Are schools wrestling with 'sexual paranoia'?

Why one professor thinks universities have gone too far

The rise in sexual assault allegations has led universities to impose increasingly rigid rules on campus behavior, and Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis argues in the Chronicle of Higher Education that some policies are harming students.

In her much-discussed essay, Kipnis details a range of cases that have polarized university communities.

  • At Northwestern, a student and professor were locked in a two-year legal battle after an evening out together—which the professor says was initiated by the student—ended acrimoniously.
  • In another case recently profiled in the New York Times, a 21-year-old Stanford student began dating her 29-year-old mentor; after their one-year relationship ended, the student sued her mentor alleging that he had raped her and demanded that Stanford investigate.

Facing these scenarios, many administrators have been wrestling with how best to protect students from harassment. Some schools now host voluntary workshops on appropriate behavior for professors; others have mandated that staff report sexual assault allegations.

An 'intellectually embarrassing' climate

But Kipnis maintains that some policies go too far and are creating an "intellectually embarrassing" climate on campus. Kipnis says that she's particularly vexed by new rules that bar professors and students from entering into relationships, partly because Kipnis found those relationships educational when she was a student.

"It's the fiction of the all-powerful professor embedded in the new campus codes that appalls me," Kipnis writes.

According to Kipnis, the policies run the risk of "infantilizing" students by not teaching them how to respond to sexual mores that will continue to confuse them as adults. She shares the example of a 30-year-old female author whose male editor fell in love with her—an advance that was unwanted, and nearly derailed the woman's book project.

While Kipnis says that some of her colleagues agree with her, she contends that many are too scared to speak out. One male professor on Northwestern's Faculty Senate suggested to Kipnis that the rules unfairly presume professors are guilty—but when Kipnis asked if she could quote him, "he begged for anonymity, fearing vilification from his colleagues," Kipnis writes.

Kipnis suggests that more could be done to rein in spousal hiring and fraternity behavior—which can contribute to sexual favoritism and sexual assaults, respectively.

And she stresses that she's firmly against harassment and sexual assault.

"For the record, I strongly believe that bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square," Kipnis writes. "But I also believe that the myths and fantasies about power perpetuated in these new codes are leaving our students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life, because that's simply part of the human condition" (Kipnis, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/27).

The takeaway: In a much-discussed essay, a professor argues that some new policies on campus sexual relationships go too far and hurt the students they are intended to help.


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