#metoo: Can a Feminist Be Guilty of Sexual Misconduct?

Ten ideas to consider regarding the NYU Title IX case and lawsuit.

Posted Aug 17, 2018

Another #metoo claim came to light this week, when a Title IX report was leaked and a lawsuit was filed. The accuser is a former graduate student and the accused is a prominent NYU professor who is highly respected and world-renowned in the fields of philosophy and comparative literature. You’ve probably never heard of the student nor the professor, but because of multiple unusual twists, this case has become controversial and juicy fodder for news headlines, blogs, editorials, and of course, Twitter.

The controversy? When the accused professor was investigated and suspended for sexual harassment, many colleagues rushed to this person’s defense—not unlike the usual parade that happens when a powerful man falls from grace due to sexual misconduct, and the defenders can’t believe it’s true. As is often the case, these defenders are blaming the student-victim as an untrustworthy liar, and are beseeching NYU to restore this professor’s powerful position, because of such a stellar career. So what else is new?

Well, here are the twists that make this case so controversial: The former graduate student is a gay male; the prominent professor is a woman who identifies as queer and feminist; and the defenders are fans of hers, but NOT misogynists or even social conservatives. They are prominent feminist theorists, philosophers, and intellectuals who pride themselves on critical thinking and supporting progressive ideals—such as victims seeking justice and being believed in droves thanks to the #metoo movement. But by coming to the accuser’s defense, they appear to have let their own biases overpower their judgment. Some have even cried foul, arguing that Title IX, considered to be a feminist victory that protects girls and women, is wrongly being “twisted and turned around” to hold a woman accountable.

Say what?

Let’s back up a little and get some context.

Title IX is a federal civil rights law that was passed in 1972, prohibiting sex discrimination in educational settings. Before Title IX, there were no laws protecting female students from unequal recruitment, admission, financial aid, course offerings, or sexual harassment. Unfortunately, until the year 2000, when a new regulation made enforcement, reporting, and resolving complaints a priority, sexual harassment in particular remained rampant and largely unreported and unprosecuted, especially in universities. And without recourse, too many women felt trapped in a system that didn’t support their goals, which was to get an education and good grades without having to tolerate or fend off sexual advances. Now that administrations have clear procedures to follow, more students are being heard, more perpetrators are suffering consequences, and justice is being served.

And indeed, the vast majority of cases do involve protecting female students from male perpetrators. But should Title IX, a major feminist victory, be used to take down a widely-respected feminist scholar? A feminist who identifies as queer, no less? Accused of sexual harassment by a man who is gay? This just doesn’t add up…or does it?

If this news story has got you twisted, here are 10 facts about sexual misconduct, human nature, and the law to consider:

1. Sexual misconduct is about having power over someone, not just about sex. Take away the details about gender and sexual orientation and view it through the lens of “Professor imposes and demands sexual contact from student. Title IX used to seek justice.”

Or even more to the point, “Person in a position of power imposes and demands sexual contact from person in position of vulnerability. Justice is served.” Shouldn't this be a cause for celebration?

2. This power dynamic is especially obvious when, as is often the case, the accused appears to be using the typical power plays to fend off this supposed injustice and restore herself to her former position of power. These typical power plays include:

  • “I am innocent.”
  • “He was willing.”
  • “It was just a flirty game we played.”
  • “He can’t be believed or trusted.”
  • “He is to blame: he knew he wasn’t smart enough to succeed, so he flirted with me.”

Sound familiar? Isn’t this what the male power brokers have been saying to defend themselves? Shouldn’t this woman’s power posturing elicit our outrage as well?

3. This power dynamic is also obvious when we look at the reasoning proposed by those who rushed to her defense. They are using the same tactics of denial, disbelief, justification, and counter-accusations, which merely blame the accusor and ignore or downplay the evidence against the accused.

4. Title IX is a civil rights law that protects all students against sex discrimination by anyone. Not just females against males. In fact, the purpose of Title IX is to protect the vulnerable against the powerful. (See #2.)

5. Male and female students are afforded the protections of Title IX because, after all, males can be victims too. Catholic priests abusing altar boys; troop leaders abusing Boy Scouts; athletic coaches abusing male players; and yes, teachers abusing male students. Does it matter, the gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the accuser or the accused? Power dynamics are power dynamics across all of it. (See #2.)

6. Power dynamics make any relationship between student and teacher unequal, as the teacher has the upper hand, rightly exercising their power to cultivate order in the classroom, offer instruction, give homework and tests, and assign grades. And whenever teachers exercise their power inappropriately, they are taking advantage of this dynamic, rendering the student especially vulnerable to mistreatment.

7. Vulnerability can be experienced in many ways. For example, according to the evidence in this case, this male student says he found it difficult to loosen his professor’s grip. He coveted an education from NYU. He had admired her work and was thrilled at the prospect of being her student. She became his academic advisor, but, with strings attached, as she also allegedly wanted intimacy. According to his complaint, she wielded the power to make or break him and either facilitate or ruin his goals, depending on whether he yielded to her demands. He didn’t want to fall into her disfavor. She was allegedly manipulative, aggressive, and reactive, and as is typical for victims in abusive relationships, he says he couldn’t see a way out. In cases like this, it's important to ask whose fault this is—and remember to look at the one who holds the power, not the one who is vulnerable.

8. Feminists are not immune to making power plays. Just because someone identifies as a feminist or stands for equal rights doesn’t mean that they are incapable of wielding power over others. Again, according to the lawsuit, she used her power over him to have their relationship inappropriately serve her longings for affection and intimacy.

9. Experts don’t always know best. Just because someone is a world-renowned authority in their field, this doesn’t mean that they can carefully think through every aspect of their emotional lives. According to the emails included in the lawsuit and the other corroborating evidence, she appeared to show a lack of awareness and sound judgment with regard to her relationship with this student.

10. A person’s reputation is only as good as their worst fault. Just because someone is well-respected and appears to have an excellent track record mentoring students, this doesn’t mean they are incapable of sexual misconduct. And just because someone has made stellar contributions to their field, this doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to carry on, uninterrupted, without consequences for misconduct.

What really happened? And what should come of the lawsuit? That's not for you and I to decide, nor even to cop an opinion. It’s merely our job to take note, understand the power dynamics involved in sexual misconduct, and cheer for civil rights, justice, and equal protection under the law.