By Nefertiti Takla
[NOTE: DEAR READERS – BULLYBLOGGERS HAS HOSTED A LONG SERIES OF ARTICLES ON “BAD SEX.” TITLE 9, AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT. WE DO SO NOT TO PARTICIPATE IN THE CURRENT POLARIZING STRUCTURE OF DEFENSE VS. CONDEMNATION BUT IN ORDER TO BROADEN THE CONVERSATION ABOUT #METOO, TITLE IX VIOLATIONS, THE EXPLOITATION OF GRADUATE STUDENT LABOR, THE SHIFTING CONDITIONS OF LABOR IN THE UNIVERSITY, PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL DISCOURSE, TENURE/TRACK STATUS AND ELITE PROFESSORIATES.
WE REMIND READERS AND FOLLOWERS OF THIS BLOG THAT THE “BULLY” IN OUR NAME CAME FROM THE LATE José Muñoz’s BELOVED DOG, LADY BULLY. WE DO NOT CONDONE BULLYING, OR MOBBING.
WE WELCOME YOU TO THE SITE AND ASK YOU TO READ THE ESSAYS HERE AS REPRESENTATIVE OF THE AUTHOR’S OPINIONS AND NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENTATIVE OF EVERYONE INVOLVED.]
THE ESSAY PUBLISHED BELOW BY NEFERTITI TAKLA ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON HER OWN BLOG “FEMINIST INTERVENTIONS.” WE REPRINT IT WITH A FEW CHANGES WITH HER PERMISSION.
The recent Title IX lawsuit filed by Nimrod Reitman has brought to light existing debates in the feminist movement. In a patriarchal society, is sexual harassment simply an abuse of power that can be perpetrated equally by men and women, or is it a product of institutionalized sexism and violence against women? Should gender be ignored in cases where a woman is accused of sexual harassment by a man, or is gender always a signifier of power? (By woman and man, I am referring to the legal recognition conferred to either sex within a binary gender system in relation to the context of the law. I am not referring to social, cultural, and biological categories that are always shifting in extra-legal contexts.)
Historically, sexual harassment has been theorized as a form of patriarchal violence that is directed at women collectively because of their gender. As Abigail Saguy explains in her book, What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne, Title IX and Title VII were laws created to fight gender discrimination, not sexual harassment. In the 1970s, feminists fought to have sexual harassment legally recognized as a form of gender discrimination due to its role in reinforcing institutionalized sexism. Gender has therefore long been central to our understanding of sexual harassment as a social and structural problem that reproduces the collective disempowerment of a particular group in society. Reitman’s lawsuit and those who support it represent a new movement to redefine sexual harassment as a gender-blind abuse of power, which effectively dissociates the problem from the framework of institutionalized sexism and patriarchal violence against women.
As someone who filed a Title IX lawsuit against my university in graduate school, I believe that every student – both male and female – has the right to an education free from unwanted sexual and romantic advances. However, as a feminist who believes that the academy is still a patriarchal structure that reproduces male superiority, I believe that Title IX should remain a law that protects women and non-conforming genders from sexual harassment and institutionalized sexism. What Reitman experienced should be theorized as abuse that stems from labor exploitation in the academy, not the structural sexism and sexual violence that stems from patriarchy. Reitman’s attempt to seek justice through a law that was created to fight sexism on campus has negative legal implications for the feminist movement because its success would mean that men can also be victims of gender discrimination perpetrated by women. It would also mean that gender is no longer relevant to our understanding of sexual harassment. Therefore, regardless of his intentions, his lawsuit paves the way for Title IX to be used by the backlash against the feminist movement.
On one level, I feel a connection to what Reitman has experienced. As graduate students, we felt exploited and abused by our advisors, and we felt betrayed by our institutions and their failure to protect us from this abuse. Our advisors represented the power of the academy and its ability to exclude us and destroy our livelihood at a whim. The pressure to comply with an advisor’s wishes or else drop out are rising in a neoliberal academy that intentionally creates more cheap labor than it can employ. Graduate students’ anxiety about labor precarity leaves them increasingly desperate and vulnerable to their advisors’ demands. Most graduate students are doing whatever they can to remain in their advisor’s good graces, hoping that after they graduate, their professors will fight to keep them in the system. The threat of adjunctification has made the relationship between advisors and advisees increasingly coercive and exploitative, making consensual sex or romance nearly impossible.
On some level, abuse has always been an integral part of the patronage system in the academy. Graduate students have long endured abuse and stayed quiet about it in order to secure a position after they graduate. In a patriarchal academy, male graduate students are not only less likely to be subjected to abuse, but can afford a higher tolerance for it because they know that in the end, when they have a position, they will assume a dominant role in the structure. But the longstanding patronage system of the academy is incompatible with its current neoliberal restructuring and its transformation of graduate students into a pool of disposable wage laborers. One could argue that neoliberalism is destroying academia’s feudal structure, giving way to a class system in which professors at top universities are seen as the elite of the academy (with their critique of the moralizing middle class and its “sexual paranoia”), professors at teaching institutions as the middle class (with their critique of the debauchery and corruption of the elite), and graduate students and adjuncts as the working class (with their growing resentment at their inability to make a living). The fact that graduate students are now willing to break their silence about the longstanding abuses of the patronage system suggests that this system can no longer sustain itself. What Ronell appeared to have promised Reitman was a patronage relationship that is becoming increasingly impossible in a neoliberal academy.
The ultimate solution to this problem is not to identify and uproot “predators” who are exploiting core features of the system, but to restructure the system in a way that gives graduate students the power to say no to their advisors’ demands without fearing the loss of their livelihood. The system enables abuse, and we cannot create a fictional divide between abusers and non-abusers. Demanding that everyone self-police through sexual assault training – or police each other through mandatory reporting – does nothing to address the structural causes of the problem. What we need to do is to fundamentally change the system to halt the trend towards adjunctification and ensure graduate students funding and employment both during and after their studies.
Although Reitman experienced an abuse of power, his experiences do not represent the structural sexism that the feminist movement has long been fighting. When I filed a Title IX lawsuit against my university in June 2015, my goal was to contribute to both the graduate student struggle against labor exploitation as well as the struggle of women against sexism in the academy. My decision to file the lawsuit came at the end of a fruitless, two-year battle to hold my former advisor accountable for sexual harassment. His sexual harassment was not a one-time offense but rather part of a longstanding pattern of sexism directed at female students and professors in general. When I first started working with him as a graduate student, he told me that he believed women only came to graduate school to marry their professors. He would comment on the looks of every single female professor we ever read in his class. Other witnesses noted that he would talk about buying underwear for his girlfriend in TA meetings. His sexual harassment of me and of other female students and professors cannot be divorced from his sexism. He believed he was entitled to our bodies, and no matter how often we said no, he continued to make sexual advances. His behavior was therefore central to the reproduction of structural sexism in the academy.
The way in which my university handled my case normalized this male professor’s violation of female bodies. In response to the Title IX report that I filed with my university in June 2013, my former advisor received a “slap on the wrist” that resulted in no harm to his career. During its nine-month investigation, the university found that two other women in my department had also been harassed by this professor, yet their reports made no difference to the case. Instead of issuing a finding of sexual harassment, the university settled with the professor, allowing him to keep the case confidential and avoid any official mark on his record. This normalization of my former advisor’s behavior was a manifestation of structural violence against women. By protecting his career and reputation, my university left me and other women vulnerable to further harassment and retaliation.
This protection of men over women is one of the hallmarks of patriarchy. NYU did not attempt to protect Avital Ronell in the way that UCLA attempted to protect Gabriel Piterberg. Ronell was not given the opportunity to negotiate a secret settlement with NYU to protect her career and reputation. She did not take a leave of absence or resign as other male professors like Colin McGinn and Peter Ludlow did when they were accused of sexual harassment. She was immediately stripped of resources and status, and the media has been merciless in ways that we did not see in the Piterberg or Ludlow cases. Patriarchal structures shield men from the law while making sure that it comes crashing down on women. Patriarchy insists that the law must be gender blind, when in reality it is not.
The ultimate irony of this case is that the law that came crashing down on Ronell is a law that was designed to protect women from gender discrimination. Yet gender discrimination is central to the adjudication of legal cases regardless of whether the woman is a victim or a perpetrator. While NYU saw Ronell’s behavior as sufficiently abnormal to warrant discussions of her termination after the first offense, UCLA reached yet another settlement with Piterberg five years after I came forward, in response to another student’s Title IX report. Although this final settlement terminated his employment with the university, it is unclear how much money he received in exchange. The difference between these cases makes it clear that patriarchal structures normalize violations of women’s bodies until we speak out in collective anger. It takes a multitude of women to get some semblance of justice, while all it takes is an individual man. In a patriarchal society, the law cannot be gender blind. Insisting that it be so will only reinforce patriarchy.
2 replies on “Reitman vs. Ronell: Rethinking the Role of Gender and Patriarchy in Sexual Harassment Cases”
I strongly agree with this article: “What Reitman experienced should be theorized as abuse that stems from labor exploitation in the academy, not the structural sexism and sexual violence that stems from patriarchy.” Academe is hierarchical and as a result those in lower positions with less power, from graduate students to adjunct instructors generally are to some degree exploited. However, the degree of exploitation has been grossly exacerbated by the current situation in which universities admit far more graduate students than can ever hope to find jobs. We need to address and remedy this as the article explains. And stop calling each other names and venting the frustration we feel or felt as grad students by lashing out at anyone who dares question that the Reitman-Ronell case was a violation of Title IX.
Perhaps the problem is exactly the theory that sexual harassment has to do with gender and patriarchy, instead of a being exactly a question of boss versus employee/subordinate.
This has, it is true, an intersection with gender and patriarchy – because there are more male bosses than female, you will have more male-on-female harassment than female-on-male (and probably also more male-on-male than female-on-female harassment); but if you redistribute power between genders in the workplace and in the academia (but without redistributing power between bosses and subordinates – only having more female bosses), probably you will end up with only redistributing harassment (with more women harassers and more men victims), not reducing it.