Laura Kipnis Is Sued Over Portrayal of Graduate Student in Book on Campus ‘Sexual Paranoia’

May 18, 2017

Pieter M. van Hattem
Laura Kipnis, a professor of radio, television, and film at Northwestern U., is accused of defaming a graduate student in a chapter of her new book.

Fallout over a controversial book about "sexual paranoia" on college campuses continued this week as a graduate student at Northwestern University sued the author, Laura Kipnis, claiming she disclosed "private and embarrassing details" about the student’s personal life.

Ms. Kipnis, a professor in the department of radio, television, and film at Northwestern, wrote about the relationship between the graduate student and a professor of philosophy in one chapter of her book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.

Ms. Kipnis described it as an illustration of how students who engage in what she considers consensual relationships sometimes falsely accuse their professors of rape. She used a pseudonym for the student, but the plaintiff said it was close to her real name, and that there were enough other details that she’d be easy to identify.

The faculty member whom the student accused of misconduct, Peter Ludlow, resigned in 2015 as termination proceedings were under way.

The lawsuit, filed this week in federal court in Illinois under the name "Jane Doe," accuses Ms. Kipnis and the book’s publisher, HarperCollins, of defamation, invasion of privacy, and other counts. It comes as the latest volley in an ongoing tangle of lawsuits, countersuits, protests and disciplinary hearings that has embroiled Northwestern and people associated with the case for years. (See a timeline, below.)

Responding to an email on Wednesday, Ms. Kipnis declined comment on the latest legal wranglings.

'Firestorm of Publicity'

The plaintiff, who is in her final year of a doctoral program in philosophy, said she has had to put off applying for a job for at least a year because of the "firestorm of publicity and gossip" the book has generated in academic circles. She said that Ms. Kipnis’s book could further harm her reputation and career prospects.

According to the lawsuit, Ms. Kipnis’s book falsely portrays her as "lying, manipulative, and litigious." In fact, she said, she came forward reluctantly with her complaint about Mr. Ludlow only after another student — an undergraduate — accused him of sexual misconduct.

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After the undergraduate student complained, Mr. Ludlow was found responsible for sexual harassment, but not rape, and received minor sanctions, including the loss of a raise. Two years later, in 2014, his accuser sued the university for not taking the matter seriously enough.

A short time later, the graduate student also filed a complaint against Mr. Ludlow, who sued both students and the university for defamation.

The graduate student said she was 24 and Mr. Ludlow was in his 50s when he offered to mentor her and began spending more and more time with her alone, including at his apartment. The relationship ended up in sex which she described as rape and he said was consensual.

In her essays and in her book, Ms. Kipnis has described fond text messages between the graduate student and professor as evidence that the student was a willing participant in the relationship.

In her lawsuit, the plaintiff denied that, accusing Ms. Kipnis of trying to "reframe him as the victim of malicious female students and a Title IX process run amok." In her book, she said, Ms. Kipnis "gratuitously discloses private and embarrassing details" about the student’s personal life.

Many of the private text messages between the plaintiff and Mr. Ludlow "were taken out of context, none of them were fact-checked with plaintiff, and all of them were private communications that plaintiff never intended to be publicized for the world to read," the lawsuit states.

The plaintiff accused Ms. Kipnis of writing the book to retaliate against her for filing a Title IX complaint with the university against Mr. Ludlow and for her subsequent complaint against Ms. Kipnis.

Climate of Fear

In her book and in her essays, Ms. Kipnis has written that people "infantilize" female students when they describe them as victims of professors with whom they have sexual relations.

Instead of being able to celebrate their sexual freedom, as she did in her college years, Ms. Kipnis argues, today’s students view sex as dangerous and themselves as potential victims. She has been particularly critical of "affirmative consent" policies that require both parties to state their willingness to engage in sex.

Ms. Kipnis has complained that both she and Mr. Ludlow were subjected to witch hunts because of an atmosphere of paranoia that surrounds campus sex today, especially when it involves relationships between students and faculty members.

An essay making that argument that Ms. Kipnis wrote for The Chronicle Review in 2015 prompted two graduate students at Northwestern — including Mr. Ludlow’s accuser — to file Title IX complaints accusing Ms. Kipnis of creating a hostile climate in which women would be afraid to come forward with complaints about rape. Ms. Kipnis was exonerated after an investigation by the university.

Not surprisingly, her book has generated heated debate. Last month, the Northwestern Philosophy Graduate Student Association accused Ms. Kipnis of misrepresenting their colleague after conducting shoddy research.

"Kipnis’ failure to consult those in a position to give a well-informed report of our colleague’s history and the situation in which she found herself, or to check basic facts about the case, instantiates the very phenomenon Kipnis takes herself to be railing against: one-sided and irresponsible investigations into sexual assault," they wrote in a letter to the student newspaper.

"We take this to be a reckless approach to publicizing material that purports to recount facts of so sensitive a nature."

The group said it condemned what it considered her "unfounded speculation about a junior member of the academy."

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.

Northwestern’s Title IX Tangle: a Timeline

Here's a brief outline of the tangled web of complaints that led to a graduate student’s lawsuit against Laura Kipnis, a professor in the department of radio, television, and film at Northwestern University.

February 2012: A freshman at Northwestern University files a complaint alleging that Peter Ludlow, a noted professor of philosophy there, sexually assaulted her after an evening attending an art opening and going to bars together. After an investigation, the university finds Mr. Ludlow committed some "unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances," denies him a raise, and issues other minor sanctions.

February 2014: The student, unhappy with the way her complaint was handled, sues Northwestern, as well as Mr. Ludlow.

March 2014: Another student — this one a graduate student of philosophy — files a complaint against Mr. Ludlow, claiming he raped her in 2011. He responds by suing both of his student accusers and the university for defamation and other charges.

February 2015: Ms. Kipnis mentions the accusations against Mr. Ludlow in an essay, "Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe," in The Chronicle Review. In it, she says there’s been too much hand-wringing over professors dating students and that feminism has been "hijacked by melodrama."

March 2015: Two Northwestern graduate students, including the one who accused Mr. Ludlow of sexual misconduct, file Title IX complaints with the university against Ms. Kipnis, accusing her, among other things, of creating a hostile environment on campus. Students, some carrying mattresses and pillows ­— the way a Columbia University student had protested that university’s handling of her alleged rape — demonstrate against Ms. Kipnis on Northwestern’s campus.

May 2015: Lawyers hired by the university find that Ms. Kipnis did not violate Title IX by writing the opinion piece. She goes on to write two more pieces for The Chronicle describing the complaints against her and Mr. Ludlow as an inquisition and a witch hunt.

November 2015: Mr. Ludlow, whom a university investigation had found responsible for sexual harassment but not rape, resigns in the midst of termination proceedings.

April 2017: HarperCollins publishes Ms. Kipnis’s book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. A chapter in the book describes the relationship between Mr. Ludlow and the graduate student as consensual and includes text messages between the two. Ms. Kipnis uses a pseudonym for the student, which the student says is close to her real name.

April 2017: Philosophy graduate students at Northwestern write a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper, accusing Ms. Kipnis of publishing personal and embarrassing information about a junior colleague without verifying the information.

May 2017: The graduate student sues Ms. Kipnis and HarperCollins, saying the book disclosed private details about her personal life and contained false and damaging statements about her. Ms. Kipnis declines to comment on the lawsuit.