The Wrong Expert on #MeToo?

Sociologist’s essay about the “gray” area of sexual consent sets off allegations of rape against him and doubts about whether he should be teaching a class on masculinities in America.

March 26, 2018
 
Tweet from Jazmine Walker saying "[Trigger warning]: Rape or this so called grey area that Robert Reece is talking about. Story time"
Twitter

“The look on his face was familiar. I’d been there myself.”

That’s how Robert L. Reece, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, began a new essay for Vox called “How Men are Adjusting to the #MeToo Era: ‘This Is Going to Take a Really Long Time.’ Men Discuss the Gray Areas of Intimate Encounters.”

They’re also the words that alarmed one of Reece’s former partners, Jazmine M. Walker, a Washington D.C.-based reproductive rights activist and co-host of the Black Joy Mixtape politics and pop culture podcast.

More precisely, Walker was aghast to discover that the man she says raped and emotionally abused her within their intimate relationship was teaching a course on “Masculinities in America” -- and within that context, she said in a recent interview, offering himself up as an authority on masculinity vis-à-vis sexual violence and consent.

“Reece has not -- given this article and these exchanges and the stories that have surfaced -- demonstrated a core competency or mastery around masculinities,” said Walker. “Having a Ph.D. gives you the legitimacy to not only to create knowledge but to perpetuate it. And in that vein [Reece] is then able to assert himself as an expert. But clearly he isn't. He can’t be.”

No Authority

The context of the “I’d been there myself” anecdote? Reece wrote that he had asked students in his masculinities class to “think hard about whether they asked permission before they touched their partner intimately, or before a kiss.” He was impressed by some students’ “advanced ideas” about consent, he said. But he noticed that one male student in particular seemed “uncharacteristically uncomfortable.”

Reece said he and the unnamed student communicated via email after class, and that the student revealed -- in Reece's telling -- that he'd “struggled to reconcile past encounters with his new knowledge of consent and coercion.” Reece said he told him “I understood how distressing it could be to recall those experiences but stressed the importance of sitting with the discomfort and learning from it. I suggested he visit the counseling center, although I’m unsure if he ever did.”

The Vox piece goes on to discuss other conversations Reece has had with men about the supposed “gray” area in intimate encounters in ways that are arguably problematic on their own. Although Reece’s clearest, laudable message is that “gray areas are not an innate part of sexual encounters,” and that more open communication about sex between partners is needed, his critics say his overall tone is apologist toward rape culture. He seemingly conflates rape with sex when he says that “by allowing these gray areas to exist, we offer an excuse for people who seek to take advantage of ambiguity to fulfill their sexual goals,” for example.

The piece also refers to the serious allegations of sexual misconduct against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein as “indiscretions,” largely ignores the victim or survivor’s perspective, and raises -- but essentially dismisses -- the idea of “consequences.” It includes a parallel (not Reece’s own) to alcoholism -- suggesting that sexual coercion can be an addiction, not a choice.

And while Reece says that men must “look backward and acknowledge our past wrongs, even if we have little guidance with how to process these feelings and what to do about them,” he ends with something of a relaxed thought: “We have to remember that what we’re trying to accomplish -- achieving social reforms, dismantling rape culture, and defining and solidifying consent -- is a process."

“This is going to take a really long time,” he says, quoting one of his sources. “It’s not just, ‘We had the #MeToo movement; now we’ve moved on. We live in a post-sexual harassment America.’ That’s just not going to happen.”

In any case, the classroom anecdote caught Walker’s attention, as did the fact that the American Sociological Association tweeted a link to the essay.

She began to share on Twitter some details about her relationship with Reece. In summary, Walker said that she and Reece were in the midst of an emotionally unhealthy relationship as graduate students in sociology at the University of Mississippi six years ago when she told him that she’d slept with someone else (Reece was allegedly chronically unfaithful).

The next morning, she said, Reece appeared in her room and forced her to have anal sex (which they had never before had).

'I'm Scared as Shit'

“I open my eyes and there he is standing over me. I'm scared as shit. I jump, pull the covers up, and pull back and say, ‘What are you doing here?!’” Walker wrote on Twitter. “I asked bc [sic] he looked like he was going to kill me. He was dressed in all black, had his hood over his head, and yea.”

Reece allegedly sat on the floor and wouldn’t leave until Walker, in her words, “obliged. And eventually I did. I just wanted him to leave. We never talked about it. Proceeded like it never happened.”

Walker said she kept the incident to herself for years, in part because of a past experience with intimate partner sexual violence. But reading Reece’s Vox piece opened the floodgates, she said.

Since then, she said, “multiple” other women have reached out to her to say they, too, were mistreated in various ways by Reece. She has shared some of those accounts online.

Walker also has posted alleged screen shots of text conversations with Reece, in which he does not deny her allegations but says he remembers their relationship differently.

Reece initially agreed to a telephone interview with Inside Higher Ed but later canceled, saying he’d been advised to direct media inquires to the university.

He posted the following on Twitter last week.

In another post, he wrote, "My politics doesn't lean on me having never been toxic in the past. No one's does. And I do this work and write and talk to other men, not because I want forgiveness but because it's the right thing to do, because I've wanted to be better and to help other people be better."

Walker has tweeted, tagging the university's official Twitter account, to say that Reece is a potential safety risk to the Texas community. She said she’s received no response thus far. J. B. Bird, university spokesperson, said via email that Texas “takes all accusations of sexual misconduct seriously and follows up on accusations through its Title IX office and the Office of Inclusion and Equity, following established procedures, as it will do in this case. Sexual harassment or violence in any form is unacceptable and in contradiction of our core values.”

Walker said some of what she's heard about Reece from other women since tweeting about week allegedly involves his time at Texas. In any case, universities can investigate rumors and allegations that don’t pertain to specific, alleged incidents at their institutions, in the interest of maintaining campus safety. But such investigations are usually confidential until there is any finding of misconduct.

Beyond Reece, Walker said the bigger point is that “the epidemic of college campus sexual assault and rape doesn’t just happen out of thin air. It is maintained and perpetuated through people in power, like Reece.”

If “we really want to address what’s happening on our campuses we must address who is advising and guiding students on these campuses, and [Reece] is a rapist.”

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