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When the accused is a woman: a #MeToo story’s lessons on gender and power

NYU professor Avital Ronell has been accused of sexually harassing a male student. She’s one of several women accused since the rise of #MeToo.

Christina Animashaun/Vox; EGS via YouTube

Sexually charged emails. Allegations of unwanted kissing and touching. A letter in which powerful people leap to the defense of the accused.

As Zoe Greenberg points out at the New York Times, the story sounds a lot like those we’ve been hearing since the current #MeToo movement began. But the players are different: In this case, the accused is feminist scholar Avital Ronell, and the person reporting harassment is a male former graduate student, Nimrod Reitman.

Reitman, now a visiting fellow at Harvard studying the drawings of Sigmund Freud, says Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University, subjected him to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking while she was his academic adviser. In May, a Title IX investigation found her responsible for harassment, though not the other charges, and she’s been suspended. Now a group of scholars, including renowned gender theorist Judith Butler, have written a letter arguing that she is the victim of a “malicious campaign” by Reitman.

Ronell is not the only woman to be accused of sexual misconduct since the rise of #MeToo last fall. While male perpetrators can enjoy special protection from consequences by virtue of their gender, reports of female sexual harassers are a reminder that people of all genders are capable of abusing their power.

Ronell’s case has all the hallmarks of a #MeToo story

Though Reitman filed his Title IX claim before the rise of #MeToo, and says he was not inspired by the movement, his report has much in common with the stories that survivors — many of them women — have been telling since last fall.

Ronell’s behavior started in 2012, Reitman says, when she invited him to stay with her in Paris. There, he says she asked him to read to her while she took a nap, then pressed herself against him, put his hands on her breasts, and kissed him. The next day, he says he told her, “what happened yesterday was not O.K. You’re my adviser.” But the advances continued, with groping, unwanted kissing, and emails calling him “my most adored one” and “cock-er spaniel.”

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.

Ronell’s response to the allegations also echoes those of other powerful people — many of them men — accused as part of #MeToo. She has asked why Reitman didn’t speak up if he was uncomfortable, and argued that he was just upset because of his intellectual inferiority: “His main dilemma was the incoherency in his writing, and lack of a recognizable argument,” she said in an interview that was part of the Title IX process.

Ronell also says her emails to Reitman were welcome at the time. Noting that Reitman is gay and she is queer, she told the Times the two shared “a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities.”

Finally, the letter written in Ronell’s defense is reminiscent of those written on behalf of men accused of sexual misconduct, from Al Franken to Junot Díaz. The signatories — including Butler, philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — acknowledge that they have not actually been able to read the confidential documentation of the Title IX case. Nonetheless, they write:

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.

Women can abuse their power too

Ronell is one of a few women publicly accused of sexual misconduct since the rise of #MeToo last October. Cristina García, a California state Assembly member, is the subject of multiple reports of groping or unwanted advances. In May, an investigation found that “the most egregious allegations could not be substantiated,” according to the Los Angeles Times, but Garcia has been removed from all legislative committees and has issued an apology. Andrea Ramsey, a former congressional candidate from Kentucky, dropped out of her race in December after the Kansas City Star asked her about allegations that she had harassed a male employee (she said the allegations were false). And Timothy Heller, a female singer, said in December that singer-songwriter Melanie Martinez had raped her.

Men — especially wealthy, white men in positions of power — can enjoy protections that make it easier to get away with sexual misconduct. Harassment can flourish in male-dominated environments; as sociologist Frank Dobbin has noted, the presence of women throughout a workplace hierarchy appears to help protect other women from harassment. And since men are, on average, much richer than women, they’re more likely to be able to buy their way out of harassment allegations using nondisclosure agreements and other legal techniques. But that doesn’t mean men are the only ones who commit harassment.

Nor are feminists incapable of committing sexual misconduct — or of defending those accused. Several of the men accused of abuse or sexual misconduct in the current #MeToo era, like Díaz, Franken, and former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have been public supporters of women’s rights. And while it may be doubly disturbing for some to see Judith Butler, whose 1990 book Gender Trouble had an enormous influence on feminist thought, defending someone accused of sexual misconduct, recall that several celebrities who have voiced support for #MeToo or Time’s Up also signed a 2009 petition in support of Roman Polanski, who was convicted of unlawful sex with a minor (though at least one, Natalie Portman, has since apologized).

Survivors’ testimony as part of #MeToo has exposed the ways that harassers abuse their power, taking advantage of situations in which their victims can’t report for fear of damage to their careers. While it’s still more common for men in American workplaces to have power over women, the reverse, of course, also occurs. And while the #MeToo movement needs to take on gender inequality, it also needs to acknowledge that in America’s precarious and hierarchical work culture, employees often have few options if their superiors mistreat them — and this can make anyone who needs a paycheck vulnerable to harassment, regardless of gender.