Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kipnis on Assault Allegations

Some of my colleagues around the philosophy world have recently been discussing Laura Kipnis's new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. I have a lot of thoughts about this book, but I'll start here with one. (I may write more later.) This is kind of a big-picture thought about Kipnis’s starting points and outlook—I find some of her thoughts about sex and sexual assault to be surprisingly retrograde. I know that some of my colleagues are impressed by this book; I am not sure if they share Kipnis’s general sensibilities on these matters, or whether they just like it for some of its conclusions. At any rate, I think some people would be surprised by Kipnis's sensibilities; the point of this post is to draw attention to some of them.

Discussion of sexual assault ahead.

In a story spanning pp. 52–54 of her book, Kipnis describes her initial reaction to reading a news report about an undergraduate student’s sexual assault allegation against a professor. She doesn’t say which news report she read, but this one matches her description. It opens thus: "A Northwestern student says in court that she tried to kill herself after her philosophy professor plied her with alcohol and sexually assaulted her."

Kipnis will go to say a lot of things about why, in her opinion, this 19-year-old student was probably lying about the whole thing. Right now I want to focus on Kipnis's illuminating recounting of her initial thoughts before she looked into the matter. She read this story in the news about a student who says her former professor got her drunk, then pressured her into his apartment and sexually assaulted her, which led to a subsequent suicide attempt. And Kipnis’s initial reaction is “irritation” because “the story just didn’t add up.” “I simply didn’t believe,” Kipnis writes, “in a reality in which a professor can force a student to drink.”

I have a hard time relating to Kipnis here (as in much of the book). Her instincts about what is and isn’t plausible or conceivable are extremely different from mine. I grant of course that the use of the word ‘force’ here sounds like an exaggeration. But the idea that a professor might pressure a young student into drinking in order to take sexual advantage of her? My priors on that kind of scenario are way above the levels where this would be incredible.

Kipnis disagrees, in a passage that literally made my jaw drop:
Let's say for the sake of argument that certain professors possess outsize [sic] charisma—having once been a young female student myself, I'm familiar with such lures (and the attendant attraction-repulsion they can engender), but even lots of charisma can't force a person to drink. I suppose a professor could pressure a student to drink. Still, there's the sinister implication that if a professor could, he'd want to. Why exactly? Oh right—so that he could force her into sex. 
Not only was this forced-drinking tale rather tinny, it was a definite uptick in the already heightened tenor of sexual paranoia and accusatory mania on campus: if this kind of allegation could stick, anything would stick. It was also complete melodrama, this world of dastardly men with the nefarious power to bend passive damsels to their wills, a world out of storybooks. Let me interject a brief reality check: single non-hideous men with good jobs (or, in this case, an international reputation and not without charm) don't have to work that hard to get women to go to bed with them in our century.
I was amazed by this passage. Here's a reality check of my own: there are many, many examples of wealthy, charming, attractive men who have coerced, pressured, or outright forced women to succumb to their sexual desires. This observation isn’t an expression of sexual hysteria, it’s a plain fact that is entirely obvious to anyone who can name a rapist who's been in the news lately. I mean, think of the high-profile cases that are quickest to come to mind. Think of Brock Turner—young, attractive, athletic. Think of Bill Cosby—famous, wealthy, charming, funny. Nobody should take seriously for a second the idea that, because someone is “non-hideous” and charming, allegations against him are any less credible.

In my own opinion, the fact that Kipnis takes this line of thought seriously dramatically undermines her credibility as a trustworthy voice on these matters.

More posts on Kipnis's book:


  1. 'Too good-looking to rape'? How can Kipnis not fail to realize 1. that this old trope is one reason why women aren't believed when they report, making not reporting rational and 2. some good-looking men prefer rape to consensual sex?
    The danger of Kipnis's book is that it is about a fantasy world that exists nowhere outside of her own brain, but is presented as a list of obvious truths about the real world that simply reinforces all of the existing myths about rape victims and rapists. This is no doubt an enriching enterprise for Kipnis. It is disturbing how indifferent she is to the consequences for other women, which, unfortunately, are very real.

    1. Agreed. Kipnis assumes that men rape as means to get sex; rape, she thinks, is motivated by a desire for sex. It does not occur to her that rape may be motivated by a desire to rape--that men rape as a means to get non-consensual sex.

  2. Kathleen Lowrey4/21/2017 03:13:00 PM

    That "too charming and good looking to rape" has been trotted out about Ludlow by women who are at a minimum *aware* of feminism (and quite probably really well-read in it) has been astonishing.

    It's also really, really disingenuous that Kipnis writes as if it weren't perfectly possible -- and in fact incredibly common -- for professors to live their entire professional lives without ever having undergraduates get drunk in their presence at all. The way Kipnis writes it is as if the only hinky thing were exactly who was getting the undergrad drunk; the really hinky thing is what the hell was a faculty member doing around a drunk undergrad in the first place. Here is what my drinking-with-undergraduates scenarios look like, over my entire career: there is a thing. I go to the thing. I have a beer. I leave early. The end. That is the standard extent of *any* drinking with undergraduates that happens for faculty. Being out with a drunk undergraduate -- no matter how that undergrad got drunk -- is not usual faculty behaviour at all.

  3. Of course, it's false that charismats can't rape. But it is still true that women do indeed find power and authority sexy in men. Now what should a man who finds himself in this position do? Well, not use it to his advantage consciously. Is that what happened in this case? I wouldn't know since I haven't evaluated the evidence, which by the way, is what we ought to be doing, not trashing Kipnis's character.

    On the topic of rapists: there is only a very very small percentage of rapists who do it for the "fun" of raping. Most rapes on campuses, and elsewhere, occur with drinking and established relationships between the victim and assailant. We need to keep in mind that now that we are over the rape is one and only one kind of violent act committed against victims, we need to get over the idea that all rapes are the same, and correlatively that all perps are the same too.

    On the topic of drinking with students: I have been around the block at various institutions and this has actually been common practice. After talks, many students and faculty will often go out for drinks afterwards. After a class is over, sometimes the prof meets with the students afterwards at a bar. So a blanket judgement here too is out of order.

  4. Let's not lose the thread here. There are two issues: The plausibility of Kipnis's suggestion that success is a defense against rape and what that suggestion tells her readers about the reliability of her judgment about sexual predation.
    To point out that some rapists are successful men and so that Kipnis' suggestion is not remotely plauisible is not to 'trash Kipnis's character'. It is simply to point out that what she says is clearly incorrect. If you take a stand on an issue, as Kipnis has in her book, some people are going to take issue with that stand. It is no defense of her suggestion to equate criticism of it with character assassination. That is simply a red herring.
    On the second issue, it casts doubt on Kipnis's ability to properly assess accusations of sexual predation that she treats a man's success as evidence that he could not be a predator. In fact, there are two myths Kipnis's claim trades on. First, she assumes that men who have access to consenual sex with some women would not assault another woman who will not. In other words, she assumes that assault is about sex. But experts on assault know that rape is not about sex, it's about control. Second, she assumes men who are not unattractive never rape. This is also widely known to be false by experts. You almost cannot google "sexaul assault" without finding this information in minutes. Indeed, it took my 15 minutes to find this, which corrects both of these myths.
    Now, both of these are myths experts explicitly address for a reason--they are widely believed. So, it is doesn't make someone an idiot for believing them. But anyone who chooses to write a book on a topic of such practical import as sexual assault should make themselves aware of the views widely held by experts who spent their careers getting the facts right. A book that rests on claims widely falsified by experts is not worth reading as as a source of information. And that is what Kipnis has written. It may hurt her feelings to hear someone say it. But, since she has chosen to write the book, it needs to be said.

  5. So admittedly, I have not read the book. I assumed there were just hard facts contained within it that could be evaluated on their own merits without getting tangled up in whether Kipnis has false beliefs about sexual assault herself. There is the narrator, which of course can be unreliable, and there is the story. Two separate things. Now as the survivor of multiple sexual assaults, on the other hand, I do not trust everything the "experts" on sexual assault say myself. They get the intimate details of it wrong, since social science, by its nature, tends to want to generalize away from such facts. They also undermine the testimony of victims themselves as well by treating us as objects of study. Researchers have their own agendas too and it's all to easy to turn certain individualized narratives into outliers and analyze them out of existence, or to reinterpret what's said so that it does not falsify the theory. I suppose now I will have to read the book and see if there is in fact any objectivity on the incidents reported on to be gained. Being an optimist, I suspect there is. BTW: I have no idea who Kipnis is, and my comment had nothing to do with protecting her feelings.

  6. Thanks, Enheduanna. You're right, of course, not to trust everything self-described experts say. But the question is how one should align one's judgment when, on the one hand, you've got a general consensus among those who have devoted their careers to studying an empirical question and, on the other, an individual whose expertise lies entirely elsewhere who disagrees with that consensus. It is probably fun and exciting to read a book debunking the moon landing or defending the hypothesis that Oswald didn't kill Kennedy. But if you want to learn about these historical events, you'd do better to read something written by actual historians. Now, individual historians, of course, can get things wrong. I wouldn't recommend anyone defer to David Irving on the events of WWII. That's why it's important to look for a general consensus among investigators working independently of one another. Fortunately, we have that among social scientists working on sexual assault, so it's easy to become opinionated on the basis of sound, empirical evidence. Unfortunately, Kipnis did not acqauint herself with this evidence before writing her book --nor for that matter, did she conform to the standard journalistic practice of asking all of the central principals whose lives she discusses for comment. For both of these reasons, Kipnis's book is not the place to learn about sexual predation on college campuses nor the place to learn about the Northwestern cases she discusses. And if you don't yet find that convincing, maybe I can interest you in my book about the moon landing? :)

  7. As I've said twice I think now, I just had some charitable opinions about what was contained in the book without having read it, as is my disposition. As for relying on science, I find feminists, in general, a bit fickle on this front. Confirmation bias anyone? This is why in general, as a feminist, I try not to hang my moral claims on scientific outcomes at all, and I teach my students to do the same (hedge your bets, I tell them). But that's off topic now. So, to her credentials (I just looked her up): she does have the requisite education to do good journalistic research, or so it would seem. I suppose you could think that investigative journalism is itself not rigorous academic research. I mean, it's certainly not a science. But it has been known to reveal some pretty radical truths over the years. She is also not, so far as I can tell, a right wing conservative. I still see no reason not to take her work at least as seriously as I would an investigative journalism piece I read in the news, I guess? What am I missing?

  8. Thanks, Enheduanna. One comment I made that no doubt went by quickly is important to underscore here and is what I would say you are missing if you continue to think Kipnis's book is likely a source of good information on campus assault and the Northwestern cases in particular. Kipnis did not at any point let any of the complainants in those cases know she was writing a book and request a comment for the book. That is just sloppy journalism, *if* her attempt was to write a properly journalistic account. I should add, though, that it's not entirely clear whether that is her aim. At times she defends her failure to fully investigate the case she discusses by characterizing the book a polemic, not journalism. Of course, if that's the case, there's even less reason to read it as a source of good information about the events at Northwestern.

  9. Enheduanna, Kipnis is explicit in denying that the book is a work of investigative journalism. She wrote in a public facbook comment that "[i]t’s a polemic, not journalism. It’s a work of opinion. It’s based on reporting, and a close reading of the available documents, but the heart of the book is my interpretation of that material." This is part of her explanation and defence of her focus on one side of the relevant stories. An investigative journalist looking into these issues would have spent much more time reconstructing the perspectives of those who came to the conclusions she disagrees with.

  10. (Oh, I cross-posted with Janice here—we're saying pretty much the same thing.)

  11. Hmmm...well that's sad. That's the last thing we need on the cases she discusses -- we've had plenty of that already. Stupid world :) ps: how much ego would be required to spend the time and effort to write a book one acknowledges is just an expression of one's non-evidence based opinion? And is there a Moorean paradox in the wings here? Blah. Still though if there is any raw data in the book (whatever that looks like), I think I would still be willing to spend the time trying to separate the polemical aspects of it from the more objective aspects. She is occupying a feminist position in logical space, in my opinion, just a very risky one.