Updates and commentary on Ronell case

cn: sexual harassment

A few days ago, I shared a story about Avital Ronell, a professor of literature at NYU, who was investigated and found guilty of sexual harassment of one of her former grad students.

I’ve been somewhat following updates on Brian Leiter’s blog.  A few interesting tidbits:

  1. Ronell issued a statement defending herself.  She said that her victim, Reitman, replied back with affectionate language, and occasionally initiated the interactions.  Simultaneously, Reitman described Ronell as a “monster” to other people he talked to.  This is an attempt to paint Reitman as duplicitous, but in fact it supports Reitman’s side.  It suggests that Reitman didn’t actually like Ronell, and only participated because he was being coerced.  (Kinda reminds me of Richard Carrier’s defense of himself, but I can’t talk about that……..)
  2. According to some of the people who signed the letter in support of Ronell, the letter did not express their real reasons for defending Ronell.  The letter claimed that they did not know the contents of the investigation, but that was a lie, and the professors simply couldn’t admit or disclose any of the knowledge they had.  One person claimed that the letter actually worked, and the university backed down from an earlier stronger punishment of Ronell.  The most horrifying thing about this letter, is the thought that it could actually persuade university administrators.

    I do not know what the signatories knew about Ronell’s case that made them take her side.  I’m guessing it’s something like, “Reitman was reciprocating”, i.e. something totally irrelevant and ignorant of the realities of sexual violence.
  3. One of Reitman’s claims was that Ronell retaliated against him for bringing her under investigation.  Note, Reitman couldn’t necessarily know if there was retaliation, since it might come in the form of faint praise in letters of recommendation, and Reitman doesn’t necessarily see those letters.  The Title IX investigation looked at the letters and they thought there was no retaliation.  Another interesting bit is that Reitman claims that Ronell was previously under a Title IX investigation brought by another student, and she openly spoke to Reitman about retaliating against the other student.

I’ve seen several news outlets describe the signatory of the letter as a bunch of feminist academics, but I never saw Leiter describe them that way.  Leiter instead described the signatories as “a ‘who’s who’ of ‘theory’ (as they call bad philosophy in literature departments)”.  For context, Leiter is a continental philosopher, and does not hide his contempt for Ronell’s field.  (This isn’t anything unusual; philosophers in philosophy departments tend to look down on philosophy performed in literature departments.)

So when I talked about the case, I avoided describing them as feminist academics.  The only feminist academic I recognized was Judith Butler.  As for Avital Ronell herself, the letter in her defense refers to her work in feminism, and Wikipedia lists her alongside other famous feminist theorists.  So, yeah.

I’ve also seen several news outlets take an angle of surprise that this time, it was a man victimized by a woman.  I don’t blame news outlets for identifying a feature of the story that might raise more eyebrows among readers.  But I must say, this is not at all unusual.

Yes it is true that most cases of sexual harassment are perpetrated by men against women.  But let’s look at the statistics from the NISVS.  About 1 in 3 victims of contact sexual violence are men.  About 1 in 4 victims of non-contact sexual violence are men.  The gender of perpetrators is somewhat more complicated, as it depends on the kind of violence, and differs between male and female victims (see tables 3.4 and 3.8 of full report).  For male victims of unwanted sexual contact, or unwanted non-contact experiences, it’s roughly split between male and female perpetrators.  For male victims of sexual coercion, 4 out of 5 perpetrators are women.

This is all to say, it’s not that surprising, statistically speaking.  If you haven’t heard of cases with male victims and female perpetrators, you probably haven’t heard many stories of sexual violence at all, or what you’ve heard has been filtered.

Anyway, it isn’t really a story about gender, it’s a story about power.  The advisor/grad student relationship tends to involve more of a power differential than most boss/employee relationships.  In grad school you are not paid much money; most of what you get out of it is prestige.  If you leave prematurely, you do take any prestige with you; the prestige is received after many years of work, and only by the good will of your advisor.  Even minor disagreements with your advisor can set back your PhD for years, or kill it entirely.  Sexual or flowery language is not remotely appropriate under the circumstances, even if the grad student appears to consent.  The key word is “appears”, because the professor has no way of judging consent under those circumstances.

I don’t often cover news stories like this, because I don’t like feeling obligated to keep track of all the updates, and reporting on them repeatedly.  And this isn’t even a particularly important news story that’s going around, it’s just one that I took a personal interest in, as a former grad student who frequently writes about sexual violence.  Well, anyway.  One thing that has pleased me is reading so many rando feminist commenters on the internet unanimously agreeing that Ronell did wrong, and her feminist credentials don’t mean shit.  So that’s pretty much the whole story, and it isn’t likely to change in any of the updates.

Update August 21st: And finally, Judith Butler apologized for signing the letter defending Ronell.  Good on her.  The other well-known signatory, Slavoj Zizek, still stands by his defense of Ronell.  And yes, apparently, the thing he knew about the case that made him take Ronell’s side was exactly what I expected–that Reitman had reciprocated.

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