There are plenty of bad essays in the world, plenty of quickly churned-out opinion pieces dumped onto the public’s lap in order to have a Hot Take scheduled before noon. Most of them do not merit much in the way of a response: like a fart from a stranger, it’s easier just to pretend you didn’t notice and wait for the aftermath to dissipate.
And yet I would like to ask you to spend a few minutes with me looking at a particularly vicious, pernicious case of the Unnecessary Hot Take: Elizabeth Ellen’s recent “Open Letter To The Internet” at Hobart (Ellen is also one of the site’s editors). It’s a rambling, incoherent set of beliefs she has about statutory rape, the ambiguity of obtaining consent, sexual assault, and the “marching” kind of feminism. There are plenty of essays like it! She refers in particular to two recent, relatively high-profile stories about sexual assault in the literary community. In the first, writer Sophia Katz published an essay about her rape by a literary magazine editor later identified as Stephen Tully Dierks. In the second, the ex of novelist Tao Lin, E.R. Kennedy, accused him of statutory rape and abusive behavior during their relationship several years ago.
There’s a lot to take in if you’re not familiar with the stories already; given that neither Tao Lin nor Stephen Dierks are particularly well-known outside of a very specific publishing scene, it might seem a bit overwhelming. The gist, as far as I can tell, is that Sophia resisted Dierks’ advances insufficiently in order to qualify as rape, and that statutory laws are so inconsistently applied from state to state that…I’m not sure what the conclusion of Ellen’s argument there is, actually, it’s that loosely flung together.
There’s plenty of insincere hand-wringing in the beginning of the piece, “I am scared to death…People who care about me have urged me not to write this,” the idea being that criticism from other feminists is so frightening that she will fall apart at the slightest provocation.
And yet, I think that anyone who is willing to publicly Monday-morning-quarterback the details of another woman’s rape must be prepared to face criticism, and to be brave about it. Gird your loins! I can assure you that you will survive a bit — or even a great deal — of Internet yelling, as it is not a fatal condition.
It is one thing to wish to have a public conversation about passive and active forms of consent, about how to deal with regrettable sex after one has had it, about how to best take care of oneself after being sexually assaulted; it is another to publicly pick apart the details of someone else’s rape. One can do it, of course! But it is thorny and painful territory. Best to go prepared.
One of the dangers, I think, of depending on passive consent — the idea that all conditions are Go unless you are met with a swift, stern “NO MEANS NO” or a slap to the face — is that it conditions sexual aggressors (particularly men) to ignore or deflect or attempt to wear down perfectly clear rejections. As long as a No is plausibly deniable, it isn’t really a No; and if she didn’t really say No then you can’t possibly have done anything wrong.
From Katz’ essay:
He explained that there would be three other people staying in his apartment at the same time I would be there, and that I was “welcome to sleep in [his] bed if [I would] be comfortable with that haha.”
“I’m down,” he continued. But if I wasn’t, I “might wanna find a different place.”
I explained that I didn’t mind sleeping on the floor, and that I would bring my sleeping bag.
I cannot and will not, as Ellen does, pick apart Katz’ motives for going to New York City or staying with Dierks or not “taking responsibility for herself”; I will assume that as the person best qualified to speak on what happened before and during her stay with Dierks, Katz did not board a plane to New York City because she believed she was going to have to continually fight off sexual advances from her host.
If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.
I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.
I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.
Twice in my life I have had to fight for my safety. Twice in my life I have physically pushed a man out of my home. Twice in my life I have thrown a man off of me and locked myself in a room where he could not come after me, until he left, until someone else came to help me. It took every ounce of physical and emotional strength that I had. It was exhausting. It was frightening. Had I been the slightest bit more tired, had I been at someone else’s house, had I not had the hope of someone else’s arrival to sustain me, I might have fought and lost. To Ellen and her mother, I might be an example of a “good” near-rape victim.
I should not have had to do it either time. The first time I said No, the first time I turned my head away, the first time I crossed my arms over my chest and walked away, the first time I said “What are you doing?”, the first time I displayed a clear and obvious distaste for what was being done to me rather than with me should have been enough. That expectation — that the person saying No should be prepared at any moment to fight someone else off — is an undue burden. Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.
I said No. Sophia Katz said No. Saying No was easy, making the man who wanted to hear Yes listen to me when I said No was the challenge. A man who wants to hear a Yes will find a way to drag it out of you.
Saying No was easy. Getting someone to listen to my No took everything I had.
It should not take everything you have to turn down someone’s offer for sex.
A woman who says “No thanks, I’ll sleep on the floor”; a woman who freezes up and tenses at your touch; a woman who says “I really don’t want to” and “We really shouldn’t” and “We can’t” and “Please at least wear a condom” is not saying yes to you, and if you would like to pretend that that is unclear, you are a liar, you are being disingenuous, you are lying and you know it.
When I was seventeen I spent a summer dating my best friend’s brother’s best friend, a twenty-four year old I desperately wanted to lose my virginity to. He was a musician, good looking, cool, sweet. But the age difference freaked him out. He was afraid of the laws or my mother… So he broke up with me at the end of the summer, broke my heart (my first experience with heartbreak!), and I ended up losing my virginity to a clumsy guy my own age at a party over Christmas break, in someone else’s bedroom, the act in no way romantic. Oh, how I would have preferred my twenty-four year old!
It was not at all uncommon for friends of mine (females) to date older boys/men. I would say four years was the average age gap (the male always older)…
to the best of my knowledge, based on public statements, you are accusing him of ‘statutory rape.’ AND YES THERE IS A DIFFERENCE. Because as stated above, laws change from year to year. It’s a matter of politics, not (necessarily) a matter of morality.
And thus, half my friend’s boyfriends could have been accused of the same: ‘statutory rape.’
I find it unutterably odd that Ellen thinks because she doesn’t believe these men committed statutory rape, it is therefore impossible for someone else to have. Life is a rich tapestry! It is possible, though perhaps unlikely, for a 22-year-old man to date a teenager in a relatively healthy, respectful way. It is also possible for a 22-year-old man to date a teenager in a coercive and inappropriate way, because in both cases there are different people involved.
I think the hysteria is a) getting caught up in the whirlwind of ‘taking down’ male writers/editors.
Come, now! Is two really a whirlwind? Is the choice of “hysteria” here anything other than an attempt at deliberate provocation? Make your argument, if you like, but don’t say you’re “scared to death” to make it while making it very clear how little you respect or value anyone else participating in the conversation.
Now let’s talk about what I maybe found most enraging (as opposed to sad or painful; don’t (purposefully) misunderstand me) in this whole shameful/shame-filled debacle this week.
It was a comment (I believe) linked to or copied into the Gawker article in which someone on a social media site said something like, “Another white male editor down. Yay! Female empowerment!”
If this is anyone’s idea of gaining female empowerment, count me out. If celebrating the ruining of another person’s life is cause for celebration, I don’t want any part of it.
There is such an important distinction to be made here. (Aside from the fact that plenty of people say plenty of things on social media that are not necessarily indicative of broad social consensus!) How on earth can anyone say yet that Dierks or Lin’s entire lives have been ruined?
Dierks has temporarily left Twitter. Both men have been criticized roundly on the Internet. As far as I know, neither of them have been fired from any sort of employer (Dierks has announced he is “leaving public life,” but remember that so did Hugo Schwyzer, once, do not count him out just yet) or lost any pending book deals or had legal charges brought against them. Experiencing criticism for your actions is not the same thing as having your life ruined, no matter how unrestrainedly strangers talk about you on Tumblr. Unlike many women writers, as far as I know, neither Dierks nor Lin have received death or rape threats. Neither of them have been forced to leave their homes in fear for their personal safety.
Is the bar for a ruined life really that low? It must be acknowledged: Elizabeth Ellen is being very silly. This is a silly, intellectually unserious claim to make.
I would argue that if a person has committed rape; if a person has sought to overwhelm and override the will of another person in order to physically and emotionally dominate them, then bringing the rape to light is in fact the best possible thing that can happen to that rapist. It is better to bring rape to light then to hide it. It is better to apologize for a crime committed against another person than to try to pretend it never happened. You cannot apologize until after it has been acknowledged that you did something wrong. You cannot be redeemed until you have admitted you need redeeming. You cannot move on before you pay for something. Someone’s life can never be ruined because they were forced to publicly acknowledge that they committed rape.
You can ruin your own life when you rape someone else. You have ruined your own life from the inside out.
I do believe that it is possible for many people — for most people — to be redeemed for what they have done wrong. But forgiveness cannot come first. Forgiveness can never come before the hard work of acknowledging, of atoning, of apologizing, of enduring punishment, of changing.
And don’t send me a shittily written story about abuse. The fact that it’s about abuse is not enough to warrant publication in a literary journal or on a literary website (imo). Ditto: cancer story. Ditto: anything story. The writing comes first.
I will say, for the sake of balance, that this is a sentiment I agree with heartily! It doesn’t have anything to do, exactly, with the point she’s trying to make; one gets the feeling this essay was mostly a chance for Ellen to finally talk about all the things she’s tired of hearing about sexual assault, but it’s still true.
Not all stories are well-written.
Not all stories about abuse warrant publication in a literary journal.
This one wasn’t.
There’s a section in this essay that takes the entire piece from “half-baked and poorly written” to entirely devoid of moral sanity:
When I was a young person I molested three children younger than myself; a boy and two girls, one of which was my half-sister. Granted, I was, to the best of my knowledge/memory, nine or ten and the children were all about three or four years younger than I was. I know you’re going to say this doesn’t count.
I would never say this doesn’t count. Who would say this doesn’t count? I find this assumption utterly shocking. Is a nine or ten-year-old (nine or ten, that is, “to the best of my memory”) as morally or legally culpable for molesting a younger child than, say, an eighteen-year-old? No. But is it still an act of molestation? Is it still an abuse of power and authority by someone older over someone younger? Is it still coercive and manipulative? Is it still wrong? Yes, yes, yes.
Jesus God, it counts. It counted to those three children.
Framing acts of molestation and assault as things that either do or do not count as if it were a bad call in a game of tag (“that doesn’t count! I wasn’t done counting to ten!”) is a troubling — and worse, ineffective — way of discussing rape. It shifts the conversation from “how can we prevent this from happening again?” and “what would justice look like in this situation?” to “how can I make sure that what I did doesn’t fall under the category of ‘it counts’?”
But think of finding me in your five year old’s bed. Think of my grandmother finding me on top of my sister in hers. I was shunned. Rightfully so, I thought. Separated from my sister (I was never caught in the other two cases). I remember being sent down to the swimming pool (who knows the logic behind this) while my grandmother comforted (?) or talked to my sister. I remember feeling like a monster. Ashamed. Crying alone in the water (in my memory it was evening, dinner time; maybe there were other people but in my memory I am alone). I don’t remember if this was the last time it happened. I don’t remember being molested myself (that is the logical next thought, I realize). I don’t know why I did it. I still don’t understand why. (My sister and I don’t talk. I never see her. I don’t know if this is based on what happened then or if this is based on any number of other reasons why half-siblings or any siblings may or may not talk as adults. I have often wondered how much or if she remembers; if it was a traumatic experience for her. I have never asked. I’m still too afraid; feel too much a monster.)
I do not believe that molesting younger children as a child necessarily makes you an irredeemable monster. I do not think that social shunning (how long did the shunning last? Did Ellen ever apologize to her sister? Did she molest “the other two cases” before or after she was caught molesting her sister? Did that episode break the pattern, or continue it?) is the best response to cases of molestation and incest among children. I think there are better, more honest, more painful but ultimately more healthy responses.
To feign uncertainty about your age at the time — to feign uncertainty about why you and your sister do not speak — to feign uncertainty as to whether or not she is capable of remembering her own violation — is the worst kind of lie. It is an insult to your sister’s personhood.
You must do better than that. You cannot equivocate and hope to redeem yourself all at the same time.
“I don’t know why I did it.” Then you have not done the painful work of examining your own soul. You have not put in the time, you have not put in the effort, you have not looked at the parts of yourself you would rather ignore, you have not made amends to the ones you have hurt, you have not dealt with your own self.
While I do not believe that committing acts of sexual assault as a child makes you a monster — permanently unforgivable, unredeemable, unfit to rejoin society — I do believe that it uniquely disqualifies you from initiating a public discussion of consent and what constitutes rape. I believe that you forfeit the freedom to write publicly about the people you victimized while in the same breath questioning the victimization of others.
I believe, that while molesting three younger children as a child yourself may not make you a monster, it does result in a significant, lifelong burden. How have you atoned? How have you made amends when possible and granted your victims freedom from being reminded of how you trespassed against them? How have you supported other victims of other sexual crimes, either through your time, money, or public support?
Shame is an appropriate response to doing wrong. That is normal, and healthy, and a good sign that someone is not beyond rehabilitation.
Perhaps Ellen has done a great deal of private work; perhaps she has made personal amends to the children she hurt as a child and perhaps she has undergone counseling and perhaps she has sought as an adult to balance the harm she once did as a young person.
I don’t know. She makes no mention of it in the article. The last we hear of it is that Ellen does not know if her sister even remembers what happened, that they don’t speak, and that she’s not sure why. I am willing to bet that I know why. I am willing to bet that she remembers. I am willing to bet that it was traumatic. The last image we are given is of Ellen herself crying alone in a pool, feeling alone and sorry for herself.
If you stop at shame — if the last thing you mention doing after molesting a younger child is how you spent the evening “crying in the water” — you have not atoned. You have not done right to make up for having done wrong.
I wonder about Ellen’s sister, the sister she doesn’t talk to and therefore probably did not ask permission from before writing this piece. Elizabeth Ellen’s sister did not consent to being molested and did not consent to being publicly outed as a victim of abuse in a magazine article questioning the validity of another woman’s rape. It is profoundly troubling that Ellen did not take this into consideration before deciding to share her essay with the world.
Since when is emotional abuse grounds for public shunning? Because, let me say this, I know very few people who haven’t at one time (or plenty of times) been guilty of emotionally abusing someone, myself included (just ask my friend; she’ll show you the messages she sent my boyfriend in support of him when she ‘hated’ me).
Do you find this deeply unsettling? I find this deeply unsettling. Leaving aside the conflation of “public criticism” with “public shunning,” the fact that Elizabeth Ellen knows very few people who have not committed emotional abuse says a great deal more about Elizabeth Ellen than it does about emotional abuse’s prevalence.
Have you ever emotionally manipulated someone? Or behaved dishonorably toward a friend? I certainly have. I would not question the prevalence of emotional wrongdoing in the least. Humans are constantly cruel and distant and vindictive and unsupportive of one another; often to the people they ought to be kindest to.
And yet I do not believe this makes emotional abuse common — and even if it were common, this would not make it acceptable.
The sort of behavior E.R. Kennedy details — that Lin threatened to end their relationship if Kennedy gained weight, forced Kennedy to help him shoplift, accused Kennedy of being a binge eater after having pasta for dinner — is not the kind of normal, everyday indignities that everyday people inflict upon one another. It is horrifying to imagine being friends with all but a “very few people” who consider this to be normal.
I know that it is easy to dismiss deliberately provocative pieces (particularly those titled “Open Letter to the Internet”!) and their responses as fodder for the Internet Outrage Machine, and that’s certainly tempting to do here. Not every argument is worth having! And yet, I think, it is important to gently but firmly point out that this is a wrong-headed and a dangerous and a profoundly unkind argument to make. It is shot through with the worst and the laziest sort of empathy. It prioritizes the avoidance of pain and criticism over honesty. It confuses public criticism with dehumanization. It confuses the victimized with the victimizer.
It is possible, I think, to have a tolerant conversation about the relative merits of passive versus active consent. I do think that genuinely good people can reasonably disagree about this issue.
I do not believe that is what happened here.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.