In a leaked letter written and signed by a series of academics and feminists, the Title IX investigation into the sexual harassment allegations against NYU professor Avital Ronell was called a "malicious campaign."
They touted her "intellectual influence" and her "award of Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government." They labeled the possibility of her termination as professor an "injustice," saying, "We ask that you approach this material with a clear understanding of the long history of her thoughtful and successive mentorship, the singular brilliance of this intellectual, the international reputation she has rightly earned..."
In short, we ask that you look at all her accomplishments and all that would be lost by her termination — then ignore the petty little accusation of sexual harassment that's pinning her down.
Signed were names among the likes of Judith Butler and Catharine Stimpson, both prominent feminist scholars. And in such a scenario, with the roles turned on their heads, what is the difference between the way men are accused and the way women are defended? As it seems, very, very little.
According to a New York Times report, Nimrod Reitman, 34, was a former graduate student of Ronell's. He is gay and Ronell is a lesbian, and he claimed that he had been sexually harassed by her over the course of three years, providing evidence in emails obtained by the New York Times where she called him "my most adored one" and "cock-er spaniel."
Silently, as if not to cause any ripples across the Internet, NYU suspended Ronell for the following academic year, after finding her guilty of physical and emotional sexual harassment toward Reitman.
But after the letter was leaked, the entire narrative changed.
Being one of the most prominent figures in literary fields and academia has led Ronell to cement friendships with individuals in some very distinguished positions. And it is those very friends who signed the letter, defending Ronell's intelligence, contribution to the university and demeanor.
Sound familiar? It very well should, as it's a defense tactic employed time and time again by the friends of men who have had sexual harassment allegations leveraged against them. It's a page torn out of the handbook that has gained the stamp of approval by predators preceding Ronell.
It must be said that the Title IX investigation, proceedings and evidence are all confidential at this time, with the exception of interviews given by Reitman or information leaked to the press. This isn't a call for the absolute vilification of Ronell because I still maintain a degree of ignorance about the exact evidence against her.
Rather, this is a call for an examination of how we deal with sexual harassment and assault allegations as a people. Because it's always easier said than done — it's easy to blast the accused, to rain fiery hell down upon them or what have you.
But when the accused is part of your own ranks — a feminist, a scholar, a friend — what does this response from her feminist colleagues reveal?
In part, it shows a great disparity between theory and practice for the feminists who signed the letter, defending Ronell's actions.
It's a generalization I'm making to assume their stance on sexual harassment based on their positions as feminist scholars, but it's also a logical bet I'm willing to make that for the slew of men who've been exposed since the beginning of the Time's Up and #MeToo movement, the general sentiment has been to admonish them for their abuse of power. But except for the reversal of genders, this situation has been replicated for decades: the one in power abuses the powerless, the voiceless, the fearful.
But most significantly, it also shows the evolution of the movement. Though predominantly focused on male predators, the women who are equally culpable and guilty have begun to feel the pressure mounting against them as well. Because ultimately, the goal of the likes of #MeToo and Time's Up is unisex: to extinguish a climate in which sexual predators feel empowered to get off easy, to duck from any real consequences and shield themselves from punishment.
And by understanding and studying the case of Avita Ronell and Nimrod Reitman, maybe we can move closer to that utopia, inch by inch.