A professor takes an unfashionable stance in ‘Unwanted Advances’

Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus By Laura Kipnis, $27.

Well into Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, Laura Kipnis concedes: “As a writer, I’ve always been drawn to what you’re not supposed to say; it’s almost a methodology at this point.”

It doesn’t take the reader long to pick up on this. The Northwestern University filmmaking professor, who calls herself “a certified left-wing feminist,” thrust herself into a nasty Title IX case at her school, at least partly taking up for a philosophy professor accused by two female students of sexual harassment. (Disclosure: Northwestern alumnus.) By writing about the case for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kipnis found herself the “respondent” in Title IX accusations and the subject of campus protests.

Not only does Kipnis criticize the secretive, pseudo-judicial Title IX process—which stems from the landmark 1972 law guaranteeing equal gender access at universities receiving federal funds—she also critiques the assumptions behind “rape culture” on campuses. “The current approaches to combating sexual aggression end up, perversely, reifying male power,” she argues.

Kipnis earlier flouted feminist orthodoxy in Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, arguing for nuanced understanding. And that’s her point here: that sexual relations, on or off campus, do not easily reduce to stereotype. Or, as she puts it, “zealous boundary-drawing and self-protective preciousness don’t augur well for the imaginative life.” Her target is a self-sustaining bureaucracy geared to find men always guilty of preying on women.

The philosophy professor might have acted foolishly, but broke no laws or campuses codes, Kipnis points out, and her own brush with bureaucratic overreach amounted to a breach of academic freedom. She relates ugly escapades from other schools, noting they often result from unrelated campus skirmishes. “I absolutely believe there are sexual harassers on campus, and bona fide harassers should be fired,” Kipnis stresses. But the Title IX process, which turns on the “preponderance of evidence” found by investigators who also act as judges, negates feminist advances by treating women as “endangered damsels.”

Eventually Kipnis wades into sexual assault and binge drinking, not to blame victims but to suggest young women need to learn to insist on their own agency: “Two different things can be true at once: men are responsible for sexual assault; and women who act as if sexual assault weren’t a reality are acting incoherently.” Something you’re not supposed to say, maybe, but Kipnis is just the person to say it.

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