Feminist Principles and Michael Kimmel
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · August, 2018
A week after anonymous charges of sexual harassment against sociologist Michael Kimmel surfaced, I suggested that his half-hearted “apology” was unacceptable and that the pro-feminist men’s movement’s response was inadequate. With two more weeks now past, a follow-up challenge to Kimmel—a leading figure in the feminist-influenced study of men and masculinities—is appropriate.
Several groups in that movement have issued statements (here and here) asking for accountability, and he has resigned from the board of one of those groups. But Kimmel’s public comments have been limited to a brief initial statement reported in the press.
Independent of any disciplinary action that his employer (Stony Brook University) may take or any legal cases that women may bring, Kimmel should follow the feminist principles he claims to hold about men’s accountability to women in a patriarchal society.
Based on an article by a former graduate student* and off-the-record conversations I have had with people who have extensive experience with him, I would offer this advice to Kimmel: (1) fess up, and (2) be prepared to step down.
Kimmel should answer the published, on-the-record accusation that he expected graduate students to complete tasks for him without compensation, including work not related to their academic roles, and that he was unprofessional in how he used graduate students’ research for his own purposes. In other words, the question to Kimmel is, “Have you exploited students?”
From there, Kimmel should answer even more troubling questions:
+ Have you ever propositioned a student or junior faculty member, knowing that your prestige in the fields of sociology and feminist/women’s/gender studies might make a sexual relationship more likely? Would your status in those fields potentially leave a woman wondering about the consequences for her career if she refused your proposition?
+ Have you ever had sex, or sought to have sex, with a student? As a prominent teacher and researcher, would taking advantage of the power imbalance constitute an abuse of male privilege in patriarchy?
+ Have you ever had sex with a student under your direction—someone you had in class, had advised, or served on a thesis/dissertation committee for? Do you agree that such a relationship is unacceptable, no matter what the appearance of “consent”?
+ Have you ever “groomed” a younger woman over a period of time with the goal of making a sexual relationship with you seem more acceptable? Do you agree that, even if a man claims he was only trying to be supportive, such conduct is predatory?
If the answer to any of these questions about your behavior is yes, then fess up to what you have done, honor your stated commitment to feminist principles, and resign your position as a professor at Stony Brook and step down from the role as executive director of the university’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. For a senior professor and well-known activist—one of the two or three most prominent men in the United States associated with a feminist critique of masculinity in patriarchy—to behave in such a fashion would be unacceptable.
Kimmel’s status at Stony Brook is not clear. A university spokesperson last week said, “The University is unable to comment on personnel matters. We have policies and procedures in place to fully investigate claims that are brought to our attention.” And I have no knowledge of any legal action pending or planned.
But Kimmel does not have to wait for university administrators and lawyers to reach conclusions before he speaks honestly in public about the charges women have made against him.
And whatever the resolution of Kimmel’s case, the larger questions remain: How common is the exploitation of graduate student labor and the sexual exploitation of students in higher education? How serious are faculty members and administrators about making significant changes in that culture?
* This writer also accuses of Kimmel of having a “trans-exclusionary frame of reference,” a claim that seems to assume that feminists must endorse the ideology of the transgender movement. Many feminists, myself included, reject that claim.