This article was originally published on Apr. 14, 2017, and is presented here for Campus Week 2017.
A spectre is haunting the American campus, and it’s called Title IX. Originally, you might remember, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 was the law that required colleges to have women’s as well as men’s sports teams. It still does that, but since 2011 it does a lot more: Title IX, overseen by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, now covers not just gender discrimination but all forms of sexual misconduct—a generously interpreted term that, if you’re a professor, now seems to include your body language, the books you assign to your class, the jokes you make, and maybe even the articles you publish. If you’re a student, watch out: Sexual misconduct, including rape, now means having sex with someone who was “incapable of consent” due to the influence of alcohol or drugs, and lack of consent can now be declared retroactively, even years later. As Laura Kipnis writes in her gripping new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, “Please note that this makes anyone who’s ever had sex a potential rapist.”
Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern, has become a minor celebrity because she was called up on Title IX charges for writing a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2015. In that article, she remarked that two women had filed a Title IX suit against Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern philosophy professor. Kipnis didn’t slander the complainants; she didn’t even name them. She just referred briefly to the case in the course of a wide-ranging exposé of how Title IX is being used as a sledgehammer against innocent students and faculty. But merely by mentioning Ludlow’s accusers, she had created a hostile atmosphere on campus—so it was charged. And so Kipnis became, as far as one can tell, the first person ever to be prosecuted on gender-discrimination charges for writing an essay. Apparently, she was considered fair game because of a 2014 settlement that Title IX officials had made with Harvard University in which off-campus conduct was declared potentially liable. Publishing an essay in a national magazine is, to be sure, off-campus conduct.
Kipnis was eventually exonerated, after hours of interrogation and then more hours spent answering questions over email. She then instantly violated the confidentiality that Title IX victims are supposed to swear to: She wrote another essay for the Chronicle, “My Title IX Inquisition.” Now the floodgates opened. Kipnis received hundreds of emails from others whose civil liberties had been trampled by the Department of Education’s ironically named Office of Civil Rights. When she realized how many lives were being ruined by Title IX’s Kafkaesque kangaroo courts, Kipnis decided to write Unwanted Advances. By doing so, she has given a voice to people who have been quite literally silenced: Unless you have the $100,000 or so you would need to file a civil suit against your university, there is no way for you to appeal a Title IX judgment.
Kipnis’s Title IX questioners revealed the charges against her only after they had resolved the case in her favor, months after they first told her she had been accused. This seems to be standard practice: In most Title IX hearings, the accused is never shown the charges against him or her, is not allowed to introduce any evidence, and cannot bring a lawyer into the interrogation room. The standard for judging guilt in these he-said-she-said cases is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” but rather “a preponderance of the evidence,” or “50-50 plus a feather,” as one Title IX apparatchik cheerfully tells Kipnis. (On the basis of that feather undergraduates are expelled, grad students lose their funding, and tenured professors are rendered permanently unemployable.) The investigators are both judge and jury—and, Kipnis shows convincingly, they are usually inclined to rule for complainants. They rely on naïve stereotypes about sexual roles (women are passive, innocent creatures; men, ruthless predators) and they seem addicted to amateur psychology: Laying verbal traps and studying the accused’s facial expressions appear to be big parts of a Title IX investigator’s repertoire. Title IX officers sometimes act as free agents, railroading suspects even when no one has lodged a complaint.
Kipnis’s catalog of Title IX injustices is immense. It’s hard to know where to start. There’s the African-American college athlete who was suspended for two years because someone had noticed a hickey on his girlfriend’s throat and filed a complaint. (The girlfriend swore their relationship was consensual, but third-party complaints are allowed under Title IX, and this one won.) Then there’s the tenured LSU professor who was fired because she cursed in class and made a joke about sex declining during long-term relationships. And the Brandeis student convicted of sexual misconduct and “violence” when his boyfriend decided, six months after their breakup, that he had been subjected to nonconsensual sex acts like being kissed while asleep. Oh, and the female professor accused of making “suspicious eye contact” with two grad students in the library. And the creative writer hauled in for teaching poems with too much sex in them, like Walt Whitman’s.
And then there’s Peter Ludlow, the philosophy professor whose career was destroyed by two accusers, one undergraduate, and one grad-student woman. Ludlow, a middle-aged man whose philosophical research seems to center on the hipper aspects of cyberculture, is an unusual instance in the annals of Title IX: Because he quit his job before he could be fired, he did not have to sign a confidentiality agreement. Now living in Mexico, Ludlow showed Kipnis the files he had obtained from his Title IX hearing, which he got to see only after filing a civil suit. The grad student Ludlow had dated (not one of his students, incidentally) spent most nights in his apartment; the two exchanged 2,000 text messages and emails in which she frequently told him that she loved him. (Kipnis reveals a cutesy-yet-poignant detail: Both were My Little Pony fans, and they often addressed each other as “Brohoof.”) Two years after they broke up, Ludlow’s girlfriend decided that they had not had a sexual relationship: They had sex only twice, she said, and the second time he had raped her. A problem with her account was that the day after the alleged rape she texted Ludlow to say that she loved him. The Title IX investigator acquitted Ludlow of the rape charge, but otherwise embraced the grad student’s story that “he took advantage of the unequal power balance between them” and “she has suffered serious emotional damage.” The upshot was that Ludlow was disgraced; he had been offered a prestigious job at Rutgers, but when students there protested, the offer was withdrawn. It became clear that his days at Northwestern were numbered. The crime Ludlow had committed was, and is, still unclear.
It’s hard to imagine an objective reader finishing Unwanted Advances and not having her mind changed, if she has up to now accepted the mainstream version we’ve been reading in the news: that Title IX is a necessary tool to safeguard women who have been sexually assaulted. Instead, it seems to be mostly a vehicle for post-adolescents nursing grudges against ex-boyfriends or teachers. Having their sometimes-wild accusations taken seriously by bureaucrats is no doubt empowering, but it has damaged the fabric of trust that should exist in our universities.
Kipnis presents a heap of evidence that the ever-swelling Title IX bureaucracy is exactly what she calls it: a new witch hunt that threatens our civil rights. Just as important is Kipnis’s argument that Title IX threatens to give back a century of hard-fought feminist gains. Suddenly women are being judged incapable of consent because men hold the power and make the decisions in sexual matters. “Latter-day captivity narratives, and fairy tales about damsels in distress,” as Kipnis puts it, are the order of the day. But “the pedestal was always a lie,” Kipnis declares: Women are not helpless victims; they should be granted the power of consent. To have sexual agency means to be confused and to make mistakes in one’s choices, and women have to own this confusion too.
Kipnis is a born satirist, as readers of her sprightly, hard-edged polemic Against Love already knew. Unwanted Advances is a very funny book; Kipnis’ wit pokes through again and again. But the underlying subject, as she knows, is deadly serious. Like Kipnis, I am a professor, and where I teach I haven’t seen much evidence of the fraught atmosphere she describes. But mine is not an elite school; many of my students are—like me—first-generation college students. They don’t expect, or want, to be coddled. My second-hand impression is that the more privileged a school’s students are, the more apt they may be to embrace the victim mentality that Kipnis criticizes.
Over lunch in New York last month, Kipnis told me how upset she was that some Wellesley faculty members had joined with students in protesting the lecture she recently gave there. “Some of the students made a video denouncing me,” she said. “ ‘White feminism isn’t feminism.’ Then the [six] faculty sent around a letter saying that my visit would make the students uncomfortable.” She added, “It’s been interesting to be in the middle of this. I’m not an activist; I’m too ironic about stuff. But it seems I was fated to fall into this. What’s freedom to you? That’s the question I had to ask myself.”
Kipnis’s final chapter is a sermon on feminist freedom as she conceives it. She refrains from lecturing college women about sex: It’s not that getting drunk and hooking up are sins in themselves. Instead, the problem is what happens when a woman throws down shots with the bros at a frat party, and she has less body mass than the men she’s drinking with. Blacking out, a common result of such behavior, means giving up the ability to decide whether you want to have sex or not. “One of the dirty little secrets of hookup culture,” Kipnis writes,
is that a significant proportion of college women don’t know how to say no to sex, which is painful to anyone who thinks that, by this point in the long slog toward female independence, no would be the easiest word in the language. Instead you hear, in case after case, about women drinking so much they’re incapable of saying yes or no.
Kipnis acknowledges that there is all too much sexual assault on college campuses—though most of it seems to occur at frat houses and off-campus parties. The new culture of “grinding,” a sort of vertical dry-humping performed to music in the turbulent living hell that is your average frat party, coexists uneasily with the victim mentality encouraged by the Title IX bureaucracy.
In a recent talk at the New York Institute for the Humanities, Kipnis admitted that among college students, “there is an awful lot of unwanted sex going on. But policies that favor stories of female endangerment are the last thing in the world that could reduce sexual assault. It’s not just male aggression, it’s also female passivity—there’s this acting out of stereotypes” under the influence of binge drinking. College men and women both use alcohol to feel free; but instead of finding freedom, they fall into pre-feminist clichés about what men and women are like: the men rampant, the women helplessly collapsed on the floor.
“What use to anyone is a feminism so steeped in self-exoneration that it prefers to imagine women as helpless children rather than acknowledge grown-up sexual realities?” Kipnis asks. Unwanted Advances is a clarion call for both men and women to recognize the reality of female autonomy that feminism has always argued for, and that today’s campus culture threatens to eclipse.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.