The OTher Whisper Network
How Twitter feminism is bad for women
No one would talk to me for this piece. Or rather, more than twenty women talked to me, sometimes for hours at a time, but only after I promised to leave out their names, and give them what I began to call deep anonymity. This was strange, because what they were saying did not always seem that extreme. Yet here in my living room, at coffee shops, in my inbox and on my voicemail, were otherwise outspoken female novelists, editors, writers, real estate agents, professors, and journalists of various ages so afraid of appearing politically insensitive that they wouldn’t put their names to their thoughts, and I couldn’t blame them.
Of course, the prepublication frenzy of Twitter fantasy and fury about this essay, which exploded in early January, is Exhibit A for why nobody wants to speak openly. Before the piece was even finished, let alone published, people were calling me “pro-rape,” “human scum,” a “harridan,” a “monster out of Stephen King’s ‘IT,’?” a “ghoul,” a “bitch,” and a “garbage person”—all because of a rumor that I was planning to name the creator of the so-called Shitty Media Men list. The Twitter feminist Jessica Valenti called this prospect “profoundly shitty” and “incredibly dangerous” without having read a single word of my piece. Other tweets were more direct: “man if katie roiphe actually publishes that article she can consider her career over.” “Katie Roiphe can suck my dick.” With this level of thought policing, who in their right mind would try to say anything even mildly provocative or original?
For years, women confined their complaints about sexual harassment to whisper networks for fear of reprisal from men. This is an ugly truth about our recent past that we are just now beginning to grapple with. But amid this welcome reckoning, it seems that many women still fear varieties of retribution (Twitter rage, damage to their reputations, professional repercussions, and vitriol from friends) for speaking out—this time, from other women. They are, in other words, inadvertently creating a new whisper network. Can this possibly be a good thing?
Most of the new whisperers feel as I do, exhilarated by the moment, by the long-overdue possibility of holding corrupt and bullying men such as Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer to account for their actions. They strongly share some of its broader goals: making it possible for women to work unbothered and unharassed even outside the bubble of Hollywood and the media, breaking down the structures that have historically protected powerful men. Yet they are also slightly uneasy at the weird energy behind this movement, a weird energy it is sometimes hard to pin down.
Here are some things these professional women said to me on the condition that their names be withheld:
I think “believe all women” is silly. Women are unreliable narrators also. I understand how hard it is to come forward, but I just don’t buy it. It’s a sentimental view of women… I think there is more regretted consent than anyone is willing to say out loud.
If someone had sent me the Media Men list ten years ago, when I was twenty-five, I would have called a harmlessly enamored guy a stalker and a sloppy drunken encounter sexual assault. I’d hate myself now for wrecking two lives.
One thing people don’t say is that power is an aphrodisiac. … To pretend otherwise is dishonest.
What seems truly dangerous to me is the complete disregard the movement shows for a sacred principle of the American criminal justice system: the presumption of innocence. I come from Mexico, whose judicial system relied, until 2016, on the presumption of guilt, which translated into people spending decades, sometimes lifetimes, in jail before even seeing a judge.
I have never felt sexually harassed. I said this to someone the other day, and she said, “I am sure you are wrong.”
Al Franken asked for an investigation and he should have been allowed to have it; the facts are still ambiguous, the sources were sketchy.
Why didn’t I get hit on? What’s wrong with me? #WhyNotMeToo
I think #MeToo is a potentially valuable tool that is degraded when women appropriate it to encompass things like “creepy DMs” or “weird lunch ‘dates.’” And I do not think touching a woman’s back justifies a front page in the New York Times and the total annihilation of someone’s career.
I have a long history with this feeling of not being able to speak. In the early Nineties, death threats were phoned into Shakespeare and Company, an Upper West Side bookstore where I was scheduled to give a reading from my book The Morning After. That night, in front of a jittery crowd and a sprinkling of police, I read a passage comparing the language in the date-rape pamphlets given out on college campuses to Victorian guides to conduct for young ladies. When I read at universities, students who considered themselves feminists shouted me down. It was an early lesson in the chilling effect of feminist orthodoxy.
But social media has enabled a more elaborate intolerance of feminist dissenters, as I just personally experienced. Twitter, especially, has energized the angry extremes of feminism in the same way it has energized Trump and his supporters: the loudest, angriest, most simplifying voices are elevated and rendered normal or mainstream.
In 1996, a six-year-old boy with Coke-bottle glasses, Johnathan Prevette, was suspended from school for sexual harassment after kissing a little girl on the cheek. This was widely interpreted as a sign of excess: as the New York Times put it, a “doctrine meant to protect against sexual harassment might have reached a damaging level of absurdity.” Yet I wonder what would happen today. Wouldn’t feminists be tweeting, “Don’t first grade girls have a right to feel safe?” Wouldn’t the new whisperers keep quiet?
One thing that makes it hard to engage with the feminist moment is the sense of great, unmanageable anger. Given what men have gotten away with for centuries, this anger is understandable. Yet it can also lead to an alarming lack of proportion. Rebecca Traister, one of the smartest and most prominent voices of the #MeToo movement, writes:
The rage that many of us are feeling doesn’t necessarily correspond with the severity of the trespass: Lots of us are on some level as incensed about the guy who looked down our shirt at a company retreat as we are about Weinstein, even if we can acknowledge that there’s something nuts about that, a weird overreaction.
At first glance, this seems honest and insightful of her. She seems, for a moment, to recognize the energy that is unnerving some of us, an anger not interested in making distinctions between Harvey Weinstein and the man looking down your shirt—an anger that is, as Traister herself puts it, “terrifyingly out of control.” But weirdly, she also seems to be fine with it, even roused. When Trump supporters let their anger run terrifyingly out of control, we are alarmed, and rightly so. Perhaps Traister should consider that “I am so angry I am not thinking straight” is not the best mood in which to radically envision and engineer a new society.
It would be one thing if collapsing the continuum of bad behaviors happened only in moments of overshoot recognized by everyone. But I am afraid that this collapse is an explicit part of this new ideology. The need to differentiate between smaller offenses and assault is not interesting to a certain breed of Twitter feminist; it makes them impatient, suspicious. The deeper attitude toward due process is: don’t bother me with trifles! (One of the editors of n+1, Dayna Tortorici, tweets: “I get the queasiness of no due process. But … losing your job isn’t death or prison.”)
The widely revered feminist Rebecca Solnit made a related argument in a 2014 interview, speaking in the immediate wake of California’s Isla Vista mass shooting. “I think it’s important that we look at all this stuff together,” she said. “It begins with these microaggressions; it ends with rape and murder.” Solnit is not arguing literally that all arrogant men will go on to sexual assault. But by connecting condescending men and rapists as part of the same wellspring of male contempt for women, she renders the idea of proportion irrelevant, and lends an alluring drama to the fight against mansplaining. She gives a gloss of mainstream respectability and intellectual cachet to the dangerous idea that distinctions between Weinstein and a man who looks down someone’s shirt don’t ultimately matter.
Because of the anger animating the movement, incidents that might otherwise seem outrageous become acceptable or normal to us. The Shitty Media Men list, the anonymously crowd-sourced spreadsheet chronicling sexual misconduct in the publishing world, is a good example. If we think of how we would feel about a secretly circulating, anonymously crowd-sourced list of Muslims who might blow up planes, the strangeness of the document snaps into focus. And yet the Guardian described the list as an attempt “to take control of the narrative by speaking out,” while the Washington Post said “the point was community.” According to The Awl, “a few false positives is probably an acceptable price,” and Mashable opined: “Maybe the women accessing it will see a name and feel a little less crazy, a little more validated in knowing that weird interaction they had with that media guy in a bar was, in fact, creepy.” There is something chilling about circulating lists like this, with their shadowy accusations capable of ruining reputations and careers, simply so that a woman can be sure that a weird interaction she had at a bar with a media guy was, in fact, creepy. (“It feels Maoist,” says one of the deeply anonymous, while others question whether the list was ever designed to remain clandestine in the first place.)
To do a close reading of the list: some of the offenses on the spreadsheet (“creepy DMs,” “weird lunch ‘dates,’” “leering,” “flirting,” “violent language,” and “leading on multiple women online”) seem not quite substantial or rare enough to put into the category of sexual misconduct. I am not even sure they merit a warning to a hopeful young employee. I have graduate students who go on to work for these sorts of publications, and I am very mother-hen-ish about them. But I can’t imagine sitting with one of my smart, ambitious students in my office, lined with shelves of books like The Second Sex and A Room of One’s Own and I Love Dick and The Argonauts, saying, “Before you go work there, I just want to warn you, that guy might leer at you.” I would worry I was being condescending, treating her like a child who doesn’t know how to handle herself in the world.
I am not trying to suggest that the list makers don’t understand the difference in scale between leering and assault, but rather that the blurring of common (if a little sleazy) behavior and serious sexual harassment reveals a lot about how they think. For them, the world is overrun with leering monsters you have to steer around, as if in a video game. And if some of us seem overly occupied with problems of scale, with separating small gross moments from larger criminal ones, it is because we think the very idea of women’s power is at stake.
One man on the spreadsheet—a writer with no authority over anyone, and a drinker himself—is accused of the following: “targets very drunk women.” To me, the verb “target” is eloquent of the motives and the mind-set of the list’s creators. Why is hitting on someone, even with the third drink in your hand, targeting? Surely some of the women are targeting him back, or targeting someone else—the tall guy with a paperback tucked into his jacket pocket, maybe, on the other side of the room. However one feels about the health of drinkers who hang around till the last minutes of the party consorting with other drinkers, I am not sure you can accurately frame this as political oppression. Among other things, the verb makes a series of sexist assumptions about how helpless and passive the women (I mean, targets) at the party are.
In one of the sexual harassment stories in New York magazine’s The Cut, Emma Cline describes a drunken evening during which the head of a literary organization sits too close to her in a cab and asks for her number on the way home from a party. (“Why is this a story?” one of the deeply anonymous says.) Granted, we’re now used to the endless mediation of screens in our personal lives. Still, one wonders when someone asking for your phone number became an aggressive and dehumanizing gesture rather than, say, annoying or awkward. In a way, asking someone for her phone number seems like asking for consent—it’s asking, not assuming, it’s reaching out, risking rejection. It begins to feel as if the endgame of this project is not bringing to account powerful sexual bullies but, as a male acquaintance puts it, the “presumptive criminalization of all male sexual initiatives.”
A couple of days after my friend made this potentially outsized claim, Josephine Livingstone issued a fresh dictum in The New Republic: “You probably shouldn’t kiss anybody without asking.” She insists that everyone, not just college students, must now obtain verbal permission; all those ways you used to think you could tell whether someone wanted to kiss you six months ago no longer matter: “The world has changed, and affirmative consent is now the standard.” Note the friendly yet threatening tone of a low-level secret policeman in a new totalitarian state.
Men are not entirely deluded if they sense that some of the anger is aimed at all men. Barely submerged in this project is the simmering idea that men have committed the dramatic and indefensible crime of being male. This tweet comes from Kaitlin Phillips (Twitter handle: @yoloethics), a spirited young writer about the publishing world: “It’s not a revolution until we get the men to stop pitching LMAO.” In The Outline, a new digital publication, Leah Finnegan writes, “Many men wonder what to do with their entitled mouths and brains at moments like this and the answer is: shut up and go away.” She also tweeted, “Small, practical step to limit sex harassment: have obamacare cover castration.” While this is fairly extreme, its tone is not alien to anyone who dips even briefly into Twitter or Facebook. We are alarmed at the rampant and slippery Trumpian tendency to blame “all immigrants” or “all Muslims,” and blaming all men seems to me only a little less ominous.
Traister writes about men living scared,
the friends and colleagues self-aware enough to be uneasy, to know they’re on a list somewhere or imagine that they might be. They text and call, not quite saying why, but leaving no doubt: They once cheated with a colleague; they once made a pass they suspect was wrong; they aren’t sure if they got consent that one time. Are they condemned?
It seems that they are, because she continues: “Men have not succeeded in spite of their noxious behavior or disregard for women; in many instances, they’ve succeeded because of it.” In this context, it’s not entirely surprising when she reports her husband saying to her, “How can you even want to have sex with me at this point?”
If on some subterranean level of this conversation all men are presumed guilty, then all women are innocent, and I guess my question is, Do we really want that innocence? What is the price of it? In her prescient early-Seventies critique of the women’s movement, Joan Didion wrote, “Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children.” She went on to object to a feminist idea of sex that assumed women were, in her memorable phrase, “wounded birds.”
Didion’s phrase rang in my mind as I read Rebecca Solnit’s comment in the interview quoted earlier:
Every woman, every day, when she leaves her house, starts to think about safety. Can I go here? Should I go out there?… Do I need to find a taxi? Is the taxi driver going to rape me? You know, women are so hemmed in by fear of men, it profoundly limits our lives.
(To this, one of the deeply anonymous says, “I feel blessed to live in a society where you are free to walk through the city at night. I just don’t think those of us who are privileged white women with careers are really that afraid.”)
The idea of this ubiquitous, overwhelming fear is repeatedly conjured and dramatized by Twitter feminists. In one of her pieces, Rebecca Traister complains about a man who was fired many years ago from Harper’s Magazine following an instance of sexual misconduct and now writes for New York. She does not mention that he has worked uneventfully in two offices since then. Moira Donegan (former Twitter handle: @MegaMoira; current handle: @MoiraDonegan), the creator of the Shitty Media Men list, tweeted:
What about the women at New York who feel uncomfortable working with him? Why is their ability to feel safe at work less important than his second chance? It’s their first chance.
The man, as Traister herself says, has no women working under him. He does not work in the office. So the looming threat of his mere existence to the safety of the young New York employees seems somewhat overblown. I can’t help thinking it is @MegaMoira here who is endowing him with a power he doesn’t have, and at the same time, not giving those allegedly scared and unsafe young women at the magazine enough credit: Why should they care about a writer puttering at home?
The rage can at times feel like bloodlust. In the essay she wrote about creating the list, Donegan describes her “desire for a kinder, more respectful, and more equitable world.”1 However, after the list came out but before Lorin Stein resigned as editor of The Paris Review, she tweeted: “every profile of Lorin Stein calls him ‘skinny and bespectacled’ but here’s the thing: he’s not that skinny.” She added: “I guess ‘bespectacled, bald, and busting out [of] the bespoke shirts he’s still having made with 15 year old measurements’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.” Later, these tweets were deleted. But if we could think in less gendered terms for a moment, one could reasonably ask: Who is harassing whom?
While I was writing this essay, one of the anonymous emailed me a piece Donegan wrote in The New Inquiry about the devastating night of Trump’s victory. She had hosted an election gathering, and as the results came in, the men were drinking tequila out of a penis-shaped shot glass, and laughing and making jokes as the women cried and clutched one another. Instead of thinking about choosing new friends, she ends with a blanket indictment of men and a blow for the cause:
Here is what the last few days have reminded me: white men, even those on the left, are so safe, so insulated from the policies of a reactionary presidency, that many of them view politics as entertainment, a distraction without consequences, in which they get to indulge their vanity by fantasizing that they are on the side of good. . . . The morning after the election, I found the penis-shaped shot glass in my kitchen and threw it against the wall. I am not proud of this, but it felt good to destroy something a white man loved.
Can you see why some of us are whispering? It is the sense of viciousness lying in wait, of violent hate just waiting to be unfurled, that leads people to keep their opinions to themselves, or to share them only with close friends. I recently saw a startling reminder of this when Wesley Yang published an insightful and conflicted piece in Tablet called “Farewell to a Scoundrel,” about former Paris Review editor Lorin Stein and the feminist moment.
I teach Yang’s work to my graduate students, so I know a little bit about him. He is a Korean-American man who has written memorably about being viewed as a sexual neuter by the white women in his social circle. Now he is married with a child. Shortly after the Tablet piece appeared, @yoloethics started tweeting:
DAILY REMINDER that the men who can’t for the life of them figure out how to get fucked are more dangerous than those who do.
All I want for Christmas is a list of Male Media Virgins!! Having a child does not exempt you from this list, men who direct their repressed sexual rage at women.
In another tweet, she made fun of Yang for publishing in Tablet. After reading these, I was curious about who she was, and discovered that her work had appeared in places such as n+1, Artforum, and Vice, and that in other moods she tweets about her Margiela boots and fur coat; her feed basically mixes the frivolity of Sex and the City with the viciousness of Breitbart.
I wouldn’t normally quote so much Twitter, but the extremes of vitriol unloosed in this conversation find their purest expression there. Some of these seemingly fringe figures are actually writers and editors who publish in places like The New Republic and n+1, who are involved in setting the tone of the conversation; one can very easily connect the dots between their views and those of more mainstream feminists. I have a feeling that if one met @yoloethics or the rest of her Twitter cohort in person, they would seem normal, funny, smart, well read. But the vicious energy and ugliness is there beneath the fervor of our new reckoning, adeptly disguised as exhilarating social change. It feels as if the feminist moment is, at times, providing cover for vindictiveness and personal vendettas and office politics and garden-variety disappointment, that what we think of as purely positive social change is also, for some, blood sport. The grammar is better in these feminist tweets, but they are nonetheless recognizably Trumpian.
In some ways, if we take the imaginative leap, the world Twitter feminists are envisioning—scrubbed clean of anyone hitting on anyone, asking for phone numbers, leaning over to kiss someone without seeking verbal permission—seems not that substantively far away from the world of Mike Pence saying he will never eat alone with a woman who is not his wife. This odd convergence reveals something critical about the moment: the complicated ways in which we may be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Part of what bothers many of the people I talked to is the tone of moral purity. As a culture, we seem to be in the midst of dividing ourselves into the flawless and the fallen, the morally correct and the damned. Are the Twitter feminists perfect? Because I know I am not. A former student of mine, Thomas Chatterton Williams, wrote about this strange bifurcation on (of course) Facebook. On social media, he declares,
I’ve come to learn that everyone is perfectly anti-racist, completely woke … that every man is a heroic feminist who would have singlehandedly put a halt to all workplace lechery (if only he’d been there!). It’s a good thing to learn this on social media, because in real life I was frequently meeting complicated and flawed individuals.
Inherent in this performance of moral purity is the idea of judging other people before learning (or without bothering to learn) all the facts. Even when we knew little or nothing about what Garrison Keillor did, people felt no obligation to suspend judgment. Instead they talked confidently about what people like Garrison Keillor do, things they thought or imagined that he did, based on unspecified accusations from unknown sources (multiple allegations of “inappropriate behavior”). The absence of details or tangible information invites us to concoct our own opinions and fantasies and speculations based on our own experience of what someone has done to us, or on our impressions of what men in power do.
I am guilty of this behavior myself. Not long ago, I was sitting on a friend’s couch, and she was talking about Lorin Stein, an acquaintance of mine for many years, with a special intensity. She also knew Lorin Stein, who was then still the editor of The Paris Review. Of course, Stein has since resigned under a cloud of acknowledged sexual misconduct. I’m not equipped to investigate or arbitrate acknowledged misconduct or any other allegations that may surface in the future. I simply want to talk about what happened on this couch. My friend was drinking chamomile tea and telling me second- and thirdhand stories about him with what, for a minute, I thought was gusto, but might have been political concern. “I like Lorin,” she told me. “I don’t have a personal stake in this.” She then informed me that he had sexually harassed two interns at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he had worked before his Paris Review tenure, leading to hushed-up, sealed settlements. She delivered this piece of highly specific information so confidently that I did not stop and think, even though I teach in a journalism department: Is this factually correct?
As we were talking, I got caught up in her enthusiasm. It’s true that when I thought about the actual Lorin Stein, it was more about words on the page—about his serializing excerpts of Rachel Cusk’s Outline, for example, which I had stopped everything to read. But as she was talking, I was completely drawn in. I found myself wanting to say something to please her. The outrage grew and expanded and exhilarated us. It was as though we weren’t talking about Lorin Stein anymore, we were talking about all the things we have ever been angry about, the ways men have insulted or offended or overlooked or mistreated us, or the way beautiful women are rewarded and then not rewarded. I felt as though I were joining a club, felt a warming sense of social justice, felt that this was a weighty, important thing we were engaging in.
The next morning, I related the troubling new fact of the FSG settlements to a journalist friend. Could it be true? She checked it very thoroughly and called that evening to tell me she could find no truth at all to the settlement rumors.2 I was disgusted with myself for repeating what was probably a lie about someone I liked and had nothing against. What was wrong with me?
Stein admitted to consensual relationships with writers and employees and women professionally connected to the Review during his time there.3 He admitted to creating the kind of sexually charged workplace that may have been viewed as acceptable during the heyday of, say, the Partisan Review (or George Plimpton’s original Paris Review) but is now recognized as demoralizing and wrong. He vehemently denies that either his literary tastes or personnel decisions were affected by this. It can be hard to disentangle one man and the things he may or may not have done from hundreds of years of sexist oppression. Yet I am reminded of something Zephyr Teachout wrote about the mainstream liberal rush to condemn Al Franken: “As citizens, we should all be willing to stay ambivalent while the facts are gathered and we collect our thoughts.”
In thinking about The Paris Review, I found myself agreeing with an argument of Rebecca Traister’s: “The thing that unites these varied revelations isn’t necessarily sexual harm, but professional harm and power abuse.” Creating a fair workplace is what matters here, and if The Paris Review was somehow inhospitable to women, that is truly disturbing. But something was still bothering me. I couldn’t help noticing that female writers flourished so conspicuously in the pages of Lorin Stein’s Paris Review, especially new or younger women writers. Of the seven prestigious Plimpton Prizes for emerging writers awarded on Stein’s watch, five went to women. One of those women, Ottessa Moshfegh, who was nominated for a Booker Prize a few years after Stein first published her, told me, “Lorin is a brilliant editor, and neither my gender nor his sexuality ever seemed to have anything to do with how our excellent working relationship developed.” Another of the previously unknown writers that Stein promoted, Amie Barrodale, wrote me the following intimate account of his editing a story it took her four years to produce:
He pointed out a major problem I hadn’t been aware of—halfway through the story, when it became emotionally challenging for me to write, all the life and humor drained out of the voice. … He pointed delicately to a thing I was afraid to say. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew there was something I was withholding. … For me somehow this was impossible to write, but I trusted him and wrote it, and I could immediately see 1) it needed to be there and 2) it’d lost its power over me. … One thing he also did was catch me every time I was faking it. He’d underline a false phrase, something contrived with a squiggly line. What I was most grateful for was that he recognized what was great about the story.
Whatever its boys’ club ambience under George Plimpton, The Paris Review under Lorin Stein was devoted to writers such as Ann Beattie, Lydia Davis, Vivian Gornick, and Amparo Dávila. Stein discovered or promoted younger talents such as Emma Cline, Alexandra Kleeman, Isabella Hammad, Angela Flournoy, and Kristin Dombek. When you bury yourself in the issues themselves, it’s clear that The Paris Review was a fruitful and vibrant and professionally useful place for women writers. None of this fits neatly into the politicized narrative. (“Lorin Stein can only view women writers as sexual objects,” a professor who never worked with him told me confidently.) But it is also true. The reality of The Paris Review on a Tuesday afternoon is messier and more complicated and confusing than our moralizing politics would have it.
The night the New York Times broke the news of Stein’s resignation, I was with one of the deeply anonymous women in a coffee shop, and after I left she ran out and caught up to me on the dark street to tell me about it. When I got home, I saw that @MegaMoira had tweeted a photo of the piece with the words, “champagne anyone.” I thought of the email Lorin had sent me when my book on writers’ deaths, The Violet Hour, came out. It was such a strange, private project, but in a few lines he made it vivid again to me, renewed and energized me on a long winter afternoon to sit down and start something new. However one feels about the end of an era at The Paris Review, it doesn’t seem like a time for celebration.
To hold a lot of opposites in our minds seems to be what the moment calls for, to tolerate and be honest about the ambiguities. If we are going through a true reckoning, there should be space for more authentically diverging points of view, a full range of feelings, space to hash through what is and is not sexual misconduct, which is an important and genuinely confusing question about which reasonable people can and will disagree. In the meantime, I take out a copy of The Paris Review, with two women sunbathing on a neon-green beach on the cover, which contains my interview with Janet Malcolm, something Lorin edited and published and pushed to fruition under difficult circumstances. In this interview, Malcolm talked to me about how hard it was to be a woman writer in the Sixties, when The New Yorker gave her a home décor column, and almost talked to me about how hard it was to be a mother and a writer, but said we would have to go to a dark bar for that conversation. I wanted to say to @MegaMoira, let’s save the champagne for later.
I can see how the drama of this moment is enticing. It offers a grandeur, a sweeping purity to our possibly flawed and fumbling and ambivalent selves. It justifies all our failings and setbacks and mediocrities; it wasn’t us, it was men, or the patriarchy, holding us back, objectifying us. It is easier to think, for instance, that we were discriminated against than that our story wasn’t good enough or original enough to be published in The Paris Review, or even that it did not meet the editor’s highly idiosyncratic yet widely revered tastes. Or that a man said something awful and sexual to us while we were working on a television show, and we got depressed and could never again achieve what we might have. And yet do we really in our hearts believe that is the whole story? Is this a complete and satisfying explanation? There is, of course, sexism, which looms and shadows us in all kinds of complicated and unmappable ways, but is it the totalizing force, the central organizing narrative, of our lives? This is where the movement veers from important and exhilarating correction into implausibility and rationalization. (One of the deeply anonymous says, “This seems like such a boring way to look at your life.”)
1 Donegan published her essay on The Cut on January 10. In her account, the decision to identify herself as the creator of the list was prompted by her perception of my intention to reveal her identity.
2 According to an FSG spokesperson, there was one “incident of inappropriate conduct” involving Lorin Stein during his years at the publishing house. (He resigned as an editor at large last December.) The spokesperson denied, however, that there had been any complaints from interns or any sealed settlements.
3 In his letter of resignation submitted to the Paris Review board, Stein professed to having “dated or expressed a sexual interest in women who had professional connections to the Review—past contributors, interns, and writers who might one day submit work to the magazine.” A member of the board, who declined to be identified, told Harper’s Magazine, “It is my understanding that Lorin did date interns after they were interns, but not while they were serving in that capacity.”
This essay appeared in Harpers.