Kipnis’s Book On Philosophers’ Title IX Cases

By now, many of you may have heard that Laura Kipnis, a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University, has written a book, Unwanted Advances, about Title IX cases and attitudes about sex she takes to be prevalent on college campuses. 

Kipnis’s view is that on college campuses, the predominant frame through which sexual activity is seen depicts men as aggressors and women as victims. This is harmful, she says, because first, it diminishes women’s sexual agency and their opportunity for certain kinds of sexual encounters (particularly between faculty and students), and second, it leads to injustices in the adjudication of sexual misconduct, with easily-abused investigative and judicial procedures, an overly broad conception of sexual assault, and stubborn presumptions that the men are guilty.

Her primary example in the book is the case of Peter Ludlow, her former colleague at Northwestern, who resigned from his position in the Philosophy Department there in November, 2015, during a Title IX hearing regarding allegations of sexual assault of an undergraduate and a graduate student. She also discusses the case of former University of Colorado philosophy professor David Barnett, and mentions several other cases in which, for the most part, the accused largely go unnamed.

The book was published a few weeks ago, but even preceding its release I was receiving inquiries (ranging from the mildly curious, to the absurdly condescending, to the hostile) about why I had not yet posted about it. After all, the book discusses some philosophers, and I had previously posted about Kipnis’s remarks on the Ludlow cases and the Title IX investigation of her for retaliation against the graduate student complainant against Ludlow (and Kipnis responded here on Daily Nous). My remarks then were deflationary: Kipnis was claiming to have been persecuted for her ideas, and I pointed out that her ideas were not at issue and that some of her complaints about her investigation were overblown.

That Kipnis tends towards hyperbole doesn’t mean she never makes a good point, but I was concerned that her book would convey an inaccurate or incomplete picture of the relevant events and that it would violate the privacy of or otherwise harm the complainants. Having now had a chance to look at the book, I still have those concerns.

Yet in the meanwhile, the book has been widely discussed—by reviewers in the mainstream press who are not in academia or who were not previously familiar with the Ludlow case, and also by philosophers elsewhere in the blogosphere and in both private and public Facebook conversations. So at this point I don’t think it would make matters worse to say a few words, myself.

I’m going to limit my remarks mainly to what appears to be the most actively discussed disagreement about the book: whether Kipnis’s recounting of Ludlow’s involvement with the graduate student is accurate. Ludlow was accused of raping the graduate student. Kipnis, however, depicts the two of them as a couple, with Ludlow as the smitten professor eventually destroyed by the Title IX system and the graduate student alternately as confused and manipulated or as a mastermind executing a long con on professors, administrators, and lawyers in her quest for vengeance.

To my knowledge, those most publicly vocal in defending the accuracy of Kipnis’s account, apart from Kipnis herself, are two very close friends of Ludlow’s, Benj Hellie and Jessica Wilson (both at the University of Toronto). Meanwhile a number of people at Northwestern University claim the book is inaccurate and incomplete, and a group of graduate students there recently issued a statement to that effect (to which Kipnis has written a reply).

Kipnis herself, of course, has an interest in her version—that is, Ludlow’s version—of the story being the true one, as it would then support her well-publicized view that contemporary feminism combines a willfully naïve view of sex and an ironically old fashioned view of women in the service of sexual misconduct witch hunts. In recent online discussions she has referred to her work as a “polemic” to distinguish it from journalism (and, possibly, the stricter fact-checking norms of journalism).

Given the prospects for motivated reasoning, the rejection of journalistic expectations, and the ambiguity of the evidence she considers, it is no surprise that there is controversy over the accuracy of her account. Her use of the occasional insult or paralipsis—“Here’s a horrible thing to do. Did so-and-so do it? I’m not saying she definitely did this. I’m just suggesting that you think about her having done it, you know?”—doesn’t help with credibility.

I said that the evidence is ambiguous, and this is something worth emphasizing. Kipnis refers to and quotes from affectionate-sounding correspondence from the graduate student to Ludlow. She takes this communication at face value to support her hypothesis that Ludlow did not rape the graduate student. As she is someone who seems to delight in accusing philosophers of being psychologically naïve “nincompoops,” this is a bit ironic.

For one thing, it’s just as possible that the apparently affectionate correspondence was in whole or part a piece of a general strategy of appeasement. It’s certainly not unheard of to feign romance towards someone who you think is in a position to harm you, and whom you fear is more likely to harm you if he or she discovers your actual lack of affection. A range of people—from the abused wife who fears another beating, to the cheating husband who fears exposure by someone he thought would be a fling—find themselves in similar positions.

Additionally, it is naïve to assume that the correspondence, thoroughly sincere or not, tells us anything about whether one of the parties sexually assaulted the other. If you think a victim of sexual assault would never be anything but hostile towards his or her assailant, then you’re the one being a psychological “nincompoop.”

Further, we shouldn’t be surprised at the reluctance of those at Northwestern who claim that Kipnis’s account is misleading to publicize details that might support that contention, as revealing them might further violate the privacy of, or cause harm to, the graduate student. Critics of Kipnis say that her book is misleading or contains errors, but are only willing to publicly provide seemingly minor mistakes, or point to her early and persistent reliance on Ludlow’s version of events. I understand that this is frustrating. But I also understand their concern for the graduate student’s welfare, and why they would prioritize that over satisfying the curiosity of internet commenters.

One last point about the evidence: there are concerns about omission. An author might intentionally leave out or knowingly fail to investigate evidence that might interfere with her pre-established and public views. Of course, I’m not saying Kipnis definitely did this. I’m just suggesting that you think about her having done it, you know?

In addition to the prospects for motivated reasoning and the inconclusiveness of the evidence for her take, there is a mystery Kipnis’s account would leave us with: the graduate student’s motive for lying. Given the well-known risks of making any kind of accusation of sexual assault, not to mention the potentially impoverishing and career-ending danger of making false accusations of sexual assault, there would have to be a really good reason to do so. But the best Kipnis can do here is conjecture that perhaps the graduate student felt taken advantage of by Ludlow, or that she wanted to take revenge on him even after she decided to stop seeing him. Those are not especially convincing speculations, in my view.

By contrast, those at Northwestern tell a different story: one of a graduate student who had been willing to let things go until she learned of sexual assault accusations against Ludlow by another student (the undergraduate), and, concerned about a possible pattern of sexual misconduct, thought it would be wrong to not say anything about her own experiences. She’s not in it for the money, and certainly not for the glory—it was just, she thought, the right thing to do.

The Ludlow case is an example that Kipnis uses to support her thesis about “sexual paranoia” on campus and her complaints about the Title IX process. She recounts other cases, but, like the Ludlow one, these are by and large presented solely from the point of view of the accused, and so are of modest evidential value. I do not recall her acknowledging this.

This made it hard for me to trust her as an author, which is too bad because it means the book is a missed opportunity for providing independent support for the plausible-sounding idea that people have been treated unjustly by Title IX procedures. For example, if true, it is highly objectionable that when Kipnis herself was under investigation, she was not told why, and that she only learned of the specific complaints against her after her investigation was completed. In the David Barnett case, it is serious problem that, Kipnis reports, the accused and ultimately expelled student Barnett was trying to help was never asked by university officials to give his side of the story—especially in light of the coda to that episode, which included the university later finding that the accused student’s alleged victim was the (an?) aggressor that night. There are surely some other injustices, but the book does not appear to be a reliable guide to them, and so we don’t know how severe or widespread they are, and hence we don’t know how much of our scarce attention we should be paying to them.

Likewise, it would be no surprise that university policies on sex are lousy. Sexual desire can be varied, subtle, ambiguous, conflicted, shocking, and hard to control—its complexity is one of Kipnis’s main and most convincing points (though do see this post by Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa). Modern universities play many different roles in the lives of their students, and what seems appropriate for some of those roles may seem inappropriate for others. Policy is a blunt instrument that by its nature will be insensitive to some details that can make all the difference. This means that of course there are problems with university policies on sex. But it isn’t enough to note that there are problems. Any policy has its problems. The choice we face is: which problems are we going to live with? Answering that requires a careful look at our policy options and their effects, and that is something that is largely missing from Kipnis’s book.

Instead, we get anecdotes in which Kipnis attempts to impress (or scandalize?) us with her own sexual derring-do. As a student she had sex with a professor! When older she had sex with a younger man! Oh my, Ms. Kipnis, stop, I’m blushing. Also, I don’t know what we’re supposed to conclude from this material.

The consideration of policy alternatives is challenging and time consuming. We can, in the meanwhile, keep certain things in mind that might help us avoid some problems. Here’s one, offered not as a policy but just as an observation:

Professors, it is really easy to not fuck graduate students in your department. 

Take from that what you will.