A book recommendation: “Unwanted Advances” by Laura Kipnis

I recently wrote about the mess that resulted when the Obama administration (the Office of Civil Rights) sent its “Dear Colleague” letter to American colleges, in effect telling them that all cases of sexual assault and harassment on campuses should be adjudicated by a “preponderance of evidence” standard: if it’s more likely than not that the accuser is right, then the accused is to be found guilty. Since there are no uniform standards about how to conduct hearings, and the accused is often denied due process, and because “preponderance of evidence” is often construed as simply “believe the accuser,” it’s resulted in a mess, with palpably innocent people (usually men) kicked out of school (sometimes on the testimony of third parties), and a rash of lawsuits against colleges.

I wrote about the Title IX mess not long ago, and ask readers to decide what standards of evidence to use, putting up a poll about how to adjudicate campus sexual assaults. Here are the results of that poll, which clearly show that readers think these things should be handled by the police and the courts:

I’ve just finished a new book by Laura Kipnis (a professor of filmmaking at nearby Northwestern University): Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, which I recommend highly (it’s a short 239 pages). It has three parts: the recounting of how Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern, was drummed out of his job (he resigned in 2015) after two students (a grad student and an undergrad, neither of them his students), who had consensual sexual relations with him, later turned on him and accused him of raping them. Kipnis, whose feminist bona fides are unquestionable, investigated the story in minute detail, and found out that there were holes in the women’s stories so big you could drive a Mack truck through them. There was no way Ludlow was guilty of what he was accused of (he may have exercised bad judgment in having affairs with grad students, but that wasn’t against the rules), but he was put through hell, drained of money by having to hire lawyers, and now, jobless, lives in Mexico. By all accounts he was a terrific professor.

In a 2015 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Sexual paranoia strikes academe,” Kipnis wrote about the sexual paranoia that this and similar cases have produced on campuses. She referred to the Ludlow accusations, but didn’t name names, and gave only a very brief description lacking details. Nevertheless, on the basis of that account Kipnis herself was subjected to a Title IX investigation, which she wrote about in the same venue as “My title IX inquisition“.  She describes how she was sued, not for sexually harassing anyone, but simply writing an essay that supposedly defamed one of the students (names weren’t named, and she just said the student “dated” the professor), as well as supposedly creating a “chilling atmosphere for reporting sexual assault” by merely writing an essay about the problem. And now, according to a piece in the September, 20 New Yorker, Kipnis is being sue yet again over what she says in this book.

Kipnis was cleared of her charges, but Ludlow wasn’t, and it’s pretty clear from Kipnis’s reporting that he was innocent of the charges. Northwestern comes off looking pretty bad, but so would many colleges who conduct these inquisitions if they had a fearless person like Kipnis who isn’t afraid to report on them. (She’s very hard on her own university.)

In the last bit of the book, Kipnis gives her own prescriptions for how to solve the problem, which includes stopping infantilizing women and assuming they have no power in relationships, getting rid of general sexual harassment training, which doesn’t seem to work (I wasn’t aware of that), teaching women how to deal with come-ons, both verbally and physically (this is a no-no since it’s said to “blame the victim”), and, of course, to recognize that sexual relationships in college, particularly when alcohol is involved, are murky areas for law.  During my college years, if anyone who had sex while intoxicated were guilty of rape, we’d have all been jailed. (The men, of course, are invariably the ones to blame for this.) Nevertheless, Kipnis does recognize the different behavior of males and females, with men often predatory on women. Her main point is that the issue is very complex, that we need to discuss it instead of making people shut up, and, as a feminist, she’s irked that the new campus climate infantilizes women, taking away their agency and, in fact, stifling efforts to give them the agency that feminism demands.

Here’s one quote from the book (p. 141) describing the emails she got after her first essay was published:

“Among other things, I learned that professors, even at major research universities, now routinely avoid discussing subjects in class that might raise hackles. A well-known sociologist wrote that he no longer lectures on abortion. I spoke to an Ivy League law professor whose students won’t attend lectures about rape law. Someone who’d written a book about incest in her own family described being confronted in class by a student furious with her for discussing the book. A tenured female professor on my campus wrote about lying awake at night worrying that some stray remark of hers might lead to student complaints, social media campaigns, eventual job loss, and her being unable to support her child. I thought at the time that she was exaggerating, but that was before I learned I myself was a Title IX respondent.”

The book is written extraordinarily well, and Kipnis doesn’t shy away from revealing details of her personal life. I recommend it highly, and consider it must reading for all campus administrators and Title IX officers.

Here’s Kipnis giving a 20-minute interview on how Title IX has criminalized sex:



  1. Posted October 4, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    My daughter attends Hobart/William Smith Colleges. A few years back, the school was the subject of a blatant hatchet job in a New York Times article obstensibly to tell the story of a rape accuser. I later learned that the piece was chock full of innacuracies and the writer had an obvious agenda. The school calmly refuted the story both publicly and in letters sent to all students and their parents. They did institute some new rules and provided a mandatory seminar in response.
    I am happy to report that the Colleges survived and my daughter has thrived there and never felt threatened. I lost so much respect for the Times, a paper I grew up reading and trusting.

  2. Posted October 4, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Why is paul manafort interviewing kipnis in the youtube video? He really gets around.

  3. Posted October 4, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I spoke to an Ivy League law professor whose students won’t attend lectures about rape law. S

    Which means they won’t study Miranda vs Arizona, the case that established a suspect’s right to silence. So basically one of the most important cases in US history.

    • Posted October 4, 2017 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court. In a 5–4 majority, the Court held that both inculpatory and exculpatory statements made in response to interrogation by a defendant in police custody will be admissible at trial only if the prosecution can show that the defendant was informed of the right to consult with an attorney before and during questioning and of the right against self-incrimination before police questioning, and that the defendant not only understood these rights, but voluntarily waived them.


      Still, as long as your lawyers’ feelings weren’t hurt it’s okay they skipped lectures that week.

  4. Rita
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I’m finding this difficult to watch because the interviewer is so in love with HIS voice, he barely gives her a chance to talk!
    I’m definitely going to read her book.

    • Posted October 4, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      I didn’t think it was that bad, but there are several much longer talks given by Kipnis on this subject on YouTube. Some of them are quite good.

  5. David Duncan
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    The Northwestern case seems remarkably like a case in Melbourne, Australia, in the early to mid Nineties, where the leader of a residential college was forced to resign over claims of sexual harassment by two female students. Helen Garner, a staunch feminist, became involved and eventually wrote a book on the affair:


    She was excoriated by most feminists and the “offender” was hung out todry by the college.

  6. Liz
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Is The Chronicle of Higher Education the only place to find the two articles? I’m not seeing them in full.

    • davidintoronto
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Some essays (in pdf format) are posted at her website:


      • Liz
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        Thanks so much!

  7. Posted October 4, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    … because “preponderance of evidence” is often construed as simply “believe the accuser,” …

    The whole ideology of the rules is based on the presumption that false accusations of sexual assault or rape are very rare.

    I recently looked into the evidence behind this, tracing back to the peer-reviewed journal articles, and was amazed at just how little evidence there is for such a claim, and the obvious ideological bias of the papers making such claims.

    • Posted October 4, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Kipnis reports in her book about some guy who investigated the ubiquitous claim that only 2% of rape accusations were false, and he did an enormous amount of work trying to find out where it came from. In the end, ALL the assertions traced back to a single source: a statement in Susan Brownmiller’s book “Against Our Will” based on an undocumented statement by a cop, who was just talking off the top of his head. The statistics became enshrined, but in reality weren’t based on real data.

      • Historian
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, people need to be wary of the undocumented quoting of statistics whose origins are unknown or are suspect. Take for example the question of what percent of the population supported the American Revolution. Historian William Marina noted that “the most common piece of evidence cited in numerous books about the Revolution is a letter of John Adams indicating that one third of the Americans were for the Revolution, another third were against it, and a final third were neutral or indifferent to the whole affair.” He goes further: “The ‘well-known’ letter of Adams was to James Lloyd, dated January, 1813. Written so many years after the American Revolution, it becomes clear that Adams was actually discussing American opinion about England and the French Revolution during his presidency, 1797-1801.” Finally, “why would Adams’s opinion be of historical accuracy anyway?” This would apply even if Marina was wrong and Adams was writing about the American Revolution.


        In other words, the Adams quote lacks any historical credibility. Nevertheless, it has probably been quoted thousands of time. It is like a virus attacking the body, spreading wildly and unchecked. If a writer or speaker is unable to identify the original source of a quote, thereby allowing its veracity to be examined, it should be viewed as mere opinion.

      • Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        Best joke from Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s comedy quiz show Shooting Stars: ‘True or false: 87% of statistics are made up on the spot?’

    • DrBrydon
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      As Blackstone said, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Interestingly, the same thought appears somewhat earlier in Francis Hutchinson’s An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft (1718), witchcraft being the gold standard for baseless accusations. (And I am pissed as hell because I can’t find my notes with the page reference.)

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I have long believed and maintained that Americans have a unique propensity to respond to genuinely bad problems with hysteria and paranoid reactions, Communism and child molesting being the obvious examples. Such reactions are ultimately self-defeating.

    I both think Kipnis is right and that there is a real campus rape problem (I live close to Stanford), and I have no clue what the relative statistics are of false reports vs. real ones.

    A difference between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy period is that there were NO real witches in Salem, but there actually were Soviet spies in the state department jeopardizing our security, such as Klaus Fuchs.
    This does not change the fact that McCarthy was clueless on rules of evidence and ruined the careers of many patently innocent people.

    20 years ago there was a hilarious parody video parody of sexual harassment training videos, which I now cannot find. There is another one making the rounds now, but it’s not nearly as funny.
    In the one I can’t find, the sexual harasser was a nerdy nebbish, but the non-harasser was suave and debonair.

  9. Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    One of the things about this issue that can really get my blood boiling is the disregard (contempt?) for fairness and due process and which seems characteristic of many of these University Title IX “investigations”.

    It is a common enough policy I should think someone, somewhere, has articulated the reasons why fundamental concepts we all share about justice are tossed aside. I have not seen a justification for this.

    • Craw
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I have heard some. Pomo gobbledy-gook about “structures of power”.

      • Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        Well, it appears that schools are acting on the advice of the U.S. government.

        The basis is here; https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/qa-201404-title-ix.pdf

        Basically, the government waves away due process in one fell swoop;

        “…a Title IX investigation will never result in incarceration of an individual and, therefore, the same procedural protections and legal standards are not required.”

        So if you are accused of sexual harassment or assault at one of our fine Universities and you expect a modicum of fairness and due process, hold on to your hat.

        It is chockfull of similar Kangaroo Kort kind of advice. For example, if you are accused, the government doesn’t want you to be able to confront witnesses;

        “OCR strongly discourages a school from allowing the parties to personally question or cross-examine each other during a hearing on alleged sexual violence. Allowing an alleged perpetrator to question a complainant directly may be traumatic or intimidating, and may perpetuate a hostile environment.”

  10. Randy schenck
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    If you need an electrician would you call a plumber? So if you have an accusation of rape why would you go to the school administrator?

    She is very much correct that sexual harassment training is a complete waste of time. I can tell you this from long experience in the company where I worked. We started going to 1/2 day and then full day sexual harassment training in the 80s. Year after year, another sexual harassment class. This is totally meaningless. Handling sexual harassment in a large company or in a college must be done by highly trained investigators who have been to schools on the entire business of sexual harassment. Not some half ass one day of training. What are you even training people for, other than don’t do it.

    After you realize you need specially trained people to deal with sexual harassment, you have to put in a few very simple rules that apply to everyone in the firm or school. If someone comes to you and reports sexual harassment, you do not question them, you do not talk about it and try to figure out anything. You have two hours to turn it in to the sexual harassment unit, EEO or whoever the trained investigators are at the institution. If you do not do this, you will be in big trouble and maybe fired. So turn it in and shut up, that is all you need to know. Pretty simple. This method is the ONLY way to handle sexual harassment.

    Rape or sexual assault is for the professionals at the police department.

    • BJ
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      “She is very much correct that sexual harassment training is a complete waste of time. I can tell you this from long experience in the company where I worked. We started going to 1/2 day and then full day sexual harassment training in the 80s. Year after year, another sexual harassment class. This is totally meaningless.”

      But, just as with colleges, it’s a great help to say you had such seminars when a lawsuit comes your way.

      • Posted October 4, 2017 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a great help in that no employee who has taken the course can claim that they didn’t know that what they just did was harassment and that they shouldn’t have done it.

  11. dd
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I read it. One thing to note, it’s at times hilarious.

    Kipnis is a punchy, incisive writer. Highly recommended.

  12. Nicholas K.
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had plenty of students make official complaints over material I cover in class (I teach human evolution). I scoffed at every one of them. I make no apologies for what I teach. Once the various Deans looked over my lectures, notes, and assigned readings, they told the students to grow up and let me carry on.

    • Harrison
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Colleges are used to dealing with religious conservative students, who are after all a relatively small group and easily ignored or dealt with.

      Things get more complicated when the complaints are coming from your liberal students, who make up a larger proportion of students on most campuses outside of fraudulent religious institutions.

      • Nicholas K.
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        And many of their complaints are no less scoff-worthy. It is not the number of students — it is the nature and ridiculous basis of their complaints.

        • BJ
          Posted October 4, 2017 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          But their complaints will often be taken up by media and “activists.” The PR nightmare that can sometimes result scares off administrators who are hired to run schools like businesses.

  13. Joseph O’Sullivan
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    This issue is very personal for me. I, a man, was sexually harassed by a woman at a job. It is a very difficult situation to be as a man.

    If I tell people I was sexually harassed by a woman, I am met with disbelief. If I explain what happened, my story is believed, but then I’m told it couldn’t have been that bad because as a woman she really didn’t have the ability to do harm to me. I have had a few people say that considering all the mistreatment wonen have had at the hands of men, her behavior was justifiable.

    • Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      I have been told, in all seriousness, that men can’t be victims of sexual harassment. The argument was akin to the claim that whites can’t be victims of racism.

      IOW, complete B.S.

    • Harrison
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      This is the odd thing about identity politics. Society rejects the concept of “eye for an eye” as an archaic and backwards concept, at least when applies to individuals.

      But where groups are concerned people relax their standards. A member of a group can “get even” with a member of another group. Even if the first person as an individual has never been wronged and/or the second individual has never done anything wrong to merit retaliation. It’s perverse. Identity politics is poison.

    • Travis
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      Watch how quickly those you confide in resort to “it’s men’s fault because men will shame you (even though both men and women minimize male suffering and specially sexual violence against men and boys)”

      After all, it’s “patriarchy”. ie name everything bad after men.

      I hope you’ve sought proper treatment if needed and that this went well, though I’ve even heard horror stories of therapist/counselor dismissal of sexual victims.

    • Gabrielle
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      If the woman was behaving in a way that disrupted your productivity as an employee and behaving in a way that she wouldn’t towards another woman, then it is gender-based harassment and it should have been taken seriously. You don’t say how your management or HR responded to your complaint, but hopefully they did something serious about the woman and made the harassment stop.

      We just had our one hour harassment training video to go through, and it featured a female supervisor talking about how she kept asking a male subordinate to go out for drinks. In the scenario, she says she didn’t realize she was making him uncomfortable, and now she’s learned her lesson (apparently after a complaint is filed). So, there is some acknowledgement that there is female-on-male harassment.

  14. Heather Hastie
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I agree with her that it’s important to teach girls and women how to handle advances, as well as teaching boys and men how to act. The #1 reason I became a victim when I was young is that I was taught not to answer back to or question my elders. Later, it was because I went to an all girls school and had a father who wouldn’t allow me to date. I had no experience on how to handle things. Once I started speaking up for myself and worked out how to handle situations myself, things turned around.

    • Joseph O’Sullivan
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      I went to an all boys school too and that was part of the reason I had problems. What happened to me was the woman who harassed me was disliked by her female coworkers because she insulted them by saying how she was so much more attractive and popular then them. They used the fact that I was ignoring her to insult her back. She became completely unhinged as a result. I missed the whole mean girls thing in high school and it was a social dynamic I had no experience with.

  15. Liz
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    “So even…micro behaviors…jokes are starting to be subject to policy by campus regulators whose budgets increase and whose power increases the more stuff they find to regulate and adjudicate.” Thought that was interesting. Around 13 minutes the interviewer is talking about types of feminism. “…Then there (were) people like Susan Brownmiller talking about…against rape…the idea that almost all heterosexual intercourse was a form of rape in one way or the other because you couldn’t escape (the) patriarchy.” If this is what Brownmiller was saying, it’s more damaging than helpful to sexual interactions on college campuses or anywhere. Prior to that, around the 8 minute mark, Kipnis talks about different kinds of “power” in “relationships” on college campuses. It was something along the lines of academic “power” or “sexual attractiveness” “power” and I personally don’t think these are helpful words necessarily. They might be helpful in talking about these situations that have already happened or may not have actually happened, but sexual education in public schools and at home should attempt to emphasize mutual respect when it comes to sex. Parents, teachers, church leaders, and maybe doctors also, need to promote mutual respect as a key component in addition to condoms etc. in sex education. It would also be good for educators to talk about how sex is okay and not to be shamed by it. Kipnis talks about trauma and I think it might be related. It’s wonderful that Kipnis is open and willing to talk about all of this. Around 19:55 they talk about Biden saying all drunk sex is rape or something along those lines. That is absolutely ridiculous. Sober sex; however, should be encouraged on college campuses. People are uncomfortable with sex for the most part. It’s sinful or sacred or I don’t know what. I could be wrong on this but I think what’s also missing from sex education is that women should be taught how to be comfortable with and men should be taught how to “give” orgasms. It naturally happens for men in sexual intercourse and most times women are left without. I could be totally wrong but that might be part of the problem also. There was a comment about a parody sexual harassment video. There is a scene from an episode of The Office where they are showing a sexual harassment video. I couldn’t find it even to reference. A lot of those training videos are funny because the acting is so obviously poor. On the advice to RIT students, it actually isn’t the most terrible idea. I’m glad Kipnis is willing to speak out about this. Talking about it is important.

  16. Travis
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    One of my favorite lectures is by Carol Tavris at TAM 2014, which I’m sure you’re aware of (maybe not this particular lecture)

    “who’s lying and who’s self-justifying” which isn’t specifically about policy iirc but more about how our behavior as social animals who don’t want to feel rejection leads to ambiguity in the realm of consent. It also explains why the “Affirmative consent” rules (you have to constantly be asking because one’s consent could change at any moment) are nonsense. No one wants to risk rejection AND women find that kind of behavior unattractive outside of geeky teen “can I kiss you” moments. Adults rely on body language and this is necessarily very subjective.

    • yazikus
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      “Affirmative consent” rules (you have to constantly be asking because one’s consent could change at any moment) are nonsense. No one wants to risk rejection AND women find that kind of behavior unattractive outside of geeky teen “can I kiss you” moments. Adults rely on body language and this is necessarily very subjective.

      Taste is also subjective, and many adults have no issue with continued confirmation of affirmative consent when relevant. ‘Women find’ is a statement without much utility here- women have varied tastes, as do men. If you think that confirming consent will result in rejection, that is kind of the point, you might not want to go there. If your partner is so fickle as to take that as something worthy of rejection, just think of the risk of progressing into further sexual territory with such a person. Find someone you can communicate honestly and openly with, and this isn’t an issue.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 5, 2017 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      A very apt speech.

  17. Chris Swart
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    according to wiki: “one of the students who brought the Title IX complaint against Ludlow has sued Kipnis for defamation based on the description in the book.”

  18. Chris Swart
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    ^^^^ whoops, covered in the post and the N Yorker

  19. Posted October 4, 2017 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    “Liberalism is White Supremacy”


    • Harrison
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      The speaker made a critical error in her initial approval of the protesters’ behavior. The heckler’s veto is not legally recognized as a form of free speech, nor should it be.

  20. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    … (sometimes on the testimony of third parties) …

    What’s the problem with third-party testimony? Third parties tend to have less motivation to shade their testimony than do parties with a direct interest in a case’s outcome.

    • BJ
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      I think he meant testimony solely by third parties, like the case at CSU-Pueblo where a third party (a student) reported that the male football player had raped his girlfriend because this third party simply saw a hickey on the girlfriend’s neck. The girlfriend went around telling all the administrators that their relationship and sex was entirely consensual, and they still brought a Title IX case against the male player, eventually finding him guilty, stripping him of his scholarship, and expelling him.

      There are more details. You can read about it here: http://denver.cbslocal.com/2016/04/19/csu-pueblo-grant-neal-suspension-consensual-sex/

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 5, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        The problem there isn’t that the witness is a third-party; it’s that the witness lacks personal knowledge of the underlying events (a prerequisite for courtroom testimony under Fed. R. Evid. 602).

        • BJ
          Posted October 6, 2017 at 8:21 am | Permalink

          I realize that. That’s why I said that’s what I *think* Jerry meant.

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