This weekend, the much-ballyhooed piece about the #MeToo movement by Katie Roiphe was finally published by Harper’s, and as Irin Carmon observed on Twitter, it felt a bit like the “[Devin] Nunes memo of feminist discourse” — overhyped, anticlimactic, and, in the end, wholly unsurprising.
But there were a couple of things that were notable about the piece, starting with its foundational premise: namely, that the conversation about sexual harassment that has exploded over the past five months has left many women feeling silenced — so silenced that Roiphe couldn’t get any of them to speak to her on the record about their misgivings regarding the #MeToo movement or the reckoning it spurred.
It’s a particularly provocative point, given that the revelations propelling this moment come from women and men who have until recently kept quiet about their experiences of sexual harassment or assault. Many have explained that they did not speak up earlier because they feared that they wouldn’t be believed, that they’d suffer professional reprisals or reputational harm, that their assailants would hurt them, that no one would care. Roiphe’s claim is that now, amid the growing chorus of their long-suppressed stories, would-be #MeToo contrarians are experiencing a set of related fears of retribution and are thus left to whisper their anxieties about the movement, replicating the original culture of silence that got us to this eruptive point.
But the set of confessions that Roiphe cites as coming in terrified whispers from her novelist and real-estate-agent friends are not exactly unspeakable. In fact, most of the opinions her friends don’t dare append their names to are ones that have already been lodged —sometimes very smartly and sometimes not-so-smartly — by women speaking from very public perches, their names attached.
If Roiphe were looking for someone brave enough to question the dictum “believe all women” — which, as an aside, isn’t quite the thing; it’s “believe women” and I know plenty of feminists, including me, who don’t simply believe women as a blanket practice, but do tend to “listen to” and “trust” them, which are different — she could have quoted amply from Bari Weiss’s column, entitled “The Limits of ‘Believe All Women,’” in the New York Times. Roiphe didn’t need to offer deep anonymity to a friend who wanted to say that “the sources” accusing Al Franken of groping women were “sketchy”; she could have quoted Mika Brzezinski, who said the same (and also questioned whether we’re really supposed to believe all women’s claims) on MSNBC. Roiphe’s nameless friend who wished someone could admit that power is an aphrodisiac must have missed Laura Kipnis’s piece wrestling with the implications of that old Kissinger observation, in The New York Times Magazine. Uneasiness over the category collapses and anonymity of claims on the Shitty Media Men list has been expressed eloquently by so many women, including Doree Shafrir and Jia Tolentino; in the Times Magazine, Zoë Heller wrote of the subjective nature of accusation, of how “my unexceptional office banter is your horrifying insult.”
No, the dynamic Roiphe is describing is not really about being muzzled; it’s about speaking publicly with the understanding that you will likely be challenged on what you say, and in some cases profanely, nastily, even disrespectfully. For the record, the dynamics of rudely stated, inflammatory public confrontation — always present in activist discourse, but made more widely visible and permanent by social media — are interesting and worthy of exploration. But that’s not the piece Roiphe has written. The piece that Roiphe has written is about “this feeling of not being able to speak,” which she recalls experiencing first during the blowback she sustained after publishing The Morning After, her polemic on campus date-rape activism back in the early 1990s. Roiphe writes in Harper’s of how she received death threats and was sometimes shouted down when she went to speak on college campuses.
Yet then, as now, Roiphe was more than “able to speak.” Her speech was in fact supported and amplified by powerful institutions: Her initial essay questioning the campus anti-rape movement was not only featured in The New York Times Magazine; Roiphe herself was on the cover. The Morning After was published by Little, Brown and reviewed as “courageous” in the New York Times.
Roiphe did readings on the Upper West Side and toured college campuses as part of an effort to support her book, a book in which she discredited as false (and in some cases mocked) women’s stories of assault or rape. She was in fact using her ability to speak publicly to powerfully question and reframe the words spoken by other women, in less public contexts — on their campuses, to their friends. And that was fair enough! Roiphe was publishing a polemic. But some of the women who felt that Roiphe’s voice had distorted their perspectives, women who didn’t have anything like the institutional megaphones available to Roiphe, objected to her work in the ways they could, including shouting her down at readings she was holding at their college campuses, the places where they had engaged in the very activism — the very act of speaking up — that she was denigrating.
I’m not a fan of shouting down public speeches, and am sorry to read that Roiphe received death threats. But I’m also not surprised, given the frequency with which women with public platforms regularly receive abuse and threats. Again: That doesn’t make it okay. It’s chilling, and a terrible way to convey opposition or fury; it’s also a reality that many of the feminists Roiphe feels stifled and threatened by have been trying to make plain for years. Because threats of violence are not made uniquely against the Roiphes of the world, the anti-feminist contrarians; they are made all the time against those she paints as her aggressors, and surely inform feminists’ view of their opposition as powerfully as they inform Roiphe’s view of hers.
In any case, the confusion between being publicly challenged and being forced into silence reminded me of one of the great, nuanced, searching essays of the #MeToo period, published in n+1 by Dayna Tortorici. In it, Tortorici writes of how she had come to notice men complaining that “they could not speak. And yet they were speaking …the right to free speech under the First Amendment had been recast in popular discourse as the right to free speech without consequence, without reaction.” What Roiphe is doing here is a tic of the powerful, the one that Tortorici has noted coming from men: mistaking the right to speech for the right to unquestioned authority. Roiphe’s friends may be whispering to her that they have qualms about #MeToo and are too scared to voice them without fear of angry retort. But that’s simply not the same as being unable to speak; it’s electing not to enter the fray, not to risk facing challenge or disagreement, not to start a fight they might not win.
That Roiphe sees this set of choices as tantamount to being silenced is remarkable from a woman who has built her career on objecting to a view of women as victims, who has often chastised women for presenting themselves as delicate flowers, Joan Didion’s “wounded birds,” unable to gamely navigate life’s “libidinous jostle” — as Roiphe put it in The Morning After. But when writing about the damage she has sustained from other women, the mean girls who shout her down at a reading or are cruel to her on Twitter, Roiphe herself is perpetually the wounded bird. At the end of her Harper’s piece, Roiphe suggests that many of the women who have spoken of how workplace harassment and assault left them feeling sidelined, disempowered, or discriminated against were using the fact that their bosses pushed their penises on them as an excuse to wave away the possibility that actually their work just wasn’t good enough. Yet Roiphe inoculates herself against criticism in precisely the way that she claims these women are doing, with a lot less logic behind her. Her piece is built on the premise that if readers respond to her critically, it’s probably not because her ideas are faulty, her prose tedious, or her interpretations dishonest; it’s because there’s a mob —as she described it on a CBS Sunday Morning segment — that has lit its torches and is out to get her, the brave heretic, forced to turn to Harper’s Magazine and network television to get her dissenting opinion out.
Roiphe criticizes a lot of what I’ve written about #MeToo, and that’s okay, part of the deal: I have my own megaphone now, and what I write invites rebuke and critique, some of it in good faith and some of it in bad. I do hope that anyone who’s interested in these issues will read not only the pieces of mine that she makes reference to, but also the thoughtful, nuanced work of the other writers she cites, as well as the many that she doesn’t, including Tolentino, Tortorici (whom she mentions only as a tweeter), Roxane Gay, Lindy West, Ijeoma Oluo, Rebecca Carroll, Masha Gessen, Doreen St. Félix, Jill Filipovic, Laurie Penny, Jenna Wortham, Ruth Franklin, Parul Sehgal, Vivian Gornick, Caitlin Flanagan, Molly Fischer, and so many more. The original reporting done by journalists at the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Washington Post, Variety, Huffpost, New York — the thoroughly investigated and fleshed-out stories on which this conversation has been built — has itself included remarkable documents, many of them containing compelling records of the mixed feelings and self-censure and lingering questions asked by the very people telling their tales for the first time.
It’s another tic of the powerful to understand anger at oppression as insensible violence, to mistake tweets for rocks. Perhaps it’s no wonder that those — like Roiphe — who have been ensconced in, supported by, and whose job it has long been to defend the very institutions and very kinds of power now being interrogated, are likely to look around and see only a mob, and imagine that it will soon — or has already — come for them. But in their anxiety, Roiphe and others are missing a crucial aspect of how this conversation has poured forth. In fact, vast portions of the discourse have not been crude or blunt; the exchanges have been measured, reflective, complex, and argumentative; the very reasoned hashing-out that Roiphe claims to want when she pines 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.”
One of the true and surprising pleasures of this period has been the space already given, and the space unapologetically taken up, by the writers and reporters and sources who have dared to wrestle with the hard stuff: anger, yes, but also its perils and its limits. And not just that: the ambivalence, self-doubt, culpability, empathy, fear, and discomfort we’re all experiencing as we begin to look at the world through a new lens.