Book Review: Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis

I like this book.  It has everything: sex, casual hookups, relationships, recriminations, jealousy, careers cut short, and much, much more.  That’s just the backdrop.  The real focus is what happens when any or all of these things go wrong and someone files a Title IX complaint.  Title IX protects people based on sex in educational programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.  It also prohibits harassment or retaliation for filing a Title IX complaint.  This is a powerful weapon.  The prevailing understanding is that men are predators and women are victims.  Add a distinct lack of due process in the investigation of a claim and one wonders why anyone would even say hello to another person on campus for fear of having charges filed against them.  I’m not kidding—much.

Kipnis uses the case of former Northwestern faculty member Peter Ludlow as a prime example.  Ludlow was a prominent academic in the Philosophy Department who dated a student.  She was not one of Ludlow’s students and not someone who would necessarily be affected by Ludlow’s status for good or ill any more than if they never met.  Nonetheless, they dated.  Kipnis notes that the relationship was not prohibited by any campus codes in effect at the time.  The relationship ran its course and that was the end of that until the student filed a Title IX charge that they had non-consensual sex.  Ludlow denied the claim and it was investigated.

It’s here that we discover that the Title IX investigator has immense discretion in characterizing the various claims with a decision based on “preponderance of the evidence” standard.  We also discover that the investigation process does not even remotely resemble fairness in that the object of the charges cannot bring a lawyer to the proceedings, can’t examine the evidence, and doesn’t know the details of the charges until after the decision is rendered.  The proceedings in Ludlow’s case a painful to read for those who are trained in legal process.  A judge would never tolerate this in a courtroom.

We discover other details.  The “victim” of these sexual liaisons might be coached by another faculty member.  There are examples in the book where a faculty member has encouraged someone to bring charges against a rival member apparently for malicious reasons.  There were some elements of this suggested in the Ludlow case.

Kipnis describes one case that shows just how out of touch Title IX can be with fundamental due process.  She describes how one female student brought charges against a male student two years after the alleged act was committed.  This happened (apparently) because the complaining student’s boyfriend had found out about her other relationship and she was trying to save face.  The result was that she destroyed the academic career of the other student.

Now, I don’t want to suggest, nor do I believe that Kipnis is suggesting, that men cannot be predators.  She does suggest, however, that women who are over the age of consent and are not so compromised by the “power” of their partner or a campus code of conduct that they cannot make decisions as to whom they can engage in sexual relations.  That is to say that women have sexual agency.  Not every case that falls within a Title IX investigation is automatically a case of predation despite the nature of the Title IX process.

Kipnis said as much in a 2015 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education called Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe (premium content).  That essay, in fact, subjected Kipnis to her own Title IX investigation which lasted some 76 days before being closed in her favor.  She describes the case against her in one of the book’s chapter.

Kipnis is a bit of a lightning rod when it comes to ideas about sexuality.  Conor Friedersdorf wrote an article in The Atlantic recently about an attempt at Wellesley to ban her from campus because she might spread ideas that would cause “damage” or “injury.”  I guess that this book might cause the proponents of the ban an apoplectic fit if it became part of the library collection there.  I highly recommend the book.  The ideas are fresh and worth considering.

HarperCollins provided a copy of the book for review.

Mark

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