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Laura Kipnis: The Boundaries Of Assault Have Stretched


There's a war of ideas happening on college campuses these days. A university has an obligation to protect students from sexual assault. Professors have a right to free speech. A recent case at Northwestern University has illustrated how high the stakes are when the two ideas clash. It started when Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education back in February. In it, she pushes back against rules at the school regulating romantic relationships between teachers and students. The response to the essay was intense. Two graduate students filed complaints against her. And the school opened a Title IX investigation. Laura Kipnis was cleared in that investigation a couple of weeks ago and spoke to us about the experience. I asked her to tell us about the original essay, which took issue with Northwestern's restrictions on student-teacher relationships.

LAURA KIPNIS: I'm a feminist, and I think women have been fighting to be treated as consenting adults for, you know, God knows how long - 150 years at least. And this seemed to take consent away from people who are consenting adults and place it in the hands of university administrators. You know, I came of age after the sexual revolution and before HIV-AIDS, and we didn't think of sex as so much of an injury as maybe like a form of freedom, as a type of experimentation. And I see a really different attitude in my students. I think the kind of sex education they get or maybe it's part of the cultural climate - I think they see sex much more as a potential harm, as a potential injury. I mean, it's not as though they're not out there experimenting. But there is a climate of, I think, a kind of panic. And it seems to also have something to do with this problem or question of intergenerational relations. You know, it's as if almost all relations are potentially incestuous. So I was just curious about that. And I talked about the use of this word survivor in this new climate of sexual assault. And, you know, it's a term that got appropriated from, you know, Holocaust survivors to talk about incest - survivors of people who had experienced incest. And so the transmission of this language, you know, as a cultural critic. That was something that interested me.

MARTIN: So the piece stirred up a whole lot of response. Students at Northwestern staged a protest, started a petition calling for the school president to publicly denounce your essay. Two graduate students then took another step, actually filed complaints with Northwestern's Title IX coordinator. Title IX being that provision of federal law dealing with gender discrimination on campus. So this really elevated it to a completely different level.

KIPNIS: It was a crazy thing to get this letter from the Title IX officer because, you know, I was befuddled. I had no idea Title IX could cover such things as a publication. And, in fact, I don't think it does. I think it was an attempt to stretch Title IX past the issues it's meant to deal with.

MARTIN: We should clarify that the Title IX complaint wasn't levied against you because of the gist of your argument or that you put this idea out there about professor-student relationships. It was that you used a specific example - a case of a couple of students who had alleged sexual misconduct against them. And so it was that characterization of that case that they cited in the Title IX complaint. I guess the point people are pushing you on, though, is that the essay may have implied that there's not a problem with sexual misconduct on campus. Are you arguing that that debate in our culture, the problem in general has been overblown?

KIPNIS: Well, I disagree with you that the complaints against me didn't have to do with the point of view of the article. It's true, I did talk about a case that had been ongoing on campus. But I actually didn't talk about the substance of the case in the article. But to say that I'm not concerned about harassment and assault is - I don't know - it's a complete mischaracterization. I mean, of course, I do care about it. But I also think one of the things that's happened in the current climate is that what is defined as assault or rape, the boundaries have really stretched and so that sexual episodes that might once have been considered ambivalent sex are now getting re-construed as assault. And these very murky situations are being presented to Title IX officers to deal with, like mutual drunkenness or someone having later, you know, re-characterized something that was, you know, a murky situation into something that was clear-cut assault. And they're making these judgments in these secret sorts of tribunals where the rules of evidence are in question; there is no procedure. People who are accused of far worse things than I was - you know, students accused of sexual assault don't have lawyers. They don't know what the rules of evidence are. And so I think the whole process just has to be more transparent than it is.

MARTIN: I know you're arguing there's excessive regulation of sexual behavior. And you don't think that's a good idea. But is there no roll for some governance of conduct? I mean, between professors and students, you can argue that it's sexual liberation. You have to give women agency. But is that really worth the risk of creating a kind of instability that romantic relationships in school settings - like in work settings - can trigger?

KIPNIS: Well, again, I think you're overstating what my position is or what the argument was. I mean, I'm certainly not arguing against any form of regulation. And I think there is a real role for Title IX. And, you know anything, to do with say quid pro quo harassment, you know, professors saying I'll give you a better grade if you sleep with me - I mean, that kind of thing, I think those people should be fired. But, you know, the situation I was in was writing about these codes, and I might have been taking somewhat contrarian position. But, you know, we still are supposed to have free speech and academic freedom to talk about ideas that might be controversial.

MARTIN: Do you think that that is changing? I mean, has this whole episode made you rethink how you talk about these tough issues publicly or whether you engage in this kind of debate at all?

KIPNIS: I think it hasn't so much on me, but I have tenure. I think for the 50 percent of academics who now don't have tenure or are in tenure-stream jobs, I think it definitely has a censoring or self-censoring effect on what's going to be said, particularly on this kind of subject.

MARTIN: Laura Kipnis, professor at Northwestern University. She joined us on the line from Chicago. Thank you so much.

KIPNIS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.