Avital Ronnell, a leading professor of feminist philosophy at New York University, has been forced to take a year off after NYU determined that she had sexually harassed a male student. If there's a stranger #MeToo story out there, I've yet to hear it.
Ronnell identifies as a lesbian; the student she is accused of harassing is gay, and now married to another man. Also extraordinary: many well-known feminists—including the legendary Judith Butler—came to Ronnell's defense, testifying to her "grace and keen wit" and demanding that she "receive a fair hearing." (Butler and co. taking the side of the accused in a sexual misconduct dispute would of course be unthinkable if the accused were male, as is usually the case.)
The New York Times reviewed excerpts of NYU's report on the matter. I have not seen this report, and thus I am reliant on the the Times' version. Unfortunately, I've learned not to entirely trust the Grey Lady on matters relating to Title IX, the federal statute that governs campus sexual misconduct trials. The assertions described in the story certainly sound like sexual harassment, but without knowing more I can't say whether there are mitigating contextual factors. Regardless, Ronnell's defenders are right that she was entitled to a fair hearing.
The accuser, Nimrod Reitman, claimed that Ronnell pressured him into an amorous relationship. She would visit him at his home, climb into bed with him, and force him to kiss and touch her. According to The Times:
In the semesters that followed, Mr. Reitman said he was expected to work with Professor Ronell, often at her apartment, during lengthy work sessions nearly every weekend. Professor Ronell frequently detailed her affection and longing for him, according to emails from her that Mr. Reitman provided to The New York Times.
"I woke up with a slight fever and sore throat," she wrote in an email on June 16, 2012, after the Paris trip. "I will try very hard not to kiss you — until the throat situation receives security clearance. This is not an easy deferral!" In July, she wrote a short email to him: "time for your midday kiss. my image during meditation: we're on the sofa, your head on my lap, stroking you [sic] forehead, playing softly with yr hair, soothing you, headache gone. Yes?"
In a submission to the Title IX office, Professor Ronell said she had no idea Mr. Reitman was so uncomfortable until she read the investigators' report.
NYU's Policy on Consensual Intimate Relationships prohibits "sexual, dating, or romantic relationships" between professors and graduate students who are in the same discipline or academic program, and between a faculty advisor and their advisee. The responsibility for not engaging in such behavior rests solely with the professor, according to the policy. It would seem fairly clear Ronnell is in violation of it.
Of greatest interest to me, though, is this comment from a defender of Ronnell:
Diane Davis, chair of the department of rhetoric at the University of Texas-Austin, who also signed the letter to the university supporting Professor Ronell, said she and her colleagues were particularly disturbed that, as they saw it, Mr. Reitman was using Title IX, a feminist tool, to take down a feminist.
"I am of course very supportive of what Title IX and the #MeToo movement are trying to do, of their efforts to confront and to prevent abuses, for which they also seek some sort of justice," Professor Davis wrote in an email. "But it's for that very reason that it's so disappointing when this incredible energy for justice is twisted and turned against itself, which is what many of us believe is happening in this case."
In this woman's deeply unprincipled view, it's wrong to use Title IX against a member of the feminist left. And we were supposed to believe that Gloria Steinem's "one free grope" rule had been consigned to the dustbin of history! How can it be said that Title IX is really about ending gender-based discrimination, if it's wrong to use Title IX to protect men from sexual harassment?
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