"Sexual paranoia" arrives on campus

Friday , April 21, 2017 - 4:00 AM

ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group

CHICAGO — If Laura Kipnis thought she was under fire in 2015 after writing an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing an emergent "sexual paranoia" on college campuses, then her new book will surely catapult her into public-enemy No. 1 status in the eyes of legions of angry feminists.

Kipnis' aforementioned essay earned her a 72-day Title IX investigation after two students at Northwestern University — where Kipnis is tenured — complained that her writing was, in itself, a violation of the federal act that states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

She was exonerated. "Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus" is her reaction and an inquiry into a culture of infantilizing women and making men the default perpetrators in she-said-he-said campus complaints of sexual impropriety.

Seemingly every page is a condemnation of a university culture where students are no longer treated as consenting adults and investigations into alleged abuses proceed like 17th-century witch trials, requiring a trigger warning for any sensitive souls who dare brave its contents.

For instance, Kipnis writes: "The idea of rape culture has become the campus equivalent of 9/11: in both cases, horrible real events take on mythic proportions, becoming resistant to precise analysis. On campus, the term rape culture, like the term terrorism, has become the rhetoric of emergency. Fear becomes the guideline, promulgating more fear. The problem is that fear rhetoric obfuscates more than it explicates; nevertheless, officialdom leaps to action."

This is just from the prologue, before she's really gotten going.

Kipnis attempts throughout the book to examine how out of control the sexual politics on campus have gotten — such that some professors' professional reputations and lives are being ruined while others' are cowed and censored for fear of ever running afoul of paying customers (read: students).

She does this by describing her own investigation; the case of her colleague, philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, whose career was ruined by accusations of sexual assault and the ensuing Title IX investigation; and some of the countless stories shared with her from people who also got tangled up in baseless accusations of misconduct.

Her conclusion is that universities today are multibillion-dollar international businesses with brand promises to uphold and donors to placate. And in such a landscape, it is expeditious to plow money into handling accusations of sexual misconduct under the lax — for the accused — standards of the on-campus Title IX adjudication process. Potentially scandalous incidents are made to go away through a combination of dismissal of professors and cash payouts to students.

"The reality is that the more that colleges devote themselves to creating 'safe spaces,' that new campus watchword, the more dangerous campuses have become for professors, and the less education itself becomes anyone's priority."

As a result, sociology professors live in fear of discussing abortion, law professors are afraid to lecture on rape law, and on and on.

But this aspect of "Unwanted Advances" is just the tip of the iceberg. More chilling, Kipnis writes, is how campus administrators, and the special-interest groups they bow to, are rolling back hard-won feminist markers of dignity.

Women on campus are now, Kipnis says, by default, "virtuous maidens," ready-made victims in "a system devoted to persuading a generation of young women that they're helpless prey" and convincing everyone else that "accusers don't lie."

Throughout her book, Kipnis bends over backward to repeatedly and vehemently note that she is (a) a certified left-wing feminist and (b) absolute in her belief that women should be safe from harm on campus, at work and everywhere else.

But, she says, there needs to be a focus on self-understanding and personal responsibility that schools and society are reluctant to address: "What would happen if we stopped commiserating with one another about how horrible men are and teach students how to say, 'Get your [expletive] 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."

For some women, this will be an article of faith. For others, well, consider this fair warning that you won't enjoy Kipnis' book.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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