If Hillary Clinton had won in November, Laura Kipnis’ brash, juicy, and often maddening new book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus might have been a bigger cultural event, a generator of a thousand think pieces. It combines an insouciant interrogation of contemporary feminism and PC campus politics with a Rashomon-style close-up of what is either an affair gone wrong or a case of sexual predation. Adding a further layer of controversy, on May 16, the woman at the center of the case Kipnis writes about filed a lawsuit against Kipnis and her publisher, HarperCollins. The suit charges that Unwanted Advances “presented her in a false light as lying, manipulative, and litigious, despite having reason to know that this portrayal was false.”
The argument of Unwanted Advances depends on a portrait of this woman—known, pseudonymously, as Nola Hartley in the book and Jane Doe in the suit—as dishonest and unreliable. The suit contends that the book itself is fundamentally untrustworthy. Side by side, the book and the lawsuit present an intellectual and moral puzzle touching on issues of sex, free speech, privacy, journalistic ethics, and academic freedom. The controversy would likely be a national story if everyone’s attention weren’t monopolized by the implosion of Donald Trump’s presidency.
But Trump’s effect on the meaning of Kipnis’ book goes beyond the way he sucks up all of our cultural oxygen. Unwanted Advances excoriates policies on campus rape that were put in place during Obama’s administration, and which Trump is already dismantling. His appointees are poised to make good on the 2016 Republican platform, which called for ending the “distortion” of federal anti-discrimination law to “micromanage the way colleges and universities deal with allegations of abuse.” A taboo-skewering feminist provocateur, Kipnis set out to puncture the sanctimonious groupthink that took over parts of academia during a period of liberal hegemony. But the right is now in power, and conservatives cite Unwanted Advances as evidence in their campaign to roll back feminist overreach on campus.
If the book is indeed accurate, no one can blame Kipnis for how it’s used: An intellectual’s job is to tell the truth as best she can, regardless of consequences. But if, as the suit claims, Kipnis distorted the underlying facts, the damage isn’t just to Jane Doe.
Kipnis, a Northwestern University professor, stumbled into the center of the national uproar over campus sexual assault and free speech somewhat accidentally. In 2015 she wrote an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” that took aim at the way Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, had been deployed against sexual assault and harassment on college campuses. During Obama’s presidency, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights decreed that colleges and universities that didn’t properly deal with sexual assault and harassment could be held in violation of Title IX, potentially threatening their federal funding. This resulted in stepped-up action against campus rapists, who in the past had often been treated with impunity. But the Title IX procedures instituted by many schools were secretive and arbitrary, with low evidentiary standards and little due process. “In the post-Title IX landscape, sexual panic rules,” Kipnis wrote in the Chronicle. “Slippery slopes abound. Gropers become rapists and accusers become survivors.”
Kipnis’ essay discussed widely reported accusations of sexual assault against Peter Ludlow, a celebrated philosophy professor at Northwestern who would eventually be forced to resign. (His complicated story is elaborated on in Unwanted Advances.) Jane Doe was one of his accusers. Upset about the Chronicle piece, Doe and another student filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis, arguing that her essay, as well as a subsequent tweet, had constituted acts of retaliation against Doe for standing up to Ludlow.
For many observers—myself among them—the fact that Kipnis could be brought up on Title IX charges for writing an essay was proof that the Title IX process was out of control. She became the subject of a Kafkaesque investigation in which even learning precisely what she’d been accused of was a challenge. She had to submit to an interrogation by lawyers without a lawyer of her own present, though she was permitted to bring a friendly faculty member for support. She chose the head of the Faculty Senate, who later told that body that the case against Kipnis constituted a violation of academic freedom. For speaking out about a process that was supposed to be secret, he was brought up on Title IX charges as well.
This escalating farce garnered national media attention—I wrote about it for the Nation—and it led people who felt victimized by Title IX investigations to start seeking Kipnis out. She grew convinced that many Title IX cases were witch hunts. As she argues in Unwanted Advances: “Sexual paranoia has converted the Title IX bureaucracy into an insatiable behemoth, bloated by its own federal power grab, though protests are few because—what are you, in favor of rape culture or something?”
At the heart of Unwanted Advances is the Ludlow case. In 2016, after her own Title IX ordeal, Kipnis flew to Mexico to meet Ludlow, who, following his career’s implosion, had moved there to live cheaply. He gave her thousands of pages of documents from his case, which she describes as “an unprecedented behind-the-scenes view of just how haphazard and, frankly, incompetent the Title IX process can be.” Ludlow had been accused of sexual assault by two students. One was Doe, Ludlow’s onetime mentee. Another was a freshman who fell asleep at his apartment after a night of gallery-hopping during which, she claimed, he forced her to drink.
Initially, I came away from Unwanted Advances persuaded, as Kipnis clearly is, that the charges against Ludlow fall apart under scrutiny. Yet Kipnis is so sympathetic to Ludlow, and so contemptuous of his accusers, that even before the lawsuit, I wasn’t always sure I could trust her. There are holes in the story of the woman who says Ludlow forced alcohol on her. But Kipnis is skeptical of the whole idea that an older man might deliberately get a younger woman trashed so he can take advantage of her. “Let me interject a brief reality check: single non-hideous men with good jobs (or, in this case, an international reputation and not without charm) don’t have to work that hard to get women to go to bed with them in our century,” she writes. Well, let me interject a brief reality check: Bill Cosby.
My doubts about the book increased when I read Jane Doe’s suit. In Unwanted Advances, Kipnis mocks accusations that Ludlow “groomed” Jane Doe by offering to arrange a trip for her to a research institute in Scotland. In Kipnis’ telling, Jane Doe, who was not yet involved with Ludlow, turned the trip down out of fear of looking like she was benefiting from favoritism, even though funding would have come from Northwestern, not Ludlow himself. Kipnis sees her decision as ridiculous and perhaps a sign that the student read too much into an ordinary mentor-mentee transaction: “Would it have occurred to a guy to wonder why he was being offered funding and the rest of his cohort wasn’t?”
The suit, however, paints a very different picture. “As Ludlow was a leader in his field, Plaintiff was extremely flattered by his interest and desire to mentor her,” it says. “He was a decisive factor in her choosing Northwestern for her graduate studies. However, when Ludlow followed up with an email invitation to spend the summer in Scotland with him, at a house he was renting, and with a plane ticket he would pay for, Plaintiff began to feel uneasy—particularly because he asked her not to tell others about his offer.” If Doe turned the trip down because she thought it involved cohabiting with Ludlow, she seems much less paranoid, and he much less sympathetic.
As Kipnis describes it, Jane Doe and Ludlow eventually entered into a relationship, and Kipnis depicts Ludlow as being smitten and somewhat at the mercy of his student. The suit, once again, tells a very different story. It says that Ludlow pressured Doe into a sexual relationship and that she, under his intellectual sway, “made a series of compromises in terms of allowing some physical intimacy, she made clear that she would not have sex with him.” One night, the two of them went out for drinks. “When she awoke the next morning, she was in Ludlow’s apartment, unclothed, and in his bed. It was clear that he had had sexual intercourse with her at some point during the night, but Plaintiff had no memory of what had happened,” says the suit. Yet she continued working with him: “She felt love for Ludlow as a mentor and had grown emotionally intimate with him, and his injection of physical intimacy was confusing and upsetting to Plaintiff,” says the suit.
Kipnis regards Doe’s rape claim as risible. Ludlow, she writes, “denied the nonconsensual sex charge” and couldn’t understand why “she’d continue to be loving and friendly toward him through December, stay over at his place … and even travel to an out-of-town concert (Bon Iver) and stay in a hotel room together if, as she was now saying, he’d raped her in November.” Maybe Kipnis and Ludlow find this scenario inconceivable, but to me, it seems perfectly plausible that a young woman might try to appease a powerful, demanding man in ways that make it hard to disentangle consent and coercion.
Kipnis, of course, is not obligated to agree with Doe’s version of events. The problem is there’s no indication she ever sought to hear them. “[N]either KIPNIS nor HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS LLC reached out at all to Plaintiff before proceeding with the book, either to check facts or to determine whether proceeding would harm Plaintiff,” says the suit. I emailed Kipnis to ask if this were true, and she said she couldn’t comment but referred me to a letter she wrote to the Daily Northwestern in April, in response to a statement from the Northwestern Philosophy Graduate Student Association condemning the book. In that letter, Kipnis makes two arguments about her obligation to tell Jane Doe’s side of the story. First, she says that, since Ludlow had been forced to leave his job, “the graduate student’s story has already been ratified as the official story. It wasn’t my goal to retell that story, I was reporting on what got left out.” Then she argues that Jane Doe, who’d already filed a Title IX complaint against her, wouldn’t have spoken to her anyway, so it wasn’t worth trying. “To suggest that she or her friends would have been eager to speak to me about her relationship with Peter Ludlow—and I should have sought them out for interviews—is disingenuous at best,” she wrote.
This is a weak argument. Kipnis isn’t a journalist by profession, but she was acting like one in writing Unwanted Advances and had a duty to at least try to get Doe’s perspective. As for Jane Doe’s story being “ratified” as official, that might be true within the Northwestern community, but not in the wider world; at least some of Kipnis’ readers were surely unfamiliar with the scandal before picking up her book. Though Kipnis gives Doe a pseudonym, Northwestern’s philosophy department only enrolls a handful of Ph.D. students every year, and it won’t be hard for potential employers—or mere curious onlookers—to identify her. The suit argues, persuasively, that Doe’s career prospects have been ruined.
Given how high the stakes are, Kipnis should have been extremely cautious about accuracy. Instead, Unwanted Advances takes an insouciant approach to matters of fact and regularly passes along rumor as evidence. “I recently heard about a male grad student filing a Title IX complaint against a female professor for dancing ‘too provocatively’ at an off-campus party,” she says at one point, without making clear how she heard it and whether she knows it’s true. Elsewhere she writes, “I’ve heard about mothers instigating Title IX investigations when a daughter is dating a former professor, even though there’s no code prohibiting it.” But as Kipnis should know, there’s often a big gap between the stories that get passed around in politically charged environments and what the evidence shows.
Kipnis’ recklessness makes her fun to read; she’s willing to make sweeping statements on the basis of what is essentially gossip. “In some cases, an older generation of feminists have proven adept at using vague misconduct allegations to knock off ideological foes, including loathed younger male professors,” she writes at one point, without offering any evidence. “[T]here’s no doubt in my mind that female Title IX officers handed a rare opportunity to put male sexuality on trial are responsible for quite of a bit of Title IX overreach,” she writes elsewhere.
As you can probably see, there’s a theme here. Kipnis is a feminist, but she’s not like those other feminists. She’s wised up and brazen, and understands men and sex. The other feminists are uptight, censorious, and bitter. At first, I found her swagger and her cynicism appealing; like her, I cringe at talk of safe spaces and think that rape culture is often invoked as a thought-stopping cliché. All the same, I’m not sure her refusal to identify with women who say they are victims is always a sign of free thinking. Despite her claims to the contrary, sometimes she just seems predisposed to give men the benefit of the doubt.
That’s her prerogative, but it makes me wonder whether Doe might have a valid case. Kipnis’ contrarian audacity makes Unwanted Advances lively and scintillating. But as she should know, given her own encounter with the Title IX bureaucracy, it’s important to be fair and meticulous when reputations are at stake, even if it gets in the way of a good story.
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis. Harper.