Read enough stories about the madness whipping through college campuses right now, and you can’t help but wonder if our institutions of higher learning have put the “loco” in in loco parentis. There was once a time when America’s students and faculty were united in their desire to defend their free-speech prerogatives, but no longer: Universities are now hypervigilant about protecting students from ideas that might be considered offensive or traumatizing, and many students are hyper-assertive in their demands to be protected from them.
I do not want to reduce the turbulence on today’s college campuses to caricature. (Though last month’s flare-up at Middlebury, which turned a planned colloquy into a crime scene, makes for a pretty fat target.) Those who defend trigger warnings, safe spaces and “empathetic correctness” have reasons for doing so, and no one wants vulnerable young people to experience gratuitous suffering.
But it’s also hard to ignore the irony here: Universities are now terrible places to find political heterogeneity. Campus discourse has become the equivalent of the supermarket banana. Only one genetic variety remains.
PROFESSOR UNDER FIRE
Among the educators who recently found herself at the treacherous intersection of free speech and sensitivity politics is Laura Kipnis, a film professor, cultural critic and dedicated provocateur at Northwestern University. Responding to a new campus directive that prevented professors from dating undergraduates, she wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education last February titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” Within days of publication, she was brought up on Title IX complaints for creating a “hostile environment.” She spent 72 days in the public stockade for it, until the university cleared her of any wrongdoing.
Kipnis has now written a book, Unwanted Advances, about feminism, relationship statecraft and the shadow world of Title IX investigations. It is invigorating and irritating, astute and facile, rigorous and flippant, fair-minded and score-settling, practical and hyperbolic, and maybe a dozen other neurotically contradictory things. Above all else, though, Unwanted Advances is necessary. Argue with the author, by all means. But few people have taken on the excesses of university culture with the brio that Kipnis has. Her anger gives her argument the energy of a live cable.
You might be wondering how Kipnis wound up the subject of a Title IX investigation when the law was originally created to address gender discrimination in education. She had the same question, and soon found her answer: In 2011, the Department of Education expanded the Title IX mandate to include policing “sexual misconduct,” an idea so hazily defined it can apparently include publishing an essay — if the content is said to have “a chilling effect” on students’ ability to report sexual malfeasance.
The problems with this development are fairly obvious. “It seemed to pit a federally mandated program against my constitutional rights,” Kipnis notes.
Part of me wishes she’d written a book devoted exclusively to this subject. As soon as Kipnis’ story made news, she became the confessor to students and professors from all over the country who’d been brought up on Title IX charges, too, and what she discovers is disturbing: Subjects generally don’t know (as Kipnis didn’t) what they’re accused of until they sit face to face with investigators; they’re usually discouraged, if not forbidden (as Kipnis was), from bringing in outside counsel or presenting exculpatory evidence unless they’ve been charged with sexual violence.
Yet free speech, for better or worse, is not Kipnis’ primary preoccupation. Sexual politics is. (Her last book was Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation.) The case that most transfixes her is that of Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern who’d been drummed off campus following allegations of sexual misconduct with two students, one a graduate and one an undergraduate. She devotes roughly half the book to readjudicating it, going through each of his accusers’ stories frame by frame, trying to determine if there’s another way to read them. She decides there is — and that it is inseparable from the way universities now think about women and sex.
Once upon a time, explains Kipnis, female students celebrated their sexual freedom and agency. Today, students and faculty alike focus on their vulnerability. This, in her view, is a criminally retrograde story line, one that recasts women as pitiful creatures who cannot think and act for themselves — and it’s a story they seem to have internalized. Armed with Title IX and a new, academically fashionable definition of “consent” — which insists that sex is never truly consensual between adults unless they both have equal power — women can now retroactively declare they never truly agreed to specific sexual acts, even whole relationships.
“We seem to be breeding a generation of students, mostly female students, deploying Title IX to remedy sexual ambivalences or awkward sexual experiences,” Kipnis writes, “and to adjudicate relationship disputes post-breakup — and campus administrators are allowing it.”
This, in her view, was the case with Ludlow’s accusers, whose stories were full of inconsistencies and improbabilities.
Now: I certainly appreciate Kipnis’ forensics. And the story she tells is psychologically complex. But one of the women in Ludlow’s case comes across as genuinely troubled. That wouldn’t be unusual. As Kipnis herself points out, college and grad school is precisely the time that mental illness tends to first rear its head, which makes professors “sitting ducks for accusations.” But if that’s the case, isn’t that an argument in favor of forbidding relations between faculty and students? Because some students might not be able to handle them?
Kipnis never minimizes the devastating consequences of sexual violence. And she’s on to something, really on to something, when she rails against the “neo-sentimentality about female vulnerability.” But the most powerful and provocative part of her book, its final chapter, suggests that today’s young college women really do suffer from a crisis of agency. The pressure to drink themselves senseless and then hook up is so pervasive that they seem to have trouble saying no.
She knows that this assessment looks suspiciously like victim blaming. But there’s no evidence, she writes, that targeting male behaviors alone has worked in curbing sexual assault. If she were queen, she’d call for mandatory self-defense classes for freshmen women. Call it sexual realpolitik. “There’s an excess of masculine power in the world,” Kipnis writes, “and women have to be educated to contest it in real time, instead of waiting around for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness — just in case that day never comes.”
Partially shifting the onus to women to protect themselves will surely earn Kipnis an inbox of hate mail. It will come without trigger warnings. But after all she’s been through, I’m guessing she can handle it.
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus
By Laura Kipnis
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