photography by Peter Ross

“I feel a bit like a whistleblower on the issue of hypocrisy,” says Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis, whose new book argues, among other things, that historically female desire trumps feminist independence.

Laura Kipnis likes to stick her neck out . Having already taken on two incendiary topics-pornography and adultery-in her two previous books, Bound and Gagged and Against Love, Kipnis, a 50-year-old professor of media studies at Northwestern University, has now set her sights on another provocative issue, contemporary feminism. With all the social and economic progress women have achieved, she asks at the beginning of her new book, The Female Thing (Pantheon; $23.95), what’s with the nonstop complaining? Or, to pick up where Freud left off, what is it that women still want?

For Kipnis, who is a native Chicagoan and unmarried, the problem is that regardless of their accomplishments, women still feel deeply inadequate. Whether it’s their bodies, their jobs, their men, or their sex life, there is always something missing, something flawed, something that doesn’t feel right. And what’s holding women back nowadays, Kipnis says, isn’t so much men as women’s own hearts and minds. Describing herself as a polemicist, Kipnis says she gets bored trying to reprise both sides of an argument. “It eliminates a lot of the tedium of writing if you can be a little over the top,” she says. “I find that when I’m having more fun with the writing, people have more fun reading it.” She talked to Chicago magazine’s Gwenda Blair.

Your new book, The Female Thing, has an interesting subtitle- Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability. How did dirt get in there?
When I started thinking about a book on women’s situation today, I wrote a list of what still seemed to be the stumbling blocks to gender equality, and the first thing I came up with was housework. Then I started thinking about pornography, and I realized they both had something to do with dirt, you know, dirty-mindedness, feeling dirty.

What is it about housework that gets in the way for women?
I’d always thought that housework was a way women have of controlling things. But then I read some Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger and some anthropological essays by David D. Gilmore, and I realized this is really a huge issue, because it incorporates just about the entire history of religion and primitive cultures and taboos around menstruation. The conventional story about housework is that men won’t do it, but I started wondering whether the problem is that women will do it. This goes deeper than control issues, into shame about body functions and purity rituals. That sounds insulting, but I think it’s one of those truths you don’t want to know. It made me very nervous writing this book, but I thought that was the direction to go.

So we assign ourselves to clean up because we’re still hung up on the idea that we’re the dirty ones?
Yes, there was something almost shocking to me about coming to that realization. Shouldn’t we have transcended that? This isn’t a particularly happy conclusion. Part of the project for feminism was to reeducate everyone on the female body-no, it’s not really dirty and yucky, it’s beautiful and maybe sacred. But these ancient taboos and superstitions still seem to play out in modern life in ways that are surprising.

For the past 20 or 30 years, feminists have rejected the Freudian notion that anatomy is destiny, but you seem to be returning to this idea.
In doing the book, I kept coming back to the body. That wasn’t where I started out, and I didn’t have that conclusion in mind. But the fact of sexual difference between men and women-that men have a penis and that for some reason they seem to get all of the social advantages and economic wealth and power-I don’t see how you can go through life without that having some impact on your psyche.

You write that there doesn’t seem to be any clear evolutionary reason to have the clitoris at some distance from the vagina, which interferes with women having orgasms during vaginal intercourse. Why do you call this anatomical arrangement “the unkindest joke of all”?
It does seem awfully absurd to me-I found a lot of humor in these bodily facts. In most writing about women, there’s this great desire to be upbeat and find the solution, but despite my desire to sound like a feminist and be progressive, there just are certain basic differences that I’m not sure there’s such an automatic way out of. A lot of the advice literature seems more indicative of how extensive the problem is than that the solutions are really going to work. That’s the thing that doesn’t get said: that the need for all this advice, particularly in the sexual sphere, seems to indicate a pretty deep problem that is anatomical at some level.

In the book you say that many women don’t have orgasms often or even at all, even when no men are involved. Why isn’t this considered normal instead of a problem?
I suppose it would be kind of depressing, and angering as well. At the moment, the anger is turned against men or against the patriarchy for silencing women’s sexuality, rather than against nature. That’s the thing you don’t hear said too often, that nature has not been entirely equal or fair in this regard.

How were differences in sexual response treated in the past?
Throughout most of human history, the disparity in male and female orgasms was considered a medical issue, and there were medical texts instructing doctors on how to bring women to orgasm because there was this notion that bottled-up tension or energy was what caused a lot of female ailments. But in the 20th century, orgasms start being seen as part of having a female identity, so not having them becomes a psychological problem instead of a medical one. More recently, women’s self-awareness and the spread of sexual information and techniques has been a positive thing in terms of sexual pleasure, but it’s put an awful lot of pressure on women to perform in the interest of sexual equality.

For years, the consumer products industry has reinforced women’s pervasive sense of inadequacy by promoting products to fix sup­posed flaws. Now the industry is doing the same thing to men, offering them skin creams and body waxes. Is that the solution, for every­body to feel like they’re not good enough?
I know, it’s really an icky form of progress to have more equality between the sexes without anybody having more freedom or more emancipation. It’s just making vulnerability more evenly distributed. This happens at the economic level too, where women’s economic progress is measured in terms of what percentage of male income it is. What no one says is that men’s wages are stagnant or down in the current economy, which means that women and men are getting closer to economic parity without anyone actually benefiting.

Somehow it seems so hard to talk about women without talking about men.
Yes, there’s absolutely no possibility of talking about women’s situation without talking about men because men are the yardstick for wages and everything else.

Why can’t we just ignore them?
That’s the really interesting question. Women want men, or at least most heterosexual women do. They want to gain a man’s love, or get a father for their children, or have someone around the house, but the men are never exactly right for the role. At one point, there was an effort to establish some kind of consciousness independent of men-the whole “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” thing-but it came up against heterosexual desire. I’m not trying to say that this has to be the case, but if you look at it historically or sociologically, it seems that female desire trumps feminist independence.

Where does vulnerability fit in?
There’s a tendency in a certain version of feminism to treat the vagina as a sacred thing. Eve Ensler [who wrote The Vagina Monologues] does this, which reproduces some of the problem, because overvaluing the vagina is part of the same dynamic as disparaging it. If you’re carrying this great treasure around, it can always be stolen from you. Although men are the victims of crime far more often than women, women fear crime more because they fear being raped, which colors all of female consciousness.

You write that male rape may be even more frequent than female rape if you count in the prison population. Is this another case of solving female inequality by making everyone a victim?
Because they are prisoners, people regard these men as outside the U.S. population-they’re like floating on a raft somewhere out in the ocean-so it doesn’t seem to be a part of anyone’s consciousness that men are also vulnerable to rape.

You’ve said you like to go after issues that make people anxious, like adultery and pornography, because when people start to feel anxious, you know you’re on to something. What causes anxiety for you?
It’s not so much that I’m attracted to anxiety as that I’m put off by sanctimony. Maybe that’s what causes me anxiety. The amount of pornography and of adultery, the endless complaining by women in spite of all of the gender progress-these things are like the 800-pound gorilla in the room. I guess I feel a bit like a whistleblower on the issue of hypocrisy, although writing about these things isn’t an entirely unanxious thing for me. On the one hand there’s this desire to pull the rug out, but at the same time there’s this anxiety about getting punished for that, getting rebuked, or scolded.

So you’re sort of an anxious rebel?
I think that’s right. That’s a very good phrase; I like that.