Now it’s happening among feminist professors of literature

cn: sexual harassment

I saw a New York Times article titled “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is Accused?” The answer, it turns out, is that academics close ranks and defend their own.

The article is about an NYU professor of literature, Avital Ronell, who was found by a Title IX investigation to have sexually harassed a former grad student, Nimrod Reitman. Some professors circulated a letter in support of Ronell, and a draft of the letter leaked. The letter appears to take the ludicrous position that Ronell should be judged on the quality of her scholarship, rather than the substance of the investigation.

The kicker is that the first signatory of the letter is Judith Butler.

Now I did a bit of research, and I found a small mitigating factor that I thought I should mention first before going into how terrible this is. Apparently, the signatories of the letter were given false information about the investigation. There was another leak of the letter soliciting professors for signatures in defense of Ronell. Signatories were told that Ronell had undergone a long investigation, which had cleared her of sexual harassment, and was moving on to non-sexual harassment charges. Ronell was apparently worried that she would be fired even if found innocent, and the letter was intended to support her under those circumstances.

One can hope that Judith Butler et al. will retract their defense of Ronell once they learn the findings of the investigation. But even if they do, for shame. These professors should know better than to lend their support to some professor under investigation for sexual harassment, when they know little about the case.

As for Ronell herself, the reports of her behavior are disgusting. Even if we stick to just the absolutely indisputable bits–what she said in e-mails to Nimrod–this is indefensible.

Mr. Reitman said that she had sexually harassed him for three years, and shared dozens of emails in which she referred to him as “my most adored one,” “Sweet cuddly Baby,” “cock-er spaniel,” and “my astounding and beautiful Nimrod.”

“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!”

Nimrod also describes multiple instances of sexual assault, which Ronell denies, but look, she’s talking about kissing him in her e-mails! It’s amazing that the Title IX investigation turned all of this up, but decided only to suspend her for a year.

Ronell’s defenses of herself are utterly unpersuasive, to the point of being admissions of guilt. She said,

These communications were repeatedly invited, responded to and encouraged by him over a period of three years.

I don’t care even if that were true! This is not appropriate behavior from an advisor to a grad student, because if the grad student is not consenting, they may not feel at liberty to say so to someone who wields so much power over them.  Ronell has a PhD, she has no excuse for being unaware of how much power advisors have over their grad students.

This is just a small sample of what’s in the NYTimes article. Suffice it to say, Judith Butler should be embarrassed to have ever once given the impression of supporting Ronell.

To wind down this essay, I offer some lesser criticism of the NYTimes article itself. Although #MeToo is an important movement, I feel that casting every sexual harassment case in terms of #MeToo is counterproductive, because it conveys the impression that this is a recent issue, rather than something that people have been fighting for a long time.

I also don’t think that a bunch of academic theorists are a particularly fair representation of feminism.  Note, I don’t recognize most of the professors’ names (and at least one has said that he never signed it), so I don’t know that any of them besides Judith Butler is a feminist academic.  But even if they were, feminism is first and foremost a grassroots movement, not an academic one.  The academics occasionally offer useful ideas, but trail behind in terms of the practical realities of feminism. It’s disappointing, but not the least bit surprising that a bunch of academics lack the practical knowledge to recognize and reject standard defenses of sexual violence.


  1. agender says

    This does not come unexpected.
    All the individuals with sexual drives are capable to misuse these drives to lord power/their bodies over the individuals not interested (situational or as identity like we both, does not matter for the risk to be victimized)
    As society does promote a relentless message of toxic maleness, some women who are thickskinned enough to made it into some power will copy such behaviour – even if there is little sexual wish as such and intimidation and inflicting damage the only motive.
    And academy closing ranks – well, we can still hope that they do not copy the catholic church.

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