumptions behind sexual harassment investigations on college campuses.
For Kipnis, the worst thing about sexual paranoia is that it makes us “dumb.” Sex panics provide “a formula for intellectual rigidity.” She blames the witch hunt atmosphere on campuses for undermining the traditional ideals of the university—as a refuge for freethinkers, who are now being buried by an “avalanche of platitudes and fear.”9 The ideal university that Kipnis cherishes is a fantasy built on the social ideal of an egalitarian society, where students and professors are libertine-like freethinkers, free of material want. While this ideal was operative between 1945 and 1972, intensifying inequality and the increasing cost of higher education have destroyed this mid-century American idea of the university. In Kipnis’s fantasy university, everyone lives in the affluent society: therein lies the basis of her ideal of intellectual freedom. Kipnis came of age at the tail end of an unprecedented expansion of higher education in the United States, and she exudes the confidence and bravado of someone who has not known real professional or economic insecurity. She is remarkably cut off from the torture chamber buzz of anxiety that afflicts students today. She gives sexual paranoia too much credit for the intellectual torpor of contemporary university life: in my experience, professional and economic insecurity is the greatest thought inhibitor of all.
In concluding Unwanted Advances, Kipnis presents a cogent analysis of an epidemic of college blackout drinking while presenting the moral panic of our times as related to the incomplete emancipation of female sexuality. She believes that the problems of campus sex can be solved with more education for men and women on the topic of sexual ambivalence, consent, and agency. What if overvaluation of information and “education” is actually part of the problem with coming of age under neoliberalism and its austerity policies? What if competition for places at institutions of higher education and the higher and higher barrier of entry to the PMC are actually what fuels the sex panics that make us all more stupid? In a society that sees education as a private good, an asset to be used to compete in an increasingly precarious and uncertain world, most young people do not feel as if they can afford to be curious or pleasure seeking while in college. The intellectual and erotic freedoms cherished by Kipnis are shaped by a kind of aristocratic libertine thought enabled by mid-century American principles of economic redistribution and equality that contemporary university administrations neither understand nor support.
The Obama administration’s zealous enforcement of Title IX is very different from the way in which Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner engineered the bailout of criminal financial institutions after the financial meltdown of 2008. Why didn’t the Obama administration send a “Dear Colleague” letter to investment bankers and financial advisors, warning them about helping their clients evade billions of dollars in taxes, taxes that used correctly could be reinvested in public universities and public education programs? What about a “Dear Colleague” letter addressed to Big Pharma, warning it about federal regulations coming down the pipeline about opioid dumping in rural areas? What about a “Dear Colleague” letter addressed to Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, AIG, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, or any other institution that insured, sold, and packaged bad mortgages to the detriment of borrowers and investors? What about “Dear Colleague” letters to fossil fuel companies warning them about their cover-up about their knowledge of carbon production and climate change? In the absence of such letters, we have to conclude that PMC elites prefer fomenting moral panics to implementing even the most modest redistributive or progressive economic policies, even after a global financial catastrophe.
To close out our discussion of campus sex panics, we have to turn to the story of Emma Sulkowicz. In 2015, Sulkowicz graduated from Columbia University with a BA in visual arts, for which her performance Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight fulfilled a degree requirement. Sulkowicz’s piece was staged as a protest and “performance” against the fact that her 2013 allegations of rape against fellow undergraduate Paul Nungesser had not led to any consequences for him and that he was allowed to continue being a student at Columbia. Sulkowicz had wanted him expelled for the alleged attack, but after an internal inquiry, Columbia University found Nungesser without responsibility for the alleged assault. Sulkowicz was furious about the findings, and she spent her senior year on the campus carrying the mattress upon which the alleged violation took place. Sulkowicz’s sense of revanchist entitlement, her confident disregard for due process (the centerpiece of liberalism’s rule of law), her indifference to privacy—of her alleged attacker and her own—became realized in her “performance” as art.
Like all endurance-based performance art, the senseless expenditure of physical effort is a display of the elites’ absolute freedom from the necessity of physical labor. From this point of view, Sulkowicz’s performance of mattress carrying makes a mockery of the physicality of manual labor. Most workers in the world still labor with their bodies and have to endure physical pain and hardship during a day’s work: to “choose” physical endurance is the ultimate sign of PMC sovereignty. It should go without saying that Sulkowicz first and foremost objectified her own trauma. The performance allowed her a degree of dissociation, but it also gave her the platform upon which to make a bid for visibility, notoriety, fame, and celebrity. She became a one-woman placard, publicizing a traumatic experience to make public something she had to endure in private. Sulkowicz as an artist, and a child of PMC elites (her parents are successful business psychologists in Manhattan), was responding to, commenting on, and reproducing the regime of postindustrial work, a kind of work that entails the constant production of publicity-garnering activity in the name of self-branding. In the pursuit of justice, Sulkowicz became famous for her ability to turn private pain into public spectacle.
One of the most notorious artists of the internet age, Ryan Trecartin also works on new media celebrity by staging performances of crazy parties gone wrong and gone wild. His video performances are carnivalesque, nonsensical, drug-addled events characterized by generalized dissolution, abjection, and thwarted pleasure seeking. Trecartin advertises himself as self-taught, campy, messy, and working class. Sulkowicz’s art partook of the craving for fame that animates all of Trecartin’s work, but she had a different aim in advertising her traumatic sexual experiences: her art was made out of her frustration about Nungesser’s impunity. After graduating from Columbia, Sulkowicz was admitted into the highly selective Whitney Program, a year-long residency for art stars in the making, and her follow-up artistic work continued on the register of sexual sensationalism and art world prestige economy anxiety: she began with Ceci n’est pas un viol (This is not a rape), a video restaging of her rape. She also had herself tied up by an S&M professional she called “Mr. Whitney” while she wore a white bikini emblazoned with a W and an M, standing for, we assume, “Whitney Museum.” Her inane personal statements about her work parrot the tired truisms about female empowerment and the need to counter criticism of “fem bodies.”
Hailed by both performance artist Marina Abramovic and New York Times art critic Roberta Smith as a genius, Sulkowicz proved ambivalent about her art world success. In 2017, she did a performance piece as a therapist at the fake Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center in Philadelphia. Bustle magazine praised her new work for resisting Trump.10 But then, two years later, in 2019, she was featured in the Cut hanging around alt-light, men’s rights types who were once her biggest haters online. Sulkowicz claimed that she had become open to their point of view. She also claimed to be tired of contemporary art and said that she was quitting being an artist.11 In the meantime, her alleged attacker, Paul Nungesser, and Columbia University settled out of court a lawsuit in which Nungesser successfully sued the university for gender discrimination based on Title IX. For liberals, sexual violence on campus is of critical importance because (1) universities are sites of class reproduction, and all intersubjective encounters in such places must be rationalized, and (2) the PMC elite loves to play the virtuous hero in clear-cut moral dramas where economic exploitation is not an issue. Laura Kipnis should not have been surprised by the fact that a segment of PMC young people no longer sees sex as an activity where pleasure and agency are critical. For Emma Sulkowicz, everything that happens to her can be instrumentalized and turned into fodder for publicity and prosecution. The lack of boundaries between the personal and the political is the poisoned fruit of contemporary neoliberalism’s metabolization of the historical counterculture.
If the case of Harvey Weinstein lies outside of the purview of my critique of sex panics, it is because Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey focused on workplace sexual assault, corroborated by countless victims and employees of the former movie mogul.12 It would be wonderful if we could extend the investigative attention and care paid to Harvey Weinstein’s victims to other workers who have been exploited and abused in far less glamorous workplaces. In Kantor and Twohey’s reporting, Weinstein’s victims were terrified of him because of the power he wielded over their careers and professional prospects. It is clear that sexual coercion and economic insecurity work together to create conditions for abuse. There is no sexual freedom or pleasure without freedom from the terrifying economic fear for simple survival to which so many of us are reduced. Weinstein’s Sadean treatment of women would not have been possible without the professional and economic power that he wielded over an entire industry. Kipnis, like Sade, believes in a world of sexual adventure without economic coercion—that world is certainly desirable but not realizable under the current conditions wrought by capitalism and its narrowing spaces of authentic intersubjective experience.