by Lisa Duggan
Sex is never a good idea. It is a mess. It is the scene of desire and fantasy, of power and abjection, of domination and mutuality. Sometimes all at once. It is a bad idea we pursue, avoid, rejoice and despair over. As #MeToo has gathered momentum, the social processes it deploys are also a mess. It is one part feminist social justice movement–calling the powerful (overwhelmingly men) to account for using sex as a tactic of dominion. And it is one part neoliberal publicity stunt. Why call it neoliberal? Because the accusations are focused through the press primarily on bad individuals, rather than structures of power, and because the mode of accountability is primarily corporate investigation and firing, and banning from the means of publicity (a Netflix contract, a TV appearance). This is not social justice feminism. It is rather a shift from neoliberal carceral feminism (beefing up the criminal justice system to “protect” women), to the privatization of feminism (a reliance on corporate boards to dole out consequences).
The university is a particular kind of corporation. Even public universities now rely more heavily on tuition and private funding than on state support. But the state still has a heavy hand in university operations, via the distribution of federal funds. In the university, federally mandated procedures under Title IX govern procedures for adjudicating sexual harassment complaints. These mix with each university’s own procedures, outlined in faculty handbooks. The processes of investigation and punishment are wildly uneven, depending on the mix of procedures and the individual administrators charged with carrying them out. But the rule overall is confidentiality—those who accuse and those who are accused, and all university personnel, are bound to keep mum. The particular parameters of that requirement vary from school to school.
The confidentiality requirements are supposedly designed to protect less powerful accusers, primarily students, from retribution from powerful faculty. But in practice they don’t really work that way. Accusers are often kept in the dark about any actions taken, or not taken, against the accused. The institutions frequently protect the accused. But we can’t know the facts, because confidentiality keeps us from collecting representative stories. In the end, confidentiality protects the institutions. Liability lawyers review cases to that end, not in pursuit of justice. We are unable to hold institutions accountable, which is the point. Corporations in general always like to impose confidentiality through non-disclosure agreements and other means to protect their interests. University confidentiality requirements should be viewed along those lines..
I have been collecting cases of queer faculty accused of sexual harassment. My hypothesis is that queers are disproportionately charged, often by homophobic or sexually confused students, sometimes by queer students whose demands for “special” treatment are disappointed. I do think that queer faculty can be guilty, and should be held accountable! But the stories I’ve collected so far do suggest that many cases involve fantasies, projections, or revenge. Because queers are hypersexualized in the public imagination, they are targets for sexual accusations. For example, a queer femme accused of being seductive, for wearing skirts and speaking in a “throaty voice” in class. A trans man accused of inappropriate advances toward a colleague, not a student and not at the same institution. A faculty member charged for the content of a queer studies class. It is remarkable as well that the majority of cases in my small but growing collection involve faculty of color, particularly black faculty. But my cases have to be anonymous, because of the confidentiality requirement. I cannot assess how common or typical these kinds of cases are, or whether particular institutions are hot spots for them.
In a case involving black faculty accused by a black student, the administrative decision-making was focused on queer African American practices of mentorship. Black queer faculty and allies around the country were solicited to write letters to explain black queer practices of sociality to administrators. The informal networks and close relations that constitute “queer kinship” across status lines, and that have been crucial to black queer advancement in the university, could be regarded as violations of proper faculty/student boundaries. As Marcia Ochoa explained recently on Facebook:
“[There] is a change due to the institutional enfranchisement of marginalized communities that previously had to operate in coded ways. Our interpersonal modes of mentoring have not caught up with the institutional positions of power we are now in, and this has really happened within one “generation” of graduate students. Entering grad students are coming in with heavy expectations of solidarity (and a presumption that solidarity = unconditional and unqualified support), while institutional contexts are no longer allowing the kinds of informal networks many of us relied on to get through grad school.”
This is the kind of clash of contexts that haunts the Title IX case and lawsuit against NYU professor Avital Ronell. Initially, Ronell was utterly handicapped by the confidentiality requirement. When NYU determined her not responsible for many of the charges against her, but responsible for sexual harassment via email and for nonsexual contact, they initially announced a decision to revoke her tenure and terminate her. She could not solicit support. When prominent academics organized a letter about her case (they were not solicited to do so by Ronell), they could not admit any knowledge that they had of the circumstances (through their networks, not via Ronell). The elitism of that letter, as objectionable as it truly is, was a hastily concocted weapon to persuade NYU to back up from a draconian penalty out of all proportion to the charges sustained. NYU administrators would understand and respond to power and status. The draconian penalty they at first considered was likely adopted to avoid a threatened lawsuit from the accuser (whose husband Noam Andrews is a member of a wealthy New York real estate family, presumably well able to fund lawsuits). The letter put them on notice that confidentiality would not fully cloak their actions. Caught between money and academic prominence, NYU backed down and put Ronell on a year’s unpaid leave instead.
Then accuser Nimrod Reitman, a former graduate student no longer bound by NYU policies and disciplinary procedures, leaked documents to the New York Times. Initially Ronell had to seek permission from NYU to rebut specific claims through her lawyer. Then the media avalanche, based on the leaked documents, led to the lifting of the ban, allowing her to finally speak. What we see emerging is the full catastrophe, a huge mess, a clash of cultures, and issues of power and boundaries in academia.
Setting aside for the moment the question of truth, of whose version of events is more accurate, the case raises four important general questions:
1) The email exchange, dribbling out in excerpts via the New York Times article, Ronell’s press release and Reitman’s legal complaint, shows a two-sided correspondence of endearments, affection, and fond memories of shared intimacies. Even if these exchanges were fully consensual, and no indication of sexual contact, they raise the question of boundaries in advisor/student relationships. Can the tremendous power of the advisor ever be compatible with this kind of expression? If not, where is the line? This is a general question that commonly plagues academics.
2) The nature of the email exchange resonates with many queer academics, whose practices of queer intimacy are often baffling to outsiders. A queer woman and a gay man in a romantic relationship? Romantic language that does not signify sexual desire? Forms of intimacy well outside the parameters of heterosexual (and, homosexual) courtship and marriage are commonplace among queers who not clearly separate friendship and romance, partnership and romantic friendship. The correspondence between Ronell and Reitman, full of literary allusions as well, can be read literally as an indicator of a sexual relationship. This is a culture clash. (Though that is not to say the correspondence is not “problematic” as we academics like to say, see (1) above, and it does not establish that there was not a sexual relationship either.)
3) The selective demonization of queer and women faculty is very clear in this case. Not only was Ronell treated more harshly than many men accused of far worse infractions, but the personal attacks and demonization of her on social media is breathtaking. Accused male faculty rarely meet this fate, and when they do the cases generally involve multiple victims and physical assault. This is misogyny, of the variety pervasive on the internet. Misogyny is rife even among the queers and feminists posting personal attacks—they do not do this to similarly accused male faculty.
4) Critiques of the academic letter of support for Ronell have centered on feminist hypocrisy and double standards—the claim is that the signers are defending a feminist comrade, but they attack men under similar circumstances. This charge is rooted in gross ignorance about contemporary feminism. There are many strains out there—some all in for the #MeToo privatization, some are devoted to denunciation on social media and trial by publicity. But there are socialist feminists who analyze structures of power that condition harassment and who think seriously about institutions and due process, and sex radicals who point to a history of sex panics that contributes to the public mood. Some of the feminists who signed the letter (and the signers are not all feminists) represent a strain of academic feminism that has been critical of secret Title IX tribunals and #MeToo trial by publicity all along, not just when a feminist is accused. The letter does not represent hypocrisy. It is a reflection of division and difference among feminists on the issues of sexual harassment. We all oppose it! But we don’t all agree about how to identiy and confront it.
We don’t need to know “what really happened” to confront these issues. Reitman says Ronell physically sexually assaulted him. NYU found her responsible only for harassment through email, and inappropriate non-sexual contact. Reitman wants us to take the email literally, as evidence of sexual desire and conduct. Ronell understands it as coded, not literally about sex. But why is sex the central factor anyway? The central issue is whether there were boundary violations that could be considered harmful. Advisor intrusions do not need to be sexual to be a problem. That is a broader issue. If we focus on this one case, these details, this accuser and accused, we will miss the opportunity to think about the structural issues. If we are social justice feminists and not neoliberals, we care about the broad structures of power, and not individual bad apples case by case. Perhaps we should begin to think about a restorative justice process that would center in departments, be transparent, hold faculty responsible, and assess the question of boundaries in local context? Perhaps impose confidentiality as the exception, not the rule—to be invoked when a need is demonstrated.
In this environment, I’m not holding my breath.