The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Book Reviews

Something More Than Clever

B.D. McClay

Student rally, Northwestern University, 2017; Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images.

Does the language of sexual harassment create the harm that it claims to describe?

Laura Kipnis, a professor of film at Northwestern University, has made her career out of turning situations on their heads and seeing what comes of them. We often call such writers “contrarian,” but for Kipnis the task is more serious. Her instinct is to follow the pointing finger of blame back to its source rather than turning to study its object. When we want to cast blame, what is it we’re hiding?

When there’s a moral high ground to be staked or woundedness to be claimed, Kipnis regards the claims of the righteous with suspicion. In Against Love (2003), her funny, prickly attack on the couple, she defended infidelity as a protest, however feeble or ridiculous, against the “security-state model of long-term coupledom.” If her work is usually suspicious of victims and saints, it also avoids creating new classes of heroes. Instead, there are those who are dishonest, and those who—usually through sexual misbehavior—can’t really help but be honest. Her humanizing approach toward a range of pathetic characters, from Anthony Weiner to Larry Flynt, is refreshing, witty, and often incisive, if not entirely convincing.

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus should fit neatly into the rest of her work. In some ways, in fact, it’s a reprise of subjects she covered in an earlier book, The Female Thing (2006): power, sexual agency, and female vulnerability. This time around, she approaches her subject by examining a sexual harassment case at her own university. In this case, Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy, was charged with sexual misconduct by both an undergraduate and a graduate student. After university investigation and much litigation from all parties involved, he resigned and left the profession.

Was justice done? Kipnis doesn’t think so. Finding the accusations against Ludlow without merit, she argues that their flimsiness proves a number of things about the sexual harassment regime on campuses and our contemporary approach to sexual politics. We live, she claims, in an age of “sexual paranoia” and weaponized female grievances, and the combination of these things is working to undermine academic freedom. To prove it, she combs through the collected correspondence of the two complainants to discern hidden motivations, unacknowledged flirtations, and, generally, the presence of desire that disowns itself.

There is another wrinkle here, however, which keeps this from being like Kipnis’s other books. Kipnis was herself on the receiving end of a Title IX complaint for referring to the Ludlow case in an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Ludlow is not the only person she’s seeking to exonerate here. This makes her, strangely, her book’s chief moralizer and victim. Though Kipnis is justifiably angry—and her anger over her treatment has been echoed by most of the reviewers of this book—her new persona is an uneasy fit.

And this is an altogether uneasy book. Everything rests on Ludlow—Kipnis’s own innocence, her wider claims about Title IX, her argument about contemporary sexual politics—even though none of it really needs to do so. Ludlow supplied many of the documents Kipnis uses and he was interviewed at length. The two complainants—though their emails, texts, and depositions are meticulously analyzed—are not, which makes Kipnis’s work read less like investigation and more like literary criticism.

Kipnis does her best to exonerate Ludlow in both cases. In connection with the graduate student, “Hartley,” she succeeds at clearing him from the most serious charge (rape), though the university also found Ludlow innocent there. The case of the undergraduate (called “Cho”) is more challenging.

Ludlow and Cho agree on the outline of events: They went to an art show together, Ludlow bought Cho several drinks, they ended up at his apartment, and they slept in the same bed together. They differ on the rest: Cho claims that Ludlow kept her at his apartment and that she was too drunk to leave. Ludlow claims she insisted on staying and that she’d even unsuccessfully propositioned him earlier in the evening. Cho says that Ludlow tried to have sex with her and felt her up. Ludlow denies this. Cho alleges she was so disturbed by this that she tried to commit suicide. (Kipnis suspects that this attempt never happened.)

Kipnis is a critic, and she uses the texts at hand—Cho’s emails and deposition, mostly—to argue for a more manipulative, sexually aggressive, and conflicted character than the published accounts of her have so far presented. Up to a point, her Cho is a plausible character. Students are attracted to their professors, though the attraction may not really be sexual. For a young person (male or female) who is impressed by an older person and desires a mentor, feelings of admiration can feel a lot like a crush without being one. But Ludlow’s own story begins to weaken once he and Cho end up at his apartment door.

“I simply didn’t believe,” Kipnis writes about Cho’s version of events, “in a reality in which a professor can force a student to drink.” I have a similar problem: I don’t believe men in their fifties can be forced to host teen girls. I certainly don’t believe they naively sleep with someone in the same bed. It’s on this detail of the bed, which we are asked to accept as innocent, that I find myself stuck. Perhaps it’s inaccurate, as Kipnis charges, to paint Cho as passive. But instead of complicating the narrative, she’s merely switched the roles.

This unconvincing defense badly undermines the book. Cho’s story is what drew Kipnis into this whole business in the first place: That detail about being “forced” to drink convinced her of Ludlow’s innocence. And the sinister tone alcohol assumes in this story is, for Kipnis, one example among many of melodrama: theatrically evil men getting girls drunk in the hopes of getting lucky. Yet later in the book, Kipnis will claim, based on informal interviews, that fifty to seventy-five percent of her students have suffered “unwanted sexual contact” and that alcohol is the biggest culprit. Her female students are, now, insufficiently paranoid.

Toward the end of Unwanted Advances, Kipnis tells a little anecdote about a conversation between herself and a friend:

We were talking about the campus assault problem, which had been in the news on a daily basis that week. She mentioned that her sister had been raped in college. “How did it happen?” I asked. “She got drunk, fell asleep on the couch in a frat house, and woke up with some guy on top of her,” my friend answered. “I guess you couldn’t see that coming,” I said. We both laughed.

Implicit in Unwanted Advances, and more explicit in older works such as The Female Thing, is the idea that the language of harassment creates the harm that it claims to describe. Short of material harm—loss of health, loss of job, loss of status—you’re harmed largely because you are primed to be: because you’ve internalized the idea of risk, because you’ve habituated yourself to passivity, because you were drunk, because you were too trusting, because you were too paranoid. You are, in short, a self-created victim.

And well after I’d finished the book, what stuck in my mind wasn’t really the case of Peter Ludlow or Kipnis’s own Title IX investigation, but this off-putting, unnecessary story. “We laughed” (she goes on) “because we’re feminists with a certain shared mordancy about female propensities for self-martyrdom.” But who’s martyring herself? A woman who is actually unconscious is not performing anything, let alone martyrdom.

It’s the problem with this book—this mean-spirited little laugh. In this book, Ludlow is blameless, Kipnis is blameless, Cho is crazy, the entire Title IX system is built to persecute men, and women who fall asleep at parties are engineering the circumstances of their own rapes. This whole picture does begin to reek of an unpleasant victim complex, a kind of paranoia. But it’s coming not from the painting but the painter. It is a twist that Kipnis might have appreciated in one of her earlier books.

Most people involved with the issues of sexual assault and harassment—both victim’s advocates and advocates for the accused—believe that the present Title IX system needs reform. Yet the current debate over campus sexual assault—whether or not it is happening at an alarming rate, what ought to be done about it, whether the system is biased against the accuser or the accused, what role alcohol and drugs play in it, whether colleges should have any adjudicatory role at all—puts all participants on opposing teams that want almost nothing to do with each other.

Because the terms of the debate that we do have are so stark, what we tend not to notice is that the debate itself is small. Our interest in sexual assault, nationally, our desire to reform procedures related to it, really dig into them—in op-eds, in books, in reporting that focuses on competing stories of victimhood—is almost exclusively confined to the campus. Yet college students, if the Department of Justice is to be believed, are not at heightened risk for sexual assault. The system we devote so much argumentative energy to is not the justice system on which all of us rely for all of our lives, but the system which applies only to a minority of Americans for a part of their lives.

It would be interesting to read a book that takes into account the grievances of both sides and asks why we focus our energies only on one particular system—and also why the attention paid to Title IX is also attention turned away from the criminal justice system. We could certainly use such a serious and independent-minded book about contemporary sexual politics.

I hope that whoever writes that book is as witty, argumentative, and clever as Laura Kipnis, as prone to poking her nose where it’s not wanted and asking offensive questions. But I also hope she is something more than clever. Maybe even a moralist, if it comes to that.