Should professors have sex with their students? Heretic Laura Kipnis on campus coitus

Kipnis is the author of ‘Unwanted Advances’, a new book about sexual paranoia on campus: Rex

You know how annoying it is when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone and they keep on getting texts and emails. They’re just too popular. It’s a bit like that with Laura Kipnis. Except the opposite. The difference is each of the messages is a new threat of further litigation. She probably has a lawsuit app that pings her alerts or notifications. I suggest a new ringtone: the sound made by a gavel striking a hard surface would do it. Or possibly a chop chop sound. Because she has been sticking her neck out even further than usual.

She was always arresting (previous works include Against Love and Men), now she is more on-the-verge-of-being-arrested. She is the Socrates of our day. A martyr to freedom of speech. Or maybe freedom to have sex with students (other people’s freedom anyway, she says she’s not “particularly enticed”). Sitting in the Pain Quotidien on Bryant Park, in the shadow of that temple to learning that is the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, she doesn’t seem too worried. “The press has very good lawyers,” she says, “who are adamant that opinion is protected”.

She has written a book about sexual paranoia on the American campus, Unwanted Advances. Which happens to be rather brilliant. She puts me in mind of a kick-ass black belt kung-fu fighter, who stalks about actively looking for trouble. “You know you can’t write that, don’t you?” she says. “About the lawsuits.”

The essayist refuses to accept the simplicity of debates around campus sex

“I won’t if you don’t want me to,” I say. She hates to stop people doing anything. “How about if you just don’t know anything about it? No names or anything.” She makes a mouth-zipping gesture. So just for the benefit of any potential grand inquisitors planning to subpoena or grill me, as they have done Kipnis, or impound my computer, I know nothing. Well, almost nothing. Unwanted Advances mentions the case of one David Barnett, a philosopher who interceded on behalf of a student of his, Ben (a pseudonym), who had been subjected to disciplinary intervention under the so-called Title IX protocol. He wrote a reasoned 37-page document setting out exactly why and how the “investigators” had got it all wrong. For which he was summarily sacked and drummed out of town. I couldn’t help thinking that Kipnis was doing a Barnett, going in to bat on behalf of someone else and was liable to suffer the same fate. “There was a happy ending to that story,” she says. “He invented this gizmo called ‘PopSockets’. You stick it on the back of your phone. You can find it on YouTube. He’s dancing with it. It turned out to be his lucky day when he got fired.”

“I hope you have a PopSockets,” I say. “This book is my PopSockets,” she says. Laura Kipnis is a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. The flawed hero of Unwanted Advances is Peter Ludlow, a philosopher at Northwestern. Or ex-philosopher at Northwestern. Now in exile in Mexico, officially disgraced. According to Kipnis, he is more sinned against than sinning. But his fate is a barometer of a shift in the cultural climate. Kipnis maintains that when she was a student, students often had sex with professors. Probably not a great idea, but nobody suffered too much, she suggests. Not much more than having sex with anyone. “Being naked, exposed, and physically handled by another human,” she writes, “can be destabilising and not always pleasant, especially when the other human is drunk, clumsy, and/or a complete stranger.”

The fiction that ‘women don’t have sex, sex is done to them’ does women no favours, argues Kipnis

But the zeitgeist changed. Students (notably female ones) became – according to current mores – victims of professorial predators rather than willing participants. Ludlow hadn’t noticed. Then he got hit by a double-barrelled accusation. It’s complicated (when isn’t it?), but this is the gist, somewhere between farce and tragedy.

Episode 1

They don’t even have sex. They (it is agreed) end up on the same bed together, but they have their clothes on, and there may not even be any touching. There may (or may not) be a pillow between them. On one side of the bed, we have Professor Peter Ludlow, divorced, laidback, charming, who calls everyone “Dude”; on the other “Eunice Cho” (the name Kipnis gives her, not her real name), an undergraduate formerly enrolled in Ludlow’s “Philosophy of Cyberspace” class, struggling with grades and finances.

Technically, they spend the night together, the night of 10 February 2012, having spent the evening together at art galleries and bars. She says that she ends up trying to commit suicide, throwing herself in the waters of Lake Michigan, and it is all his fault. He, the great professor/predator/groper. Who is therefore guilty of sexual harassment and subject to investigation under Title IX, a catch-all hazy provision which has expanded to become a snoopers’ charter.

Kipnis was drawn into the case. And Eunice Cho’s account fell apart in her eyes when she claimed that the guilty professor had been “forcing her to drink”. In her long experience, she says, no student has ever had to be forced to have a drink. Another weak spot in Cho’s case: she throws herself into the lake, but then just casually gets out again, seemingly from embarrassment, and doesn’t notice the ice that other sources say is there. This is the middle of winter after all. In Chicago. It’s freezing. She then proceeds to stroll about wet, for the next hour or so, or so she says. Physiologically improbable. Enter Joan Slavin. Slavin is one of the new breed of university detectives sniffing out professorial misconduct. A Title IX investigator, a bureaucrat now set up as moral judge and jury. She seems to have a priori assumption that everything the accuser says is correct, and the accused is therefore guilty according to the “preponderance of evidence”. “Evidence? ” writes Kipnis scathingly. “There was none.”

Episode 2

Involving a 25-year-old woman called (in Kipnis) “Nola Hartley”. A promising graduate student. This time there was actual sex. But it was a long-term relationship. Ludlow was in love. They both were, at some point (she says not, all her texts and emails say otherwise). She ultimately jilts him, he is heartbroken. Years go by and she then decides, retrospectively, in 2014, after the Cho case goes public, that somewhere along the line she must have been “raped”.

She is encouraged in this assertion by various shadowy figures, the sinister “Professor X” who perhaps has it in for Ludlow on account of also being involved with Hartley; Heidi Lockwood, a “roving crusader for sexual justice”, backing up the “victim” or “survivor”; and finally a lawyer called Patricia Bobb, hired by the university, who latches on to and reinforces the poor-little-grad-student theory. Cue protests by outraged students denouncing the evil professoriate and pseudo-judicial tribunals in which the defendant hardly has any idea what he is even being charged with. Slavin is back, sharpening her axe. Which then duly falls.

Meanwhile, Northwestern is forking out huge sums in lawyers’ fees and compensation to aggrieved women. Kipnis, as you can tell by now, doesn’t buy into any of the above. To her way of thinking, Ludlow is himself the victim of a compelling narrative, one by which we have become bewitched. Witch being the operative word here since he is the victim of a “witch hunt” comparable, she says, to McCarthyism back in the 1950s. The predatory professor is the Red under the bed of our day, or rather in it, or at least on it.

Jean-Paul Sartre once said sex is consensual rape. But what if there is no such thing as “consensual”, and it’s just “sensual” combined with a con? Then all you have left is rape. All women, in this dominant narrative, have become persecuted “damsels in distress”, actually or potentially. And, says Kipnis, thereby disabled, disempowered, rendered vulnerable and defenceless, “victims” or “survivors” in their own minds. Sexual assault is real (and she has had her share of close shaves) but “rape culture” tends to conflate rape and every other shade of bad behaviour.

Kipnis argues that the fiction according to which “women don’t have sex, sex is done to them” does women no favours, it is only “a return to the most traditional conceptions of female sexuality”. Women need to be free to “have sexual adventures and make mistakes” and not always blame somebody else. Kipnis advocates more self-defence classes and less consumption of alcohol. But here comes the twist in the tale. When Kipnis takes on the role of commentator, writing a 5000-word essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in February 2015, to some extent rooting for the disgraced “rapist” Ludlow, and decrying the infantilisation of students, she becomes herself the target of the very same Title IX investigators she was writing about.

Emma Sulkowicz (left), a student at Columbia University, carries a mattress in protest of the university’s lack of action after she reported being raped (Getty)

The same protestors now start marching against her too (dragging mattresses around – symbolising sexual assault). Students denounce her to the campus police for creating a “hostile” or “chilling” environment. But the thing about Kipnis is this: she can take it. Her father taught her to fight in the backyard when she was a kid, to take on the neighbourhood bully. “But, Dad,” she said, “I can’t fight, I’m a girl.” “Yes, you can,” he said. “You’re bigger than he is.” She reminds me of Camille Paglia, but more reasoned, and unlike Paglia she hasn’t actually hit me (yet). Moreover she stands on the strong ground of freedom of speech and intellectual endeavour. She refuses to be censored or shut down. In the post-Cartesian post-Freudian realm in which there is no distinction between body and mind and everything is pervaded by sexuality and professors cannot therefore behave like brains in vats, the real risk of the vulnerable-woman narrative is a new closing of the American mind.

If we are risk-averse, we are by the same token averse to exploration and inquiry and debate and discussion. By sheer coincidence, I happened to be reading Infidel and Heretic by Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the same time as Unwanted Advances and it struck me how the campus is becoming akin to the highly regulated, oppressive echo chamber of Sharia law, in which women have to be “protected” but are thereby controlled and muzzled. Kipnis is a bit of a heretic among feminists. It’s not just the American campus either.

In South Africa students pontificate in kangaroo courts about the sexual misconduct of other students. JM Coetzee’s Booker-prize winning novel Disgrace (1999), in which the protagonist has a disastrous affair with a woman student, still haunts the academic mind. At Pembroke College, Oxford, Jeff Ketland was sacked in 2014 (then reinstated, then sacked again) when his ex-girlfriend, who had been stalking him, committed suicide and her more recent boyfriend pointed the finger of blame at him. Ketland believes he was stitched up and his life “destroyed” by a group of activists and “their mantra of male ‘power’ and wickedness and female victimhood and vulnerability”.

My own experience of the intellectual fear factor in England is the shock and horror of some students when I propose reading the libertine works of the Marquis de Sade (Justine, The 120 Days of Sodom, Philosophy in the Bedroom), as if I was actually being a sadist. (Sade is no longer on my reading list.) In Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke (1967), set in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, the hero is sent down the mines on account of a funny postcard. I was giving a PowerPoint lecture once when the power went down. “Oh look,” said the helpful woman student in the front row, indicating a disconnected connector, “your little thing just dropped off”. Be fair – how could I help saying, “there you speak to my deepest anxiety.” It got a laugh, but two weeks later I get the inevitable complaint, via my own head of department: “inappropriate” behaviour or discourse or something.

I’m with Kipnis here – let it be inappropriate, to hell with appropriate. Kipnis offered me some sound advice. “Don’t have sex with your students.” If only on pragmatic grounds. She knew of “multiple cases where even sex/romance with an ex-student is turned into an actionable offence”. Intergenerational sex is now taboo. I had been speaking to Professor Harold Bloom and his wife at Yale just the day before, and they protested that some of their best friends (they mentioned the case of Paul de Man, for example) were professors and graduate students who had fallen in love and got married, “and they were very happily married too”.

I don’t want to sound like too much of a killjoy here, but the fact is that for too long the campus has been perceived as a working model of the Fourier-inspired utopia of the “phalanstery”, a vast pleasure dome in which all desires are completely satisfied all the time. It’s an image of the orgy. No wonder if everyone is, in reality, dissatisfied. I want to make a modest proposal. I want a zero tolerance policy, on campus and possibly off too, where sex is concerned. And you can throw in drinking and wild parties too. Ban them all. I want a new era of Prohibition. The total prohibition of everything, basically, oh yes, except for reading and writing. A zen campus: 100 per cent zerotic, calm and tranquil.

Let it be a beacon of enlightened contemplation to the rest of the world. No touching. No kissing for sure. And possibly no teaching either. I see a future in which there is no more teaching and students, rather like driverless vehicles, will be entirely autonomous and self-steering. The sacking of professors is simply a sign of what is to come. The problem of the professor/student hook-up is that it is built on a double deception. Rather as in the case (short-lived, inevitably) of Arthur Miller (professorial) and Marilyn Monroe (would-be student), the wisdom of age is ostensibly educating the unformed mind of youth. But old people aren’t automatically wise and young people aren’t all blonde airheads either. It’s a stupid mythology. Kipnis had one further piece of advice for me, from her deep well of experience. “Don’t send any emails to anyone either.”

“OK,” I said. “No emails.”

“And whatever you do…”

“Yes? ”

“Don’t write any articles.”


Andy Martin is the author of ‘Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me’ (Bantam Press, RRP £18.99). He teaches at the University of Cambridge. Follow him @andymartinink

‘Unwanted Advances’ by Laura Kipnis is out now, published by HarperCollins

You can download an audio recording here of the debate at NYU Institute for the Humanities between Kipnis and Professor Shamus Khan of Columbia, a sociologist involved in a study of sexual behaviour of students, who wrote a critical review of her book in ‘Public Books’