Laura Kipnis Sued for Defamation Over Book That Characterized Campus Sexual Assault as 'Romance'


Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University and author of the recent book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, has been named, along with publisher HarperCollins, in a defamation lawsuit over the book.

The lawsuit has been filed by an unnamed Northwestern graduate student (listed as Jane Doe in the complaint) who features prominently in Kipnis’s book, a polemic that depicts the recent and growing number of campus rape and sexual assault allegations as the result of nationwide hysteria that infantilizes women. In Unwanted Advances, Kipnis offers a defense of Northwestern philosophy professor Peter Ludlow. The Ludlow case is incredibly complicated, but in short: In November 2015, Ludlow resigned from his tenured position at the university after he was found to have sexually harassed two students.

Ludlow was initially accused of sexual assault by an unnamed 19-year-old undergraduate student but the university only found evidence that he had violated Northwestern’s sexual harassment policy. In response, the undergraduate filed a Title IX complaint against the university. When the details of that case became public another student, a Ph.D. candidate in Ludlow’s philosophy department, came forward and alleged that Ludlow sexually assaulted her. According to a report from Inside Higher Ed in 2014:

The graduate student first disclosed the alleged assault to Jennifer Lackey, another professor of philosophy, who reported it to the university and helped file a formal complaint. A third-party investigator hired to look into the new allegations found while there was insufficient evidence to support the assault claim, Ludlow still had violated Northwestern’s sexual harassment policy based on his position of power relative to the graduate student.
Now, Ludlow is suing the university, Lackey and – in a relatively unprecedented move – the graduate student for defamation, false light invasion of privacy and civil conspiracy. He’s accusing the university of violating gender discrimination under Title IX.

Ludlow’s suit was subsequently dismissed and he resigned from his position as Northwestern was taking steps to fire him. Ludlow, however, had at least one defender: Laura Kipnis. Kipnis wrote two error-filled essays for the Chronicle of Higher Education related to the case, including one about the Title IX allegations filed against her by the same Jane Doe suing her now (all stemming from the Ludlow mess). Though Kipnis was cleared of the allegations, she took her experiences with Northwestern and spun them into a narrative about witch trials and hysteria: “Attending the disgraced philosophy professor Peter Ludlow’s dismissal hearing was like watching someone being burned at the stake in slow motion,” Kipnis wrote at the Chronicle in April.

Kipnis’s book, published earlier this year, is similar in tone and observation. In Unwanted Advances, Kipnis suggests that both of the women who accused Ludlow were lying or, at least, misguided by university administrations who have stripped them of their rights to engage in consensual relationships with “powerful” men like Ludlow. Of the allegations against Ludlow made by the 19-year-old undergraduate, Kipnis writes, “I simply didn’t believe a reality in which a professor can force a student to drink.” She continues (quotes via philosophy professor Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa’s blog):

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.

In the chapter about Doe, called “Flip-Flopping on Consent: A ‘Yes’ Becomes ‘No’ Years After the Fact,” Kipnis writes that Doe and Ludlow had a consensual relationship, spending “early, heady days of the romance,” exchanging text messages and shopping. “There may no better documented relationship in the history of humanity,” Kipnis writes in the chapter. She also divulges information about Doe’s prior relationship and alleges that there was no power gap in the relationship since, according to Unwanted Advances, Doe had a boyfriend in another city.

Kipnis says little about the sexual assault allegations since she treats the relationship as consensual, as she did in her earlier essay at the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Ludlow,” Kipnis concludes in the book, “was guilty-though not of what the university charged him with. His crime was thinking that women over the age of consent have sexual agency, which has lately become a heretical view, despite once being a crucial feminist position.”

The lawsuit accuses Kipnis and HarperCollins of defamation, publishing private communications, invasion of privacy and emotional distress. It demands a full retraction from Kipnis and HarperCollins. According to Doe’s lawsuit, “In defending Ludlow and attempting to (falsely) reframe him as the victim malicious female students and a Title IX process run amok, Kipnis gratuitously discloses private and embarrassing details about the personal life of Plaintiff, a current Northwestern student.”

The lawsuit accuses Kipnis of obtaining private text messages between Doe and Ludlow from Ludlow and “contained in confidential Northwestern records.” It also alleges that Kipnis wildly misrepresented the relationship between Doe and Ludlow which, again, Kipnis treats as consensual. The timeline presented by Doe of her interactions with Ludlow are wildly different than the cozy, consensual relationship depicted by Kipnis. Instead of the alluring, desired professor in Unwanted Advances, Doe portrays Ludlow as erratic and controlling, regularly pressuring her into an unwanted sexual relationship. Doe also outlines the details of the alleged rape that led to the complaint she filed against Ludlow with Northwestern University.

Kipnis’s depiction of events in Unwanted Advances is inconsistent with that of Doe’s lawsuit. So drastically different, in fact, that both can’t be true or even partially true. There’s more in the lawsuit, too, including Doe’s allegations that Kipnis wrote about the case in such a manner in retaliation for filing a Title IX complaint against Kipnis. The lawsuit accuses HarperCollins of failing to “adequately investigate,” Kipnis’s version of events, particularly given the history between Doe and Kipnis, as well as the professional relationship between Kipnis and Ludlow.

Unwanted Advances received extensive coverage, some of which has been positive. Kipnis has been inexplicably praised as a provocateur willing to ask hard questions about the current narrative surrounding campus rape. The New York Times, for example, called the book “necessary” and the Wall Street Journal praised it as a necessary “message delivered with fierce intelligence.” The lawsuit is bound to be another flashpoint for Kipnis: Those who disagree with her are likely to see yet another example of the very witch hunts she describes while her critics are likely to see evidence of overwrought and misguided score settling.

In an email, HarperCollins said they do not comment on pending litigation.

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