The tale is one familiar to anyone who has attended graduate school: a graduate student claims to have been coerced into an uncomfortable relationship with a star professor. What is less familiar, but not unheard of, is that the professor is a woman (noted feminist Avital Ronell) and the former graduate student is a man (Nimrod Reitman).
As would be expected, the scenario followed the usual playbook for #MeToo incidents. First, associates of Ronell stepped in to defend her by pointing out her positive qualities and appealing to her standing in the academic community. These are, as always, irrelevant to whether a person did or did not engage in harassment. Second, Reitman was blamed and cast as a villain. Echoing all-too-common charges, her defenders accused Reitman of leading Ronell on, waiting too long to make his accusations, and so on. As the defenders of women accusers have repeatedly pointed out, these tactics are unacceptable. Consistency requires that the same standards be applied when a man is an accuser. As such, the accusations against Ronell should have been taken as seriously as any accusation made by a woman against a prominent male professor. That said, there are some who might disagree with this view.
It could be contended that since Ronell is a woman, she really could not sexually harass a man. After all, men can easily resist women, and some might go so far as to claim that men are always happy to have the attention of a woman.
Sexual harassment is not about simply about physical power, but about a general disparity in power. While men tend to occupy the positions of power, a woman in such a position can use that power against the men beneath her. Given Ronell’s position and status, she enjoyed a considerable advantage over Reitman. In general terms, any disparity of power allows for the greater potential of sexual harassment, regardless of whether a man or a woman has the upper hand.
In terms of men always enjoying the attention of women, that is clearly not true. In cases in which the attention is inflicted, men are even less likely to enjoy this attention. For the most part, men at work or at school most likely want to do their jobs or engage in their education without being harassed by their bosses or professors. As such, the idea that men cannot be harassed is absurd.
One might also try to defend Ronell by pointing out that she is a famous feminist and that the values of feminism preclude such bad behaviour. It is, of course, easy enough to reply to this defense. While I will focus on feminism as the defense, the points I make can apply to almost any defense that a person could not harass because they profess certain values.
While most varieties of feminism do include a condemnation of using power to coerce people in a sexual context, there could be versions that do not address this in the case of men. Since it is possible to craft any sort of theory, there could even be a form of feminism in which this behavior is acceptable—but this would certainly be a morally problematic theory. While holding to such a view would explain a person’s behavior, it would hardly defend it. That is, saying that what a person did was not wrong because they do not think it is wrong would not be very effective as a defense.
One obvious fact about professing values is that one can do so without subscribing to those values. There are many reasons why people engage in such a deceit, such as wishing to appear to be a certain sort of person for an advantage. For example, a person might profess the values of feminism as part of fitting in and advancing in an academic climate that values and rewards professing this view. Obviously enough, a person who merely professes the values of feminism without subscribing to them could easily act in violation of those values. As such, mere expression of values does not show that a person could not have engaged in harassment.
Another obvious fact is that even those who subscribe to a set of values do not always act in accord with those values. People often find it too hard to do what they believe they should do or too easy to do what they think is wrong. For example, I accept that eating meat produced by factory farms is morally wrong, yet I still eat such meat. In the case of feminism, a person could accept the view that people should not be coerced and harassed in a sexual context yet fail to live up to that principle. They might be overcome with desire or subject to some other factors that enables them to act against their own principles.
People can also act in wilful ignorance by rationalizing their violations of their own principles or by refusing to see these violations for what they are. For example, what the victim perceives as harassment and coercion might be seen by the harasser as a consensual relationship. It is, to be fair, possible that a person is not engaged in wilful ignorance, but simple ignorance. That is, they are honestly unaware that they are engaged in what they would regard as bad behavior. For example, I accidentally fed a vegan friend a vegetarian burger that contained whey protein (milk) because I had no idea that it contained milk. As such, I did something wrong—but only because I had no idea about the milk. Returning to the case at hand, the professor might have been unaware of how the student felt—which leads to a broad and controversial area of accountability for knowing things and the division of responsibility. In the case of power disparities, there can be special problem—the person in the weaker position can be worried to say what they feel and thus the person with the greater power would not know. This is, of course, why it is generally not good for people in positions of power to have relationships with those under them, such as graduate students.
While this case is not the first incident of a woman found to have sexually harassed a man, it is also not going to be the last. While the #MeToo movement is, once again, bringing sexual harassment into the media spotlight there is the fact that women are entering more positions of power and that the old gender roles and expectations are changing. As such, we should expect an increase in the reporting of cases of men being sexually harassed by women. And, as has been the case with men, we should expect to see some of the accused women profess values that are contrary to engaging in such behavior.