Brow Beat

The Twisted, Confusing Logic of Katie Roiphe’s #MeToo Essay in Harper’s

A woman holds a sign that says, "#MeToo #SilenceBreaker."
People carry signs addressing the issue of sexual harassment at a #MeToo rally outside of Trump International Hotel on Dec. 9 in New York City.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

After all the racket over Katie Roiphe’s highly-anticipated—and, in some circles, dreaded—essay in Harper’s on the #MeToo movement, I was hoping for something a lot more compelling. The creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list had already outed herself, rendering moot the prevailing concern over Roiphe’s reported intention to name her without her consent. With Roiphe’s decades-long history as a prominent campus-rape skeptic and no shortage of shoddy #MeToo takedowns on the internet, I wondered if Roiphe could really be the one to produce a piece that would give smart, empathetic people a new way to interpret today’s titanic movement against sexual harassment and assault.

It turns out that Roiphe’s essay, which Harper’s published on Super Bowl Sunday, falls into many of the same self-devised traps as the #MeToo criticism that’s preceded it. She warns of a slippery slope that extends from anonymous accusations of harassment to widespread tarring-and-feathering of wholly innocent men, in the absence of definitive evidence that any wholly innocent men have as of yet been tarred or feathered. She extrapolates from her own professional achievements and happy experiences with men to argue that this so-called epidemic of sexual exploitation can’t be all that bad, writ large. She worries that examining come-ons through the lenses of power abuse and consent will proscribe all well-meaning attempts at flirtation, as if there were no way to assess a potential partner’s sexual interest except through unexpected physical advances.

While Roiphe’s predecessors on the anti-#MeToo beat have exhausted these same straw-man arguments, many of the pitfalls of Sunday’s essay, “The Other Whisper Network,” are specific to Roiphe. Like Daphne Merkin, who wrote a hand-wringing #MeToo take in the New York Times last month, Roiphe makes much of the idea that scores of women are privately uncomfortable with the movement, even as they publicly endorse it. But Roiphe builds her whole piece around the discomfort of the “more than 20” women she interviewed, none of whom agreed to use their names, presenting their requests for anonymity as evidence that a ravenous feminist thought police is suppressing fair-minded criticism that would never see daylight if not for her intrepid reporting. In her view, their unwillingness to go on the record is itself proof that feminists have enforced an extremist, monolithic belief system that cannot abide critics that might tank it. She does not contend with the prospect that, based on her previous work on sexual assault, her sources may not have trusted her to lay out their doubts in a convincing argument, or the possibility that they may not want their names associated with a point of view they’re still sorting out. While any other journalist would simply call these sources “anonymous,” Roiphe insists her sources are uniquely afraid. She coins the phrase “deeply anonymous” to insinuate that these women risk more than the average whistleblower by questioning feminist conventional wisdom, even though almost every major mainstream outlet has published pieces arguing the same points Roiphe’s sources make.

To the detriment of her argument, Roiphe uses cherry-picked tweets to speak for an entire social movement. Someone tweeted “Katie Roiphe can suck my dick,” and she believes that is “thought policing.” I am genuinely sorry that Roiphe was targeted (a verb that casts women as feeble children, according to Roiphe, but there it is) for sexist online harassment, and I’ll cut her some slack for having little experience with the platform, but two of the most basic facts of Twitter are: 1) women who publish work are routinely subjected to violent and ad hominem insults, and 2) if you look hard enough, you can find a tweet that says just about anything. Roiphe uses tweets that make jokes about castration and encouraging men to “shut up and go away” to argue that manhood itself has become a “dramatic and indefensible crime” in this current cultural moment.

Of the many women whose tweets Roiphe dissects in her essay, Moira Donegan, the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list, gets the most real estate. Though Donegan is a talented writer, she is young, at 28, and not currently employed by any media outlet. Yet Roiphe treats her as the elected spokesperson of #MeToo, exhuming even her deleted tweets as exhibits of the supposedly hateful excesses of the current movement. At the same time, Roiphe seems determined to assume the worst of Donegan’s intentions. Donegan originally declined to speak to Roiphe about the “feminist moment,” as Roiphe described the interview request, and Donegan reportedly didn’t know the Harper’s piece would connect her to the infamous spreadsheet until a fact-checker emailed to say, “Katie identifies you as a woman widely believed to be one of the creators of the Shitty Men in Media List.” Roiphe ultimately had the benefit of nearly 3,000 unexpected words of comment from Donegan, in the form of a thoughtful essay she wrote for The Cut about why she made the list. Ten of them made it into Roiphe’s Harper’s piece, and only then as a foil to two nominally petty tweets Donegan later deleted. It would have been useful to situate the hyperbolic tweets Roiphe quotes within the context of ironic misandry, a longstanding trope of feminist communication that acknowledges a kernel of truth (in general, men could surely stand to talk less and listen more in debates about sexual misconduct) in a winking tone aimed at critics who see feminism as an anti-man project.

Roiphe may be one such critic. At the very least, she is convinced that contemporary society has made marginalized communities out of men. She mystifyingly calls out Muslims twice in her piece, comparing the “Shitty Media Men” list to “a secretly circulating, anonymously crowd-sourced list of Muslims who might blow up planes,” and claiming that “blaming all men seems…only a little less ominous” than Trump’s “tendency to blame ‘all immigrants’ or ‘all Muslims.’” These analogies are lazy at best, and recklessly inflammatory at worst. Should readers believe that Roiphe cannot perceive the difference between a proclamation from the president of the United States, a man with the power to set policy that stands between the lives and deaths of millions of people, and one from a young journalist armed with a spreadsheet? Or the difference between a demographic with disproportionate political, economic, and social power and a historically oppressed minority? Between a space for accusations of personal violations—some of which have been borne out in the public sphere—and one for terrorist forecasting? Men commit the vast majority of sexual offenses; if anti-rape efforts focus on them, it is not because of baseless bigotry.

Several of Roiphe’s objections to #MeToo are predicated on a seemingly deliberate misreading of women’s personal accounts. She dismisses Emma Cline’s telling of “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” as an example of the kind of innocuous situation that #MeToo threatens to criminalize. But Cline’s original account reads nothing like Roiphe’s paraphrasing. The man “jumped into” Cline’s cab, “edged closer” to her as she “looked studiously out the window, flipping [her] phone open and closed, texting no one.” He “pressed” Cline for her number, “slurring that he had friends at many magazines” that could publish her work. She doesn’t call it a “drunken evening” or even suggest that she, or anyone besides the man, was drunk.

Surely even Roiphe can identify the red flags in this anecdote. The man continued to pursue Cline as she stared out the window and played with her phone, avoiding eye contact with him. He paired his come-on with an offer to help her advance her career. More importantly, Cline doesn’t submit the story as an example of workplace harassment or sexual assault—it’s one of a series of anecdotes that illuminate, through Cline’s own experiences, how women’s bodies are elevated over their work in the literary world. She doesn’t call for the man’s resignation or public shaming; she doesn’t even name him. What is wrong with a woman sharing the details of an encounter that made her uncomfortable, in the context of a discussion about appropriate interpersonal behavior? Men who don’t want to skeeve women out—most men, I’m sure Roiphe would agree—should be grateful for the chance to hear straight from a woman herself that he should think twice before drunkenly creeping toward a woman in the backseat of a taxi, ignoring her hostile body language while bragging about his powerful friends.

The outrageous shortcomings of Roiphe’s logic and journalism do a disservice to one good point she makes, which might have shone if it weren’t buried in the rest of her muck. Halfway through her piece, Roiphe wonders about the fate of a writer for New York magazine who was once fired from Harper’s for sexual misconduct. Several writers, including Donegan and Rebecca Traister, have suggested that his hiring at New York puts current employees at risk. Roiphe points out that “he has worked uneventfully in two offices” since the incident and works from home, without much contact with magazine staff. I don’t know the specifics of this case, but the questions Roiphe raises speak to a knotty topic ripe for honest, good-faith discussion. What does a perpetrator of workplace sexual misconduct deserve? How many years of professional exile must he weather before an outlet publishes him? Could his creative work be worthwhile if his presence isn’t a threat, if he never enters the office? Or is the mere fact of his hiring a statement about the value of male intellect over female safety? Should harassers never work again? Should they be shunned from their own industry, or the entire workforce? What options for rehabilitation for the accused and justice for victims await?

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, there is finally space in the media and a willingness in the general public to have these conversations. But it’s obvious that Roiphe is not among the best-equipped to facilitate them. Nowhere in her essay is this plainer than in her invocation of Johnathan Prevette, whose story is not as clear-cut as she might hope. Roiphe bemoans Prevette’s 1996 school suspension, at age 6, for “sexual harassment”—he had kissed a classmate without her consent. As readers on Twitter noted, the narrative Roiphe remembers, which set off a nationwide outrage, was incomplete. In another version of the story, the little girl in the story protested to a teacher about Prevette’s behavior, which the principal deemed “unwelcome touching,” not “sexual harassment,” under the school’s code of conduct. Prevette wasn’t suspended—he was kept out of his classroom for one day and missed an ice-cream social. His parents sent him on the talk-show circuit, where the term “sexual harassment” entered the equation, making Prevette the darling of right-wing social activists.

Roiphe hoped this anecdote would show how society had changed since the ‘90s, how a school’s punishment that was once widely agreed to be an overreaction would now get the feminist stamp of approval. Instead, the story illustrates the eagerness of feminism skeptics to find cartoonish examples of overreach that will discredit the entire movement, facts and nuances be damned.

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