Nuance in sexual politics

The #MeToo campaign has been one of the most high-profile pivots of feminist mobilisation in recent times. Now the American chapter of the movement is faced with a strange predicament. Avital Ronell, a leading feminist scholar and a renowned professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University (NYU), has been found guilty of sexual harassment by her university. NYU, acting on a complaint filed by Nimrod Reitman (34), a former student of Professor Ronell, has suspended her for one academic year.

On the face of it, this seems like a textbook response from the institution, one that would have been widely hailed if the accuser had been female and the accused male. What has complicated matters, however, is that more than 50 academics, including eminent feminists led by the iconic gender theorist Judith Butler, have rallied around Ms. Ronell. In a letter to the president of NYU, the signatories stated in no uncertain terms that “if she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognised and opposed”, and added that “the ensuing loss for the humanities... during these times would be no less than enormous”. Claiming to know the accuser, the signatories branded his allegations as a “malicious campaign”.

Critics were quick to point out that these were precisely the kinds of arguments that had been put forth in defence of powerful men at the receiving end of the #MeToo movement. In other words, should the guiding principles of #MeToo, such as not questioning the motives of the victim, be discarded if the alleged perpetrator happens to be a woman and a feminist, and the victim a man? Queering the pitch further are the sexual orientations of the individuals involved: while Ms. Ronell is a lesbian, Mr. Reitman is gay, with a male spouse.

While one cannot but take Mr. Reitman’s claims seriously, since the alleged perpetrator did wield power over him, the dynamics of the case suggest that it may always not be a good idea to disregard the fraught ambiguity of human relationships, especially romantic ones. This was also the stated position of the 100 French women who in January had published a letter in Le Monde denouncing the #MeToo campaign, observing acerbically, “One more effort and two adults who will want to sleep together will first check, through an app on their phone, a document in which the practices they accept and those they refuse will be duly listed.” Perhaps what is required is a different vocabulary, one capable of articulating not only abuse and exploitation but also the different shades of sexual play between the rigid categories of coercion and consent, without necessarily resorting to the pre-fabricated labels of predator and prey — at present, the only two roles accorded recognition in the binary discourse of the #MeToo campaign.

The writer is with The Hindu in New Delhi

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The article has been edited post publication to correct typos.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 2:36:03 PM |

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