Cultural critic and media studies scholar Laura Kipnis is “a taboo-skewering feminist provocateur” (Slate) whose work confronts sex, power, and gender politics.
In her most recent book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, Kipnis argues that an emergent culture of perceived sexual vulnerability, far from protecting and empowering young women, actually impedes our progress as a forward-thinking society. Kipnis’s research suggests that well-meaning campus administrators, in their zeal to shield students from trauma, are abridging everyone’s freedom—and eroding the values of resilience, outspoken discussion, and individual agency that are bedrocks of feminism.
Far from a dry, detached critique, Unwanted Advances is an in-the-trenches account of Kipnis’s own experiences as a public intellectual. In 2015, Kipnis was surprised to find herself the object of on-campus protests at her university for writing about sexual paranoia on campus. Next, she was brought up on Title IX complaints for creating a “hostile environment.” The very fact that she could face Title IX charges merely for expressing her opinion underlined Kipnis’s impression that something has gone seriously wrong—with freedom of expression on campus; with Title IX, originally created to protect students from gender-based discrimination; with higher education; and with a brand of feminism that stresses women’s fragility over their strength.
In defiance of confidentiality strictures, Kipnis wrote a whistleblowing essay about the ensuing investigation and some students’ attempts to have her dismissed. That essay, “My Title IX Inquisition,” a combination of keen reportage and fierce polemic, ignited a frenzy that catapulted Kipnis to the center of a national debate over free speech, so-called safe spaces, and the worrying overreach of a civil rights law originally intended to empower women, not infantilize them.
In the process, Kipnis uncovered a morass of paranoid professors, rigged investigations, and administrators who are naïve at best and feckless at worst. When she learned the details of an especially controversial case on her own campus, she used it as a lens through which to examine the chilling effects of this regressive sexual paranoia on college campuses. That examination grew into Unwanted Advances, which William Deresiewicz called “an account of campus inquisitions that goes well beyond the McCarthyite into the Kafkaesque… brave, honest, judicious, mature, and self-aware, Kipnis has struck a blow for sanity, equality, and academic freedom.”
Without minimizing the seriousness of sexual assault, Kipnis calls for more honesty about the ambiguities inherent in adult sexual behavior and questions whether students should be ceding so much power to attorneys and administrators. Under the guise of shielding students from trauma, Kipnis posits, regulation is replacing education, and both individual autonomy and academic freedom are under unnecessary assault. Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, calls Unwanted Advances “a revelation…. Here is a self-aware feminism telling us that what’s happening on college campuses is eroding feminism and free thought.”
“The new codes sweeping American campuses aren’t just a striking abridgment of everyone’s freedom, they’re also intellectually embarrassing. Sexual paranoia reigns; students are trauma cases waiting to happen. If you wanted to produce a pacified, cowering citizenry, this would be the method. And in that sense, we’re all the victims.”
Writing for Slate, Michelle Goldberg called Unwanted Advances “brash, juicy… an insouciant interrogation of contemporary feminism and PC campus politics.” Unwanted Advances identifies Kipnis as a major voice in the new and urgently needed conversation around threats to free speech and intellectual freedom. “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” the essay that sparked Unwanted Advances, was included in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen. The Wall Street Journal named Unwanted Advances one of the year’s 10 best nonfiction books.
Kipnis is known for her “smart, weird, funny, and devotedly iconoclastic” (The Chicago Sun-Times) takes on sex and gender in popular culture. Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, published in 2014, is a collection of essays on wayward masculinity, from disgraced politicians to forgotten sports heroes. In 2010’s How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, Kipnis unpacks four contemporary downfall sagas to explore what we desire, what we punish, and what we disavow. Her 2009 book Against Love: A Polemic is a “ragingly witty yet contemplative look at the discontents of domestic and erotic relationships” that garnered comparisons to Norman Mailer, Roseanne Barr, and Susan Sontag (Publishers Weekly). She is also the author of The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability and Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America.
Up next, Kipnis returns to her wryly off-beat interrogation of relationships and intimacy in Love in the Time of Contagion. In this timely, fiercely argued, keenly insightful, and hilarious investigation, she asks: what does living in dystopic times do to our ability to love each other and the world? Weaving her own (ambivalent) coupled lockdown experiences and those of others against a larger political backdrop, Kipnis raises questions about the cultural afterlife of COVID-19, the new taxonomies of love, intimacy and vulnerability that it has inevitably produced. Will COVID end up making us more relationally conservative, as some think HIV did to gay culture, for which legalized marriage rather than the anti-domestic ecstasies of anonymous sex became the signature program? Will it send us fleeing into emotional siloes or coupled cocoons despite the fact that pre-COVID domestic coupledom had been steadily losing fans? Love in the Time of Contagion is forthcoming in February 2022.
Whatever her topic, Kipnis’s voice is unforgettable, invoking “the gleeful, viperish wit of a Dorothy Parker and the energetic charisma of a cheerleader” (Slate). Geoff Dyer calls her “the best polemical writer investigating today,” and praises her “clarity of expression and the uncompromising vehemence of her thoughts.”
Kipnis’s writing has been published in Slate, Harper’s, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and Bookforum. Her work has been translated into 15 languages. She has spoken on sexual politics and free speech at Yale, Wellesley, Kenyon, Bard, the University of Texas, the University of Oregon, and the Chicago Humanities Festival, among many other places.
Kipnis is a professor of film and media at Northwestern University. She has also taught at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Michigan, NYU, and Columbia, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the NEA, and Yaddo. She lives in New York and Chicago.here.