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Stupid sex, according to Northwestern Communications Prof. Laura Kipnis, is becoming more and more regulated on college campuses these days.
Kipnis discussed her ideas about sexual assault, student-faculty relationships and sexual repression to faculty from around the country at a faculty governance conference on campus hosted by the University of Michigan Faculty Senate Assembly Monday.
No stranger to the topic, Kipnis received national attention in February of 2015 after she published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The essay questioned taboos around student-faculty relationships and sexual assault, citing a case at Northwestern. Two graduate students filed a Title IX retaliation complaint against Kipnis following the article, arguing that, in it, she misstated facts about the ongoing case and created a hostile environment following protests against the article.
“One of the charges they leveled against me was that I created a hostile environment on campus, or perhaps it was a chilling effect,” Kipnis said Monday. “I wasn’t entirely sure which because I never actually got the charges in writing. This led me to become interested in questions I never thought much about previously.”
In May 2015, after an extensive investigation, Kipnis was cleared of all charges. Since the investigation, Kipnis has become an advocate against ambiguity and lack of due process often associated with Title IX investigations. Title IX is a set of rules that protects students from having a comprised education due to any form of discrimination. In 2011, Title IX was updated to include discrimination due to sexual assault.
“Sex has always been messy, which is what is both appealing and stressing about it,” Kipnis said. “But compounding the messiness on campus now is the dismal fact that there’s a long list of things you’re not supposed to say about this mess. It’s far more impossible to have an intellectually honest discussion about sex on campus on the American campus than off these days.”
Comparative Literature Prof. Silke-Maria Weineck, chair of Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, said these issues have recently been prevalent at the University, which is why they brought Kipnis to campus. Last year SACUA discussed changing the Office of Institutional Equity's procedure for treating faculty accused of harassment and discrimination.
“We have spent a lot of time debating questions of both sexual assault and due process at the University over the last two years,” Weineck said. “I thought (Kipnis’ speech) brought together so many themes that we’ve been discussing on campus and at the University as a whole.”
Kipnis argued that the recent influx in regulation on sex is shifting the connotation of sex from fun to dangerous.
“Shifting the stress from pleasure to danger not only changes the prevailing narrative, but changing the narrative changes the way sex is experienced,” she said. “We’re social creatures after all, and narrative is how we make sense of the world.”
She also joked about university administrators who try to criminalize sexual activity after alcohol consumption.
“Among the new regulations administrators have foisted on campus is criminalizing sex when either party has been drinking, so all sex in other words,” she said.
Kipnis said she believes there are a fair share of cases that deserve legal attention, particularly when it comes to sexual assault between faculty and students. However, she said many cases are blown out of proportion.
“No doubt a fair number of such professors deserve to be picked off and some accusations are justified,” Kipnis said. “Yes, there are people who should lose their jobs. But too many of these accusations are overblown, hysterical, self-dramatized or self-exonerating.”
Colin Campbell, Pharmacology professor at the University of Minnesota, said he attended the event after reading her article in the Chronicle.
“I was looking forward to meeting her, she’s very refreshing,” Campbell said.
He said he thought that though students shouldn’t be blamed for the recent crackdown on sexual regulation, they will experience dissonance such as this in their college careers and beyond.
“You came to college to get exposed to things that you wouldn’t necessarily get exposed to,” Campbell said. “You don’t know what it’s going to be and you’re not going to like all of it.”
The event, part of the Faculty Governance Conference, hosted faculty governances from notable universities: the University of Virginia, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Berkeley. The conference features a series of speakers, panels and discussions, and will be concluding Tuesday afternoon.
The event is the first of its kind at the University, and Weineck said the conference so far has been fascinating.
“It’s so interesting to see how different the faculty government structures are at other universities,” Weineck said. “I think what’s becoming increasingly clear to Michigan faculty here is that Michigan has one of the weakest faculty governance systems in the country, and that is something we would actually like to change.”