A Title IX investigation has found famed feminist scholar Avital Ronell responsible for sexually harassing one of her students, stirring up a national conversation on how women can be perpetrators of sexual misconduct.
Ronell, who The New York Times reports is a lesbian, was accused by her former graduate student Nimrod Reitman, a gay man, of sexually harassing, assaulting, and stalking him when she was his academic adviser at New York University. This May, the NYU Title IX office determined she had committed harassment, leading to her suspension, although it cleared her of the other charges. Title IX is the federal law against sex discrimination in education.
Ronell, 66, is a prominent philosopher who specializes in feminist theory and ethics. At NYU, she co-directed the trauma and violence transdisciplinary studies program.
Reitman, who reported Ronell's alleged misconduct before the #MeToo movement began, says that in 2012 she invited him to stay with her in Paris, where she asked him to read to her while she tried to take a nap. He alleges that she then pressed herself against him, put his hands on her breasts, and kissed him.
"She put my hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself -- her buttocks -- onto my crotch," he said. "She was kissing me, kissing my hands, kissing my torso."
Reitman says he told Ronell "what happened yesterday was not OK. You're my adviser." But she did not respect his boundaries, he contends, instead continuing to grope and kiss him without consent and call him "my most adored one," "sweet cuddly baby," and "cock-er spaniel" in emails. In July 2012, she wrote to him, "Time for your midday kiss. my image during meditation: we're on the sofa, your head on my lap, stroking you [sic] forehead, playing softly with yr hair, soothing you, headache gone. Yes?"
He also said that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, Ronell showed up at his apartment because she had lost power. Reitman claims that despite his objections, his adviser coerced him into sharing his bed with her, where she groped and kissed over the course of nearly a week. Ronell says she only stayed two nights.
The former student claims Ronell retaliated against him when he complained of the harassment by sabotaging his job prospects, sending pro forma recommendations on his behalf. The Title IX report found her letters "were comparable to those for other former students."
Much like when U.S. Sen. Al Franken was accused of misconduct, a group of Ronell's colleagues signed a letter defending her character. It even went so far as to claim that Reitman, who is now 34 and a visiting fellow at Harvard, is waging a "malicious campaign" against her.
The first person to sign was influential feminist scholar Judith Bulter, author of the book Gender Trouble. Although Ronell's defenders acknowledged that they do not have access to the confidential documents in the Title IX case, they wrote:
We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her. We hold that the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.
"I am of course very supportive of what Title IX and the #MeToo movement are trying to do, of their efforts to confront and to prevent abuses, for which they also seek some sort of justice," professor Diane Davis, who signed the letter, told the Times in an email. "But it's for that very reason that it's so disappointing when this incredible energy for justice is twisted and turned against itself, which is what many of us believe is happening in this case."
Ronell denies any misconduct.
"Our communications -- which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment -- were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities," she wrote in a statement to the Times. "These communications were repeatedly invited, responded to and encouraged by him over a period of three years."
Reitman filed a complaint against Ronell two years after he graduated from NYU. She was found guilty after an 11-month investigation.