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.