Reclaiming my fear: I will no longer stay silent about Michael Kimmel
As I prepare to engage in six days of professional networking and knowledge-making in Philadelphia at the American Sociological Association annual conference and the Sexualities Preconference, I am struck by the urgency of sharing this story. What follows is a detailed and intimate account of my six or so years working for and in the presence of Michael Kimmel — noted Sociologist and famous “male feminist” — who was recently named as a sexual harasser. While all accounts of sexual harassment, sexual assault, violence, and exploitation are horrific, what makes this case particularly toxic is that Michael has spent the better part of the last three decades becoming famous for telling other men how to be better, including contributing to field-specific knowledge on intimate partner violence and community-wide conversations on #MeToo outside of and even in the workplace.
I sat in silence for all these years for many reasons. Not unlike other graduate students and junior faculty have reported, I was originally dependent — or so I thought — on Michael’s letter of recommendation for jobs and feared the potential retaliation that might come from exposing such a widely respected and very influential scholar. What’s more, not unlike other survivors of abuse who often get inappropriately asked “why didn’t you leave?”, I honestly feared that no one would believe me and I would be ostracized from the discipline, my colleagues, and my closest friends who might choose Michael’s accounts over mine.
But now, it’s time for me to break this silence. I am called in to this conversation by the brave anonymous sources who spoke truth to their experiences of sexual harassment, and compelled to publicly name myself because of Michael’s anti-feminist response to those anonymous sources. Where once I was a seemingly powerless graduate student, I have now been physically and intellectually separated from Michael for over three years and our academic collaborations are buried deep beneath many, healthier endeavors with others. I am proud and happy to report that I have the backing and support of my friends, family, and colleagues to release these collective stories into the world. It is my hope that in doing so, I can counter Michael’s statement that very clearly implies anonymous stories are just “accusations” or “rumors,” and allow everyone — Michael included — to get a better sense of what we’ve all experienced. This was not an easy decision to make, knowing the consequences that may follow. I stand with all survivors today and I hope you will stand with me.
I remember receiving my acceptance letter to Stony Brook University’s Sociology PhD program vividly. As a bright-eyed and naive 20-year-old who grew up in a relatively small town and went to a relatively little known liberal arts college in Michigan, the thought of working with the preeminent scholar in the field of gender studies (or, at least, who I believed at the time was the preeminent scholar in gender studies) was nothing short of thrilling. When I arrived at Stony Brook, I found Michael to be a fairly charismatic and charming instructor. He was mostly lighthearted, and at that time, appeared passionate about the work that he did. But, there were always signs that he was not the “male feminist” he professed to be. Some of these moments were “small” — like, having his women graduate students (and non-binary graduate students, but he didn’t really acknowledge our identities as different than ‘woman’) print paper copies of articles and reports he wanted to read (sometimes hundreds of pages at a time), collect his mail from his Long Island office mailbox, and then drive all of it nearly two hours to his home in Brooklyn (even though none of us lived there). But, other moments were more substantial.
A lot of how he treated us was wrapped up in what he frequently called the “informal economy.” In other words, we do something for him and he’ll do something much, much better for us. I get his mail, he’ll find some extra money from his textbook advances to (under)pay me to be a summer copy editor and research/data updater for said textbook. We spend what little free time we had working on papers that he’s been invited to submit, and he’d slap his name on it (“it’s good experience,” “anyone else need the publication?”), he’ll get me that dream job just by making a phone call to his friends on our behalf. And, in addition to desperately needing money to pay for my rent over the summer (a larger part of the noted structural inequity in graduate level stipends), I also really believed he’d get me a good job. I was barely 22 or 23 when after one of his graduate classes, he invited a few of us into his office to talk about something related to class and immediately pushed “play” on his office phone’s voicemails while it was on speaker. Loud and clear for all of us to hear was the remarkable voice of, “Hi Michael, this is Jane…” Fonda. He not only knew Jane Fonda, but she calls him at work. If playing that message out loud for us wasn’t some form of a power trip, I don’t know what is.
His power and prestige only grew as I continued in the program. The more HuffPo and BuzzFeed articles and videos in which he was featured, the more terrified I became of alienating him, disappointing him, or not upholding my end of the informal economy. As just one example of said “economy” from this time, I worked as what he called the “lead editor” on the now second edition of Sexualities: Identities, Behaviors, and Society. Originally, I agreed to do this because he told me that the book would be bylined with both of our names (much like he did with another graduate student for the first edition). But, then, he started asking more and more graduate students to join in on the work. It grew so big that, before we knew it, we had 13 graduate students in the mix. So, he changed his mind. It wouldn’t be fair to have my name mentioned and no one else’s. So, I’d maintain my role of lead editor, coordinating big asks between him and the other students, keeping people on track in terms of their deadlines, emailing and eventually meeting with editors from Oxford University Press, taking care of permissions to reprint, contacting authors to sign agreements, holding work meetings when he wasn’t available, and just generally doing what I imagined should have been his job. I wouldn’t get paid and my name would not be individually acknowledged. And, yet, I did the work anyway, because I felt compelled to uphold my end of the bargain and hopeful that on the other side would be a postdoc or a job.
In case it is not clear at this point, in no uncertain terms, I spent an overwhelming majority of my time in graduate school doing Michael’s work, answering ridiculous emails nearly every week (or multiple times a week) about finding new data on a particular topic (mostly for op-ed pieces he was writing), making charts and tables because he “didn’t know” how to use Publisher, answering his empirical questions about gender and sexuality (that he was, I assume, merely too inconvenienced to Google himself), fetching his mail, printing hard copies of new reports, and just generally supporting his ability to be profitable and prolific. I did this at first because I was young, a bit impressionable even, but also because didn’t know what my other options were if I wanted to finish a PhD. Transferring out, “defecting” from Michael, didn’t seem like a viable option.
But, the numerous times I was inadequately or completely disregarded and uncredited for my work are probably blessings in disguise. Indeed, I vehemently disagree with most of the executive decisions Michael has made over the years on how to talk about sex, gender, and sexuality — decisions that make their way into casual conversations, professional meetings, and undergraduate classrooms. To be clear: I find Michael and his perspectives to be securely rooted in a benevolent sexist, second-wave feminist, trans-exclusionary frame of reference, which relies so heavily on stereotypical understandings of the gender binary that it also necessitates a homophobic understanding of sexuality. Below, I detail just a handful of examples from the six years I knew and interacted with him, including some recent public examples of this.
- Explicit sexual talk
On more than one occasion in and outside of the classroom, Michael told us explicit details about his son’s sex life, explained to us that his reframing of oral sex in a feminist way meant that women “envelop” him (literally, he said “enveloping me” sounded more feminist in a graduate class), and that he didn’t think porn was that bad (particularly the “woman on woman” stuff). He’s even justified many of his thoughts as being examples of how even “good feminist men” can fail, for instance when he told a graduate student that he just “couldn’t help” staring at the low cut shirt of an undergraduate student with large breasts. And in some cases, he justified his comments as being example of a “good feminist mentor,” like telling “beautiful” (his words and subjective evaluation of) women students how much harder they’d have to work to get ahead (you know, because of other men’s opinions and perspectives).
2. A lack of respect for anyone but cisgender heterosexual (or presumed cishet) men
In terms of receiving an award for “scholarly work that has enlarged the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society,” I think I speak on behalf of nearly all of his cisgender women graduate students (and non-binary folx, but again he didn’t see or acknowledge us as such) when I say he unequivocally gave cisgender, heterosexual men less teaching and graduate assistant work than women. He paid these men to work during summers and then had the women continue that work unpaid. He gave verbal offers for graduate and research assistant (GA/RA) positions to multiple women and non-binary students at the same time, without telling anyone (we talked to each other, so we knew). He gave verbal offers of future GA/RA employment and then went back on his word. He made some of his GAs decide an appropriate workload amongst themselves with no clear guidelines, causing in-fighting and eventual dissolution of friendships. He sent men graduate students to conferences — all expenses paid — even expensive trips to conferences in other countries, while expecting women and non-binary students to stay back and continue being glorified secretaries. He even helped to arrange internships and paid research work at nonprofits in NYC for the men under his advisement — work that he double counted as RA/GA work, essentially allowing these men to be double paid for half the work of their women and non-binary colleagues. But, perhaps in one of the more shocking examples, he professionally coerced a young scholar to present work for the Center for Men & Masculinities that was only tangentially related to what she does (an offshoot of a recent piece), and then spent nearly the entire Q&A berating her and accusing her of not knowing her own research well enough. She later wrote to explain that as a junior scholar she was terrified that making this talk public would ruin her career.
3. Homophobia in both academic and interpersonal spaces
When I ended the romantic relationship I’d entered graduate school in (who is a man) and started dating a fellow graduate student (who at the time publicly identified as a woman), Michael told me he could understand why I’d find that more appealing (“you know, more caring and nurturing I’d bet”). I still have the electronic versions of his introductory textbook chapters on “The Gendered Body” in which he discusses sexuality (not it’s own chapter, but a series of subsections in the body chapter) in a way that feeds into the worst stereotypes we have about hypersexualized gay men and asexual lesbian women: “The weight of evidence from research on homosexuality bears out this argument that gay men and lesbians are gender conformists. Take, for example, the number of sexual partners” (2012 version). He goes on to cite a 1982 study in which gay men have substantially more sexual partners in their lifetimes than lesbian women and are far less monogamous than heterosexuals. He then cites one study in which gay men have sex more often per week than any other kinds of couples, with lesbians coming in last place, barely having sex at all. Of course, the study understood sex as penetrative and/or vaginal and was outdated. I gave him numerous updated studies to the contrary, showing him that lesbians in fact have the most self-reported sex if we include diverse measures of what it means to “have sex.” I all but begged him, in my empirical comments, to update the studies he used (including the one about monogamy, which had been updated and found little to no differences between straight and not-straight people). “The “more frequent sex is better” idea represents a heteronormative standard of valuing quantity over quality” I wrote. He didn’t respond to my edits directly, and as you can see in the most recent version of the text, he has barely changed his binary and heterosexist understandings of LGBQ+ sexualities (and refuses to support the claims that remain with empirical data and research).
4. Transphobia in both academic and interpersonal spaces
Michael has expressed that he doesn’t think the term “cisgender” is useful or important — the term cisgender is for individuals whose gender identity aligns with the gender assigned to them at birth, and is a term which reaffirms that everyone actively has a gender identity, not just trans people. But it’s not shocking that Michael doesn’t find the term useful, given the plethora of other evidence that suggests he’s both ignorant about and holds bigoted opinions of trans people. For example, in a 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Michael stated that trans men are “almost men”; he also calls them “FTMs,” which cis people shouldn’t — and have been advised in best practices to not — do. After graduate students asked him to start asking their pronouns at the beginning of his classes, he complied, but complained at the time to the whole class that he “wasn’t really comfortable” doing it; and when multiple students indicated a preference for gender neutral they/them pronouns, he then privately complained to one student after class that singular they is grammatically incorrect, and therefore invalid. When a student informed him that “transgendered” (adjective) wasn’t a word before class one day in 2015, he was “shocked.” He even once said that “‘TUGS’ are the new ‘LUGS’,” LUGS meaning “lesbian until graduation,” and TUGS meaning “trans until graduation.”
His lacking knowledge, respect, or care for anything related to transgender people, identities, lives, or issues is evidenced again in multiple sections from the original edits of the newest Gendered Society (what you’ll see in their place if you bought the most recent version is actually an uncredited and unpaid edit that I demanded the editors allow me to do because I couldn’t, in good conscious, allow such inaccurate and transphobic things to be published). In his original he calls gender confirmation surgery “genital reconstructive surgery (or gender reassignment surgery)” — which is outdated language. He refers to trans individuals as “those who feel themselves improperly categorized into the biological sex into which they were born.” He says “transmen were born female and have had surgery to become men” and “transwomen” are essentially the opposite. Even more troublingly, he writes that trans folx “are the quintessential social constructionists”. He doesn’t know how to spell genderqueer and he thinks that “gender-queer people seek to inhabit an intermediate zone, not unlike Pat on SNL or intersexuals.”
More than that, in a fairly recent call for papers for a book project with Dana Berkowitz on “Male Femininities” (yes, that’s to stand in direct conversation with Jack Halberstam’s “Female Masculinities” — which is ironic because, and I’m sure he doesn’t know this, Michael once spent an entire class calling deadnaming Jack and using she/her pronouns), the co-editors thought that the following topics were at all relevant to “male femininities” and to each other in a volume of pieces: “We seek to provide analyses of a panorama of male femininities. Thus, possible topics include, but are not limited to: Gender nonconforming and gender creative boys, transgender children, drag queens, gender fluidity in Non-Western cultures, gay fathers, men as full time caregivers, men as recipients of beauty culture and cosmetic surgery, feminine fashion for men, men in feminized workplaces such as fashion modeling, cosmetic industries, and nursing, among others, men as domestic laborers, transgender women in prison, male menopause and the couvade syndrome, pregnant “men”, effeminacy and gay men, Asian (gay) men, veganism and masculinity, feminist men, men in the WGS classroom, and sub-men in BDSM sexualities” [emphasis added]. I hope that most everyone reading this understands why I’ve italicized what I have and how deeply, deeply problematic this list is (if not, I suggest reading up on gender identity and how it’s different from “sex”, gender expression, and doing gender). But, it doesn’t stop there, when a graduate student of his was invited to contribute to the project, but decided not to (because of the aforementioned problematic list and the very real potential for scholars with no expertise in trans studies to choose transphobic pieces for the book, even if out of ignorance), Michael responded with a brief email trying to change the student’s mind, with the last piece of evidence being “3) because it was me who invited you” (for the record the second point was about being “serious” about a career and the need to not take publishing opportunities lightly).
Honestly, it’s bewildering to me that Michael seems only worried about rumors of sexual harassment. To be clear, he should be worried about those; in the #MeToo era, it was only a matter of time — given all we’ve borne witness to — -that he’d be exposed. While I was lucky enough to never be targeted by Michael for that kind of academic grooming, I’ve heard from multiple people in person and through the whisper network who were. But, his initial response is indicative that he doesn’t understand the contexts of his own behavior — much like the men who now report they are weary of even spending time in the same room as a woman, for fear that their behaviors will be taken “out of context” — he doesn’t seem to have a critical or analytical understanding of power dynamics. His behavior is not just one specific act, but rather an overall pattern of sexism and hostile environment-making. And, unfortunately in academia, I am not alone in being the recipient of this and other grossly misogynistic (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), homophobic (1, 2), and transphobic behaviors (1, 2, 3), and other structurally unequal expectations of what constitutes job responsibilities, from an academic/professional supervisor.
Knowing how widespread and pervasive this behavior is — and how many others in and outside of the discipline excuse and downplay it — I will end by saying that I advise any and every person ever negatively impacted by a supervisor to publicly come forward, if and only if they are in a position to do so safely. For those who may have been impacted by Michael specifically, I warn that ASA really doesn’t have the capacity to effectively protect your identity or process your reports. Your personal safety plan around coming forward must take into account Michael’s true amends-making intentions: that Michael is no doubt waiting those six months not so that there is room for you to safely tell him what he’s done to you, but so that he can see your name, in writing. He wants you to show your hand before he plays his. And when he does play his, it could be detrimental to the rest of your career. He’s done it before and as much as I’d like to believe he’s changed, we just haven’t seen recent behavior to the contrary.
While there’s so much more to be said, I’ll end with a bit of a calling in to all those who think themselves “allies” to our experiences. Some of whom have already released responses that don’t seem to display a current understanding of feminist theory or praxis, and some of whom who have yet to speak at all.
To those who love and admire him and are “devastated” by these stories, I’ll say: What kind of feminist praxis do you engage in? How can you wield your power and privilege to address him directly? How and when will you take the burden off the rest of us to call him back in, if that’s what you want? We are not the ones responsible for fixing this, you are. So, who will you support and believe?
To the American Sociological Association and the Jessie Bernard Award Committee: What will you really do to protect those of us brave enough to come forward? How are you considering and weighing our stories? What processes are you setting up, clarifying, or making safer so that we no longer have to live in silence? Who will you support and believe?
To Michael: Firstly, can you please stop telling other people that you believe me and my partner are responsible for this “campaign” against you — which I’ve now heard from multiple people (and, if you’re reading this, is just blatantly false; if you really knew anything about me, you’d know I’m not the type of person to start an anonymous twitter account just to expose you)? You have built a lifetime of work around supposedly understanding power dynamics, inequity, misogyny, and violence. So, given this expertise, you have to know how to best be accountable to those of us sharing our stories. How did you decide six months would be enough time to do so and still receive an award? What scholarship and/or narratives have you read on trauma, accountability, justice, and healing that would lead you to believe that an arbitrary deadline (set by you) is the best way to move forward and best thing for survivors? Now is the time to show us, to prove to us, you are who you say you are, once and for all. There are guidelines on how to begin to rectify these situations. I know not everyone wants the same things out of you, but I can tell you that the guidelines on accountability do not include retaliation, denial, blame transference, or any other tactic outside of listening, learning, and apologizing through actions, not simply words. Who will you support and believe?
This serves as my public statement on “what has happened here.” A semi-living document that details the collective experiences of me and my colleagues and dearest friends. A way to speak power to our experiences because they cannot. A reclamation of my fear. The start of a path forward, I hope, for all of us.