Lately I've been thinking that future generations will look back on the recent upheavals in sexual culture on American campuses and see officially sanctioned hysteria. They'll wonder how supposedly rational people could have succumbed so easily to collective paranoia, jus as we look back on previous such outbreaks (Salem, McCarthyism, the Satanic ritual abuse preschool trials of the 1980s) with condescension and bemusement. They'll wonder how the federal government got into the moral panic business, tossing constitutional rights out the window in an ill-conceived effort to protect women students from a rapidly growing catalogue of sexual bogeymen. They'll wonder why anyone would have described any of this as feminism when it's so blatantly paternalistic, or a "political correctness" when sexual paranoia doesn't have any predictable political valence. (Neither does sexual hypocrisy.) Restoring the most fettered versions of traditional femininity through the back door is backlash, not progress.Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus is a terrific book. It's a takedown of how
Sexual agency? Nah. That was so 20th Century. Today's women on campus are helpless wimps. Their tales of sexual predation, even when contradicted by the evidence they present, believed. Or so Laura Kipnis argues, and argues convincingly, the campus culture - as applied by Title IX administrators and enthusiastically adopted by at least some women - insists.
At the same time, of course, those same helpless women are throwing themselves into situations where they are likely to be . . . . Well, risk is (or at least used to be) part of growing up, of what college was about. Make mistakes but learn from them. And know the difference between the silly and the depraved.
Kipnis is a professor at Northwestern, and much of her book is about the trials of Peter Ludlow, once an internationally renowned philosophy professor. Kipnis had rare access to the complete record of his cases and his own evidence. She uses it to devastating effect to show that while in the context of 2012 on campus his judgment may not always have been wise (things he did would have been unexceptionable 10 years earlier), he was a victim of an extensive, extraordinarily expensive, witch hunt, that left him at least comparatively broke and living in Mexico.
And there's her own case. Kipnis had written an article, "Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,"
for the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly read mostly by college faculty and administrators. And, it seems, by at least some students at Northwestern who held a protest march against her. And then brought charges against her under Title IX for sexual harassment and creating a chilling atmosphere by, I suppose, not being sufficiently deferential to the prevailing view that all men on campus - students and faculty both - are sexual predators and all women are, QED, prey.
Of course, Kipnis then wrote another article for the Chronicle: "My Title IX Inquisition." She is, you see, a trouble maker - and not to be trifled with.
OK, I said this is a terrific book, and I meant that. But it's important to add that all her details have to be taken on faith.
She tells stories of other Title IX outrages both to, well, outrage and to indicate that it's not just Northwestern and not just she and Ludlow. But there's no attribution, no documentation. Just how widespread is the problem? She declares, but we pretty much have to take her on faith. (I do; enough stories seep into the public domain; but still.)
And while she's devastating in the critique of the cases against Ludlow, well, she's seen the thousands of text messages and thousands of pages of documentation. But we see only the snippets that make her point. It's what we in the criminal defense biz do during closing argument.
You can't believe he's guilty. You heard the witness. When they spoke to the police at the time they said it was noon and he was wearing a red shirt. In a follow-up report it was 7 a.m. and the shirt was blue. Now, on the witness stand, it was nighttime and the shirt was entirely hidden by a coat. Reasonable doubt? At least. They can't keep their story straight.Which is fine until the prosecutor gets up on rebuttal and reminds the jurors that the crime was on videotape and they saw the tape.
Is there a smoking video somewhere in the evidence against Ludlow? I doubt it. I believe Kipnis. But you do kind of have to take her word for it.
In the last analysis, though, Unwanted Advances isn't about Title IX abuses. That's the frame. It's about a culture, and its danger.
All this being said, as I weigh the evidence in my own inner courtroom, I can understand why the university had to jettison Ludlow. Personally, I don't think he abused his power. The problem was that he didn't share the conception of power in vogue in academic precincts. . . . Yes, Ludlow was guilty -- though not of what the university charged him with. 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. Of course the community had to expel him. That's what you do with heretics.
My thanks to Harper Collins for making a copy of the book available to me.