Can a feminist or a woman be guilty of sexual harassment?

How about a feminist woman? They certainly can. All it seems to take is a power differential and sexual desire, and in the absence of restraint, along comes another case of sexual harassment. Read about the case of Avital Ronell, a famous feminist scholar, who took advantage of her position to be rather, umm, forward with her student, Nimrod Reitman. It’s all documented in embarrassing emails.

It’s all about hierarchies and power, so of course a woman can be guilty of harassment.

Reitman says he put up with this behavior because Ronell had power over him as his adviser, Greenberg reports. He also says that when he did complain to Ronell about her harassment, she retaliated by sabotaging his job prospects. Graduate students can be especially vulnerable to harassment by their advisers, who often wield enormous control over the direction of their careers.

What’s also shocking is how many other well-known feminists leapt to Ronell’s defense. It’s a serious problem when justice is strongly skewed by differences in power.

We clearly need to foster more irreverence in our culture.


  1. jazzlet says

    One of the things I have sadly learnt is that almost anyone can be harrassed, bulliedor abused in the right circumstances and that a shocking proportion of people can be the harrasser, bully or abuser. It has meant that I always take allegations seriously, not ‘on faith’ but certainly not dismissed just because I know and like the person abusing their power.

  2. voidhawk says

    The problem isn’t men or women, white or black, gay or straight, it’s about hierarchies. So long as individuals are operating in a hierarchical framework, there is the opportunity for abuse.

  3. says

    It is noteworthy that Ronell is a lesbian and Reitman is gay. That is an important datum in understanding what this kind of harassment is really all about.

  4. drst says

    As an aside – Nimrod?
    The guy’s actual name is “Nimrod”?
    Who does that to their child?

  5. says

    Nimrod is interesting because he is mentioned in the Bible for no apparent reason. He was a mighty hunter but that’s all we know about him. He doesn’t feature in the plot. The Bible is weird in many ways.

  6. anat says

    drst, Nimrod is a rather common name among secular Israelis, as it means ‘we shall rebel’ and has pagan connotations. Names like that give rabbis apoplexy.

  7. Holms says

    What’s also shocking is how many other well-known feminists leapt to Ronell’s defense.

    This is the all too familiar “it’s fine when our people do it because we’re the good team” defense.

  8. Carl Muckenhoupt says

    “interesting because he is mentioned in the Bible for no apparent reason”? He’s in the Begats. He’s surrounded by dozens of other names who we know even less about. The only thing that’s unusual about him is that we get two whole sentences about him instead of just a name, and even that’s not all that unusual; you could say the same about Jubal or Enoch.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve seen it claimed that the only reason that we think of “Nimrod” as an insult is because of a certain Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs applies the name sarcastically to Elmer Fudd to belittle his skill as a hunter. In other words, it was like calling someone “Sherlock” when they say something stupid. But generations of children saw this, and imitated it, without understanding the reference.

  9. says

    I’ll have to read up on this later, but yeah: the tendency to create tribal defenses of bad behaviors is the worst form of virtue ethics. I’ve been saying that for years here on FtB. One of these days I’m going to write a good OP on this ever-so-slight corruption of Agent-based Virtue Ethics which causes so many problems. While I think that it’s not a fair inference of the most considered proponents of A-BVE to say that they support these tribal defenses, you have to throw out none of the seemingly-central features of their metaethical approach to arrive at such defenses. All you have to throw overboard is the idealism and emotional distance that allows someone like Slote to evaluate an act from a position distinct from the question of whether any real life person who might take the act is or isn’t a “good agent”.

    The criticisms of this that are most accessible to non-ethicists are actually those of Dworkin’s critics who contend his “Judge Hercules” approach to jurisprudence fails to model how judges (or supreme court justices) actually do their work from the bench. Imagining a perfect judge and then asking, “What would that judge do?” seems to be something which humans simply don’t do very well. Meanwhile, the reliance on good motivations and intentions (“I was only trying to …”) permits excusing all kinds of atrocities. Concentration camp guards might be “only trying to” provide for their families at home in a war-time economy where other jobs aren’t easy to get. Most of us conclude that it’s nonetheless completely immoral to shepherd the Nazi’s victims into the showers, yet agent-based focus on motivations and intentions, with all the subjectivity of how non-mind reading humans ascribe those motivations and intentions to the persons that they already respect, provide an all-too-easy escape clause.

    Worse? Those that claim that they practice other forms of virtue ethics do seem to inevitably make some of their decisions about the morality of an act by determining the act to be that of a moral or an immoral person, rather than determining the (fractional) morality of the person by determining the person to be the performer of a moral or an immoral act.

    We simply don’t seem to be very good at employing the Platonic ideal of virtue ethics.

    That was a philosophy joke there.

    Yeah, I know. Ethicists are about as fun at parties as lawyers are.

  10. anbheal says

    @2 voidhawk — precisely. “Reverse racism” isn’t a thing in 99 percent of American environments, but I fondly recall Richard Pryor’s challenge, “let’s see how you do in Zaire, motherfucker!”

    I have been subject to sexual harassment a couple of times, if you use strict definitions. In other words, if the roles were reversed, man boss and woman subordinate, I could have been dragged into the HR department and read the riot act. Crass jokes, making fun of men…..all of which I was entirely cool with…because….drumroll…..hierarchy. I mean, my favorite boss ever was at the conference table with me before anyone else one morning, and she said “hey Doyle, what do you call that useless piece of floppy flesh at the end of a penis?” “The foreskin, or prepuce?” “Naw, Doyle, I meant the other end, you call it a man.” Had I said to a woman working for me, “what’s the definition of a woman? A life support system for a vagina.”, I’d have been disciplined or fired.

    Punching up versus punching down. Boundaries. Context. Sub-text. Tone. Relationship (not the least of which concerns whether you’ve been out at bars 30 times the past year, you’ve attended 5 of the same parties, and 2 absolutely filthy comedy club routines– if so, you get to toss a few colorful remarks around in private).

    But I had one boss, the CEO (hierarchy), about to close the deal for the sale of her company, and make about $25 million, who vamped. Constantly. Hiked her skirt up. Sat in front of my chair spread-legged on my desk. Sat on the arm of my chair, with her hand on my shoulder. Demanded on a booze cruise that she ride all of her good-looking young execs like polo ponies, and I was the only one who refused. At a sales and marketing retreat on the coast of Cape Cod she repeatedly told me she was scared in the evenings and I needed to stay with her in her little bungalow. I refused that too. And then she fired me. No dick, no job.

    She was profiled in all the Boston magazines and several national ones as the new feminist face of CEOs and start-ups. But all she proved was Jack Kerouac’s line in The Dharma Bums: “the most astounding phenomenon ion Nature is how many more horses’ asses there are than horses.”

  11. says

    Judith Butler wrote that crap? I’m seriously disappointed.

    WMD Kitty

    Why, then, does the accusation read like an MRA parody of harassment?

    Excuse me?
    Are you saying that
    -the accusations aren’t true (hard to fake a few years old emails, also she acknowledged those9ß
    -sure it happened, but that’s not sexual harassment?

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    drst @4: When I moved to Canada from England as a teenager, I was surprised, and a bit dismayed, that “nimrod” was a derisive term (like dope, or doofus) here. The meaning in England was rather different; a mighty hunter and warrior. Various Royal Navy ships and RAF aircraft had the name. Also, as mentioned by richardelguru, Elgar. Certainly not a common given name, though.

  13. chrislawson says

    Crip Dyke@11: ‘Imagining a perfect judge and then asking, “What would that judge do?” seems to be something which humans simply don’t do very well.’

    True that. It’s like all those people with WWJD stickers on their cars who vote to screw the poor, persecute the powerless, happily cast the first stone, etc. It seems to me that the danger of virtue ethics as refracted through the actions of a supposedly perfect exemplar is that people just have to define in their mind what their mythical exemplar would say and they can justify anything. The fact that this mythical perfect person/god can’t be conversed with and therefore can’t express disagreement is, naturally, a feature not a bug. Judge Hercules has recused himself by virtue of non-existence.

    I mean, I’m fine with people thinking about what someone they respect would do in a given situation as a mental exercise/safety check, but I don’t think it should stand as a primary rationalisation. After all, many of the commonly referred-to exemplars of history also did terrible things. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, Churchill was the direct agent of the Bengal Famine of 1943, Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled for compulsory sterilisation of the “unfit”, and even Jesus said that parents should kill their own children for the sin of cursing at them (Mark 7:10, Matthew 15:4).

    If anything, this is just a sneaky way of slipping deontology into virtue ethics.

  14. lotharloo says

    Extremely disappointing.
    From the link by Christopher Svanefalk:

    Although we have no access to the confidential dossier, we have all worked for many years in close proximity to Professor Ronell and accumulated collectively years of experience to support our view of her capacity as teacher and a scholar, but also as someone who has served as Chair of both the Departments of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her. We wish to communicate first in the clearest terms our profound an enduring admiration for Professor Ronell whose mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years. We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her. We hold that the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.

    Seriously, what the fuck?

  15. drken says

    @drst #4:

    Nimrod (a great hunter) only became an insult in the ’50s (or thereabouts) when Bugs Bunny sarcastically referred to Elmer Fudd (a not-so-great hunter) as Nimrod. The kids watching had no idea who Nimrod was and the rest is linguistic history.

    As for the main topic: Harassment isn’t about sex, it’s about power. You don’t have to want to have sex with the other person, or even find them attractive. It’s about being purposely obnoxious simply because you can, sex is just the flavor of this particular type of jerkiness. Can a lesbian sexually harass a gay man? Of course she can, all she needs is power over him (check) and the capacity and willingness to be an asshole (check).

  16. albz says

    The answer to the -rhetorical- question in the title is in today’s newspapers. Asia Argento, one of the promoters of the #Metoo movement and one of the first to accuse Weinstein of sexual harassment, payed 380k USD to Jimmy Bennet who accused her of sexually assaulting him when he was 17.

  17. neroden says

    Turns out Ronell is a deranged Derrida fanatic who destroyed the NYU German department while trying to turn it into a personal cult.

    Oh boy.