What are the ramifications of sexual violence? Why do we keep silent about them? What happens when we break that silence? When we’re not believed? When our innocence is questioned? For nearly a decade, topics like these have been explored in the online literary website The Rumpus, currently owned and run by Marisa Siegel. She bought it from founder Stephen Elliott, the man who on October 10 filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against Moira Donegan, the creator of the Shitty Media Men list, as well as the anonymous people who contributed to it.
Even if you’ve never heard of The Rumpus or Stephen Elliott, you might be familiar with this suit. The New York Times as well as many other major media outlets have reported on it. It has the potential to be an arbiter in the #metoo movement, punishing the kind of speech that has brought issues of sexual assault and harassment into wide discussion. It’s a stunning turn for the man who published such seminal works on the effects of sexual assault as Roxane Gay’s “The Illusion of Safety/ The Safety of Illusion” and Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar column “The Baby Bird.”
Elliott fired a warning shot a couple weeks earlier. An essay he’d written called “How an Anonymous Accusation Derailed my Life” appeared in Quillette, an Australian publication with a libertarian bent. In it he described the psychic and professional damages he felt he’d suffered after his name appeared on the list next to an allegation that, among other things, he’d been accused of rape.
The essay was met with outrage by women who’d had first-hand experience with Elliott, as well as their supporters. They took to Twitter to recount how he’d taken advantage of them, objectified them, ignored their boundaries. Former friends and colleagues of his chimed in, condemning the essay and distancing themselves from him. It was an overwhelming response.
“There is not a single thing in this essay I regret.” Elliott tweeted on October 9. “The people who responded negatively don’t appear to have read it as none of them addressed what the essay was about, a false rape allegation.”
Some of them, including Marisa Siegel, had, in fact, addressed the allegation in their response, though they did not accord it the importance he did. What Elliot didn’t address was the source of their anger: a pattern of sexist behavior on his part that continued unabated even after being described by Claire Vaye Watkins in her 2015 essay “On Pandering,” published at Tin House and circulated widely.
I have been a fan of The Rumpus from the early days (eventually writing and editing for them), and a fan of Elliott’s writing, even as I perceived his problematic attitudes towards women. This kind of duality is common among people who aren’t white men. We learn to put ourselves in another’s shoes. When I read Elliott’s Quillette essay, I did actually consider how much it would suck to be accused of rape and not know by whom or why. I’m a wholehearted supporter of #metoo and of Moira Donegan and have written about my own childhood assault and workplace harassment, yet I found myself questioning aspects of the list, despite the fact it was intended to be private, and that it included a disclaimer to take everything with a grain of salt. For a few paragraphs, I truly felt sorry for Elliott.
But then I read on. Elliott did not acknowledge his public reputation for sexist behavior. He did not acknowledge that he’d have been on the Shitty Media Men list several times over even if the allegation of a rape accusation hadn’t appeared. He asserted he was losing professional opportunities due to the alleged rape accusation with no nod to the shifts in attitude and taste that makes a figure like him no longer so cool, list or no list, and certainly no mention of the personal and career difficulties he’d documented in an essay published in The Sun magazine before the list was created.
What struck me most clearly was that the opportunities he says he’d lost are so rarified. For example, he wasn’t being hired in Hollywood writing rooms. His book did not sell as well as he’d hoped. An interview in The Paris Review did not appear. How many brilliant women have not gotten the call back, the promotion, the opportunity, the byline? And what were the reasons?
Hollywood writing rooms remain famously dominated by white men. The Paris Review has consistently performed poorly in the Vida count for gender parity. Elliott says his essay on the effects of the list on his life was accepted and then rejected by two major publications before ending up at Quillette and implies he was blackballed, but I was left wondering why he was sure that the allegations were the reason. I know plenty of writers who’ve experienced a similar bait and switch. Maybe the editors were expecting more nuance from the piece when he pitched it. Or more reportage. Perhaps they had their monthly quota of opinion pieces by white men. Or it could be that it was rejected because it doesn’t meet the standards of his past efforts.
It doesn’t. His previous writing searches for clarity and nuance, and in it he examines his influences and intentions. But when speaking about the Media Men list, Elliott is one-note and disingenuous. New York Times columnist Bari Weiss interviewed him for an opinion piece in the wake of the lawsuit. He told her, “I still think of myself as a liberal. But the left moved away from liberalism and I hadn’t realized that yet. If you are a liberal, by definition, you believe that it’s better to let a certain amount of guilty people go free than to jail one innocent man. That’s almost the definition of liberalism.”
But just as the hearings for the Supreme Court nomination didn’t put Brett Kavanaugh at risk of being jailed, the list does not put Stephen Elliott at risk for it. Those aren’t the stakes. He knows that. He probably even knows that only about .006 rapes end up with the perpetrator being convicted. The scourge of too-harsh punishment has been used to bully women and children into keeping silent about sexual victimization for generations. In the case of an alleged anonymous accusation like that Elliot is facing, it’s entirely a red herring.
Elliott also says, “If your position is that it’s O.K. to falsely accuse someone of rape because you don’t like them, just own that position. That’s clearly what a lot of people believe.” But this is disingenuous as well. The conversations around #metoo aren’t about “not liking someone.” I suspect a lot of women affected by Elliott’s sexism more or less “liked” him on some level, or at least thought they should. But right now many women are allowing themselves to feel — or unable to stop themselves from feeling — an enormous surge of outrage about the pain sexism has caused us, and the ways in which it’s formed us and limited us. The low-key sexism. The high-key sexism. The really offensive trespass of boundaries that we attempted to ignore because it’s excruciating and inconvenient to address, and seldom leads to a good end for us. It’s not only rape that has a warping effect on our lives.
Yes, a lust for revenge can appear with the eruption of these pent-up emotions. But I believe a more common motivation to speak up and fight back is to make professional life better not only for us, but for the next generation of girls and women — especially among those of us who feel that in our case it’s too late, our paths have been set. Our rage is compounded when someone like Stephen Elliott — who we thought was our figurative if not literal friend, with the potential to be part of the solution even as he’s part of the problem — refuses to even acknowledge our perspective.
I understand that a rape allegation should be a serious thing. Certainly we give lip service to the idea that it is. Plot lines are regularly built around the device. But like many women, I’ve lived my life among men I’ve heard accused of rape through the whisper network. I’ve seen them maintain their popularity, gain respect in their fields, advance in their careers, all without any reckoning. I’ve seen them become president. So have you. Not once but twice, if you were born before 1992. How serious is a sole anonymous allegation that someone has been accused of rape actually? Most of us look around and conclude not very. Women who have spoken out against harassment in the video game industry have experienced much greater consequence, to name just one example of who is at greatest risk when allegations of misconduct are made.
A primary purpose of the Media Men list was to warn women. If this guy invites himself into your hotel room, think twice. If you have a choice about whether to work under that guy, consider the other option. If you find yourself being propositioned during what you thought was a professional encounter, save yourself the hours you might have spent wondering what you did wrong. Know that it’s probably just that dude’s wont.
It’s notable that Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay is titled “On Pandering,” which focuses attention on an action she’s calling herself to account for, even as she looks at what she’s reacting to. Elliot’s centers his own victimization.
I honestly don’t know what should happen when someone is accused of sexual misconduct. The lack of consensus about how justice might be served is one of the things that makes this moment especially difficult. Counting on our justice system to right wrongs and determine outcomes doesn’t seem wise. I can’t find support for Elliott’s assertion that a primary tenet of liberalism is that no innocent person should ever go to jail, but I do know that many people with a social conscience are concluding that our judicial system is more likely to reify race, gender, and class imbalances than to transcend them.
What to do? I’ve been wrestling with the question — for much of my life, it seems. Elliott’s noted that friends asked him to “take one for the team” in the wake of the Media Men list. Clearly, Elliott is not on the team of the wave of injured, furious women who are exploding right now; he’s not been. But, he could still choose not to go for the jugular of his opponent. To prioritize conversation and understanding. He could do slow, steady work to bring light to the situation, to the innocence he believes is his. He could examine his sense of entitlement and his complicity alongside his grievances. He could use his skills of communication to explore his impulse to punish and silence, press on it, even, without giving in to it. Maybe that essay would get published in a respected outlet. Maybe that book would be widely read.
Or maybe not. Many women who have been told their well-written stories of sexual assault are overdone, boring, that there’s no audience for them. There are just too many.
The Rumpus under its new ownership doesn’t take this view. It has a weekly series called ENOUGH that’s dedicated to work that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. The conversation about sexual assault and harassment will go on, despite mainstream disinterest or hostility, despite the cries of it’s-gone-too-far, despite this lawsuit. The price women will pay for speaking about it remains to be seen.