Robert Reece, a sociology professor at the University of Texas Austin, recently wrote an essay for Vox exploring men’s efforts to reckon with potentially coercive sexual behavior in their pasts.
“As #MeToo continues to prompt conversation about sexual misconduct, what are the conversations that men across the country are having about this movement?” Reece wrote.
The piece did prompt public conversation — including a debate about the author and his qualifications to teach about sexual consent. After his piece ran, Jazmine Walker, a 30-year-old reproductive rights activist and co-host of the podcast The Black Joy Mixtape, said on Twitter and in interviews that in 2012, when she and Reece were in a relationship as graduate students at the University of Mississippi, Reece came into her bedroom one morning and forced her to have anal sex. Walker told me she identifies the event as a rape.
“I felt so helpless, so vulnerable, I just wanted him to leave,” she wrote on Twitter. Ultimately, she did what he wanted.
Reece doesn’t dispute that the event took place, but he does interpret it differently.
In a text message exchange with Walker shortly after she sent her tweet, Reece wrote, “We remember things differently, not the incident, just the resolution.” (Walker posted the exchange online.) In another text, he says, “I want to understand why my understanding of how we resolved that morning differs so greatly from yours. I remember distinctly that coming up in couples counseling and you saying we’d talked about it and moved on.” Walker told me the two did go to couples counseling but never directly addressed the 2012 incident.
Reece also responded to a question from me about Walker’s description of the incident.
“I’m not here to undermine her account of events,” he said in an email. “Memory is imperfect. We were arguing and we had sex that we both agree we shouldn’t have had.”
On March 21, Reece, whose Twitter account is now private, tweeted about his Vox essay, apparently in response to Walker’s report and other criticism: “This piece wasn’t about me, but I was eager to write it because I’ve been coercive before, specifically with my ex about ten years ago. There are no easy solutions. But I apologized to her many times. We went to counseling. I’ve gone alone for years.”
On March 26, Inside Higher Ed published a story on Reece’s essay and Walker’s account. After Vox editors became aware of Walker’s tweets, they added an editor’s note to his essay. On March 27, I was assigned to report on the story for Vox.
Walker’s report about Reece, and the circumstances under which it became public, set off a conversation among his colleagues in the field about whether Reece is equipped to write and teach on questions of gender and consent, and, more broadly, who should and shouldn’t tackle these issues.
“We commit to creating a culture in sociology and academia that is inhospitable to sexual violence,” wrote a group of sociologists in an open letter released earlier this month. “A first step would be to hold Dr. Robert L. Reece accountable for his actions.”
Other women accuse Reece of damaging behavior
Additional women have described other behavior by Reece they say raises questions about his true sensitivity to issues related to gender:
- Walker tweeted that several women have contacted her with their own accounts of alleged inappropriate behavior by Reece, who denied any coercive, harassing, or inappropriate behavior with other women when I contacted him.
- One of these women, Shan’Ternera Williams, posted on Facebook that Reece abused her verbally and sexually.
- Editors at a magazine where Reece served as an editor apologized earlier this month for not investigating a claim by a staffer in 2016 that Reece made an inappropriate advance toward her and a claim by another woman that he damaged her career.
- A 20-year-old undergraduate student at UT Austin says Reece “swiped right” on her on the dating app Tinder.
Allegations of abuse from Shan’Ternera Williams
One of the women who Walker says reached out to her, Shan’Ternera Williams, wrote a public Facebook post regarding Reece on April 9. Williams says she and Reece began dating in 2010, when she was an undergraduate student and he was a graduate student. She writes that during their relationship, he was verbally and sexually abusive. In particular, she describes a 2016 visit to him in North Carolina during which she felt pressured to agree to various sexual acts.
“I was in NC with little money for a hotel, no car, and with a man who seemed to be angered by my very presence. I couldn’t say no,” she writes. “Hours later, Reece would go on to accept his job offer at UT Austin.”
“I haven’t seen the post and don’t want to comment on anything she says,” Reece told me in an email. “I’m not interested in arguing with her in public.”
At the magazine
Editors at Scalawag, a magazine of Southern politics and culture for which Reece was once an editor, posted a statement on their website on April 2 apologizing for not taking complaints about Reece more seriously when they were raised at the publication in 2016.
“We did not take further action then, with Robert or with our fuller team; in doing so, we failed to fully serve our team and community. We apologize. We made the wrong judgment call, and we regret our inaction,” the statement reads.
The magazine has decided not to publish an article from Reece in an upcoming issue and does not plan to work with him again.
In response to the Scalawag statement, Reece told me, “I’ve spoken to them, and they know I recruited the first two women of color to the editorial board.”
Online dating on campus
A 20-year-old undergraduate student at UT Austin told me that in March, she was near campus looking through profiles on her Tinder app when she noticed a man whose profile said he was a professor at the university. It was Reece.
The woman, who listed herself as a UT student on her profile, “swiped right,” a signal to Tinder that she was interested in him. Tinder alerted her that Reece had also “swiped right,” a signal he was interested in her too. She said she quickly unmatched with him, which would prevent Reece from messaging her. She said she never sent him any messages or received any from him.
She later told a friend she’d stumbled across Reece’s profile. The student said that her friend, a 22-year-old undergraduate, told her that she, too, had seen Reece’s profile on the app and taken screenshots of his account. The images, provided to Vox, show that Reece listed his official title, assistant professor of sociology at UT Austin. He identified himself as a “womanist.” His listed age, 29, was current.
Reece told me he has not matched with a 20-year-old undergraduate. He also said he hasn’t used the app “in some time.” “I only recently learned Tinder doesn’t delete your profile when you delete the app,” he said, “so seeing me on the app doesn’t mean I was active.”
Tinder allows users to set a desired age range for potential matches. To see a profile of a 20-year-old woman, for example, a user must include that age in their age settings. Tinder is location-based, allowing users to see people near them. Using the app near the Austin campus with an age range set to include 20-year-olds would make it likely that Tinder would display student profiles.
There is a difference between seeing another user’s profile on Tinder and “matching.” The 20-year-old student said that she didn’t just see his profile but “matched” with him, meaning both of them would have to have swiped right. University policy prohibits faculty members from having relationships with undergraduates. No students have told me that Reece met or tried to meet them in person.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re technically legal; it’s still inappropriate,” the 20-year-old student said.
“It scared me so bad”
When Walker read Reece’s Vox essay, she told me, “it scared me so bad.”
She was disturbed by Reece’s discussion in his essay of what he called the “gray area that looms larger and larger in discussions I’ve had with men about consent and coercion.” “There was nothing gray” about any of the situations Reece cited in the essay, she said.
And in her view, Reece’s failure to disclose the 2012 incident made his point of view on sexual situations and consent untrustworthy.
Walker tweeted, “My ex doesn’t get to walk around here with a PhD, create and legitimize this concept of ‘grey area’ around rape.”
“One way that this campus culture, this culture of violence on college campuses, is perpetuated is because there are folks like him on these campuses with power,” Walker told me. “This man is credentialed. This man is saying that I have the authority to teach about masculinity in America.”
Reece got his PhD in sociology from Duke in 2017 and joined the faculty at UT Austin as a tenure-track assistant professor the same year. His academic research focuses on the history of racism and colorism, but he has written on a variety of topics for non-academic media outlets.
Before his essay on men and consent, he had written for Vox on the Trump administration’s attacks on affirmative action. In 2012 and 2013, he wrote a number of pieces for the Good Men Project website, including one called “5 Ways Disavowing Masculinity Changed My Life.”
Reece has organized a number of panels on gender and race issues, including one titled “Learning a Healthy Masculinity” and another called “For All Men Who Have Considered Sexual Assault When ‘No’ Isn’t Enough.”
Reece opened his latest Vox essay with a description of a male student’s reaction to a lesson he taught on consent. The conversation seemed to make the student “uncharacteristically uncomfortable,” Reece wrote, and in an email exchange afterward, “he told me the topic was difficult to grapple with, that he struggled to reconcile past encounters with his new knowledge of consent and coercion.”
Reece described identifying with the student: “The look on his face was familiar. I’d been there myself.” But he did not write about committing any specific coercive behavior in his own life.
Students are protesting
The public debate about Reece has fanned flames on the UT Austin campus among students who already distrusted the administration over a decision to keep on a professor who pleaded guilty in 2017 to strangling his then-girlfriend until she “saw stars.” The 57-year-old professor was found dead in his home on April 5; while the cause of death has not been determined, authorities say his death is not considered suspicious.
“I wish they would start caring about our students,” one UT Austin student told me. On April 5, the university announced that after a review of its policies around criminal acts by faculty, it would change its policy to allow discipline solely on the basis of those acts, regardless of whether the faculty member is found to pose a threat to campus safety.
UT Austin has not made public whether it is investigating Reece. The university “generally does not comment on personnel matters” but “is aware of recent accusations raised on social media and in media reports,” said J.B. Bird, UT Austin’s director of media relations, in a statement to Vox.
“The university 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,” Bird added. “Sexual harassment or violence in any form is unacceptable and in contradiction of our core values.”
Reece, however, says he is not under investigation at UT Austin in connection with Walker’s report or other sexual misconduct allegations.
On March 26, the Revolutionary Student Front Austin, an anti-capitalist student group, posted a message on its Facebook page warning students about Reece.
“Through his course, he is uniquely able to identify potential rapists, yet he does nothing to stop them — and worse, he shows them his sympathy as a fellow misogynist and abuser,” the post reads. The group also argues that setting an age range on Tinder low enough to match with potential students “is in conflict with what he preaches — informed consent with an understanding of how social and material power may guide romantic and sexual encounters.”
Sociologists often study inequality and power imbalances. What happens when one is accused of abuse?
Outside of UT, the allegations against Reece have prompted discussions about who is qualified to teach sociology — which often examines questions of inequality and power imbalance — and what to do when allegations of past misconduct surface.
Earlier this month, a group of sociologists released an open letter expressing support for Walker. “While the current #MeToo movement has heightened the nation’s awareness of sexual violence, it has failed to center the experiences of black women,” the letter states. “The fact that Dr. Reece publicly professed to be a black male womanist despite an apparent pattern of violating and harassing black women is appalling and makes our anger and concern all the more acute.”
The letter also calls for the American Sociological Association (ASA) to delete its tweet promoting Reece’s Vox article and issue a statement against sexual violence, and for other sociological organizations to develop anti-sexual violence policies. The Association of Black Sociologists endorsed the letter on April 6, and on April 11, the group’s president said in a statement that “Jazmine’s bravery and disclosure is a broader call to action” and that “we all must do so much more to ensure that Black people, especially the most marginalized of us, are protected and safe.”
“The American Sociological Association strongly condemns sexual violence and is deeply concerned about the information that has emerged since the publication of Robert Reece’s piece in Vox,” said Nancy Kidd, the executive director of the ASA, in a statement to Vox.
The organization established a working group on harassment in 2017, she added, which has developed an anti-harassment policy for the ASA’s annual conference and planned several workshops on the topic. “We take the issue of sexual violence very seriously and, as sociologists, are particularly mindful of the fact that there are intersectional concerns with race, gender identity, and sexual orientation,” Kidd said.
Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, a sociology professor at Florida State University and one of the letter signatories, tweeted about Walker’s report, saying, “I hope this particular case makes people w/ some actual power think long and hard about what they can change. because this is not the kind of academia I want to work in.”
Reece maintains that part of his commitment to talking about masculinity comes from his own past missteps. “My politics doesn’t lean on me having never been toxic in the past,” he tweeted on March 21.
“I don’t do this work on masculinity because I think I am a superior masculine role model or my past is perfect,” he told me. “I do it because I am and have been flawed, and I want to start and engage in conversations that encourage men to do better. Ironically, this entire situation has done just that.”
For Walker, the fact that Reece teaches sociology — that he is in a position to teach students and the public how society works or should work — makes him especially dangerous.
Sociology teaches students how ideas become accepted, Walker explained to me: “Someone in the past said something, gave an idea legitimacy, and then people just keep repeating it, and then next thing you know, it’s the truth.”
More Info: www.vox.com