When a Queer Feminist Professor is Accused of Harassment

Sometimes our friends simply don’t deserve our defense. Sometimes, they need to be held accountable. As Stephen Colbert recently said, “accountability is meaningless unless it’s for everybody. Whether it’s for the leader of a network or the leader of the free world.”  He was calling out the leader of his own network, Les Moonves, in response to decades of sexual harassment claims unearthed by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker.  It wasn’t easy for him; it’s not easy for anyone to call out their friends. As Colbert eloquently put it, “everybody believes in accountability until it’s their guy, and make no mistake, Les Moonves is my guy.”

What if it isn’t your guy, but your woman? What then? Should accountability be gendered?

That seems like an obvious, and maybe naïve question: of course not. If women can’t be held accountable in the #metoo movement, than what is the movement for?  As the recent allegations against Asia Argento, one of the early Weinstein accusers and a key figure in the movement must show, accusers may be abusers. The abusers may be the abused. That doesn’t make either set of accusations less believable.  

Others might argue (as NYU professor Lisa Duggan recently did) that queer people, and queer women and people of color in particular, are uniquely vulnerable to the kind of extreme revenge accusations that make up a statistically small percentage of abuse allegations. Yes, if abuse is about power than those with less power may not be able to be abusers in the traditional sense. Duggan’s social justice feminism would have us challenge the overriding social structures that enable the vast power differentials that leave people vulnerable to all sorts of abuses and oppressions. 

But of course if we’re talking about power,  Avital Ronell—a self-identified queer woman (whose accuser is a gay man; yeah, it’s that kind of clusterfuck, and also they are both Israeli so whatever else goes down, this is definitively #notgoodfortheJews) – did have power over her accuser.

Quite a lot of it, in fact. He was her graduate student. According to reports, he turned down PhD. offers from a number of other highly prestigious institutions in order to be able to study with her. She’s an academic superstar. And perhaps, as a gay Israeli man, he felt some kind of immediate affinity with her. Perhaps he was dazzled by her. Who knows?  It doesn’t matter. What does matter – what is absolutely central to this messy and terrible case – is whether she violated the boundaries of a power-skewed advisor-advisee relationship.

She had a huge amount of power over him. And she used it. We can’t ever know the exact details of what went on behind closed doors (we can never know these details, as every person who seeks to discount a survivor testimony is oh-so-quick to point out) but we have the e-mails. We can read with our own eyes an advisor using highly sexualized language in her correspondence with her student. We can see increasing demands made on his time, energy, attention, and, at least on paper, his body. As Corey Robin notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “This is a grad student trying to make his way in an institution where everything depends on the good (or bad) word of his adviser…. [in the academy] power can be tediously, almost comically, simple. Cross your adviser in any way, and that can be the end of your career.”

So even if the emails were, in Ronell’s terms, campy expressions reflecting their shared queer identity and Israeli background, it doesn’t matter. What does matter – what is absolutely central – is that he was her student. She had control over his life and his future.

For these reasons, she did not deserve to be defended in the knee-jerk way she was. Certainly not in shudderingly familiar terms used by the powerful to defend the powerful. The letter written her defense by luminaries like Judith Butler (!) and Slavoj Žižek (!) (and don’t worry if you haven’t heard of them: academic fame isn’t even close to real fame) lays claim to the immense good she has done, to her wondrous intellect, to her unwavering support to her students, to her international reputation and deep and meaningful commitment to the academy.

And in case the playbook wasn’t clear enough, the letter also (subtly, but quite perniciously) attacks the accuser, blaming him for a malicious campaign and hinting that some of the signatories know him…and his character. It wasn’t a compliment.

To be fair, the initial letter of support acknowledged that the writers did not know all the details of the case. And with additional information, some, including Butler, have backtracked just a bit. But, from their own positions of power, they were quite quick to blame the supposed victim and defend their colleague. 

I don’t doubt a single one of the praises of Ronell expressed in the letter. She is indeed a brilliant luminary, even outside the tiny world of humanities scholarship. I’m sure she has been a marvelous colleague, mentor, and teacher. And none of this matters. What does matter – what is absolutely clear – is that in the power structure of the university environment, she violated her position. And he suffered for it. 

It is absolutely possible and necessary in the era of #metoo to hear the claims of #hetoo. No matter who the abuser is. Even if she is your woman. Even if she is your colleague. Even if she is your friend. Even if she is your superstar. 

Especially if she is.

Sharrona Pearl is a historian and theorist of the face and body at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her most recent book, Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2017.

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