Book Review: Unwanted Advances
Review of Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis
When Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis wrote an irreverent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2015 about regulations on campus, and discussed a sexual assault case, it sparked discussion, praise, outrage, protest (literal mattress-waving protest), clarifications, and several Title IX complaints against her for retaliation against a Title IX complainant.
These responses to a controversial essay are to be expected and encouraged, with the exception of the last item: formal university complaints demanding punishment of professors who express their opinions on campus events are a threat to academic freedom, and Kipnis’ follow-up essay, “My Title IX Inquisition,” detailed her disturbing experience with this particularly repressive form of campus bureaucracy.
Now Kipnis has written a book about her experience, and about the case of former philosophy professor Peter Ludlow that sparked her essay. But the bigger issue for Kipnis in her book is an attack on the fate of feminism. On the cover of Kipnis’ book is her own pull quote: “If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama.”
But actually it’s Kipnis’ book that gets hijacked by melodrama, by virtue of the story she gets tossed into and then her choice to view all feminism on campus through the lens of this experience. Kipnis accuses people of “casting real people in fictive roles”(84) But Kipnis is just casting Ludlow in a different fictive role, one at least as implausible.
Kipnis reveals evidence that undermines the case against Ludlow. But the defense Kipnis makes of Ludlow is hard to swallow. She praises his “misplaced egalitarianism” to explain why he bought drinks for an underage undergraduate, kissed her, persuaded her to come back to his apartment, and then slept in the same bed with her. Kipnis tells us “he thinks treating women as equals temporarily brackets the issue.”(64)
Let’s be honest here. Ludlow’s an old man with a penchant for young female students, not a paragon of feminism guilty only of believing too much in equality.
When reporting the student’s claim that Ludlow said older woman become “mentally rigid,” Kipnis doubts Ludlow is telling the truth in his denial: “he looked abashed and said he’d recently been dating an ‘age-appropriate’ woman who barely wanted to leave the house. His social world had shrunk to the size of a postage stamp.”(86) Poor Ludlow, with his stamp-sized social world, forced by the flaws of old women to go drinking and sleeping with young students. Even here — where Kipnis realizes that Ludlow was probably lying — she manages to convey sympathy for the unfortunate man who tries to date women his own age, only to realize that they are too dull for a man of his greatness.
It’s notable that Ludlow was never actually seriously punished by Northwestern. He received a slap-on-the-wrist for being found responsible in the initial complaint, and then quit his job before there was a ruling in the second complaint.
Kipnis is so desperate to attack her feminist enemies that she ignores the men running her university who were the ones who decided to let her twist in the wind for a few months. The complaint against Kipnis should have been rapidly dismissed, but instead Northwestern said it was obligated to investigate every Title IX allegation.
Alan Cubbage, spokesperson for Northwestern, said in a statement: “Northwestern University is firmly committed both to academic freedom and to free speech, but it is also required to investigate and respond to allegations made by complainants that particular actions or statements might violate Title IX.”
That is absolutely not true. Northwestern University is not required to investigate allegations of a violation of Title IX. It is only required to investigate allegations that actually might violate Title IX. Northwestern has recently altered its policies to reflect this fact.
Expressing opinions about campus issues is not an act of retaliation. If it were, it would be a devastating blow to academic freedom and also the right to speak out against sexual violence on campus. Every accused rapist could file a counterclaim and effectively silence the victim and her supporters from speaking out.
In this particular case, because the student had filed a Title IX complaint against Northwestern’s Title IX coordinator, the complaint against Kipnis was given to outside lawyers hired by Northwestern, who then spent 72 days investigating the complaint. Obviously, lawyers are going to pick the path that minimizes legal risk for the University and maximizes billable hours.
There are fundamentally three problems with Northwestern’s system. First, it has no faculty involvement. Second, it has no system for dismissing frivolous complaints. Third, it has a disastrous appeal process.
Interestingly, Kipnis wrote that the investigators had offered to mediate by claiming that the complainants were willing to settle for an apology from her and a promise that she wouldn’t write about this subject again. A graduate student who had filed a complaint against Kipnis declared, “We never offered to withdraw our complaints, we never asked her to apologize, we never asked that she never write about this again.”
This creates the disturbing possibility that lawyers working for the Northwestern administration had unilaterally offered to dismiss the Title IX complaints against Kipnis in exchange for her silence about the issue. If so, this is an astonishing attack on academic freedom, and one that needs further investigation.
But Kipnis mentions none of this in her book. It’s possible she never noticed what was happening, because she was convinced that the feminists were the enemy, not the people running her own university.
It also important to note that Northwestern’s policy on retaliation has nothing to do with Title IX. It’s a general policy that applies to any kind of retaliation for any kind of complaint, and it remains poorly defined and subject to abuse.
Yet Kipnis lets the Northwestern administration off with barely a complaint in her book. She sympathetically explains that “no one knows what Title IX demands of universities. University presidents don’t know.”(140) According to Kipnis, “I never really learned if any Title IX charge that’s filed has to go forward (this was later a matter of dispute)…”(139)
Kipnis was a victim of administrative indifference to academic freedom. But targeting the real villains is the last thing Kipnis wants to do. Those administrators are nice, sympathetic people (as she repeatedly points out in her book). They seem to defend her at times. They never speak out against her. And ultimately, they hold the power in this relationship. It’s her job, and her salary, that they control. More importantly, blaming administrators is a dull business. Blaming a whole ideological movement, the misguided feminists, the federal government—that’s what really interests her.
Kipnis loves drama. She writes about how “Shakespearean” the Ludlow case is, and how much she enjoys that part of it. Administrators are death to drama. They drown you in paperwork and carefully lawyered statements. They never take a side, never express a position, never fight for a cause. So Kipnis could never tell a compelling story about bad administering.
Kipnis’ error is imagining that feminism rather than the campus administration is the real problem. But her sex-positive version of feminism has some serious flaws. Kipnis worries that the anti-rape feminist activists are reinforcing archaic stereotypes of women as victims. But Kipnis herself likes to employ some nasty old stereotypes of women as gold diggers, wondering if a student “spotted a potential gravy train”(85) and asking, “aren’t Title IX officials setting schools up as cash cows for some of our more creatively inclined women students?”(173)
According to Kipnis, “male professors who become the object of someone’s fantasies are likely to end up jobless and destitute.”(84) In this anti-feminist fantasy, men are the powerless victims of the evil women. Kipnis informs us that tenured male professors don’t really have the power in any relationships: “Youth and attractiveness may also offset the weight of institutional standing and higher degrees.”(94) Yes, what power does a mere tenured professor at a top university have in academia compared to the mighty influence of any random sexy lady? Is this really supposed to be a feminist argument?
Kipnis thinks a woman “can now change her mind about whether she really consented.”(122) The real question is whether we believe a women who claims lack of consent years later with no substantive evidence, not this mythical evil of retrospective non-consent.
Over and over again, Kipnis tells us how oppressed male professors are, how powerless in the face of the vast feminist machine: “sex is our era’s Communist threat, and Title IX hearings our new HUAC hearings.”(32)
Kipnis dips into paranoia when she wonders if one feminist professor “had advised her students to file the Title IX complaints against me—she did seem rather invested in the situation.”(131) Oddly, although Kipnis certainly knows about Ludlow’s numerous defamation lawsuits against his critics, she seems unconcerned at the notion that a professor would sue another professor for helping a student who says she was sexually assaulted file a Title IX complaint. Yet how is that any different from the injustice done to Kipnis? Anyone can sue anyone. Anyone can file a Title IX complaint. The issue is not whether people make complaints, but how universities respond to them.
Ludlow’s case has a lot of ambiguities, and even Kipnis admits to thinking, “I wasn’t convinced that Ludlow shouldn’t be dismissed.”(223) But there are very real violations of academic freedom done in the name of campaigning against sexual misconduct, some far worse than what happened to Kipnis.
One is the disturbing case of David Barnett at the University of Colorado, who was charged with retaliation and discrimination and harassment for defending a student of his who was found guilty on dubious grounds of sexual misconduct. The administration fired him, although a faculty committee recommended a year’s suspension, and eventually paid Barnett a big settlement. But Barnett was found not guilty of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. In the end, Barnett was dismissed for “unprofessional” behavior in writing a critical report in which he committed the crimes of “hearsay,” “sarcasm,” and being “offensive” “derogatory” and “inappropriate.”
Kipnis admits that at colleges with rape cases, “in some cases they have done disgracefully little.”(39) Kipnis deserves some credit for actually talking to some students at Northwestern: “I became a bit less dubious about the alarming stats as I started hearing just how normalized unwanted sex is….”(191)
Let’s not pretend that teaching women how to yell “no” and avoid getting too drunk (Kipnis’ primary solution to the problem of campus rape) have anything to do with increasing female agency.
Still, Kipnis is right when she argues that there are some serious problems with how universities address sexual assault on campus. As Kipnis observes, universities see sexual misconduct more often in terms of PR than the rights of individuals: “Ludlow was bad for the brand.”(226) Unfortunately, Kipnis buys into the argument of male oppression by feminists rather than seeing the nuances of how colleges deal with sexual assault and mistakes made against all parties.
Kipnis doesn’t really offer much in the way of structural solutions. She recounts her mother being literally chased around a desk by a professor she worked for, and Kipnis calls upon us “to see a professor’s idiocy as comic fodder, not an incapacitating trauma.”(156) But why can’t we say that it’s sexual harassment, and let women decide for themselves whether having sexual predators as bosses is funny, traumatic, or simply disturbing?
Kipnis imagines a great rape hysteria rampaging across campuses and destroying the lives of oppressed male victims. But the truth is that most sexual assaults at universities are never reported or punished.
The title of Kipnis’ book has a double meaning. She’s saying that “unwanted advances” by men are not a big deal (“how do you know they’re unwanted until you try?”) and that anti-rape activism is an unwanted advance in feminism that undermines women’s autonomy and treats them as victims. Kipnis asks, “What dimwitted sort of feminism wants to shelter women from the richness of their own mistakes?” When those mistakes lead to nonconsensual sexual activity, the feminist sort of feminism should want to shelter women from the “richness” of that experience and punish the criminals who target vulnerable women. For Kipnis, the personal is political, and her own experience with attempted censorship causes her not to question the Feminazi stereotype imagined by conservatives who think that militant anti-rape feminism has taken over campus administrators.