On Avital Ronell, Nimrod Reitman, and Sexual Harassment in the Academy

I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Avital Ronell/Nimrod Reitman sexual harassment story. Here are some excerpts:

The question of sex, of Ronell’s work and stature in academe, of literary theory or critical theory or the academic left, of the supposed hypocrisy of the scholars who rallied to her side, of the fact that the alleged harasser is a woman and gay while the alleged victim is a man and gay — all of this, if one reads Reitman’s complaint, seems a little beside the point. And has, I think, clouded the fundamental issue. Or issues.

What’s clear from the complaint is just how much energy and attention — both related and unrelated to academic matters — Ronell demanded of Reitman, her student. At all hours of the night, across three continents, on email, phone, Skype, in person, on campus, on other campuses (Ronell berates Reitman when he does not accompany her to the weekly lectures she is giving at Princeton that semester; according to Reitman, she even punishes him for this act of desertion, removing him from a conference she was organizing and at which he had been slated to present), in apartments, classrooms, hallways, offices, subway stations (there are multiple scenes at the Astor Place stop, with Ronell either insisting on walking Reitman to the train or keeping him on the phone until he gets on the train), and elsewhere. It’s almost as if Reitman could have no life apart from her. Indeed, according to the complaint, when Reitman had visitors — a member of his family, a friend — Ronell protested their presence, seemingly annoyed that Reitman should attend to other people in his life, that he had other people in his life. That really is the harassment: the claims she thought she could make on him simply because he was her advisee.

The issue of sex always clouds these discussions. One side focuses on the special violation that is supposed to be sexual harassment; the other side (including many feminists) accuses the first of puritanism and sex panic. Try as they might, neither side ever gets beyond the sex.

Hanging over all of these exchanges, unmentioned, is the question of power. 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.

The precinct of the academy in which this story occurs prides itself on its understanding of power. Unfortunately, that understanding is often not extended to the faculty’s dealings with graduate students, where power can be tediously, almost comically, simple. Cross your adviser in any way, and that can be the end of your career.

In her various responses to the case, Ronell implies that people on the outside of these relationships don’t understand the shared language, the common assumptions, the culture of queer and camp (and of being Israeli, which both she and Reitman are). As soon as she went there, my antenna went up. It reminded me of communitarians in the 1980s and 1990s, who made similar arguments about local cultures, that people outside of them don’t understand the internal meanings of the specific codes and customs, particularly when those codes and customs are oppressive toward women or gays and lesbians or people of color, that people on the outside don’t understand how differently that oppressiveness might read to someone on the inside. And it also reminded me of Judith Shklar’s admonition to the communitarians: Before you buy the story of shared codes and customs, make sure to hear from the people on the lower rungs, when they are far away from the higher rungs, to see how shared that code truly is.

For all of Ronell’s talk of shared codes and such, there is one experience, one code, in this story that every academic — gay, straight, male, female, black, white, brown, trans, queer — has shared: being a graduate student.

And here is the whole piece.


  1. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 21, 2018 at 8:57 am | #

    Et tu, Avital?

    I was a student at NYU doing graduate cinema studies in the mid 1990s.

    Professor Ronell hosted a presentation there and Derrida was a panelist and the main attraction.

    No, I cannot remember the focus of the lecture.

    Boss politics can infect anyone with institutionalized power. Self-inoculation requires real and persistent effort — as well as a critical self-awareness of one’s own position.

  2. jonnybutter August 21, 2018 at 10:39 am | #

    “[Gira Grant’s piece] also shows how, on even a fully emancipatory account of sex, the harm of the harassment remains”

    Another thing her piece does is ‘imagine’ a woman as a *person* – completely recognizable to anyone, even men – with brain, feelings, etc. The non-emancipatory account of sex can sometimes undermine that recognition, which is why a pity it’s the default, at least in the US Journalism/social media version of meToo.

    This is such a horrible story. I couldn’t get through the entire document. See also CR’s piece on The Erotic Professor which is about a phenom nauseatingly prevalent – or used to be at least, take it from me – in music education. I’m not going to name names, but plenty of ‘classical’ guys you would have heard of, particularly if you’re interested in that kind of music, were notorious about using their mentees in the ways Corey talks about – not just sexual, or even primarily sexual, although that too.

    A good teacher learns from students. A bad teacher uses students as emotional filters, like human kidneys.

  3. Anonymous August 23, 2018 at 6:35 am | #

    I have read the plaintiff’s complaint (https://blog.simplejustice.us/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/FINAL-Complaint-Reitman-v.-Ronell-and-NYU.pdf), and I understand that while perhaps not all details can be independently confirmed, evidence in the form of email correspondence and the fact that Reitman communicated details to many other people, including in print, throughout the years this was taking place.

    What I can say is that unless this turns out to be a very, very elaborate hoax that has been planned for years in advance, Ronell is an absolute monster. Her behavior may not meet the definition of “sexual assault,” as Ronell’s defenders keep repeating, though it is definitely sexual harassment. However that does not even begin to convey the horror of what was done to this young man. I think the appropriate term for it would be emotional rape. That Reitman was raped in this manner over and over again, is horrifying.

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