Politics

The Myth of the Woman Scorned Returns

In the unpacking of #MeToo, one ugly stereotype has resurfaced: the woman who just can’t handle being rejected.

A woman holds a sign during #MeToo march.
A woman holds a sign during #MeToo march in Hollywood, California, on Nov. 12, 2017.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

On a recent episode of the podcast Femsplainers, a production of the conservative audio network Ricochet, Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan explained a woman’s decision to come forward about an alleged sexual assault by comparing her to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. In the film, the character sleeps with a married man, then stalks him and violently attacks him and his family after he snubs her. This, Flanagan said, aptly described the motivations of Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez, who accused Jonathan Kaiman of sexually assaulting her. Kaiman was the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing bureau chief and was forced to resign in 2018 after a Times investigation into multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault against him.

“She’s a frightening person,” Flanagan said of Sonmez in the Femsplainers episode. “The line in Fatal Attraction that explains all of this is, ‘I’m not going to be ignored, Michael.’ She—I think a lot of these events are the young woman: ‘I want to be back in contact with him in some way.’ ” The conversation included Femsplainers hosts Christina Hoff Sommers and Danielle Crittenden, the latter of whom suggested that Sonmez had only accused Kaiman of sexual assault because she was mad that he’d had a girlfriend at the time of their sexual encounter. “That’s what it’s all about,” Flanagan agreed.

This podcast episode dropped last week, but its content got more widespread traction on Wednesday, when Sonmez produced bits of transcription in a Twitter thread. “I was stunned to find that Ms. Flanagan devoted a full 15 minutes of her remarks to denigrating me, mocking my allegations and—yet again—making false claims about my reasons for coming forward,” Sonmez wrote. That last bit, the “yet again,” refers to an NPR appearance Flanagan made on Sept. 1, which had spurred a separate Twitter disagreement between Flanagan and Sonmez.

“To decide on your own what someone’s motivations are, or to state that you know better than this person what their motivations were in coming forward, is irresponsible,” Sonmez told me on Thursday. Every time she’s spoken about her allegations, she’s made it clear that she came forward to establish a pattern in Kaiman’s behavior and to help protect other women. Now, she was watching a widely read journalist make up a different story about her life. “I just realized I had to make a choice: Was I going to just ignore this and continue trying to move on with my life or was I going to say something about it and make clear that this is not OK?”

To back up for a moment, here is what we know about Kaiman, and Sonmez’s allegations: They met in Beijing, where both worked as journalists. In January 2018, Kaiman was serving as president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, a professional and social hub for journalists and expats, when a woman named Laura Tucker published a Medium post accusing him of pressuring her into sex. The incident had taken place at her home in Beijing, where, she said, she’d gotten out of the bed where they were making out and spent several minutes telling him she didn’t want to continue. (Kaiman says the sex they had afterward was consensual; she says it was coerced.) Sonmez made her own allegation public a few months after Tucker’s post. In a letter to the FCCC, Sonmez said that after a night in September 2017 that included some consensual, drunken making out, he digitally penetrated her without her consent on a public street and wouldn’t stop until she repeatedly told him “No” and pushed him off. Later, after she’d entered his apartment with no intent to have sex, Sonmez said in her letter, “He briefly performed oral sex on me and then he had unprotected sex with me. … I remember that he was already inside me before I had the wherewithal to ask him whether he had a condom; he said no.” (Kaiman has called the night a “messy, drunken hookup” to which they both consented.) At least one other woman had previously raised concerns to the FCCC about Kaiman’s behavior.

Kaiman resigned from his post at the Times in August 2018*. But the case has been in the news more recently because Emily Yoffe, a writer whose work on sexual assault Flanagan admires, published a piece in Reason in late August that held Kaiman up as an example of the excesses of the modern #MeToo movement. The piece focused on Kaiman’s life since losing his job—he’s grappled with suicidal thoughts and believes his career is over—and accused the FCCC and the Times of unjustly persecuting Kaiman without evidence that he’d assaulted anyone or wielded his power in unethical ways. “A misunderstanding, even one about sex, is not a sufficient cause to result in the obliteration of someone’s psyche and desire to live,” Yoffe wrote.

A week after the Reason piece went live, on an All Things Considered segment, host Michel Martin interviewed Flanagan alongside Vox reporter Anna North, who had written a critical response to Yoffe’s piece. Martin’s last question went to Flanagan:

The Jonathan Kaiman case is not something that took place in an office. These are two adults of equal stature. He had no control over these women’s careers. We’re talking about private encounters between two consenting adults where they have very different views about what happened. Caitlin, you have any final thoughts?

“You want to know what I really think about that?” Flanagan asked. Martin affirmed that she did. Flanagan continued:

The real problem really comes down to you both had too much to drink, or he wasn’t very nice to you afterwards, he didn’t follow up, he didn’t call you. You perceived something later. … And to turn around your pain, your hurt, your hurt feelings about it and to claim that you are now a victim of some kind of abuse—I think that’s a grift because you’re stealing from women who fought so hard to tell the truth about sexual assault, and there’s long-range consequences.

As she noted to me, Sonmez objects to this characterization of her motives. After the segment aired, she wrote an email to NPR and Flanagan, reiterating the substance of her allegation: “In my letter to the FCCC last year, in which I made my allegation public, I wrote that Mr. Kaiman digitally penetrated me without my consent and was about to have sex with me in public while I was severely intoxicated. As I wrote, I repeatedly told him ‘no’ and had to physically push him away in order to get him to stop.”

On Twitter, a couple of days later, Flanagan wrote that she wasn’t talking about Sonmez in that segment and accused her of having an “episode of derangement” that caused her to see herself in a comment that wasn’t about her. In fact, Flanagan said, she hadn’t even read Yoffe’s piece until after the NPR interview.

If Flanagan wasn’t talking about Sonmez, who was she talking about? Was she merely offering her general description of women who allege sexual assault, in response to a question about Kaiman—“you both had too much to drink, or he wasn’t very nice to you afterwards, he didn’t follow up, he didn’t call you”? If so, it hews remarkably close to the way Yoffe’s piece describes Sonmez. By Kaiman’s account, Yoffe writes, “he did not text [Sonmez] to make sure she had arrived home or get in touch the next day. She contacted him shortly afterward to discuss what had happened. He says she rebuked him for failing to check in with her.”

Even if Flanagan didn’t mean to advance a theory about Sonmez on NPR, she sure did on Femsplainers—her Twitter argument with Sonmez was the basis of her segment of the podcast. On the show, Flanagan posits that our culture has lost the category of sexual regret. Women used to be able to say: “I sure wish I hadn’t done that … I’m embarrassed … I had hopes that it would be more romantic. I had hopes that it would be the beginning of something. I had hopes that afterward, by the time I got home, there would be three texts on my phone.” Now they just say they were victims of assault. This complaint, that women are too quick to claim sexual assault or abuse, is what has made Flanagan one of the #MeToo movement’s most prominent skeptics. Flanagan recorded a video for the Atlantic in February 2018 saying, of the movement’s “agenda,” that “no problem was too small or too vague to be included, so long as a man was to blame.” In January 2018, she wrote two separate essays on the Babe.net piece about a woman’s allegation that Aziz Ansari had sexually coerced her; one of those claimed that “a whole country full of young women” had “destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.” (Ansari’s July comedy special, released and widely promoted on Netflix, has an 86 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and he made Forbes’ list of the highest-earning comedians of 2019.)

In her Atlantic pieces, Flanagan has stressed the need for more due process; she has frequently warned of a “mob”-like resistance to “reason and fairness.” In that context, the Kaiman case is a curious one to fixate on. On Femsplainers, Flanagan never mentioned that Kaiman actually did get due process, in the form of a three-month investigation by his employer, nor did she note that Sonmez’s was not the only allegation against him. She didn’t explain why she believes that, even though multiple women have accused Kaiman of sexual misconduct, Sonmez must merely be motivated by outrage that he didn’t offer her romance or a relationship after their sexual encounter. (She did not respond to my request for comment, either.)

Instead, Flanagan starts with a broad stereotype of women—that we are desperate for male affirmation and turn into vengeful psychopaths if we are snubbed after sex—and manipulates Sonmez’s allegation to fit it. The move reveals a glaring, deliberate absence of the sort of intellectual rigor Flanagan and her peers claim they bring to these issues, issues that they seem to think women too often address with emotion alone. When Yoffe was reporting the Kaiman story, she accidentally sent an email to a reporter who’d written about Kaiman. In it, she wrote that people “review their past and convince themselves they are victims” in part for the “thrill” of “publicly denouncing someone.” Again, it’s hard to find any factual basis in this assumption, which blatantly disregards both the firsthand accounts of the women who’ve spoken out about sexual misconduct and the fact that they’re far more likely to be punished for their accusations than rewarded, personally or professionally .

“It’s been really hard,” Sonmez said of the year since she went public with her allegation. “Before speaking out, it’s incredibly isolating, and you don’t know who you can talk to or what to do. After speaking out, it can also be really isolating … because as a society, we’re still grappling with these issues.” Before Yoffe’s Reason article, Sonmez said, the alleged assault, the investigation, and its aftermath weren’t top of mind—it took up maybe 10 percent of her daily brain space by that point. “Then along comes a podcast where someone’s making these kinds of personal attacks, and it puts you right back in that box that you’ve been climbing out of time and again.”

Flanagan’s Femsplainers theory, that Sonmez and the other Kaiman accusers were seeking vengeance after they didn’t get the loving attention they wanted from him, is rooted not in fact but in a generations-old fable of the scorned woman bent on bringing down a man whose heart belongs to another. It’s a silly, old-fashioned fantasy that’s persisted in some dusty corners as a means of diminishing women who protest when they’ve been treated with disrespect. On the podcast, Flanagan and the hosts sound almost giddy as they deploy this stereotype of the overemotional woman against Sonmez, eager to draw a line between her, the paranoid hysteric, and them, the reasonable arbiters of fact.

Later on the podcast, the Femsplainers hosts praise one of Flanagan’s tweets to Sonmez, calling it a “drop-the-mic moment.” The tweet reads, “Felicia, the person you’re really angry at lost his job and his book contract. He’s had suicidal episodes and no health insurance. He feels hopeless and he’s living with his parents. What more do you want from him? You won.”

Flanagan tells them the tweet started “getting very liked”—and, along with “the group of people saying, ‘You are so sensible and right about this, Caitlin,’ ” there were some people in the replies making “unacceptable” remarks about Sonmez. So, Flanagan says, she took the tweet down, even though she’ll “never get credit” from Sonmez for that act of kindness. As of this writing, the tweet is still up.

Correction, Oct. 4, 2019: This piece originally misstated that Kaiman resigned in September 2018. He resigned in August 2018.