The Queer Title IX Case That Has Academia Talking

When it comes to sexual violence, all we have to rely on is process. But when that process fails to look at the complexities of power, can we really trust in it?

In 2017, Nimrod Reitman, a gay former grad student, filed a Title IX case against Avital Ronell, a queer professor of German and Comparative Literature at NYU. Ronell is widely considered a “superstar” in academic circles. In the complaint, Reitman alleged that Ronell sexually assaulted, harassed, stalked, and retailed against him while she was his advisor.

Over the 11-month investigation, NYU’s Title IX office found Ronell was guilty of physically and verbally sexually harassing Reitman. As punishment, she will be suspended for the 2018-2019 school year. Soon after the decision, Reitman went on to file a lawsuit against both Ronell and NYU on August 16th that included previously unpublished flirtatious emails from Ronell. The professor responded with her own press release including similarly flirtatious emails from Reitman.

While most academic conflicts remain confined to humanities journals or gossip among professors and grad students, the Ronell case made major headlines. The New York Times discussed the events in a front-page article that was shared over 70,000 times online alone.

The arguments being made for and against Ronell fall into polarizing camps that inevitably engage in either victim blaming or the disposability of queer women. Each camp fails to fully consider the queer feminist frameworks of accountability or restorative justice.

The Ronell event captured public fascination following a May letter to the NYU president and provost calling for Ronell to go unpunished. Among the signatories were queer icon and feminist philosopher Judith Butler, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, feminist theorist Joan W. Scott, feminist deconstructionist Gayatri Spivak, and celebrity philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

The letter explained that despite not knowing the details of the case, Ronell’s academic accomplishments should make her untouchable within the Title IX system.

“We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation,” the letter said. “The ensuing loss for the humanities, for New York University, and for intellectual life during these times would be no less than enormous and would rightly invite widespread and intense public scrutiny.”  

Butler, a long-time friend of Ronell, later claimed she signed the letter in haste but was horrified with the potential severity of Ronell’s punishments. Žižek, conversely, doubled down and asserted he knew more details about the case than the public did.

With this new development, the incident also showed an unusual case between a gay man and a queer woman (as each of them identify) capturing the public imagination.

In an anti-feminist manner, the letter was spread among critics to claim anyone so much as questioning the case was defending her actions. One well-shared Quartz article misrepresented the letter: “Feminist scholars argue a Title IX case is unfair – when a woman is under investigation.” The letter didn’t mention her gender.

The above-mentioned New York Times article, “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist Is the Accused?” similarly subtly undermined feminist work against sexual violence by mischaracterizing Ronell’s work as feminist itself. This lines up with the publication’s long history of anti-feminist articles. Claims that Ronell is a feminist philosopher may be an exaggeration of her limited foray into feminist theory. She rarely discusses feminism in her writing and almost exclusively cites men.

Why is it that a relatively rare case against an older queer woman is the one to garner unprecedented media attention? Many students have accused more famous professors – such as white straight male philosopher John Searle at UC Berkeley – of assault. Searle’s case came during an even more publicized time of the #MeToo movement six months before Ronell. However, it received limited media coverage that didn’t become nearly as much of a sensationalistic event as that of Ronell.

Misogyny and anti-queer sentiment play a central role in the explosion of Ronell’s case. There is very little cultural representation of older queer women and even less of intergenerational relationships with younger men. Demonizing an individual becomes easy when that individual deviates from cultural norms of sexuality.

Some of her critics cite her defenders’ reference to this fact as defending her alleged transgressions. However, recognizing the anti-queerness of the discussions surrounding the events does not defend Ronell. It instead acknowledges that these violations of student-professor boundaries are common. This case is one of many, and its heightened publicity may appeal to anti-queer sentiments.

On the institutional level, the Title IX case failed to take into account these complexities in power. Ronell will be suspended for the 2018-2019 year, without any training or education to ensure this doesn’t happen again. She will then return to work in 2019.

Lisa Duggan, an early queer theorist, argued in the popular academic blog Bullybloggers, “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).”

“Punitive” (punishing) or “carceral” (incarceration-based) justice such as suspension or jail time for sexual offenders has had little to no effect on rates of violence or severity of punishments for offenders. Harsher punishments do not equate to fewer crimes. Many offenders who are arrested – 1 in 18 – are rearrested for additional sexual offenses. Punitive justice is also disproportionately levied against men of color, queer people, and other marginalized groups.

Historically, educators could be fired for merely being queer or committing queer sexual acts. Recognizing this, Duggan became a collector of cases against queer faculty. In her polemic against Ronell’s punishment, she argued that many accusers are really the offenders the whole time: “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.”

It may indeed be true that queer professors are found at fault more often than their straight, cis counterparts due to anti-queer sentiments. False accusations do exist. However, this doesn’t mean the straight, cis professors aren’t just as much at fault. The victim-blaming language Duggan invokes is striking coming from someone so central to queer theory. It also constitutes an ironic deployment of identity politics from a theorist so critical of identity categories themselves. The cards are stacked against queers, trans people, and feminists. However, that does not mean we are incapable of causing harm.

Duggan is correct that Title IX is only useful for institutional punishment rather than any systemic change in behavior. It is indeed, as Duggan claims, a form of “neoliberal carceral feminism.” The system doesn’t allow room for education or restoration.

Like Title IX, #MeToo remains a largely carceral movement pivoted on the objective of punishing individual men rather than believing women and ending the systemic issue of sexual violence in ways that are proven to be effective. The latter have long been goals of the feminist movements that many of the letter signers are part of.

These two camps I outlined above – those who believe Ronell should be disposed of and those who believe she did nothing wrong – fail to embrace the queer feminist ideals of restorative justice and accountability respectively.

One of the most popular books in higher education discussing restorative justice, the 2016 Color of Violence: the INCITE! Anthology, details 10 steps of accountability:

Recognize the humanity of everyone involved.

Prioritize the self-determination of the survivor.

Identify a simultaneous plan for safety and support for the survivor as well as others in the community.

Carefully consider the potential consequences of your strategy.

Organize collectively.

Make sure everyone in the accountability-seeking group is on the same page with their political analysis of sexual violence.

Be clear and specific about what your group wants from the aggressor in terms of accountability.

Let the aggressor know your analysis and your demands.

Consider help from the aggressor’s community. They have more credibility with [her].

Prepare to be engaged in the process for the long haul.

The New York Times’ article on the case was nothing short of dehumanizing, going against the first point on the list. It included little information from Ronell and fixated on her queerness and older age. It did not suggest any measures of justice but instead focused on the feminists that defended the philosopher.

Conversely, Ronell is refusing to take any accountability process and denies any wrongdoing. Many of her defenders, including dozens of older queer and social theorists, are also refusing to acknowledge the transgression.

This is an interesting shift from the multiple grad students she worked with who spoke out on behalf of Reitman. One of these students, Andrea Long Chu, published another viral article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I Worked With Avital Ronell. I Believe Her Accuser.”

Chu focuses less on the details of the case and more on the impact Ronell’s defenders will have on future humanities scholars. The disparity in Chu’s analysis with those of the older theorists speaks to a broader generational difference within social theory, activism, and writing altogether. Many of the letter’s signatories failed to recognize the power difference between Ronell and Reitman, advisor and student.

Chu uniquely delved into the feelings the two potentially shared. While Reitman may very well have replicated Ronell’s endearing language, which constituted consent in Ronell’s mind, to what degree can a student consent to his professor? According to Title IX, none at all.

One explanation for Chu having this very different understanding of consent/power relations is that Title IX trainings are relatively new to academia. Title IX was brought into law in 1972, long after many of the U.S.-based theorists completed their own education. Similarly, The Clery Act, which mandated institutions of higher education to have trainings on sexual violence, was not signed into law until 1990.

The whole situation is the end of an era in academic feminism. While the older generation is being accused of victim blaming, the younger generation is accused of slipping into replicating the violence of carceral feminism.

Is a one-year suspension going to do anything for Reitman? Will it do anything for Ronell? As we’ve learned through decades of feminist studies on sexual violence, merely removing/suspending individuals who cause harm will do little to prevent assault in the future.

Ultimately, the decision for what constitutes justice falls on the victim. The results of that form of justice will always depend on process and power, which is constantly in flux. I write this as a Feminist Studies grad student at UC Santa Cruz, an institution that gave the largest Title IX settlement in history ($1.15 million) last year after a professor raped a student. The times are changing and the public is finally beginning to recognize narratives of violence.

It is not enough to rely on process when the accuser carries the burden of proof, but process is all that we have. It is our duty as queer feminists to create communities in which restorative justice is possible. Only then will process become something liberatory and work to end all sexual violence.

Image via Getty

Eli Erlick

Eli Erlick queer trans woman, PhD student, and director of Trans Student Educational Resources.