Cultural critic and serial provocateur Laura Kipnis wrote an essay in 2015 for The Chronicle of Higher Education about a new policy forbidding dating between professors and undergraduates at Northwestern University, where she’s a tenured professor of film.
The new restriction had apparently been prompted by a Title IX investigation and lawsuits over a single evening shared by then 55-year-old NU professor Peter Ludlow (at the time the occupant of an endowed chair, the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy), and a 19-year-old freshman.
The student claimed that Ludlow forced her to get drunk and then groped her. He denied that, but agreed they had spent the night in his bed.
Kipnis, whose essays are grounded in her own, often wry, experience, noted that when she was a college student—in that brief, deliriously liberated period “after the sexual revolution and before AIDS turned sex into a crime scene”—”hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum.” She voiced the opinion that the new code of behavior on her campus “infantilized” students, turning them into “trauma cases waiting to happen” and denying them an education that would prepare them to deal with the “messy gray areas of life.”
The article ignited a furor that included shocked Northwestern undergrads marching to the president’s office with mattresses on their backs in protest. Two students filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis, claiming her words had created “a hostile environment.”
A 72-day investigation followed, and the two cases—Ludlow’s and her own—became the core of Kipnis’s very smart and engaging new book, Unwelcome Advances. In it, she argues that the expansion of Title IX from its original focus on unequal opportunity in college sports to the ever more loosely defined territory of sexual harassment has resulted in an overreaching bureaucracy and violations of constitutional rights. Foremost among her complaints: the low standard for proof in Title IX investigations, which requires only a “preponderance of evidence”—anything over 50 percent—for an accused person to be judged guilty. In other words, the offense only has to be more likely than not to have happened.
—Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis
That low bar is a hot issue. It was the subject of a standing-room-only debate last week at the University of Chicago Law School, by a panel that included Georgetown University professor Nancy Chi Cantalupo, speaking in its favor as “a pillar of the civil rights approach,” and New York University professor (and Hoover Institution fellow) Richard Epstein, arguing against the whole Title IX process as an “overbroad reading of the statute” that he hopes the Trump administration will eradicate.
Kipnis, a self-described left-wing feminist, admits to being disconcerted to find herself (ahem) in bed with the far right on this, but chalks it up to the generally “incomprehensible” state of current politics. Armed with Ludlow’s files and her own, as well as the details of cases confided to her by academics effectively gagged, she paints a picture of secretive kangaroo court-like proceedings conducted by universities taking an aggressive Title IX stance because failure to do so can result in the loss of their megabucks federal funding.
Among the procedures to which she objects: calling the accused in for interrogation before revealing the specific charges being brought, forbidding the presence of a lawyer, denying the opportunity for cross-examination of the accuser, demanding total confidentiality, and arbitrarily restricting the evidence that can be presented. In Ludlow’s case, Kipnis writes, that meant excluding evidence that might have shed light on his accuser’s credibility, including depositions in a civil suit she filed against him.
Ludlow eventually resigned and moved to Mexico, and Kipnis was cleared of the charges against her, but the experience fueled both her indictment of Title IX procedures and her ardent critique of the prevailing campus “rape culture,” which Kipnis defines as “a sexual culture that emphasizes female violation, endangerment, and perpetual vulnerability.” Not only is this culture transforming universities, she argues, it’s undermining the freedoms won by 20th-century feminists. According to Kipnis, the version of feminism promulgated by rape culture is regressive. It turns women into wimps—helpless victims, without agency or desire, unable even to take responsibility for their own sobriety. “[T]here’s a growing tendency, at the moment, to offload the responsibility,” she writes: “Women don’t drink; men get them drunk. Women don’t have sex; sex is done to them. This isn’t feminism, it’s a return to the most traditional conceptions of female sexuality.”
“The current approaches to combating sexual aggression end up, perversely, reifying male power,” Kipnis writes. “What would happen if we stopped commiserating with one another about how horrible men are and teach students how to say, ‘Get your fucking hand off my knee?'”
“This isn’t victim blaming,” she insists, despite what her critics might say. “It’s grown-up feminism.” Kipnis told me last week she’s pleased that Unwanted Advances is “opening discussion on issues that need more transparency.” v