To the editor:
As activists, peer educators, and compassionate human beings on Northwestern’s campus, we are writing to publicly express our outrage and disappointment with RTVF Professor Laura Kipnis’ recently published article about professor-student relationships in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Kipnis’ full-throated support of sexual encounters between faculty and their students is anathema to the safe culture of healthy sexuality towards which the Northwestern community ought to aspire. Professor Kipnis does not speak for us.
Kipnis depicts the modern climate around professor-student relationships as some sort of dystopian sexual Reign of Terror. She protests against activists who would problematize sexual encounters that she would prefer to see as innocuous and even “part of the curriculum.” Make no mistake: Kipnis is not registering a levelheaded, pro-feminist objection against activism taken too far. She is expressing a profoundly reactionary longing for the supposed halcyon days where professors were allowed to sexually exploit the power that they wield over their students with impunity.
Kipnis is myopic in her minimization of the importance of academic power relationships and callous in her delegitimization of vocalized trauma. Kipnis acknowledges that professors are “older and more accomplished” than their students, but is adamant that they would never deploy this for their sexual advantage: “How could they?” she asks rhetorically.
Is Kipnis’ imagination really so limited that she is incapable of supplying an answer to this question? Can she not picture a professor promising grade inflation in exchange for sex? Is she incapable of visualizing the field of implicit or explicit coercion that obtains in any relationship where one party has the ability to make or break the other’s career? The classroom is never a level playing field in a university setting like Northwestern: the professor holds the power in the classroom, sets goals and expectations, and has the power to enforce them through their control of grades. It’s naive to expect these power dynamics to disappear once a professor and their student enter the bedroom.
Furthermore, Kipnis remarks that she was not raised to view those in positions of institutional power as "quite so fearsome", nor the institutions as "mighty." These comments highlight both Kipnis' personal privilege and her willful blindness to the historically ubiquitous role of institutionalized systems of oppression, such as racism and sexism, in academia. These systems always have an effect on interactions between professors and students.
With victim-blaming glee, Kipnis admits that sexual encounters between professors and students may be “mistakes,” but she is adamant that they never transgress moral boundaries. She gaslights, belittles, and condescends to students who are brave enough to disclose the sexual violence they have experienced, insisting that they merely regret an underwhelming sexual experience. Let us be clear: we are not concerned that professors are having bad sex with their students. We are concerned that professors are sexually assaulting their students.
Kipnis’ article is especially tasteless because that is precisely what an investigator at this university effectively found that Professor Peter Ludlow has done. (The investigator found that Ludlow made unwanted sexual contact with a student, which meets the definition of sexual assault that Northwestern adopted last January.) Kipnis demonstrates a staggering disregard for the pain and grief that countless members of the Northwestern community have shared since last February in her discussion of the allegations against Ludlow.
In characterizing the Ludlow case as “melodrama,” Kipnis spits in the face of survivors of rape and sexual assault everywhere. When she argues that the term “survivor” is inappropriately applied to those who have been assaulted because their experience is somehow less traumatizing than that of survivors of genocide, Kipnis insults everyone who has experienced sexual assault, everyone who has experienced state-sanctioned violence, and the intelligence of her readers.
By flippantly dismissing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of triggers, she also flies in the face of robust evidence about the psychological effects of sexual assault and the experience of survivors everywhere. Her confusion at “well-adjusted” students who approached her to discuss triggers but were not visibly upset in class is patronizing and reveals a deep lack of empathy. Kipnis is comfortable with expressions of trauma only when survivors conform to her narrow expectations. She cloaks her arguments in a veil of superficial “feminism,” but she resists solidarity with survivors of gendered violence at every step.
We are disturbed that a Northwestern professor stands in such vehement opposition to a principle that occupies a sacrosanct place in the moral fabric of every modern academic community. We are concerned that Kipnis’ arguments have the potential to further erode the few protections for vulnerable students on campus that have not already been exposed as a cruel joke. And we can only hope that the Northwestern community will meet Kipnis’ toxic ideas with resounding opprobrium, because they have no place here.
Erik Baker, Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault
Michelle Margulis, Rainbow Alliance, School of Communication student
Jasmine Stephens, Title IX at NU
Isabel Sturla, College Feminists, Take Back the Night Co-Chair
Miranda Cawley, Former SHAPE Peer Educator
Theanne Liu, Asian Pacific American Coalition, Incoming External President
Bisola Sosan, Asian Pacific American Coalition, African Students Association
Zoe Pressman, RTVF Major, Northwestern Channel 1 member
Jeanne Hou, Asian Pacific American Coalition, Incoming Internal President
Olivia Kuncio, College Feminists, Take Back the Night Committee member
Yujin Samantha Maeng, Asian Pacific American Coalition
Aishwarya Pastapur, Biology Major, College Feminists
Hannah Rosenstein, RTVF Major
Kayleen McMonigal, Title IX at NU
Hannah Johnson, Take Back the Night Committee member
Carrie Hsieh, Asian Pacific American Coalition
Aimee Hechler, RTVF major, Rainbow Alliance
Melisa Stephen, SHAPE
Stephanie Kong, Asian Pacific American Coalition
Jamie Joeyen-Waldorf, Theatre Major, Red Watch Band Facilitator
Peter Cleary, Rainbow Alliance
Troy Thisler, Psychology/Computer Science major, Rainbow Alliance
Bex Ehrmann, Theatre Major
Jenna Zitaner, UNICEF NU Marketing & Public Relations Director, Medill senior
Fatima Gomez, Anthropology Major
Alexandra Dayton, Slavic Languages and Literature Major
Yunita Ong, Medill junior
LJ Krohn, Kappa Delta, Sex Week/College Feminists
Haley Hinkle, ASG Director of Campus Safety
Simone Alicea, Sex Week/Medill Senior
Akosua Owusu-Akyaw, Title IX at NU
Kathryn Pogin, PhD Student, Philosophy
Elizabeth Bohl, College Feminists President
Madhuri Sathish, Medill junior
Alli Shapiro, College Feminists
Julia Watson, ASG President
Piotr Podlipni, Secondary Education in the Sciences senior
Christina Kim, ASG Vice President for Services
Emelyn Barrientos, RTVF major
Lya Ferreyra, Social Policy major
Carter Sherman, Journalism major