Paranoia and Paternalism Fuel the Fight Against “Rape Culture”

For several years, colleges have been battling an alleged campus “rape culture.” Before taking their first class, almost half a million students are taught that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in college. As a result of this and other efforts on the part of faculty and administrators, many women are led to view men as potential predators.

In her new book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis criticizes the higher education establishment’s crusade against rape culture—and the notion that there is even such a thing. She also questions the assumption that women are incapable of avoiding unwanted sexual attention, and that they therefore need to be coddled by campus bureaucrats.

Kipnis is a feminist, but many of her views are unorthodox—especially since today’s mainstream feminism is strongly associated with the fight against so-called rape culture. While this fight is meant to help women, Kipnis contends that it is undermining fundamental feminist principles of autonomy and gender equality.

The author argues that today’s campus climate represents a “regressive” step back to a prohibitive and paternalistic era in which women were viewed as helpless and blameless. She says that nowhere is this more evident than in Title IX investigations.

As federal law, Title IX prohibits universities from discriminating against individuals based on their sex. However, in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education indicated in a “Dear Colleague” letter to universities that sexual harassment would also be prohibited under Title IX—an interpretation that had not been previously applied.

The new guidelines empower college administrators to investigate and penalize any alleged perpetrator of sexual misconduct. And colleges are now frequently investigated for being too lenient. For instance, over 400 colleges are currently under investigation by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

In other words, there is a strong incentive for administrators to assume that the accused (usually a male) is guilty, rather than consider evidence that may suggest otherwise. (A recent College Fix article titled “Female Student: USC Threatened Me Because I Said My Boyfriend Didn’t Beat Me Up” shows just how backwards those incentives are.)

Kipnis argues that administrators often are not held accountable for being overzealous, and that many colleges do not allow the accused to “present a defense, such as introducing text messages from a complainant that contradicts his or her statements.”

Furthermore, only the lowest standard of proof, a “preponderance of evidence,” is necessary to find someone guilty in a Title IX investigation. As the Office for Civil Rights explains, a preponderance of evidence means that “it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred.”

To illustrate the problems caused by this system, Kipnis dedicates a large portion of her book to a case involving Peter Ludlow, a now-former Northwestern University philosophy professor.

In 2012, Ludlow was accused of sexually harassing two female students on separate occasions. The first charge involved an undergraduate woman who emailed Ludlow about an event she planned on attending. They decided to go together and later went to a bar.

Two days later, the student claimed that Ludlow forced her to get drunk so that she would spend the night at his apartment. Ludlow denies this, claiming that she asked to spend the night (he couldn’t drive her home because it was snowing). They fell asleep in the same bed, but they both agree that they did not have sex. Still, the student alleged that her experience with Ludlow caused her to be suicidal.

The second case involved a female graduate student. She and Ludlow were sexually involved for three months. Even though the student sent countless text messages to Ludlow saying things such as “I love you” and “We’re made for each other,” she claims this was an unwanted and “deeply inappropriate relationship.” She accused Ludlow of raping her, although their relationship continued after the alleged event.

Throughout the investigation, Ludlow was never informed of the specific charges made against him. By the time he was informed, evidence that he could have supplied in his defense was already gone (such as a security video in his apartment building).

Furthermore, Kipnis notes, Ludlow’s accusers frequently changed their stories, even contradicting themselves at times. But investigators never questioned whether they were telling the truth. Rather, they decided that Ludlow’s story was not “believable.”

Regardless of whether he was guilty, Ludlow clearly was denied his right to due process. And he was punished severely: he was banned from the university and was ultimately pressured to resign from his position.

Kipnis’s goal in relating Ludlow’s case, however, is not merely to demonstrate the unfairness of the Title IX investigation process—although she does liken its workings to those of a “kangaroo court.” Rather, the story primarily serves to illustrate how deeply rape culture paranoia has taken root on American campuses.

The big issue, Kipnis argues, is that sex is viewed as something “hazardous” for women. She is dismayed that females, the supposed beneficiaries of progressive feminism, relinquish autonomy and sexual agency in exchange for administrators’ protection.

While earlier generations of feminists fought for gender equality, Kipnis says, the current feminism on college campuses promotes nineteenth-century notions of female passivity. It is interesting how Kipnis frames the dispute between herself and campus feminists in terms of regressive and progressive tendencies, but her description is too simplistic.

Contrary to Kipnis’ interpretation, both Kipnis and her ideological opponents share the assumption that any consensual sexual activity is to be approved and encouraged.

Where they disagree, however, is on the nature of what counts as consent: what Kipnis would consider consensual, others would consider coerced because of unequal “power relations” between men and women.

For example, Heidi Lockwood, a philosophy professor at Southern Connecticut State University, believes consent depends on “context.” Lockwood explained this in an online debate that Kipnis highlights in her book: “[You] can threaten my agency…by using the power of your mind to mentally manipulate me, to persuade me.” (Lockwood, Kipnis discovered, informally advised one of Ludlow’s accusers.)

Kipnis, on the other hand, urges women to take responsibility for their compliance in sexual activity and acknowledge their ability to accept or reject sexual advances— what Kipnis refers to as exercising their sexual “agency.”

Kipnis is right to say that it is more in line with feminist values to expect women to take responsibility for their actions. However, Kipnis emphasizes the importance of sexual agency and gender equality while failing to recognize other needs that women have.

For instance, evidence suggests that women associate sex with romance more often than men do—indicating that women desire long-lasting commitment, not casual encounters.

And women may have more sexual liberty now, but it does not seem to be making them more fulfilled. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, since the 1970s women have become progressively less happy, “both absolutely and relatively” to men.

This implies that, contrary to what Kipnis describes as the “inroads” that feminism has made, there is reason to doubt whether the feminist view of female sexuality, which Kipnis shares, can truly be considered progress.

Kipnis does acknowledge that women may have different desires and expectations when it comes to sex. She recognizes that casual sex can have negative consequences for women’s emotional well-being. And she acknowledges that women need to find out what they really want in regard to sex, “especially since there are endless pressures to say yes.”

However, the author seems to trivialize the potential consequences that uncommitted sexual encounters can pose for a woman’s welfare. For example, Kipnis describes one student’s unpleasant drunken hookup as “educational,” and her own sexual experiences with professors as a “training ground for later creative and intellectual risks.”

Nevertheless, Kipnis’s sober analysis of sexual paranoia and its role in Title IX investigations is welcome. Department of Justice data show that 6 out of every 1,000 college students—not 1 out of 5—become sexual assault victims. Of course, that figure is far too high, but when “rape culture” warriors distort or inflate the severity of the problem, they foster a toxic campus environment that can lead to serious injustice.

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus shows that campus feminists often contradict feminism’s traditional focus on female autonomy and responsibility. If they truly wish to combat problems such as sexual violence, they should not peddle myths or an agenda that give rise to paternalistic and unjust campus regulations. Doing so alienates potential allies, and does nothing to promote female empowerment.

  • redweather

    The under-reporting of sexual assault is a fact demonstrated by countless studies. It is not a myth, it’s a historical fact borne of the idea that if a woman is the object of a sexual advance she must have been asking for it. The unequal treatment of women is a fact demonstrated by a mountain of evidence gleaned from just about any segment of our society. It is not a myth, it’s a historical fact borne of the idea that women are inferior to men.

    The highlight of this article is when you note that Kipnis “is dismayed that females, the supposed beneficiaries of progressive feminism, relinquish autonomy and sexual agency in exchange for administrators’ protection.” This suggests that anyone who reports a crime is “relinquish[ing] autonomy . . . for administrators’ protection.” Or is this only true when the alleged victim is a woman, the alleged crime is sexual in nature, and the alleged perpetrator a man?

    • julia911

      The discrepancy between 6 in 1,000 and 1 in 5 is most likely due to how you define “sexual assault”. My campus reports “sexual assault” when someone has been fleeting groped by a guy passing by on a bike. They also report “sexual assault” when someone has been raped, and when a drunken encounter turns to regret. Every misguided touch is “sexual assault”, regardless of how damaging. There is also a question of what is meant by “under-reporting” as this article (and presumably the book) address, not every unwanted or later regretted sexual encounter should be reported. What is wrong with college women these days that they can’t take responsibility for their own decision-making? Why do college women today want to give all the power in sexual relationships to men? And how cruel to try to regain power in those relationships by punishing men through legal channels. When I was a student, women and men were equally responsible for sexual interactions (unless there was clear physical force or drugging involved), and the regret and embarrassment, if any, was equally shared in the morning.

    • Mad Dog Riley

      Yes it is not a myth, but your comment is missing both a definition of “sexual assault” and anything to support the statement that it is “a historical fact borne of the idea that women are inferior to men.” It is certain that there is underreporting of sexual assault, however defined, against men; whether by women or other men. Relatively, not nominally, there is probably greater underreporting of sexual assault against men than against women. So what is that borne of? It would seem to at least undermine your notion that underreporting of sexual assault is simply an “historical fact borne of the idea that women are inferior to men.” There are myriad reasons why a sexual assault may not be reported, some peculiar to the female sex, some peculiar to the male; some personal to the individual assaulted, some not; some may regard the perpetrator, some may not; some may regard others unaware or nothing in particular; some are inarticulable, or even unknown. A common reason both women and men have for not reporting a sexual assault is a wish to keep the matter private. I fail to see how trumpeting a non-existent “rape culture” and making cause-celebres of unproven accusations, and celebrities of accusers, will make victims of sexual assault more comfortable reporting the crime. Nor can I understand how eliminating due process for the accused will inspire confidence in the judicial system to assuage fears of disbelief. Eschewing normal process–including presumed innocence–would I think in time have the perverse effect of even the convicted being presumed innocent.

      Blaming an “idea that women are inferior to men” is tiresomely lazy. Biological fact assigned to women some roles not assigned to men, some of which technological advancement has allowed women to avoid altogether, just as it has men those roles assigned to them; but while the subject may be informed by it, the interplay of the sexes is not reducible to biological differences, and is even more absurdly explained as a primeval crime yet to be punished.

      • redweather

        Some of the worst prejudices are tiresomely present in society today.

        • ByzantineGeneral

          You argue by confident assertion. You disqualify and dismiss conflicting opinions. You are intellectually bankrupt. You should sue those who purported to educate you.

        • patriarchal landmine

          feminist misandry being the most tiresome.

    • bdavi52

      Yes, under-reporting is a fact, particularly under-reporting to the police, as a part of the Criminal Justice System.

      The Clery Stats, however — the mandated summary of all alleged sexual assaults on American college campuses, reported NOT to police but to campus authorities and/or health service/counseling staff — tell us that out of 12M some students, across 1500 campuses, there are, roughly, 3500 incidents which include (as Julia911 noted) both fleeting dance-floor gropes, regretted Sunday mornings, and actual rape. This works out to an alleged assault rate of around .05%….far, far, far short of the 20% Myth.

      So let’s say we are 100% under-reported (hard to believe, but let’s make that leap). That means we have a .1% alleged sexual assault rate. What about 1000% under-reported (totally unbelievable) — that gives us a rate of .5%. So what would it take in under-reporting to make the 20% myth ‘true’? We’d have to believe that there were 1.3M SILENT/SCARED women out there who are so intimidated (even in this day & age) that they didn’t mention their assault to anyone, ever.

      Could any sane person actually believe such a fiction to be true?

      Do we really believe that there are 1.3M adult, American females…living in the 21st century, going to college….independent, confident & self-assured… (The same adult females who have been pushing for generations to be recognized and accepted as being fully responsible, fully accountable grown-ups who own their own lives, their own decisions, their own careers, and very definitely their own bodies & sexuality??)… that they are so frightened & traumatized by an “unwanted” event (including a rude joke, a pushy invitation, a lewd glance, an ambush kiss, etc.) that they find it impossible to speak?

      Tragically, as Kipnis notes, these adult women are being ‘represented’ by a radical, pseudo-feminist fringe who preach that their gender, indeed, is NOT accountable and NOT responsible for anything they do — particularly if they’ve been drinking, taken drugs, or been subject to persuasion or psychological pressure by Men (who, of course, are always responsible regardless of any of those factors).

      Such a stance, of course, is surrender & abdication. It marks both the infantilization of an entire sex and the destruction of the progress made by every preceding generation.

      So we either reject out-of-hand the Myth of the Rape Culture’d 20% as being nothing more than destructive, condescending, infantilizing lie…or we embrace it and return an entire gender to the seraglio — a place where they are protected from men, protected from life. And in such a Safe Place, can they really be trusted with responsible jobs and/or the Vote??

      The choice would seem to be clear, wouldn’t it?

    • MadKangaroo

      “The under-reporting of sexual assault is a fact demonstrated by countless studies”

      Which is utterly irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of any particular accused person. What is at issue here is the star chamber nature of Title IX proceedings on campuses.

      Also at issue, IMHO, is the nature of the punishments meted out; in effect, innocent men get their lives ruined, while real perpetrators get off with a slap on the wrist (compared to a real criminal case).

      • redweather

        The under-reporting of sexual assault is not irrelevant to this topic.

        • Noitall

          If something is “under-reported” how do they know?

          • MadKangaroo

            They don’t know. They just assume, a priori, that all accusations are legitimate, and proceed straight to finding the accused guilty.

    • BozoerRebbe

      “This suggests that anyone who reports a crime is “relinquish[ing] autonomy . . . for administrators’ protection.” ”

      If it’s a crime, report it to the police, not university administrators.

    • mlmontagne

      Sexual assault is underreported, but not to the extent of one in a hundred, that is absurd.

    • patriarchal landmine

      I guess getting raped is worth it for that degree in feminist victim studies.

      hard to sympathize with you when you willingly agree to do something that stupid, and then are given a job that I am more qualified for. now, with real rapists at the gates, you expect me to protect you? good luck.

  • bdavi52

    Yes…but also No.
    The question of whether or not the so-called Feminist View of of female sexuality is truly “progress” (whatever that means) is completely irrelevant to the issue at hand (the issue upon which Kipnis’ work is focused).

    What we confront (and what Kipnis wrestles) is the massive perversion of Title IX law to drive an insane redefinition of adolescent sexual behavior which is itself fundamentally tied to the institutional infantilization of women (and the destruction of many of the gains achieved by 20th century feminism), and the criminalization of men.

    There is no such thing as a Rape Culture in collegiate America (perhaps in Berlin, Spring of 1945, but not here, not now). 20% of all women are absolutely NOT sexually assaulted during their 4 years on campus (the Clery Stats, aligned completely with FBI stats, tell us quite conclusively that the alleged assault rate runs not at 20%…not at 2%…but rather at .05%). [This as reported by 12M students across 1500 colleges & universities.] And adult women are not helpless victims…incapable of making any decision (including consent) if they’ve been drinking, if they’ve taken drugs, if they’ve been subject to persuasion or psychological pressure, or if they’ve been ‘threatened’ (as in, and I quote, the threat to “no longer love them”).

    Women, and this is one of the points emphasized by Kipnis, are as fully capable of making a decision as men. Women can be just as foolish as men (and just as smart). Drunken adolescents, lonely, horny, confused, anxious, hopeful, prone to miscommunication & misunderstanding — thrown together at 2:00 AM on a late Saturday night/Sunday morning will sexually interact and that sexual interaction will (more often than not) be ‘not what they thought it would be’. Regret will be common, as will anger & frustration & humiliation & disappointment — particularly if (as Ms. Watkins intimates) a woman, by her very nature, has different sexual desires & expectations than an adolescent male.

    Key, of course, is the understanding (ignored completely by the Kollegiate Kangaroo Kourts which feast on Title IX) that everything “unwanted” is not a sexual assault. Key, of course, is the understanding (also completely dismissed) that two adults (particularly 2 drunken adults) can have 2 completely different perspectives on the exact same experience — AND that both perspectives can be personally accurate and completely legitimate.

    The Rape Epidemiologists (and the collegiate leadership which supports and enables their idiocy) do not just “foster a toxic campus environment that can lead to serious injustice”… they poison the campus; they corrupt male/female sexual interaction; they infantilize women (robbing them of agency); they criminalize men (and the very nature of male sexuality); and they are building a world which can be filled only with seraglios and eunuchs. This does not just “lead to injustice”; this IS injustice…and a horrible corruption of what it means (and should mean) to be human.

  • MSO

    Details matter. Sexual harassment is defined at Harvard (in their handbook) as : “The determination of what constitutes sexual harassment will vary with
    the particular circumstances, but it may be described generally as
    unwanted sexual behavior, such as physical contact or verbal comments or
    suggestions, which adversely affects the working or learning
    environment of an individual.”

    So asking a person if they would like to consent to having sex with you could be sexual harassment, if the person being asked chooses to protest to the school. And there is no way other than explicitly asking for consent to determine consent, unless the other person offers it before you ask, in which case you could accuse them of sexual harassment and have them so charged.

    Since “agency” also affects validity of consent so significantly, there is no way to determine consent that can overcome a consentind person’s later charge of harassment, assault or rape.

    Interesting little Catch-22 this creates. I’d suggest the whole thing was set up with a complete disregard for due process, or rights of the accused, or even any attention to the real-world behavior of humans, but that would suggest the whole thing starting with the Dear Colleague letter was just stupid rather than evil in its origins.

  • patriarchal landmine

    women always have to be the victims. but they also want to be considered my equal.

    that time has passed.

  • Stanw909

    I was surprised by the omission of the economic insentive placed upon the academic institutions to find sexual harassment whether physical or otherwise by the last Justice Department . No results . No money and I’m sure it was a lot of money . That being said , I want my daughter to buy into the myth ( and she does ) so that she may get through one more year of college with a wary eye . Hypocritical ? Absolutely .