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Reitman vs. Ronell: Rethinking the Role of Gender and Patriarchy in Sexual Harassment Cases

7 Sep

By Nefertiti Takla






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.

431957_1This 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.








Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do

15 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

30 Rock - Season 7

I was re-watching 30 Rock the other day (yeah, right after I finished my Monty Python marathon) and I came across the episode where Liz Lemon’s show, TGS, is accused of “hating women.” Liz Lemon is outraged, and reminds her crew that their last episode was all about women – cut to Jenna as Amelia Earhart crashing her plane because “oh no! my period.” And then cut to Jenna as Hilary Clinton messing up a press conference because “my period!” Liz Lemon explains: “that was an ironic appropriation of…oh, I don’t know anymore.” The skit continues with another humorous twist of the screw with which I won’t bore/amuse you but perhaps this is a good place to start: we often don’t know anymore, when something is an ironic appropriation of…and when it is just more of the same.

The responses to my recent Bully Bloggers piece “You’re Triggering Me: The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma” have pretty much polarized people (at least those who have responded publicly) into camps that break along that kind of division – people who hear humor and irony in the piece and are in favor of “ironic appropriations,” and people who think that the humor is just fancy dressing for odious and hurtful dismissals of real experiences of harm and pain. Obviously the wide range of responses to the post suggests the virality of the topic in the first place and perhaps justifies my attempts to make an intervention. And obviously I wrote a polemic so I cannot claim now to be surprised when the polemic polarizes!

But I was surprised by some mis-readings and dismayed by some of the more vicious responses, and I was very sorry, in particular, that some of my characterizations smacked of a dismissal of disability rights claims or discourse.

Some of the best responses to my piece include:

  • Andrea Smith’s wise “Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivized Healing” (not a direct response to me at all) where she asks: “How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma?”
  •  Another excellent post that did directly respond to mine, and critiqued it, came from Natalia Cecire who offers that I am missing the way that neoliberalism also counsels us to “suck it up” in relation to harm and pain that we may feel. And she usefully points to the ways that the modes of expression that I critique are often associated with the feminine and therefore draw out a sexist response that she associated with my article. Finally, Cecire proposes that it is ridiculous to point to and intensify a generational split, one that older people have in many ways created and exploited and then blame it on a younger generation and all while accusing people of lacking a sense of humor. Fair enough.
  • Julia Serano, the author of the fabulous Whipping Girl, a book I regularly teach, calls my blog a “kitchen sink” piece and reminds us that activism can be messy and difficult but that the quarrels over language and feelings are ultimately worth the effort. She also memorializes her dead parrot while trigger warning the memorialization and joking about her own trigger warning. And she has funny inter titles, and is always worth a read, even if she is ripping you a new one!whipping_girl
  • Finally, Valéria Souza’s excellent blog on “Triggernometry” charts the history of some of these debates and she situates triggering as an almost necessary part of learning and something that we cannot shield ourselves from but that we should not ignore either.
  • You can also read other great posts by Brandy Daniels, and Matthew Nelson.

In response, and quickly because I know people are somewhat sick of this topic by now:

  • warning-humor
    1. I apologize to all those offended by my article. And to those who were not offended, it was not for lack of trying (joke).
    2. In trying to express frustration with some of the ways in which we engage each other in public around safe space, trigger warnings and appellations/pronouns, I realize that I made a straw person out of the environmentally sensitive people who object to perfume in public spaces. On this point, I have been re-reading Anna Mollow’s excellent article “No Safe Place” in Women Studies Quarterly (2011). My point was not to critique people who have environmental allergies  but to question how we make room for each other, or don’t, how we interact in public spaces and how important it is to find ways to communicate our needs without shouting each other down. This is something that I believe disability rights groups have done gracefully  and not simply by yelling at others in spaces fouled up by toxic odors. It may also be a good time to return to Todd Haynes brilliant film, Safe (1995), which managed to situate environmental illness not as a metaphor but as a part of an emergent landscape of differentiated vulnerability to all kinds of social and chemical toxicity. safe
    3. Generational conflict is an important topic. In my book, In a Queer Time and Place back in 2005, I actually wrote about the potential for emergent queer youth groups to pit old and young against each other in queer communities that were not actually organized along generational lines. This kind of conflict, I said then, is organized within Oedipal structures that make one generation see the other as their rivals/replacement. Consequently, these Oedipal structures substitute for other more queer, fluid and entwined relations between young and old, relations moreover that were often intimate and that, in the past, allowed for knowledge (prior to the internet) to be passed on from one generation to another. I still think that some of the impact of queer youth groups comes in the form of Oedipal conflict and I am committed to thinking with others about how to communicate, exchange and theorize beyond that Oedipal frame. I reproduced the framework in my essay for sure, but that is an inevitable consequence of struggling over a term like “tranny” that many people in their 40’s and 50’s use and other younger people often detest.Emperor-Penguins
    4. After reading through many responses to my original piece, I also agree that “censorship” might be too strong a word for the work that trigger warnings do, but censorship can mean not simply preventing someone from speaking but also insisting on what they say when they do speak. Trigger warnings originated in more local contexts and certainly warrant more conversation as and when they move from those contexts to public discourse. On this front, we might want to think about the provincial nature of these trigger warning/safe space debates and their specificity within North America – as several people pointed out in comments to my original blog, perhaps it is worth considering how American the demand for and expectation of safe space really is and whether we should dialogue about the centrality of injury to political claims made here in the US as opposed to elsewhere. But also we might consider how demands for safety in the US all too often come at the expense of others within a security regime.
    5. Julia Serano’s parrot is an important reminder of the stakes in these debates. Serano suggests that while she did lose her parrot in a way that was sad for her, she would not claim “that I was “traumatized” by her death. Nor am I “triggered” these days by watching Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. But,” she continues, “do you know what would upset me? If somebody tried to dismiss my feelings about Coby and the grief that I felt after her passing.” I can very well understand that, no one wants their feelings dismissed but we should not confuse sad feelings with uncontrollable grief and so, I want to validate Julia’s feelings about her pet, Coby, and I want to propose that if I was at a play or performance where someone’s parrot became an ex-parrot and it was part of a humorous sketch about our attachment to animals, we should not have to have a town hall meeting about the performance later on account of the fact that it was disrespectful to those who have suffered the loss of said avian companions…if you catch my drift.monty_python_dead_parrot_sketch_by_seekerarmada-d5muzjm
    6. And if you don’t, no worries, to follow in Julia Serano’s footsteps, I will now be known as Whipping Boy or Jock Halberslam or, as my favorite tweet put it, “ the sports dad of queer theory.” Or we could all move on and work harder to understand each other, to trust each other and to believe that even if we cannot shield each other from harm, we can at least make the odd dead parrot joke in good humor and with impunity.67Z94Svt