- Sexual Ethics
256 Pages; Print, $26.99
On January 13, 2014, Northwestern University issued a statement banning consensual sexual relationships between faculty and students, citing “the potential for a conflict of interest, favoritism, and exploitation” stemming from “positions of unequal power” occupied by the individuals involved. This policy—namely its central assertion that “positions of unequal power” automatically negate the consent of adults of legal age—inspired Laura Kipnis, a film studies professor there, to write the essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in February of the following year. Kipnis is no stranger to analyzing how the enforcement of gender norms relates to lived experience; her past books have covered topics such as socially constructed gender as it affects both men and women, pornography and eroticism, and the ups and downs of romance in a postfeminist age. Her Chronicle essay argues that her University’s “Great Prohibition,” as she calls the ban cited above, is characteristic of a “feminism hijacked by melodrama” that infantilizes college women by assuming that nuanced sexual decisions are so difficult for them to navigate that they need paternalistic administrative edicts to reduce the likelihood of consent altogether.
Unwanted Advances exists to expand the ideas introduced in that essay—indeed, the statement “If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama” appears on its cover in block letters, declaring the book’s immediate opposition to such faux-feminism. It also responds to the Title IX complaints brought against Kipnis as a result of the essay’s publication, the existence of which she uses as proof of students’ increased fragility. Like its title, the book’s central argument has two layers that work in concert with one another. First, it analyzes the recent increase in sexual assault allegations on college campuses, concluding that the issue is not actually that more assaults have occurred recently, but instead that the problem is due to a reliance on flawed and inflated assault statistics that work to reinforce this era’s “dominant [sexual] narrative, [which], on the nation’s campuses, anyway, is all about hazard.” Second, it explores the legal, political, and social ramifications of the collegiate culture that results when “a set of incomprehensible directives, issued by a branch of the federal government, are being wielded in wildly idiosyncratic ways, according to the whims and biases of individual Title IX officers operating with no public scrutiny or accountability.” If the reader expects to finish the book with a distinct sense of whether the accused or the complainant in each case profiled is telling the truth, she is likely to be disappointed. Instead, Kipnis’s book offers a personal and engaging—if at times frustratingly subjective—look at how those individual cases might be acting as a microcosm of disturbing legal trends that suggest a reductive view of female agency on campus.
The greatest strength of the book’s first three chapters, which aim to indict current Title IX proceedings as biased mechanisms of interdepartmental feuds, is also their most limiting weakness. Their incredibly personal point of view makes them read more like a personal narrative than the academic exploration of a systemic social problem a reader familiar with the reasons for Kipnis’s notoriety might expect. Thus, these chapters are endearing and disappointing by turns. They center around two cases. The first charges explored are those filed against Peter Ludlow, who resigned from an endowed Philosophy position at Northwestern after two students (an undergraduate in a different department and a graduate student in his own) claimed he sexually assaulted them. The second is against Kipnis herself. In these chapters, Ludlow and Kipnis operate as affable protagonists who are ultimately well-meaning people wronged by a capricious and unfair system for trying to engage with their students in emotionally complex ways (Ludlow physically and Kipnis intellectually). Ultimately, the specifics of the cases are less important to the book’s overall goals than how Kipnis frames herself—both as a Title IX defendant and as someone in opposition to her students’ overall...