Features, Review, Top Stories

Laura Kipnis, Camille Paglia and the Redefinition of Sex

Laura Kipnis

Reading Laura Kipnis’ Unwanted Advances is challenging. Not because Kipnis isn’t a gifted writer, but because her experience with Title IX administrators, today’s campus equivalent of a morality squad, is downright noxious. What landed her in trouble was an article she wrote, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2015). Many of us who remember the heady days of 70s and 80s campus life appreciated her candour about sex, especially when it came to the empowerment we felt then. Young campus feminists today, groomed to see themselves as victims disagreed, claiming they found the article “terrifying.” A campus petition to sanction Kipnis at Northwestern followed, as did a Title IX inquiry.

Kipnis’ cautionary tale dovetails with Camille Paglia’s collection of essays, Free Women, Free Men. Paglia also draws inspiration from her own life, although her analyses focus more on shifting cultural Zeitgeists, the kind that empower or disempower women. Loosely, both books form a subjective (Kipnis) and objective (Paglia) look at how current iterations of feminism are curbing freedoms and diminishing the quality of much academic thought.

Throughout her book, Kipnis emphasizes an amusing but important idea: she believes a lot of bad sex is being had on campuses everywhere, an admission few academics are willing to make, with most confounding “bad sex” and “rape culture” instead. Both she and Paglia also believe that unrealistic expectations, ignorance and a disinclination to give some men a break (see below) are what’s created the belief that campuses are havens for rapists, a belief crime statistics belie. While Kipnis’ own story is mingled with an autopsy of the case of disgraced philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, Paglia provides a series of alternate responses to sex and sexual misconduct.

Northwestern’s Peter Ludlow, like Kipnis, must have felt as though he’d stepped into an alternate universe when he first learned of the Title IX charges against him. It’s a fitting analogy for Ludlow, given his combined expertise in philosophy and online worlds like Second Life, a platform he used to teach one of his courses. Kipnis’ research into his ordeal is exhaustive because it has to be: his accusers’ narratives, frequently countered by their own electronic messages, deviate so fully from what Ludlow convincingly claims were consensual experiences. His is the retelling of the Inferno, with every revelation exposing yet another of Dante’s beasts on his descent into Hell.

The reference to beasts isn’t overstated. First to qualify is Jocelyn Packer, a goading mentor to one of Ludlow’s accusers, second is Heidi Lockwood, a “self-styled carpetbagging rape activist,” and third is Joan Slavin, a Title IX officer with the “psychological acuity of a mollusk.” Fourth and fifth are Patricia Bobb, a less than fully qualified lawyer when it comes to Title IX, and Professor X, a married, former paramour of Hartley’s, who supported her by “stirring the cauldron” in which his romantic successor was stewing.

All seemed driven by a desire to ruin Ludlow, an intellectual albeit naive man who hardly rose to the level of black-hearted villain. Equally dubious were the charges against him. First was an accusation made by “Eunice Cho” that Ludlow forced her to drink alcohol, which then caused her to attempt suicide; his second accuser, “Nola Hartley,” believed their three-month, consensual relationship was in fact disguised abuse. It’s clear both women have been thoroughly milled by malevolent, agency-stripping machinery. Kipnis leaves no doubt about whose.

And it’s machinery that encourages learned helplessness that Paglia does battle with in Free Women, Free Men. While the story of her 1950s upbringing is repeated a little too often in her collection, her early pursuits—an obsession with Amelia Earhart and childhood tendency toward androgyny—are telling precursors of her empowered vision of feminism.

Like Kipnis, Paglia speaks frankly about alcohol, arguing that keg parties and other instances of binge drinking are integral to the rise of perceived campus rapes. While Kipnis augments her argument with an analysis of the expanding definitions of rape, Paglia charges off in another direction, offering alternate cultural patterns of alcohol consumption that many of us with European backgrounds recognize.

Camille Paglia

More specifically, she’s against a drinking age of 21, noting that underage partiers often find other, more damaging substances to get high on. It’s a simple idea, and one that Paglia skillfully meshes with the temperance movements of the early 20th century–movements that allowed the mafia to thrive–and the later, misguided efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Paglia clearly favours the civilizing effects of early alcohol consumption as a replacement for the crazed partying of the uninitiated. It’s hard to disagree: alcohol is key in most cases of date rape, a fact consistently minimized by those looking to place the blame squarely on men.

An especially powerful essay in Paglia’s collection, “The Nursery School Campus: The Corrupting of the Humanities in the U.S.” frames our current academic malaise in political terms inimical to how most progressives see themselves. Starting with the 1960s, she writes:

The 1960s failed, I believe, partly because of unclear thinking about institutions, which it portrayed in dark, conspiratorial, Kafkaesque terms. The positive role of institutions in economically complex societies was neglected…[and] capitalism’s contribution to the emergence of modern individualism, and therefore feminism, has been blindly suppressed. This snide ahistoricism is the norm these days in women’s studies programs and chichi, Foucault-afflicted literature departments…universities led the way by creating a ghetto of black studies, which begat women’s studies, which in turn begat gay studies….each has simply made up its own rules and fostered its own selfish clientele, who have created a closed system in which scholarship is inseparable from politics.

Ahistoricism and misguided, chiaroscuro politics have created the context for Title IX inquisitions. Those of us who have been teaching for decades see the end results: we know that the rise of shallow identity politics, and the denigration of rich historical and literary canons, has not furthered the cause of women or minorities. In fact, what Paglia rightfully identifies as a chaotic battleground of diminished ideas has at least one manifestation in the inchoate theorising and haphazard application of the Title IX policies foisted on Kipnis and Ludlow. It begs the question: shouldn’t a legal instrument, with the power to decimate lives, be more coherent?

The true kings of the castle are now administrators in many Departments of Education, those coddlers extraordinaire who, if their mandates were truthfully articulated, would be standing at the gates of most universities handing out diapers. This is a class whose goal is not the accumulation of knowledge, but the accumulation of power. That we’ve ceded our right to govern ourselves to them is a state of affairs we should unite to rectify. As many academics know, the emotional fragility of students is often a cover for the fragility of their thinking. Among other things, universities are there to fix that. Protecting those young minds, by suppressing our critical voices, should be the first bad idea to go.

Filed under: Features, Review, Top Stories


Irene Ogrizek is a writer, teacher, and editor based in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Visit her website here: http://www.ireneogrizek.com


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  3. Good article,slightly marred by a common error. From grammarist.com: Begging the question, sometimes known by its Latin name petitio principii (meaning assuming the initial point), is a logical fallacy in which the writer or speaker assumes the statement under examination to be true. In other words, begging the question involves using a premise to support itself.

    • Yes – should be ‘raises the question’ in this case. Also: Use of the word ‘alternate’, instead of ‘alternative’.
      One hates being a grammar nazi (sorry), because it distracts from an excellent review and an important message.

  4. North American usage for “alternate”:

    1) taking the place of; alternative.
    “the rerouted traffic takes a variety of alternate routes”
    synonyms: alternative, other, another, second, different, substitute, replacement, deputy, relief, proxy, surrogate, cover, fill-in, stand-in, standby, emergency, reserve, backup, auxiliary, fallback; informal pinch-hitting
    “just in case, let’s come up with a couple of alternate plans”

  5. Re: begging the question from the New York Times:

    “That’s not easy if we stick to The Times. Out of 17 uses in the last year, I found only two that were basically right. They’re too complicated to summarize, but if you’re interested, here they are, in a magazine item and a response to a letter in the Book Review.”

    The writer of this article appears to be in good company…

    • …and when pragmatics overtake semantics, we shall all be plunged into rhetorical anarchy.
      [ 😉 ]

      • Robert Ludlow says

        The two already coexist quite nicely. The intent machinated behind rhetorical strategy doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about pragmatics or semantics, let alone the likelihood of the death of government. – RL

  6. cornell says

    Another error: She uses “confounding” to mean “conflating”.

    • Robert Ludlow says

      Yes! Thank you for also spotting this. -RL

    • Here’s the definition of “confound” that I used:

      “to mix up (something) with something else so that the individual elements become difficult to distinguish.

      • Robert Ludlow says

        Thanks for answering. Yes, in the same way you mixed up the words ‘confound’ and ‘conflate’ as if they, too, were interchangeable. They’re not. Their senses are very similar, like ‘bachelor’ and ‘single man,’ but no, they are not the same. As distinct concepts, the average person will have markedly different ideas of what constitutes ‘bad sex’ and ‘rape culture.’ Kipnis might think otherwise, but what Kipnis thinks and believes has little to do with what others think, believe, and, to an extent, know. ‘Confound’ minimizes this issue in a way that ‘conflate’ does not. Again, sorry for the hair-splitting. – RL

  7. Robert Ludlow says

    Sorry; I have a couple of issues with this article. Some of them are directly related to Ms. Ogrizek’s application of language, and others… not so much..

    1) Correct the philosophy professor’s name. His name is Peter Ludlow, not Peter “Robert” Ludlow, at least as far as the reader can tell before the the author drops ‘Robert’ out of nowhere. Whether he’s disgraced or not, it’s lazy and disrespectful to get a person’s name wrong in a published work.

    2) Sorry for splitting hairs, but in the third paragraph, I think Ogrizek meant to use ‘conflate’ in place of ‘confound.’ Even if its application here is grammatically sound and semantically acceptable, it rings a tad dissonantly. ‘Confound’ requires at least two distinct “confounded,” elements in its argument structure, whereas ‘conflate’ entails that two or more elements have been tossed into a single set with the result that they’re apparently indistinguishable from one another as sets or subsets, when in fact the two are not related to one another at all.

    I stress this because I fear conceptual misrepresentation of “bad sex,” “rape culture,” and all possible conflations of the two. When people hear or ponder the phrase ‘bad sex,’ most folks’ ideas imagine sex that’s boring, disappointing, without pleasure or passion, etc. “Rape culture,” however, has its own very specific expectations, mores, habits, and even taboos. No one gets sexually assaulted and thinks before, during, or after, “wow, what bad sex!” and then decides that they were raped after all.

    For so long as we’re talking about Kipnis’s “subjectivity” in juxtaposition of Paglia’s “objectivity,” as well as the concern that the very nature of social justice discourse resists academic scrutiny, I’d put a lot less stock in Kipnis’s input than in Paglia’s. Pontificating here and there is alright, but we have to remember that the personal experiences Kipnis describes in her own book are a byproduct of another professor’s charges and investigation per Title IX-related and Northwestern’s internal agencies. Her input is interesting and maybe insightful (???), but it’s much closer to the Foucault-ish prattle than one might think. Lend Paglia your ear as well as well as your thinking cap.

    3) I’d hardly categorize contemporary progressive feminism as a Zeitgeist. One of the reasons these so-called SJWs fight so hard in the first place is because their beliefs and their personal applications of such hardly dominate the sociopolitical sphere and haven’t achieved a normative status in our time. (c.f. literally everything they are concerned about, such as intersectionality, the fact that the onset of contemporary feminism and similar schools of thought are inherently historicist, etc.).

    4) I’d appreciate it if one could mor eexpressly disambiguate whose “fragile emotions are covers for their fragile thinking” and then elaborate a little further on that, because I’d hate to see such an acclaimed site to effectively declaire that literally millions of students’ unique perspectives, talents, ideas, and accomplishments (past and pending) so grossly discredited without providing a clear reason. I read the word ‘fragile’ but all I’m hearing is ‘feeble.’

    5) While I understand that the usage of Kipnis’s name and her most recent book is supposed to complement or flesh out the context of Paglia’s own, please, in the future: actually talk about the OTHER book in question and what makes it important INDEPENDENTLY of Kipnis’s. While a lengthy block quote does tend to make an article appear longer, it often usurps the writer’s opportunity to analyze the passage more carefully and thoughtfully. It’s great that Ogrizek appears to agree with the author, but… why does she agree? It comes off as willy-nilly! Hell, Paglia’s “objective” scholarship isn’t even properly described here: why is this so much more objective than Kipnis’s? (for clarification, this is the fault of Ogrizek, who also found that Paglia sprinkled too many anecdotes from her bygone childhood. Why was this an issue for Ogrizek, or at all? Who knows! Perhaps Ms. Ogrizek is not so objective? Why did she even write this angry love letter to Kipnis disguised as a critical article? What did she even get out of writing this? What did PAGLIA get out of this?).

    TL;DR The article’s content, discussion, conclusion, and the execution of the aforementioned are disappointing from both a layman’s perspective, as well as an academic’s. It’s more self-serving than it is informative. It praises Kipnis and her book so much, up to the point where eventually all this talk of Kipnis even shadows Paglia’s most recent contribution to the literature, thereby misrepresenting the topics at hand (as well as key individuals involved, apparently), the audience its author is polemically attempting to spoon-feed, and, of course, those pesky SJWs and their fellow human rights mongers. I hope Quillette does better in the future and perhaps provides its contributors with an editor and, perhaps, at least one other person to engage with regarding the article’s topics and materials.

    Thanks; happy Thursday.


    • I have indeed made an error by using Robert instead of Peter. My apologies. I’ve contacted the editor and asked her to correct this.

      Please see the above definition of “confound” I used in this article. (In response to “Cornell.”) I like the idea of fully using words for all their meanings–I believe that’s what being creative is all about. I also believe the word “alternate” caused some consternation, which strikes me as odd too.The word’s meaning is clearly outlined in most online dictionaries and I used it correctly.

      I also used the term “Zeitgeist” to describe the many historical references in Paglia’s book, not the SJW movement. I don’t understand how that misperception came about–it’s really not in my article–but surely anyone who knows Paglia knows she knows her history?

      This is a twinned book review, which meant that for the purposes of brevity, I had to focus on a few salient points in each book. I like Kipnis and Paglia equally, which is why I decided to review them together.

      The comments about my vocabulary are erroneous, causing me to wonder about the word “misdirection” and the phrase “damning with faint praise.” Feel free to look those up too.

      • Robert Ludlow says

        Thanks for replying, Irene; I appreciate it a lot. I think the above commenters were right in pointing out the distinction between ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative;’ they have lexically distinctive properties that have a lot to say about the thingy they describe. An alternate world is one that is very similar to ours, and yet is slightly different. An alternative world, however, is more like a back-up planet, a plan B, like a second earth. Dictionaries are helpful and all, but words in the wild operate very differently.

        Re: Zeitgeist: thank you for the detail! That was not so clear. The Here and Now bears its own Spirit as well, and is no less interesting than that of other time periods, especially in context with Kipnis’s and Paglia’s criticism within gender studies.

        Seeeeee, framing it as a twinned book review after the fact is kind of strange, especially since Kipnis’s book came out several months ago. It’s not exactly intuitive, especially when the article ends without a clear analysis of the two books in relation to one another. Talk to your editor and ask for an opportunity to expound on it more, please.

        I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to know more about Paglia’s scholarship? Like why all this interested her and why she decided to research what she did, and how she synthesized her findings into a coherent thesis, etc.? It’s not a matter of her credibility (hell, I got nothin’ myself) so much as discussing Paglia the researcher in her pursuit of objectivity, especially since it’s supposed to contrast with and yet complement Kipnis’s work.

        In the end, I’m just not understanding what you’re wanting your readers to take away from this, unless you think your readers are okay with eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the end, it reads like a book report: “I really loved this book and THIS book, and here’s why! etc.” Quillette’s readers aren’t stupid, so where’s the meat? Why is this review here on Quillette and not on GoodReads, or Amazon?

        Your vocabulary is fine; you’re very attuned with what you write, and you care very deeply about the words you use and how you use them, even when it linguistically doesn’t make much sense.

  8. Darwin T of BC Humanists says

    What we have here are the revelations of addled minds in the Humanities. We only lack a scorching desert and a few totems of superstition to make it a “true” faith. No matter, they will keep bashing on and hammer us into believing their piffle too unless we organize and push back.

    A possible first step is to get student clubs started that seem to pose no opposition yet do. For example a Humanist club or a Classics club. You get the drift. Let these clubs percolate naturally with clear goals and guidance that includes reason, science and respect for individuals. Let them form alliances with other like-minded clubs. Then let them do charitable and other outreach activities like blood donation to build campus credit. When ready let them try for student governance positions. First attempts may not win but can carve a pathway to winning later.

    This is but one strategy in one area of campus life. Multiple strands need to be woven together to gain just outcomes and this will take time.

    We owe it to ourselves to make it a success. If we do not occupy and or create a vital centre then we will be left only with collective extremes that impose all conduct via screaming sessions and escalations from there. Et voila, ca c’est une vrai Rabbit Hole.

    Thanks for this thoughtful and needed article!

    • This is a wonderful suggestion. I believe we need a transnational movement which I would like called Humanist Equity Movement. It would be against looking under people’s pants to determine truth.

  9. Joe says


    Loved the article. Enjoyed Paglia’s new offering (but yes she does love to talk about Amelia and the farm a bit too much, but understandably so as they are poignant to her development, but you’ve hear it once and it’s enough. I’m going to pick up Kipnis’ book for the holiday weekend thanks to your review. They’ll look smashing side by side on the book shelf.

    Sorry about the grammarians. They mean well, even if a bit rambunctious.

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