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Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus
Laura Kipnis does not care if you don’t appreciate her oppositional position – or her sense of humor. “Kiss my ass,” she states in the penultimate paragraph of the 34-page introduction to her new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Her new book grabs readers’ attention in ways that cause both pleasure and discomfort. Perhaps not surprising, then, she is facing a gag order of sorts and a lawsuit filed by a graduate student at Northwestern University whom she writes about in the book.
The author’s main thesis? The kind of feminism that tends to dominate at post-secondary schools today infantilizes women. While women inarguably “are situated differently than men when it comes to sexual danger,” Kipnis notes, she also “can think of no better way to subjugate women than to convince us that assault is around every corner,” which from her perspective the pervasive sex-as-danger narrative functions to do on college campuses across the country.
In the book, she references a presentation delivered by a former senior statistician with the Bureau of Justice, Callie Rennison, who has interrogated some of the most frequently cited sexual assault studies on campus and beyond. According to Rennison, findings from the Campus Sexual Assault Study – from which the oft-cited statistic about one in five college women experiencing sexual assault derives – are, because of the methodology, not generalizable to the larger population outside the two participating universities where the surveys were conducted. When I spoke with her over the phone, Rennison warned of the “mutant statistic” which metastasizes with each passing reference when methodological issues are ignored. In a co-authored 2014 article in the journal Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, she also detailed how the scope and definitions of key terms varies problematically across surveys.
“There’s not even standardized language among researchers,” Kipnis recapitulates in her book, “when it comes to what ‘rape,’ ‘sexual assault,’ or even ‘college student’ means.”
Kipnis also cites legal scholar Edward Greer who it appears traced the frequently referenced two percent false rape allegations statistic to information obtained by a single police department unit some 40 years ago.
Readers, myself included, will be taken aback by Kipnis’ attack on the prevailing framework for understanding of that which incontrovertibly is a problem on campuses and within society writ large: non-consensual sexual behavior.
Much of her book tells the trials and tribulations of Peter Ludlow, a one-time philosophy professor who was dragged through the mud thanks to, Kipnis claims, the vast expansion of what constitutes sexual assault on campus and the draconian overreach of Title IX tribunals investigating and prosecuting purported sex-related misconduct.
“It’s true that he’d had a three-year relationship with a former student, though that’s only the same as being a predator if women are children, or otherwise incapable of sexual consent,” Kipnis writes about Ludlow, later adding: “His crime was thinking that women over the age of consent have sexual agency, which has lately become a heretical view, despite once being a crucial feminist position.”
Accusations against professors like Ludlow, Kipnis contends, do not ipso facto make them predators. The author’s argument is not that we should refuse to take seriously accusations of sexual assault. Rather, she urges us to distinguish between sexual assault and sexual paranoia, to not dispense with the principle of fair hearings for (predominantly male) students and professors accused of sexual misconduct on the misguided premise they must necessarily all be guilty, and to consider alternatives to the failed punitive approaches to addressing the issue.
Too much of present-day mainstream feminism in the author’s estimation represents a regression. What passes as gender equity activism on campuses today, she claims, not only often reinforces stereotypes of women as passive objects lacking agency – the kind of conception no doubt still contributing to the ongoing problem of campus sexual assault. It also offers a stealth route for advancing other agendas wreaking havoc on higher education.
She asserts the insistence on (predominantly female) student vulnerability subverts gender equity as it simultaneously concentrates the power of college administrators. This augments what she terms the growing “sexual assault industrial complex” – and not without consequences.
“There’s an investigative story to be written,” she writes in an instructive footnote, “about the revenues being generated by the expanding definitions of sexual assault, and what part of the educational pie is shrinking to cover it. (Libraries and faculty salaries would be my guess.)”
Another obvious consequence the author draws attention to is the increasing power administrators now exert over faculty. Administrators and students have on occasion become cozy bedfellows as a result of Title IX witch-hunts and co-opted ideals, she laments, while those who support converting education into a business-like enterprise use vaguely concealed measures to champion the misguided causes to weaken what remains of the democratic workplace in academe.
Two years ago at Northwestern, where Kipnis teaches, students marched in response to an article she wrote for The Chronicle, ostensibly alleging her essay created a “chilling effect”; Kipnis, however, having gone through her own Title IX Inquisition, which she writes about in her book, claims the new normal on campuses has a far greater “chilling effect” on professors.
For anyone interested in promoting viewpoint diversity and troubled by a climate in which informed dissent is discouraged, this should be cause for concern.
“With students increasingly regarded as customers and consumer satisfaction paramount, you’d better avoid controversy if you’re on a renewable contract,” she comments. The author alludes in one passage to the cliché joke about disputes in academia being so contentious because there’s so little at stake, and then she clarifies that in the era of sexual panic, the stakes are quite high and include faculty livelihoods and the well-being of students whose lives are effectively ruined when sexual awkwardness morphs into sexual assault allegations.
Psychoanalysis of the Psychoanalytic: Adding the Adjunct Perspective
Identifying sexual paranoia as yet another mechanism by which academic freedom can be covertly undermined under the guise of activism is, of course, controversial.
Yet it is in the thick of controversy and in the realm of un-interrogated pieties where Unwanted Advances really leaves its mark. The author ensures this, however, not without her own under-examined presuppositions. This occurs even as Kipnis, perhaps subconsciously, clues readers into what these might be.
“There’s a reality to academic privilege—old people have the few remaining good jobs, we’re not ready to give them up, and a lot of younger people feel eaten alive in the academic marketplace, which is more brutal these days than ever,” she confesses.
In the introduction of her book, the author argues persuasively for the usefulness of Freudian analysis, deploying variations of it in subsequent chapters and drawing the reader’s attention to how repressed desires can subtly influence decisions and how veiled, sometimes unconscious agendas help explain people’s actual motivations behind what they say and do.
She suggests the insecurity students feel, especially graduate students who will soon search for tenure-track jobs which increasingly no longer exist, might subtly compel these aspiring academics to wield Title IX as a weapon and to strike out at professors who are subconsciously resented for embodying a modicum of success in the face of growing academic precarity.
But a reader has to wonder to what extent this assertion is the repressed compunction of a tenured scholar becoming manifest. Does the stunning acuity of her psychoanalysis sidestep the discussion of the complicity of tenured professors in a two-tiered academic system benefiting a few at the expense of the many adjuncts comprising the new faculty majority? It’s plausible her analysis is like the contrite, near-genius neo-Freudian response to the critique leveled by the 2016 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, Kevin Birmingham, of the relatively privileged tenured and tenure-track professors who both “function as the instrument and the direct beneficiary of exploitation.”
Let’s just call it a competing hypothesis which need not negate the insights of the original.
Again, though, that discrepancy is of no small concern for advocates of a more intellectually diverse academy.
“Today,” as Don Eron explains in “The Case for Instructor Tenure,” a chapter in the edited book Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tiered System, “over 70 percent of all faculty at our colleges and universities are off the tenure track. Most are employed at will. As a practical matter, they cannot teach without fear of retaliation from students, or argue positions at faculty meetings without fear of retaliation from tenured colleagues or administrators who may feel inconvenienced not only by their opinions but even by the necessity of having to reply to their opinions at all.”
What is the cost to higher education and society, Eron’s argument encourages us to ask, when the majority of faculty, circumscribed by their contingency and effectively denied academic freedom by their low-wage, per-semester, at-will employment, cannot out of legitimate fear voice unpopular positions in the classroom, at faculty meetings or in writing?
The political economy of higher education in the era of the adjunct influences the spectrum of discussion in such a way that not only keeps such questions about how contingency impacts the variety of viewpoints on campus off the table. It also ensures such questions usually aren’t even recognized as relevant to whatever discussion about the range of perspectives is going on at the table.
An Education of a Different Sort
Ironically, the only typo I spotted in Unwanted Advances (on page 146) was the omission of the word “know” from a sentence in which it was needed. It’s ironic because the entire book calls into question what many of us think we know, and the book’s author challenges our ideas about what kind of knowledge is necessary to truly deal with a problem like sexual assault. If people can’t speak candidly about any of this, then the critical education that’s necessary cannot take place and less helpful forms of education about sex and consent on campus will continue. “Here’s an interesting fact,” the author notes, “about current education efforts to minimize campus assaults: they’ve been useless.”
The emphasis, she thinks, on changing the culture and the men within it, when it comes at the expense of empowering women and the acceptance of a vast regulative apparatus for adjudicating – largely in secret and too often without due process – non-consensual sexual conduct cases on campus, is ill-advised. She argues instead for pragmatic education which would better enable women to address male power and aggression in “real time.”
Whatever its shortcomings, Unwanted Advances teaches us another important lesson about how to confront pressing issues without foreclosing engaging argumentation, constraining critical distance or letting the discourse devolve into moralizing. The latter, Kipnis informs us, “isn’t thinking; it’s too smug.”
One of my favorite lines from the book comes at the end of chapter one when the author unpacks what she sees as the fallacy of perfection baked into the belief sex must be always positive. Sex inevitably is sometimes negative, she protests, “and messy in ways that embarrass everyone’s good intentions, like a delinquent friend who spits in your face after you post his bail money.” This idea of “sex-positivity,” is deceptive, she reminds us, because “it’s all just a lot less simple than that.”
Arguably the greatest lesson in Unwanted Advances is that refusal to kowtow to any reductive understanding of desire and to reject efforts to over-simplify or unnecessarily restrict expression and relationships on campus and beyond.
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