Renowned feminist scholar Roxane Gay spoke alongside two others to an overflowing crowd of nearly 300 students at Rose Hills Theater Tuesday, and engaged in a contentious debate about the #MeToo movement.
During and after the event, Gay and many audience members expressed frustration that one of the speakers, Northwestern University media studies professor Laura Kipnis, questioned the idea that survivors should automatically be believed, which they saw as a fundamental truth.
The debate, hosted by the Pomona Student Union, featured Gay, a well-known writer and sexual assault awareness advocate; Brett Sokolow, an attorney who helps colleges reform their sexual assault policies; and Kipnis, who argues that believing people who report sexual assaults by default denies due process to those accused. It was moderated by Pomona College philosophy department chair Julie Tannenbaum.
During the tense and heated debate, each panelist responded to questions about topics such as the #MeToo movement, media coverage of sexual violence, Title IX processes, and Time’s Up, a sexual harassment awareness movement founded by Hollywood celebrities.
Gay appeared visibly uncomfortable and frustrated at various points during the discussion, and repeatedly sighed and rolled her eyes while the other panelists spoke.
“This event was a mess,” she told TSL following the debate. Gay and many audience members expressed particular frustration and indignation with Kipnis’ views.
Kipnis argued that Title IX processes on college campuses “resembled [witch hunts].”
“‘Believe the survivors’ is something I believe the [supposed] victims [of the witches] would have said at witch trials,” she told TSL.
Kipnis also expressed doubt that all Title IX complaints involve non-consensual activity.
“People who are oftentimes in consensual situations [are] later going to a Title IX officer and asking that person to adjudicate what happened between two people during a sexual encounter,” she said.
Statements like these earned Kipnis scorn from the audience.
“People would laugh when [Kipnis] started speaking,” Elle Biesemeyer SC ’21 said. “[She] was saying all of this awful stuff about how she didn’t believe women.”
Kipnis said she presented “contradictory evidence” based on research and personal experience against the “believe survivors” mantra.
“What’s now seen as conservative is to think about due process,” she said during the event.
Biesemeyer, however, said Kipnis relied too heavily on anecdotal accounts to establish broader trends of false reporting.
Some of Sokolow’s statements also proved somewhat contentious.
“I wonder how we safeguard [#MeToo’s] progress against probably what is a fairly small number of people who would weaponize it,” Sokolow said to the audience. “How do we make sure that people are less able to weaponize complaints? How do we make it a reality that the taint of allegation is not the same thing as the finding of violation?”
Rose Gelfand SC ’21 said that Sokolow was “taking up a lot of space for the only man on the panel” and that he was “unnecessarily graphic” in his description of the Aziz Ansari story during the #MeToo section of the conversation.
Kipnis said she felt opposition during the event, but is familiar with tough audiences.
“I think that it’s difficult to convey the complexity of the situation … particularly where it seems like there’s a narrative that is already in place,” she told TSL. “One of the frustrations is, you’re talking to a roomful of people who are certain they know the entirety of the situation and actually know a small part of the situation.”
Kipnis said her opinions on sexual politics have developed over the course of decades of research.
“I’m trying to slow down the momentum and I’m asking us to think harder about how we’re forming evidence … that you guys might not be aware of,” she said. “For me to bring up the other side doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about sexual justice.”
Despite the tense atmosphere, Sokolow said he felt the panel was well-rounded.
“The cross-section of the opinions on stage gave the audience a nice 360-degree view of the issue,” he said.
He said audiences should be “slightly more charitable” to guests that come to campus, even if their opinions are controversial or if the conversation surrounds a contentious issue.
On the other hand, Gay said the panel would have benefited from an additional speaker whose point of view was closer to hers. She said Sokolow’s legal perspective was valuable, but was frustrated with Kipnis’ comments.
“I disagree so passionately with Kipnis’ overall stance,” she said. Kipnis’ “honest opinions come from an intellectually dishonest place” and she “acts as if her audience comes from a place of ignorance … and wishful thinking,” Gay added.
Some students at the debate were also frustrated by its format.
“A lot of us [in the audience] were here for Roxane and her perspective,” Allie Pitchon PO ’20 said. “We were frustrated that she had to debate things we found to be fundamental.”
Caitlin Conrad SC ’20 concurred.
“Bringing a speaker like Roxane should have been its own event,” she said.
PSU’s culminating annual event is usually a panel, PSU member Sherwin Shabdar PO ’18 said. Shabdar said the group identified Gay as an influential voice to include after deciding to host a panel on the #MeToo movement.
Due to miscommunications with her speaking agent, Gay said she was not aware the event would be a debate, rather than a talk or a reading, or who she would be debating, until 10 days beforehand.
Had she known further in advance, she would not have participated in the event, but it was “too late to back out” when she found out, she said, adding that it’s critical to have a survivor’s perspective in sexual assault debates.
“Events like this are complicated,” Gay said. “It was a mess, but good conversations always are.”
Samuel Breslow and Marc Rod contributed reporting.