Unwanted Advances is a scathing critique of Title IX cases on college campuses. Kipnis focuses on her own experience of being brought up for a Title IX violation because of an article she wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education and compares her experience to that of her former colleague, Peter Ludlow, who was ultimately forced out of his position because of Title IX violations filed against him by an undergraduate student named Eunice Cho. Yes, Kipnis names the student and other students who filed Title IX complaints against Peter Ludlow. Kipnis was granted full access to all the documents related to the Title IX hearing on the campus of Northwestern University and carefully lays out her interpretation of the way the process was handled in the book. Her argument is ultimately that the process by which Title IX is interpreted and handled on college campuses is arbitrary and tends to favor students over faculty, and women students over men. That each school sets up its own Title IX hearing process is just one of the criticisms Kipnis wages in her book. Other major problems include the secrecy of the hearings, the fact that professors do not even get to know what they are being accused of when they receive an email alerting them that a case has been brought against them, the fact that students can file a Title IX violation on behalf of someone else, that spiteful faculty encourage students to file claims to undermine the careers of colleagues they dislike, and the exorbitant attorney fees accused faculty must pay to protect themselves.
Reading this book, and specifically the comments just quoted, made me realize how every day when I teach Introduction to Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies I am stepping into a minefield.
Problems with the Title IX process on college campuses are just one overarching theme of the book, the other is the culture of sexual paranoia, as she calls it, that impedes intellectual ability. She explains, “It’s fundamentally altering the intellectual climate in higher education as a whole, to the point where ideas are construed as threats-writing an essay became, ‘creating a chilling environment,’ according to my accusers-and freedoms most of us used to take for granted are being whittled away or disappearing altogether.” (5) She writes, “I learned that professors, even at major universities, now routinely avoid discussing subjects in class that might raise hackles. A well-known sociologist wrote that he no longer lectures on abortion. I spoke to an Ivy League law professor whose students won’t attend lectures about rape law”(141). Reading this book, and specifically the comments just quoted, made me realize how every day when I teach Introduction to Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies I am stepping into a minefield. I will admit that it has become more challenging to discuss sexual assault and abortion in class, but I had not identified why students were becoming more averse to the challenges of discussing these topics. Perhaps Kipnis has identified something about the changing campus climate that explains the daily challenges I face in the classroom. She argues the way universities set themselves up as “safe spaces” makes campus dangerous for professors who introduce material that may be disturbing to students. Further, she argues, if faculty make students feel “unsafe” in any way they could risk complaints which could undermine their careers. This aspect of the book was convincing and saddening. As I look back at my own experience as an undergraduate student, I realize that it was the topics that forced me to confront difficult topics that most fundamentally enhanced my educational experience.
While her discussion of campus climate was sad, yet enlightening, the way Kipnis wrote about sexual assault survivors was troubling. First, she was critical of the way we use the term “survivor” to talk about a person who has experienced sexual assault. For example, she questions, “How can someone be referred to [in a University policy statement] as a survivor before a finding on the accusation, assuming we don’t want to predetermine the guilt of the accused?” (77). Secondly, she insinuated throughout the book that women sometimes file these claims out of spite. She pointed out that a person could have consensual sex several times with a person and then later claim that they had been raped as much as six months after the fact. While it is true that a person could be assaulted by someone with whom they had previously consented to have sex, the undertone of Kipnis’s book suggests that she disbelieves this concept. Further, she suggests that sometimes women claim sexual assault to preserve their reputation after they have sex and people on campus find out about it. She explains, “You begin to see the degree to which consent is a moving target, and the direction in which it’s moving on campus is sentimentality about female helplessness. Factor in that sex when either person has been drinking is now typically designated nonconsensual in campus codes-and virtually all sex is fast approaching rape” (121). Overall, I was troubled by the dismissive tone when Kipnis wrote about women who file charges of sexual assault. She seemed to overlook the trauma associated with reporting and made it seem like a simple process of filling out some paperwork and destroying the lives of male professors and students. While the case against her, filed by students she did not know in response to an article she wrote about sexual assault, was a fair example of how the Title IX process could be misused, and the case against Professor Ludlow also seems like the student filed a questionable claim, there are huge risks in suggesting that sexual assault claims might be used as both a tactic and a strategy to destroy careers. I found the example of what Kipnis calls the “resolute feminist” representative of the kind of examples that could lead a reader to conclude that complaints are generally unwarranted and that feminists are irrational:
“I heard from an instructor who had been investigated because a woman approached him at an off-campus bar; they hung out casually a few times and once kissed. Later she enrolled in his department as a grad student. The department chair, a resolute feminist, called a meeting to quiz female grad students on unwelcome sexual behavior; the woman reported the kiss. She said it was unwanted; the instructor says she’d initiated it. The case went forward. Even though the finding was “insufficient evidence” to support a sexual harassment charge, and the woman wasn’t under the instructor’s supervision at the time she wasn’t even enrolled-the chair called the instructor in and told him he was being released, in year three of his five-year contract. He’s currently suing in federal court, but worries the lawsuit may cost him his life savings.”
This is an unusual case and seems atypical. Maybe it is easy to name questionable and sensational cases to argue against the efficacy of Title IX, but we would do better to look more closely at the kind of cases that are more frequently reported: cases of students reporting other students. I think we owe it to students to take their concerns seriously and I think a student who makes the effort to file a claim has probably experienced something that requires some additional support. Emotional support should be the first response to a student who claims they need to file a Title IX violation, even though Kipnis argues that we have become too focused on providing comfort to students. There is a fine line between treating women as delicate flowers, the way Kipnis sees campus support functioning, and emotionally supporting students who feel violated. While Kipnis seems to only see women as victims in these cases, it is important to recognize that men and non-binary people experience sexual assault too.
Maybe it is easy to name questionable and sensational cases to argue against the efficacy of Title IX, but we would do better to look more closely at the kind of cases that are more frequently reported: cases of students reporting other students.
Even while seemingly oblivious to the fact that same-sex sexual assault occurs, and that men can be raped, Kipnis repeatedly calls herself a feminist. Yet, she blames feminists for creating the culture of sexual paranoia on campus and implies that feminists have created this overarching image of the helpless woman on campus who needs to be rescued from all the scary men who could potentially assault her. Seriously, I do not know anyone who would want to call themselves a feminist and perpetuate the damsel in distress myth. I also doubt that most self-proclaimed feminists are pleased with the way Title IX hearings on campus are playing out. A false assumption that this book makes is that the hearings were designed by feminists and that feminists agree with how the system currently works. The cover of the book contains the quote, “If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama.” One never knows if the author wanted that quote to appear on the cover, but if she did, it seems she could have spent some time investigating her own question about what feminism is. Reading anything by well-known feminist scholar Gayle Rubin could have provided some framework for how U.S. Americans think about sexuality, but there is scarcely reference to a single feminist scholar. All the problems with this book aside, Kipnis draws attention to a major problem on college campuses: How do we best address sexual harassment and sexual assault?
Coincidentally, as I was reading the book and preparing to write this review, I was going through parent orientation at another university for my soon-to-be college student. Seated at a table with fellow parents, strangers from various parts of the country, one of them leaned in and said, “I am worried about my daughter being sexually assaulted on campus, do you think they talk about that in orientation?” Other parents of daughters echoed this concern and one parent voiced concern that her son might be falsely accused. This brief conversation occurred just moments before parents were introduced to the campus police chief who would give a talk on campus safety. We heard about the importance of locking doors, how we should advise our student not to go jogging with earbuds in at 2 am, the recent uptick in futon thefts and, near the end of the safety talk, rape. I was pleased that the police chief pointed out that rape, what we now call sexual assault is not about someone jumping out of the bushes and forcing sex upon someone else. Instead, he gently stated that it is usually people who know each other and, sadly, make poor decisions that they ultimately regret. The next day, when I was reunited with my soon-to-be college student the first thing she told me was about the sexual assault training. “Mom, all the victims [in the role-playing scenario] were cisgender women,” she asserted. While they did discuss same-sex sexual assault in her training, she immediately picked up on the message that Kipnis criticized in her book, that women on campus are vulnerable. Sitting just outside the bookstore, we had a conversation about how men experience sexual assault too and the risks are even higher for people who identify as LGBTQ. We both agreed to write this feedback on our post-orientation feedback forms.
All the problems with this book aside, Kipnis draws attention to a major problem on college campuses: How do we best address sexual harassment and sexual assault?
While I have some concerns about the way Kipnis wrote about sexual paranoia on campus, she identifies some serious ongoing problems with the way we deal with Title IX claims in general. Unwanted Advances is a provocative, if frustrating, read. The major takeaway for professors: do not share a bed with a student (undergraduate or graduate at your university) under any circumstances. Do not engage in virtual sex in online forums with students, like the site for My Little Pony fans. These examples are so obviously wrong, but came up in the case against Ludlow. Read the book to learn the details. Kipnis is a gifted writer which makes the reading enjoyable even when the content is so deeply disturbing.