With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

What Kind of Feminism Is This?

Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances contains an interesting, but deeply flawed, critique of campus feminism wrapped in an argumentative strategy so outrageously offensive as to mortally wound the entire project. Its author, a noted feminist intellectual, seems heedless of the harm she is doing to individual sexual assault survivors, to women’s rights activists, and to the survival of the university as an institution. In the book we’re treated to Kipnis describing an alleged sexual assault victim, a student on her own campus, as having “a sexy librarian look, which I understand a lot of men find beguiling.” After meeting the professor accused of assaulting this student and harassing another, she assures us he is not a sexual predator, without having made any attempt to interview his accusers. She speaks with a male student convicted of a Title IX violation and finds him “vibrat[ing] with a barely controlled rage, even over the phone.” To Kipnis this does not suggest that the student may be a sexual predator either; rather, “his experiences with the campus justice system have definitely left him an angry guy who will forever mistrust and possibly loathe women.” All of this is sold as feminism, leaving readers to ask: what kind of feminism sexualizes and dismisses survivors while defending the men who allegedly assault them?

Kipnis (who, I should mention, is a friend of a friend, although we have never met) made her reputation as a critic of the idea, promoted by radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, that commodified sexual encounters are inherently exploitative of women. In Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (1996), Kipnis defended the likes of Larry Flynt and argued that pornographic actresses were generally sexually liberated agents rather than the exploited victims Dworkin and MacKinnon imagined. While female adult performers remain divided over questions of exploitation, Kipnis’s argument was in many ways a necessary corrective to the excesses of 1980s anti-pornography feminism. Adult entertainers are at least theoretically capable of affirmative consent, and Kipnis’s work created a space for their agency to be recognized.

When her institution (Northwestern University) announced a policy banning consensual sexual relationships between students and faculty, Kipnis recognized similar themes to those she had criticized in Dworkin and MacKinnon. In a 2015 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kipnis – who admits she has engaged in such relationships both as a student and as a professor – argued that such a policy infantilizes women college students, who are sexual agents capable of making their own decisions. Had her essay stopped there, it likely would have garnered some spirited debate. Rereading the piece today, though, it’s easy to see the precise moment where Kipnis jumped the rails. Early in the essay, she devoted several paragraphs to a defense of Northwestern philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, who had been accused by two students of sexual harassment and assault. Kipnis argued that the charges against the professor constituted “melodrama”; the students were presenting themselves as “putty in the hands of all-powerful professors” – which was ridiculous, in Kipnis’s view, because the professor had no means of retaliating against the students if they rejected his advances. (Apparently Kipnis believes predatory professors are incapable of failing their students, placing calls to other faculty members on campus, and actively working to thwart their students’ graduations and career prospects.)

One of the two Northwestern students responded to the essay by filing Title IX charges against Kipnis, alleging that she had illegally retaliated against the student’s sexual harassment complaint. We can debate the morality of this action for as long as we like – to my mind, when a student is suing her professor for sexual assault and one of his colleagues calls her fellow accuser a liar in the national press, it’s a bit unreasonable to expect the student not to fight back with the weapons at her disposal – but in any event, Kipnis was subjected to a flawed investigation by her institution’s Title IX office (she was eventually cleared of wrongdoing). She wrote about the ordeal, describing it as an “inquisition” lacking due process or any sense of fairness, in another Chronicle essay. Then she doubled down: Unwanted Advances constitutes a book-length attack on Kipnis’s critics, including an entire chapter defending Ludlow and attacking his female accusers, whom she portrays as untrustworthy and manipulative. One of the students involved has responded with a defamation suit, which is still pending.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how unnecessary and counterproductive Kipnis’s approach here is. It’s one thing to argue against a particular strand of feminism, quite another to attack individual students on one’s own campus, still another to accuse them of lying about their own sexual assaults. Kipnis might as well have argued against the carceral state by defending the morality of murder. The student suing Kipnis has alleged that Unwanted Advances misrepresented facts about her sexual assault case; at the very least, Kipnis chose to believe the worst about both students, including that they made up many of their charges against Ludlow. At one point, Kipnis compares Ludlow’s martyrdom approvingly to that of John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – a brilliant play, but also a famously misogynistic one which transforms the little-girl accusers of the Salem Witch Trials into adult femmes fatales who engineer the witch craze out of sexual jealousy. It’s a delicious irony, one that appears, like so many aspects of this mess, to have been lost on Kipnis: Miller is so desperate to turn female victims into perpetrators that he misrepresents the historical record.

To even begin to defend Kipnis’s actions requires some serious leaps of logic, but Kipnis gamely tries. Title IX complainants such as those on her campus, she argues, have been hoodwinked by feminist intellectuals – she mentions philosopher Heidi Lockwood as an example – who have convinced them that their consensual sexual relationships actually constitute exploitation and assault. Feminists, Kipnis continues, have focused on changing “rape culture” to the exclusion of actually preventing rape. “What would happen,” she asks, “if we stopped commiserating with one another about how horrible men are and teach students how to say, ‘Get your fucking hand off my knee?’ Yes, there’s an excess of masculine power in the world, and women have to be educated to contest it in real time, instead of waiting around for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness – just in case that day never comes.”

Maybe so, but there’s a crucial difference between this stance and Kipnis’s earlier work on pornography. Title IX complainants aren’t willing sexual participants being told they can’t consent by anti-pornography feminists; they are unwilling victims telling the world they didn’t consent and being dismissed by Kipnis herself. Kipnis wants them to express their agency, but only within the narrow space she delimits. She wants them to tell a fellow student, “Get your fucking hand off my knee,” but when they report that student to the Title IX office, she calls it an “inquisition” and accuses them of trying to stifle campus dialogue. Well, exactly; you can’t contest masculine power if everyone keeps talking and thinking in the same way. Women such as Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, the founders of End Rape on Campus, are pursuing a strategy to actually change campus culture. Rather than engaging with them, Kipnis denies they are capable of thinking for themselves; they must all have been duped by Heidi Lockwood. Put another way, Kipnis believes anti-rape activists are simultaneously so powerful that they can fend off advances from sexual predators, but so intellectually helpless that they cannot determine the meaning of feminism for themselves. Plenty of second-wave feminists are similarly dismissive of younger feminists’ ideas, but Kipnis may be the only one who defends sexual abusers in the process.

Kipnis’s crusade against anti-rape activism on campus has been praised by, among others, Breitbart, the National Review, WorldNetDaily, the Daily Caller, RedState, TheBlaze, the Federalist Society, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is partially funded by the Koch brothers. Few of these publications are friends either of feminism or of universities, but Kipnis appears untroubled by their support. She acknowledges that she has become “a darling on the right,” but insists, “when someone like me gets lauded on the right, politics as we know it is officially incomprehensible.” This is an exquisite sort of hubris: it’s easier for Kipnis to imagine that the entire political landscape has reversed itself than to consider the possibility that her own views have become incoherent.

Indeed, many of the problems with Unwanted Advances come down to Kipnis’s fundamental misunderstanding of modern university politics. In the book, Kipnis romanticizes her own college years, “when the excitement of learning made me feel alive in such profoundly creative, intellectual, erotically messy ways,” but most college students today literally can’t afford to think like that. Over the past few decades, the decaying American economy has fundamentally changed the purpose of a college education. A third of today’s undergraduates work at least twenty hours a week to put themselves through school; twenty percent are the first in their families to attend college. Even at Northwestern, Kipnis acknowledges that Ludlow’s undergraduate accuser was at one point worried about her ability to pay the next semester’s tuition. Few places are insulated from the economic imperatives that crowd the university.

Whether or not today’s students understand the value of an education, they surely understand the value of a degree, which, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, comes to as much as $2.8 million over the lifetime of the degree-holder. The average American with a college degree earns 84% more per hour than does the average American with a high school diploma. In real terms, this means that, for many, college is the gateway to a living wage. This isn’t the 1960s, where someone with a high school diploma could work at General Motors and comfortably support a family of four; for people without college degrees, good jobs have largely dried up. Get your degree, and you can look forward to working in an office, supporting your family, and buying a house; wash out of school, and you may well end up performing manual labor or working retail without benefits, struggling to survive.

This economic transformation has placed an awesome, and unwelcome, responsibility on the shoulders of today’s professors. Like it or not – and most of us don’t – we have become the de facto gatekeepers of the middle class, or at least of a middle-class standard of living. We really do hold our students’ futures in our hands. If they pass our classes, perhaps they can earn enough to enjoy the American dream; if they don’t, they probably can’t. Much of this responsibility falls on the students themselves, of course – not every student is willing or able to contend with the rigors of a college education, and it’s not our job to make sure they graduate, but merely to maintain a level playing field so students are not favored or penalized for things beyond their control. Still, it’s a far cry from what most professors really value about teaching: the life of the mind, the joy of discovery and creation. These aspects of education, still central to what we do, appear to many students as ancillary benefits at best, pointless obstacles at worst.

This state of affairs is bad enough, but what Kipnis is proposing would make it intolerable. By breaking down sexual boundaries between professors and students, she is essentially giving professors permission to demand sexual favors as payment for giving students access to a better life. Kipnis’s romanticization of the university leads her to deeply wrongheaded conclusions here. Her argument rests on the idea that students and professors are equals, but the current economic climate makes them unalterably unequal. As a society, we recognize this basic truth: you can’t have an egalitarian relationship with someone who controls your future. We don’t allow correctional officers to sleep with prisoners, doctors to seduce patients, or therapists to have sex with clients; an increasing number of businesses prohibit office romances between employees and their direct supervisors. Yet Kipnis wants us to believe those rules don’t apply within university walls. “For students,” she writes, “campuses have always been venues for coming of age, which typically includes adopting rash ideas, living on an emotional teeter-totter, sexual experimentation, erotic confusion, and acting out on adults in self-righteous ways. For professors, campuses are where we work, and our jobs are increasingly on the line.” If there was ever any truth to this idea, there isn’t now; campuses are where students build a future for themselves, and their jobs are on the line, too.

If Kipnis misunderstands the relationship between students and faculty, she seems similarly confused about the institutional challenges universities face. At one point in the book, Kipnis expresses surprise that anti-rape activists often seek help from university administrators, who, she notes, have historically been the targets of student protests. Today, though, the greatest threat to the university is not its corporatization at the hands of administrators, but its dissolution by the very conservative activists who have been so eager to embrace Kipnis’s crusade. People like the Koch brothers want to eliminate tenure and full-time teaching positions, increase class sizes and teaching loads, do away with university research mandates, and control classroom curriculums – essentially ending the university’s independence as an institution of innovation and free inquiry. They believe universities are hotbeds of dangerous liberals hellbent on destroying American society, and they will grasp at anything that suggests the university is a corrupt, antidemocratic place – and right now that’s Kipnis, who portrays student rape survivors as an engine of totalitarianism. As a prominent liberal feminist professor who endorses right-wing critiques of university culture, Kipnis’s value to conservative forces is incalculable; rarely have they had such an ally. She believes she is standing up for academic freedom; in reality, she has become a pawn of the anti-intellectual right, the public face of the conservative attack on academia.

This is a book that should never have been written – not because Kipnis doesn’t have the right to write whatever she wants, but because writing this book demonstrates a lack of good sense. Unwanted Advances is profoundly damaging to the individual students whose stories Kipnis dismisses, to the agency of women for whom she claims to advocate, and to the independence of the academic institutions she claims to value. Whether or not there are legal consequences for what Kipnis is doing, there should certainly be social ones. This book is being treated in some quarters as a serious academic endeavor. We should recognize it instead as a tragic failure of empathy.