Thursday, April 6, 2017

Unwanted Advances, by Laura Kipnis

If you follow college news, you might think that there is a rape epidemic on American college campuses.  Large gangs of men, mostly athletes and frat boys, are stalking young women, willfully forcing them to have sex with them.  Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis is no fan of rape, but in her book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus she exposes the anti-feminist, police-state attitudes and tactics that reveal what she sees as backwards progress for feminism and academic freedom.

Kipnis was drawn into this issue when a philosophy professor on her campus came under Title IX investigation due to an allegedly inappropriate relationship with an undergraduate student.  Note that the allegations surrounded a night on the town; the pair did not have sex.  Kipnis responded with an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she argued that adult students should be treated like adults.  She subsequently came under a new Title IX investigation because she offended some of the women alluded to in the article.  Most of the book details the case against the philosophy professor and Kipnis's subsequent case.  It left me in disbelief that a campus bureaucracy could be so . . . for lack of a better word, stupid!

She writes, "rampant accusation is the new norm on today's campus; the place is a secret cornucopia of accusation, especially when it comes to sex."  Kipnis is especially offended by the anti-feminist attitudes behind campus sex codes and the ineffectiveness in preventing violence against women.  "Policies and codes that bolster traditional femininity . . . are the last thing in the world that's going to reduce sexual assault."  Title IX is being used by women to "remedy sexual ambivalences or awkward sexual experiences, and to adjudicate relationship disputes post-breakup."

Since Kipnis's offense was writing an essay, her case was a bit different from others.  But she studied the philosopher's case extensively.  After the essay was published, she became an outlet for people all over the country who sent her stories of their own Title IX investigations.  In the course of these interactions, she became an expert on Title IX procedures--or the lack of them--and in the many ways Title IX is abused.  The process is heavily weighted against the accusee.  "Typically the accusee doesn't know the precise charges, doesn't know what the evidence is, and can't confront witnesses."  Accusations are encouraged for encounters that happened months before, and that, at the time, seemed to be consensual.  Kipnis states that Title IX has created "an accusation machinery so vast and indiscriminate that it becomes a magnet for neurotic schemes, emotional knife play, and monstrously self-exonerating agendas."

She never denies the reality of rape, but bemoans a system in which virtually any sexual act can be considered rape.  The definition of rape, under Title IX, has become broader and broader.  A Title IX case doesn't even have to include physical contact.  It could include gestures, words, or, as in her case, an essay.  And universities are often happy to settle with the accusers.  In a passage that is sure to make her even less popular among Title IX activists, she writes, "the premise that accusers don't lie turns out to be mythical.  By sentimentalizing women in such preposterous ways, aren't Title IX officials setting schools up as cash cows for some of our more creatively inclined women students?"  I've seen this happen at my own alma mater, which has been writing some big checks and, as a result, attracting lawyers like ants to honey.

In another more extended discussion that will make Title IX activists apoplectic, she addresses drinking by college students.  College women want to show their equality with men by drinking like them and partying with them.  She tells stories of frat parties (that make me want to be sure my kids never get near one) that inevitably lead to, in fact are designed to lead to, women passed out drunk and readily available for sex.  But "anyone who suggests that women should drink less to avoid sexual assault will be 'disemboweled upon arrival into the gladiator arena of public discourse.'"  Title IX training programs steer clear of addressing this important element of women's safety.  She again reflects on the anti-feminist attitudes that Title IX espouses, which says that "Women don't drink; men get them drunk.  Women don't have sex; sex is done to them."  She argues, "This isn't feminism, it's a return to the most traditional conceptions of female sexuality."

Don't misunderstand.  In case you haven't figured it out, Kipnis is no male chauvinist right-winger.  She's a liberal feminist whose sexual morals are far from Puritanical.  ("I don't have anything against escapism and irresponsibility, and you certainly won't hear me arguing against drunken hookups.  'F--- all the guys you want' would be my motto.  Just don't f--- the ones you don't want . . .")  What Kipnis does have something against is kangaroo courts, people being accused of things and not being permitted to defend themselves, accusees suffering consequences without even an opportunity to respond to accusations, the rights of some people being sacrificed for an illusory, deceitful goal of women's safety.

Unwanted Advances should be required reading for any faculty member or administrator who is responsible for Title IX implementation.  Of course we want students on campus to be safe, and we want a means for them to seek justice if they are victims of a crime.  But before college administrations double down on Title IX, as my alma mater has done, they should take Kipnis's perspective and concerns into consideration.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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