In a sexist world, it’s still possible for women to oppress men

How should women be aware of their own power in sexist spheres?
How should women be aware of their own power in sexist spheres?
Image: Reuters/ Lucy Nicholson
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This week, news broke that a star professor at New York University has been suspended for a year after a Title IX investigation found evidence that the scholar had sexually harassed a former student. Nothing wildly unusual about that.

Familiar, too, was the fact that the professor’s colleagues had protested the investigation before it was complete, defending their peer while maligning the accuser. “Malicious intention,” they wrote, ”has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.” The #MeToo movement has unearthed countless cases of powerful figures committing sexual harassment and, all too often, their colleagues insist that the accusations are more of a problem than the actual abuse.

This time, however, the story comes with a twist: The professor in question is a woman—feminist scholar Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at NYU. The student was a man. And the people defending the accused include the prominent gender theorist Judith Butler.

How could such feminist luminaries behave the same way as the out-of-date men who finally have been brought to account by #MeToo? Details of the sexual harassment allegations against Ronell, published in the New York Times, are damning. The report from the Title IX investigation included dozens of emails where Ronell referred to her graduate student, Nimrod Reitman, as “my most adored one,” “Sweet cuddly Baby,” “cock-er spaniel,” and “my astounding and beautiful Nimrod.” Reitman also describes Ronell kissing and touching him, sleeping in his bed and demanding that he lie in hers, and refusing to work with him if he didn’t reciprocate.

A statement sent by Ronell in a press release dated Aug 16, described as issued “on behalf of professor Avital Ronell,” refutes this narrative. ”Ronell has consistently, categorically, and unqualifiedly denied all of Reitman’s allegations, the first and only such allegations made against Ronell during her forty year career as an educator,” according to the statement. The press release adds that Reiman also sent Ronell emails filled “with expressions of ‘love and infinite gratitude,’ exalting her intellectual powers and she lobbed back similar appreciations.” Both Ronell and Reitman are gay, and Ronell’s press release describes the correspondence between the two as, “as largely gay-coded, with literary allusions, poetic runs and obviously exaggerated expressions of tenderness that were often initiated and returned by Reitman.”

But based on the results of the investigation, it sounds as if neither Ronell nor the feminist signatories of the letter in her defense have held themselves to the same standards they ask of men. To some extent, this is a universal human flaw: Understanding right behavior does not mean someone will act accordingly. Just ask colleagues of Tania Singer, a celebrated neuroscientist who studies empathy and the science of kindness but was recently accused of bullying people who worked in her lab.

The gap between theory and practice in the NYU case is also indicative of the different ways women’s and men’s behavior are perceived in a patriarchal society.

There is an inextricable tension between structural inequality and individual behavior. Male behavior is interpreted within the context of cultural male privilege, and so their actions, unlike women’s, have the potential to reinforce societal sexism. But these broad social inequalities don’t give women permission to freely commit the same transgressions as men.

The Ronell case is an extreme and unusual example of this tension, but it plays out in more subtle forms all the time. When women relentlessly pursue someone who shows no interest them, it may be viewed as embarrassing or “crazy,” which itself plays into a sexist trope. But the woman is less likely to be morally condemned for the impact of her behavior on her object of desire. Men who respond to romantic rejection with spiteful anger are considered “entitled,” but similar behavior is viewed as a harmless, even occasionally justified, expression of hurt among women. Meanwhile, some women seem to think nothing of judgmentally discussing men’s bodies, including penis size (feminist sites such as The Cut and Jezebel provide plenty of examples). Even a woman slapping a man in public is viewed as funny, rather than act of violence; pop culture often uses such moments as a punchline. “Men being struck by their love interest is a cinematic staple,” complained a Guardian article on the subject.

But while both men and women are equally capable of bad behavior, men are the ones who benefit from sexist power structures. And so the gender of the perpetrator means that their actions will carry different weight. “It’s different,” says Juliet Williams, a gender studies professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Does that mean it’s less bad? No, it just takes it out of that sexist realm.” It’s wrong when men in a position of power mistreat women, just as it’s wrong when women mistreat men from a position of aggrieved entitlement, she says. But the two actions are not the same.

Moreover, although societal sexism is a relevant context in all gendered relations, this does not mean that every man holds the power in every single situation. Williams says that this an often-overlooked aspect of intersectionality. “We think of intersectionality as the idea that everyone has internal diversity and all contain multitudes,” says Williams. “Another entailment of the idea of intersectionality is that each of us is socially positioned with privilege and also disadvantage. Even with a straight white wealthy man, there’s going to be times and places where that person is privileged and where they’re not.”

In more extreme cases of straight white men facing disempowerment, there are plenty of individuals who fit that description and have been underpaid or subject to psychological domestic violence. But even in instances that don’t involve such egregious wrongs, power is not a zero-sum game in which men have all the power and women have none. “That’s a very reductive way of thinking,” says Williams. A key implication of intersectionality is that there’s no neat, clearcut hierarchy when it comes to power relations.

Men must be aware of how their behaviors can perpetuate sexist norms, just as women should be aware of the potentially harmful impact of their behavior. It’s right that domestic violence and sexual harassment are framed as a gendered issues, just as it’s right that Ronell be held accountable for her actions. All these truths must be held simultaneously, and there’s no rule for disentangling them.

Ultimately, even those who are subject to societal inequities are perfectly capable of wielding power, while those who benefit from privilege are still vulnerable to others’ behavior. “The thing about power relations is it makes a categorical approach obsolete,” says Williams. “You have to see the complex relations of layering of power. Each individual situation comes down to judgement.”