TPM Cafe: Opinion

Good Work, Kipnis Critics: You Made Your Enemy A Martyr

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To recap, for those who don’t follow the high dramatics of academic life: Kipnis, who is a popular writer as well as a professor, wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education decrying the supposed “sexual paranoia” controlling modern campuses. Two graduate students then filed a Title IX complaint against Kipnis, arguing that her piece constituted retaliation against students for reporting sexual assault. Kipnis wrote another essay, portraying the investigation as a Kafka-esque nightmare of injustice. Kipnis was then cleared of the charges, but it’s clear the whole process was terrifying. Now many professors are wondering who is going to be the next victim.

Good work, everyone involved in the Get Laura Kipnis campaign. You made your enemy a martyr. Worse, a bunch of liberals who otherwise were fully supportive of feminist efforts to fight sexual abuse on campus now think Title IX is cover for some censorious re-education efforts.

The worst part is none of this had to happen. Kipnis’s piece wasn’t just a poorly argued defense of professors behaving unprofessionally with students. Her willingness to pander to middle-aged men who want to hear that it’s cool for them to bang their students felt thirsty. (When you can’t even get Katie Roiphe on your side, you know you’re trying too hard to be the Cool Girl.) In addition, Kipnis conflated a bunch of unrelated issues and implied that an accusation of outright sexual assault was little more than someone being fussy after a bad date. It was laughably easy to refute and disprove her argument, and, should you be so inclined, make some fun of her while you’re at it.

I realize that the professor that Kipnis appears to be making excuses for, Peter Ludlow, is accused of doing some very serious things. Seeing people defend him is no doubt painful to many. But the best way to deal with wrongheaded opinions and arguments is to argue back.

Instead, these anonymous graduate students reached for the censorship button. And because all Title IX complaints have to be investigated, even the ones that are obviously nuisances, Kipnis was put through a ringer that she really didn’t deserve, no matter how glib her arguments about sexual abuse may be. Now the narrative is out, that Title IX is a bloated, pointless bureaucracy that exists as a puritanical politburo, out to destroy sex, jokes, free thought, and happiness itself.

Kipnis herself was advancing this narrative:

It’s a truism that the mission of bureaucracies is, above all, to perpetuate themselves, but with the extension of Title IX from gender discrimination into sexual misconduct has come a broadening of not just its mandate but even what constitutes sexual assault and rape.
Ambivalent sex becomes coerced sex, with charges brought months or even years after the events in question. Title IX officers now adjudicate an increasing range of murky situations involving mutual drunkenness, conflicting stories, and relationships gone wrong.

She even hints that the feminist politburo is out to eliminate heterosexuality itself. This is, to say the least, a hyperbolic reaction. Kipnis isn’t completely wrong; there’s one case, at Occidental College, where the evidence does suggest that the school went into overkill mode trying to cover their own asses and persecuted a student for drunk but consensual sex. But there is no evidence that this is the new standard or that men are going to have start demanding breathalyzers from women before having sex with them.

Still, Kipnis has no evidence that Title IX is being used primarily, or even largely, to broaden the definition of sexual assault and rape. Outside of the Occidental case, most of the Title IX cases that have garnered public attention started with straightforward accusations of deliberate, unambiguous assault. The accusations against Peter Ludlow that Kipnis alluded to in her original essay would be considered sexual assault in any jurisdiction. Whether the accuser is telling the truth or not, there is no reason to think that fondling someone in her sleep against her will is a Title IX-invented violation.

Or take the much-debated situation at Columbia University, where multiple students accused student Paul Nungesser of various levels of assault. Emma Sulkowicz says he choked her, slapped her, held her legs against her chest and anally raped her while she begged him not to. Another student says he cornered her and forcibly kissed her, and another alleges abuse in a longterm relationship. Regardless of the truth of the accusations, it is impossible to say they are murky or ambivalent.

Title IX is a good law. Yes, it was abused by two people trying to censor and punish Laura Kipnis for disagreeing with them. But this is hardly the only situation where people misuse otherwise good laws for unsavory personal gain. Nuisance lawsuits and complaints are an unfortunate side effect of having a system that allows people with real grievances to seek justice.

Still, it’s important to minimize the impact of nuisance complaints, both out of a sense of justice and so as not to give rape apologists ammo against Title IX. Part of this is for universities to be transparent with the accused and to clear out obvious nuisance complaints, such as the one against Kipnis, as quickly as possible. But there also needs to be some personal responsibility here. Title IX is there for you if you’ve been assaulted or harassed. It’s not for making you feel better about sexual indiscretions or to censor people you disagree with. The more it’s used to settle personal vendettas, the less powerful a weapon it will be against actual rapists and bullies. Let’s try not to let that happen.

Lead image: Elmhurst College on Flickr


Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She's a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.