Open letter from an NU grad student

Kathryn Pogin, a philosophy grad student at Northwestern University, has written an open letter in response to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis on ‘sexual paranoia’ in higher education. The article – which you can access without bumping up its readership stats here – discusses the case of Northerwestern professor Peter Ludlow at some length. With respect to that case, Pogin comments:

In your article you write, “The professor sued various colleagues, administrators, and a former grad student he previously dated, for defamation.” As an editorial comment, your argument is more persuasive than it otherwise would have been had you included that the reason the graduate student is being sued for defamation is because she, like the undergraduate student whose allegations you describe at least a bit, brought an internal Title IX complaint against the professor for sexual assault, in this case, alleging that he raped her. But, editorializing aside, this sentence does what you purported to find so disturbing about the use of the of the term ‘survivor’ by some campus activists–it makes a claim on the basis of allegations which are as of yet unsupported. You claim that the professor previously dated the graduate student he is suing. The foundation for that claim is his own legal complaint against her. The graduate student has neither confirmed this is the case, nor had a chance to dispute the claim in court given that her motion to dismiss had to presume all the facts as he alleged them could be substantiated, whether or not she believed that to be true. Moreover, given that the university’s finding that he sexually harassed her was based precisely on the relationship which he alleges was consensual, one must wonder how a relationship could be found to both sexually harassing and consensual at one and the same time.
You also write, “He sued the university for gender discrimination (he says he wasn’t allowed to present evidence disproving the student’s allegations)—this suit was thrown out; so were several brought by the student.” The undergraduate student brought two lawsuits. One against the university, one against the professor. The one against the university was dismissed–the one against the professor was not. The student has brought no other lawsuits. To say that “several” brought by the student have been thrown out is both false and damaging.

She continues with more general observations about the alleged ‘Title IX’ panic that universities, and especially the students who attend them, are experiencing:

I am part of the post-Title IX landscape as a student concerned with sexual violence on college campuses, and I do, like you say, find myself experiencing a touch of panic. To be clear though, my panic is not some ill-founded anxiety bred out of an inability to see women, or students, as something other than damsels in distress, nor by an inability to conceptualize my own experiences, nor by my being some wilting violet. The sense of panic I feel comes from seeing professors in my own discipline shuffle from one institution to the next after being involved in harassment scandals that are covered up, swept under the rug, and quickly forgotten as if academia has modeled itself after the Catholic Church. It comes from knowing victims who have been driven out of their departments and out of their chosen career paths because try as they might justice will not be served to them. It comes from knowing that senior and well respected persons in my profession, in the context of making decisions about hiring, have referred to sexual assault as something that we should not hang over a person’s head forever. It comes from knowing that if I am ever assaulted by a professor, even filing an entirely confidential and internal Title IX complaint might result in my being sued for defamation–where what could potentially be the most private, horrific, and heartbreaking experiences of my life will be made public through someone else’s narrative, and where someone like you may refer to my suffering flippantly as melodrama.

Kipnis’ article – which includes the claim that the success of feminism has placed menopausal women with low libidos in positions of power, and they now want to legislate against everyone else’s sex life, and which suggests that because she didn’t experience any lasting harm from professor/student relationships anyone who thinks such relationships might in some contexts be harmful is experiencing a type of moral panic – would be laughable if it didn’t have the potential to be so damaging.

20 thoughts on “Open letter from an NU grad student

  1. I’m going to use bad words so this comment might get spiked, but anyway:

    aha ha ha ha ha hah aha late middle aged woman prof shits on much younger women in order to gain tons of favourable attention from the patriarchy; frames her argument as “concern” that late middle aged women profs might be shitting on younger women by facilitating those young women’s own efforts to protect themselves from the predatory attentions of the patriarchy.

    ah ha ha haha hahahahahaha ha ha ha haa snort, slight feeling of sadness for Laura Kipnis, followed by more guffaws. [Moderator’s comment: edited the last sentence out. Sorry Kathleen!]

  2. Trying to follow the logic of Slate’s Yoffe and Kipnis. Yoffe: The new documentary The Hunting Ground is ridiculous, because it doesn’t advertise that there is new attention to rape on campus, which offers some type of remedy to victims. Also Yoffe: the new attention to rape on campus is itself the greater harm (to falsely accused men). OK.

    Kipnis: Sexual abuse survivors don’t deserve that title. Trying to stop sexual harassment (in academia) is ridiculous. It is actually good for young women (and they know it). To speak out about sexual harassment makes you weak and unprepared for the work world. It is inexplicable why people in careers are affected by sexual harassment, though. Criticism on social media is the greater source of harm, and anyone can generate that– so there should be no problem. ?

    Or this might capture Kipnis’s argument better: http://www.theawl.com/2015/03/i-am-the-foul-byproduct-of-the-mating-of-a-professor-and-a-student

    Am I missing something? I know I am missing something. I try not to be shocked by things, but the arguments of the rape campus skeptics– wow. Maybe Lipnis is just trying to be shocking, but Yoffe’s attempts to suggest no surveys on young women are reliable and her desperately confused take on Lisak’s work (and therefore all of the other work on rapists it references) seem just so wishful. What are they really hoping for?

  3. Kathleen, just because I edited it doesn’t mean I don’t agree entirely!

    JAB, you’ve prompted me to post my all-time favorite mind-boggling Yoffe quote:

    “If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest—and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle—I hope their restraint trickles down to the men.

    If I had a son, I would tell him that it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate.”

    You know, rather than, perhaps: “If I had a son I’d tell him not to rape people.”

    Show some restraint, ladies. It’s up to you. The boys will follow suit! Trickle-down economics for rape-prevention!

  4. Made the mistake of reading the original article – horrendous, horrendous, horrendous. Are we sure it wasn’t written by a man? The sense of self-satisfied privilege was nauseating.

  5. What a great letter from Kathryn Pogin, who makes a judicious choice of falsehoods to refute from an article constructed of practically nothing else. Her reply spotlights the lack of even a rudimentary care for accuracy from both Professor Kipnis and the CHE here.

    If any encouraging thought can be taken away from the appearance of Professor Kipnis’s article, it might be found in the following conjecture: One measure of how a viewpoint is faring in public discourse is how low the bar is set for academic defenses of it to be publishable, even in the interests of “balance” or contrarianism. If that is right, then the fact that the CHE more or less had to drop the bar down a mineshaft in this case is vaguely comforting.

  6. Two unrelated points:

    1) “You also write, “He sued the university for gender discrimination (he says he wasn’t allowed to present evidence disproving the student’s allegations)—this suit was thrown out; so were several brought by the student.” The undergraduate student brought two lawsuits. One against the university, one against the professor. The one against the university was dismissed–the one against the professor was not. The student has brought no other lawsuits. To say that “several” brought by the student have been thrown out is both false and damaging.”

    This has been corrected on the Chronicle post, where the relevant bit now reads “this suit was thrown out; so was the student’s lawsuit against the university.”. I don’t know whether that was as a result of this letter or not.

    2) Replying to JAB:
    “Yoffe’s attempts to suggest no surveys on young women are reliable and her desperately confused take on Lisak’s work (and therefore all of the other work on rapists it references) seem just so wishful. What are they really hoping for?”

    Yoffe’s broad point about surveys is that what research has been done on campus (and other) sexual assault has generated a very wide range of estimates of incidence, and it is epistemically irresponsible (my term, not hers) to pick on survey (which is normally one at the extreme end of the range) and treat it as canonical. That sounds fairly sensible to me; it also apparently seems sensible to the lead investigator on one of the most widely-cited extreme-case surveys, whom Yoffe interviewed for her long-form piece last year.

  7. David, yes, the editors at CHE have said that correction was in response to my email. I have asked them to correct the others still (I’m assuming others have realized this, my letter was not exhaustive, e.g., the piece says that Ludlow v. Northwestern was dismissed “last month,” but the piece was published on February 27th, and the judge’s order was entered on February 5th).

    I have no idea why Kipnis wrote this piece as she did, nor why the CHE published it, but the failure of care for factual accuracy is stunning.

  8. David, I agree that “what research has been done on campus (and other) sexual assault has generated a very wide range of estimates of incidence, and it is epistemically irresponsible (my term, not hers) to pick on survey (which is normally one at the extreme end of the range) and treat it as canonical.” But I don’t think it’s charitable to suggest – as Yoffe does – that anti-rape activists are (i) picking out a single study; (ii) picking that study simply because it fits with what they want to believe. At least insofar as I understand the available research on campus sexual assault, the numbers vary widely *based on how you ask the questions*. (E.g., you get much lower percentages if you ask ‘have you been raped or sexually assaulted?’ than if you ask about whether particular things – which in fact meet the legal criteria for rape or sexual assault – have happened. And you get much lower percentages if you do a survey of anyone enrolled in college than you do if you focus on full-time students enrolled full time at 4-year residential colleges, who are the population generally thought to be at highest risk for sexual assault.) Anti-rape activists as well as social scientists researching campus rape have argued that there’s good reason to think that how we frame the questions has a huge affect on the reliability of the data, and that asking more abstract questions like ‘have you been raped?’ isn’t a good way of undertaking such research. Likewise, the populations we study matters a great deal. If we narrow in on studies conforming the kinds of methodological standards that these groups believe – based on principled reasons, it seems – are most likely to be accurate and which focus on what is believed to be the most relevant population – against, for seemingly good reason – we get much less variation. We still get variation, of course. But the data *suggests* that rape and sexual assault among undergraduates enrolled on 4-year college campuses is not at all uncommon (with estimates tending to fall in the 10-20% range).

    Of course we still need a lot more research. And I agree that trotting out the ‘1 in 5’ statistic like it’s an established fact is irresponsible. I’m less convinced, though, that its – as Yoffe seems to suggest – a sign of the moral frenzy that anti-rape activists have worked themselves into, rather than just the way in which people overestimate what social science actually shows. (Cf. most any usage of ‘psychologists have show that. . .’ written by a journalist.)

    It’s also a particularly ironic criticism to get from Yoffe, given how much she herself cherry-picks statistics irresponsibly. (E.g., she uses the FBI’s data showing that incidents of rape fell from 97,470 in 1995 to 79,770 in 2013 to suggest a general skepticism that rape might be on the rise at college campuses. But she fails to mention that during this time period the FBI employed a hilariously outdated definition of rape, according to which, among other things, one had to be female to be raped and rape had to involve physical force. The FBI amended this definition in 2013, and using the new definition estimated an incidence of 108,612 rapes.) Yoffe also, of course, picks relies on a very one-sided telling of a few highly contested anecdotes to suggest there is a massive problem – due to moral panic – of men been kicked out of school for false rape accusations.

    To be clear, I think there are very serious issues here. I think a lot of social science in the area is used irresponsibly (but what else is new?) and I think the idea – which some campus anti-rape activists seem to have – that we can somehow solve this problem primarily by making and enforcing stricter policies is utterly misguided and should be rejected. But that’s a far cry from the line Yoffe is taking.

  9. Magicalersatz: I think we’re mostly in agreement; I’m certainly myself much more inclined to the “everyone uses social science irresponsibly” view than the “rape activists are uniquely guilty view”. And I don’t find a 10%-20% rate of sexual assault prima facie implausible based on my anecdotal impression of (UK) student life. (And so what if I did? Lots of true things are prima facie implausible.) My impression of the data was that even that 10%-20% range is not by any means solid yet but I’m no expert.

    I’m not sure I agree with the criticism of that FBI statistic. Of course that’s an absurdly narrow definition of rape, but if you want to look at how something *changes* over time you need to keep the definition fixed, even if it’s flawed. (It would obviously be much more unreliable to say: rape in 1995=97,470, rape in 2013=108,612, so rape is going up – of course you’re not doing that). It’s *possible* that even as incidents of rape-as-narrowly-defined decreased by 20%, incidents of rape-more-broadly-defined went up, but absent a reason to think that possibility is actual the decline is moderately suggestive. (I actually find it surprising that the increase when the definition is made more sensible isn’t larger: most rapes involve physical force? But I guess there’s a very strong selection effect as to which rapes the FBI becomes aware of.)

    I’ll avoid the temptation to engage with whether Yoffe is being irresponsible or one-sided; on previous evidence it gets me accused of being called a rape apologist, which gets old fast. (That’s not your fault and I imagine it would be a perfectly civilised conversation to have offline.)

  10. David: So my worry with the FBI statistics – as Yoffe employed them, at least – was that they were taken to show a general trend of decline in rape (which corresponds, as Yoffe herself notes), which has emerged alongside an overall decline in violent crime. The decline in rape is meant to be a contrast with the supposed increase in/prevalence of campus rape. But what the FBI numbers really show is a decline in (documented-by-the-FBI incidents of – that by itself will of course be a bit skewed, as you say) *violent rape*, and it makes sense that those numbers might well decline in tandem with an overall decline in violent crime. But what a lot of anti-rape activists have argued is that what we’re seeing an increase in/an alarming prevalence of is precisely non-violent rape. And there are plenty of social factors – which are especially salient on college campuses – that would facilitate this, not the least of which is the increasing availability, via the internet, of so many chemicals that can potentially be involved, in various ways, in sexual assault. (A good friend of mine works as an ER physician, and she’s described how unnerving it is to try to treat an unconscious young woman when you basically have *no idea* which of a huge range of drugs she might’ve taken/been given.) Again, we’d need some good research (a lot of which, especially when it comes to drugs, would be really hard to come by) to have a better sense of what’s going on. But it seems like there’s at least decent reason to suppose that an increase in non-violent rape would make sense over the same period where violent rape (at least according to FBI stats) may have declined.

    But this is largely quibbling over details! As you say, I think we’re in broad agreement.

  11. David, Yoffe tried to reject the conclusions of this study (linked below) by Lisak, which is in line with so much work done on rapists. It also supports the idea that roughly 1/5 women experience attempted or actual sexual assault– results that would depend on how the questions are written, but results that have been gotten since the 1930’s, which must pre-date campus rape hysteria. Yoffe tries to dismiss similar results gotten *since* her complaints by suggesting some sexual assault is too minor to count (sexual rubbing over clothes, I think, is what she mentions). It seems desperate to me. But I always wish people (and you) would recognize that criminologists have been hard at work for decades on these subjects. It shouldn’t be so easy to dismiss what they’ve found. Here’s the study Yoffe attempts to reject, for silly reasons, in one of her slate essays: http://www.davidlisak.com/wp-content/uploads/pdf/RepeatRapeinUndetectedRapists.pdf

  12. JAB: I’m not sure why you think I don’t “recognize that criminologists have been hard at work for decades on these subjects”. That’s compatible with my impression of the discipline, which is that in spite of that hard work, we’re still not at all sure of the incidence rates of sexual abuse because it is a very hard subject to study. (Scientists have been hard at work for decades on a cure for cancer, after all; we still don’t have one). But I’m happy to acknowledge that it’s not my field and that I haven’t done a systematic review. (I did a semi-systematic review some years ago of the literature on incidence of childhood sexual abuse for the helpline I was working for at the time, and to some extent I’m drawing lessons about methodological difficulty from there.) If you want to tell me that in fact there is a clear agreed consensus here, and can point me towards a peer-reviewed metasurvey backing that up, I’d be very happy to see it.

    I’m not sure what your 1/5 refers to, but I assume it must be something like *lifetime* incidence, given how few women were on campus in the 1930s? Again, I’d be happy to get a reference to the metasurvey or similar, if we really can confirm this as a robust indicator across time. (Though a 1/5 lifetime incidence seems at least in severe tension with a 1/5 incidence *during a four-year residential college course*.)

    On Yoffe and Lisak: as I recall, Yoffe didn’t reject the conclusions of the paper, which were appropriately tentative and qualitative, as befits its research methodology. (Highly non-random sampling, at a fairly atypical institution, and a reliance on self-report by perpetrators – a perfectly good methodology for the paper’s actual conclusions, but not a robust methodology for statistical generalisations, as the paper itself freely acknowledges.) What she questioned was the uncritical extrapolation of that one paper’s conclusions nationwide, to support claims that the paper itself doesn’t support and doesn’t claim to support. And she interviews and quotes statisticians, other researchers on the same topic (David Krebs, as I recall) and Lisak himself in support of that claim.

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