The wise, compassionate and refreshingly sex-positive JoAnn Wypijewski has come out with a remarkable new book with a very long name, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life (Verso). The title’s luxurious length underlines how important it is sometimes to discuss things fully, and how, when we talk or write in soundbites, we might well miss the illuminating truths of life’s real messiness.
The book explores that messiness brilliantly, if not conclusively, via an anthology of some of Wypijewski’s finest, most incisive articles examining sex scandals and sex panics over the last three decades, from the Central Park 5 to Harvey Weinstein, Abu Ghraib to Woody Allen and much more. She’s even got my old nemesis Dr. Laura Schlesinger and my great mentor Dr. Betty Dodson in there. For anyone interested in sex and society, it’s a must-read.
Full disclosure: About five years ago, I met JoAnn, a former editor at The Nation, co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair and Kevin Alexander Gray of Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence, published in 2014 (the early years of Black Lives Matter), writer for The Nation, Mother Jones and Harper’s etc., as well CounterPunch, where I write too sometimes, and which is how, one dark and steamy night in 2015, she found me.
Vrooming up to the curb in her too-cool-for-school 1963 Valiant convertible, she won the hearts of our little Bonoboville community upon arrival. We all had ourselves a very good time just hanging out by the car and at the bar, having a bar-side chat, drinking and chatting about sex, cars, politics and bonobos.
In the middle of our chat, a female friend came in from a night out, plopped down on a barstool and mused, “I think I was raped.” Describing what happened that night, she recalled that she agreed to have sex, even though deep inside, she didn’t really want to. She wasn’t physically attracted to the guy, but she was interested in what he could do for her career. She never pushed him away, said “no” or asked him to “stop,” but she hoped her unarticulated revulsion would persuade the man to stop the sex and, ideally, resume their delightful conversation about how he could help her attain stardom.
Dumb Dude didn’t take the hint. Since she never tried to stop him, she somewhat reluctantly concluded that she wasn’t raped, but had made the common mistake of agreeing to have lousy sex in exchange for getting professional help which she never really received.
Still, we empathized with her regret and, though this was a good two years before #MeToo emerged, we talked about the changing, sometimes confusing attitudes toward and even definitions of “rape,” “sexual assault,” “sexual harassment” and other problems, “sins” and peccadillos that night.
Two years later, in the fall of 2017, the sweet pussies of the #MeToo “Reckoning” pounced like tigresses on powerful men with grabby hands, many of whom were fired or publicly disgraced for their sins of sex and power and, for the most part, rightfully so.
Meowwww! These pussies have claws.
Sadly, #MeToo did not bring down the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief, despite Trumpty Dumpty being accused of sexual assault by more than 25 women. However, the Reckoning grew quickly into a powerful, rather bonoboësque movement for female empowerment throughout the world.
I say “bonoboësque” because the bonobos present the perfect female empowerment Great Ape paradigm, proving that true “femocracy” is not just a crazy feminist fantasy but a real, viable way of life, practiced successfully for many millennia by humanity’s closest genetic cousins, the bonobo apes, and maybe even by our prehistoric hunter/gatherer human ancestors.
There is, however, a key element to the Bonobo Way that the #MeToo movement seems to be missing (so far), and that is male well-being. One vital reason rape is relatively rare and murder is non-existent among the matriarchal bonobos—as opposed to their patriarchal common chimpanzee cousins whose males often rape the females and occasionally commit murder as well as a rudimentary type of war—is that bonobo males get laid… a lot.
This is partly because bonobo females often aggressively pursue sex—maybe because they don’t get slut-shamed for it. Horny bonobo males also can have sex with each other (bonobos are all bi or pansexual). There are no incels in bonobo society. This erotic abundance cools them out, lowering bonobo male hormonal levels of what human culture understands as “toxic masculinity” and elevating their aptitude for love.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than getting laid. Bonobos exhibit a deep sense of inclusivity, high levels of empathy, many expressions of affection, openness toward strangers, a tendency to reconcile and forgive transgressions after punishment is dispensed (usually by the older females), generosity with food, sharing and caring about even the naughtiest of males. I’ve long felt that to keep #MeToo viable, we ought to factor this sense of “male well-being” into the female empowerment equation, like the bonobos do.
But how do we do that as humans? Well, it’s complicated…
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life is a great place to start.
So I invited JoAnn to be a guest on my weekly show—somewhat reconfigured for these quarantined times as “Bedside Chats of the Coronapocalypse”—to talk about the issues and stories in her astute and challenging book.
She opens the title chapter by sharing a story of passionate, unplanned sex between a young boss and a younger intern. At the end of the tale, she reveals that the boss was her, inviting the reader to think about ingrained assumptions regarding sex between subordinates and supervisors.
During our chat, JoAnn intensifies the story, including juicy details, like (I’m paraphrasing here), “His kisses were so sweet,” “He was beautiful, like a Greek God,” “I said, ‘You know I can’t hire you now’,” “He was shocked,” “We did it anyway,” “I hired him anyway…”—making vividly clear the messiness of this incredible, unforgettable, un-regrettable sexual experience.
No regrets for her, no complaints from him, JoAnn’s true tale challenges us to think about how, in the #MeToo era, we might view that consensual, if “messy,” erotic encounter, especially if the roles were reversed and the ages expanded a bit. What if the boss was an older man and the young intern was female? Probably, many would view it as sexual assault, especially if someone with a media megaphone described it that way.
Of course, no decent person supports rape or any nonconsensual sex, least of all a staunch feminist like JoAnn. Nevertheless, as a long-time human rights advocate and sexual freedom fighter, she notes that the fear of sexual assault—as well as of consensual sex that isn’t “appropriate”—can be terribly destructive in far-ranging ways.
For example, society’s purported desire to “save” sex workers from “trafficking” has certainly done more harm than good, as JoAnn writes: “the shutdown of Backpage, the most popular internet ad site for sex work, and the subsequent nervous decision by Craigslist to discontinue its Personals section (both 2018) was part of a putative safety campaign that has made sex workers less safe and less independent. The Justice Department’s onslaught against Backpage, touted as a blow against sex trafficking, has had the opposite effect, because the site had closely monitored ads and alerted law enforcement to suspected exploitation. As so often, a protection campaign on behalf of women and children protects neither.”
One of the main themes of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo is “sex panic,” a.k.a. moral panic, which JoAnn defines as “a social eruption fanned by the media and characterized by alarm over innocence (stereotypically, white women and children) imperiled. The predator is a lurking, mutable social presence, a menace against which the populace must be mobilized—and has been since at least the ‘white slavery’ panic of 1880s–1910s, but almost continuously since the mid-twentieth century. That politics of fear has not been trivial. Examples range from the fever over (homo) ’sexual psychopaths’ (1950s) to serial rages since the late 1960s against: sex education; gay ‘sex rings,’ gay teachers, gay threats to family; ‘stranger danger’; Crime!; Porn!; satanic ritual abuse in day care; sexual abuse dug up from ‘repressed memory’; AIDS predators; ‘superpredators’; internet predators; Sex Offenders as a separate category of human being; ‘pedophile priests’; epidemic campus rape… Sex figures as a preternatural danger, emotion swamps reason, monsters abound, and protection demands any sacrifice, including the suppression of opposing views.”
This is the erotophobic culture in which we reside and that very few question, especially when news of a fresh sex scandal spills like an errant ejaculation into our innocent news feeds.
JoAnn Wypijewski is one of the few. With courage, compassion and a veteran journalist’s attention to detail, she investigates and explores the stories of the real human beings behind the sex panicked headlines of our times—which she traces back to “the cusp of the liberationist ’60s and the fear-jacked backlash”—in What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo.
“Sex panic” is buttressed by “poisoned solidarity,” an apt concept JoAnn often uses, coined by anthropologist Roger Lancaster, author of Sex Panic and the Punitive State, the thrill of mob revenge on the “monster” who is, all too often, a scapegoat.
It’s sad to see a positive term like “solidarity” being “poisoned,” but it happens too often to ignore, everywhere from the deep group passions of witch hunts to the Daddy-fetishizing delusions of Hitler’s Third Reich, Mussolini’s fascismo and tRump’s base.
Though the thrill of poisoned solidarity in relation to sex panic didn’t start with social media, it has greatly expanded with it. But the phenomenon goes way back, typified by the celebratory mobs gathered around dead men swinging from trees.
“It should be impossible to think of sex and accusation and not think about race,” writes JoAnn. “White America lynched some 4,000 black people, mostly men, from 1877 to 1968.” She considers the powerful influence of the wildly racist, KKK-positive 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which popularized and “nationalized white panic, sex panic and the idea that an aggrieved white populace has a right to commandeer justice.”
Many of these lynchings started with sexual accusations by white women against black men.
“I expect that progressives today presume that all those white women were lying,” writes JoAnn, leaving the reader to wonder: What might that mean about today’s accusations?
It’s interesting that the term “MeToo,” created by African American activist Tarana Burke to help mostly women and girls of color acknowledge sexual abuse and begin to speak about trauma, exploded as a hashtag in Hollywood, based on accusations from mostly white women.
Hollywood didn’t invent the human “predator,” JoAnn writes, but it developed the idea as a compelling “character” for mass culture. “As the Bad Man, the predator exists to authorize the bad that the Good Man does, to convert it into good, and thus to affirm that justice is whatever the white avenger says it is: undebatably, the only process due.”
JoAnn’s book has an astute chapter on shunned filmmaker Woody Allen and the flimsiness of the “charge” against him that he molested his daughter Dylan during a family gathering at Mia Farrow’s house when the two were separated.
In a way, Woody’s unadjudicated, mob-dispensed public disgrace birthed the #MeToo movement in the person of Woody’s own estranged son (who may or may not be his biological offspring), Ronan Farrow, the “Good Man” of #MeToo. Meanwhile, Ronan’s brother, Moses Farrow, tells a very different story.
When I reflect on Woody’s predicament, I think about his old movie The Front, but instead of the Commies being the worst evil imaginable, it’s the Pervies.
Personally, I believe in Free Speech for all, even the many liars among us. People, private publishing houses and film companies have the right to boycott, insult, not watch, produce or publish Woody Allen. It’s possible that history will judge him more kindly than his peers, as it did another literary darling who was also branded a degenerate in his day: Oscar Wilde.
Poor Oscar died in prison. Public humiliation is one thing (it’s even a fetish!), but when it comes to incarceration, well, that’s a much harsher punishment than social media scorn, yet not as bad as lynching, though it’s all related.
Which brings us to Harvey Weinstein and his New York trial, which JoAnn attended as a public observer. Whatever may or may not be true about Harvey Weinstein the man, the mogul, the monster and the bully, what JoAnn describes is a travesty of justice under the law.
During our Bedside Chat, we talked about the “monsterization of Weinstein” in the media and the courtroom, accompanied by the depiction of his victims as absolutely powerless to stop him, even when he left them alone; they were so thoroughly intimidated by his power to “destroy” them.
“What was so depressing at a feminist level about the Weinstein trial was the ideology underlining it of absolute female disempowerment,” she said.
Suddenly, as we were chatting about Weinstein accuser Jessica Mann’s strange, inherently contradictory testimony—how she didn’t really *mean* it when she complimented Weinstein, wrote him adoring notes, said she missed him, came back for more, etc.—JoAnn lost her Internet connection and disappeared. It was almost as if my old Yale classmate, Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., proud of his big win against Weinstein and not happy to be reasonably questioned about it, somehow found a way to cut JoAnn’s Internet.
Just kidding, Cy!
The Ivy connection, though, reminded me of JoAnn’s disturbing story of Harvard Law Professor and House Master (“master” being the old title for a professor who supervises the on-campus residential life of a group of undergraduates, which has been officially put out to pasture by the oh-so-culturally-sensitive Ivies, but is still used colloquially) Ronald Sullivan, the first Black House Master in Harvard’s history, removed from that post last year because his brief presence as an attorney on the Harvey Weinstein defense team was said to make some of his students feel “unsafe.”
The old American judicial adage that everyone—especially the defendant who is “seen as guilty”—deserves legal representation, didn’t appear to phase the Harvard students or administrators who relieved Ronald Sullivan and his wife of their Master titles. Feelings of “fear” and “discomfort” regarding a “Master” helping a “Monster” trumped any concerns about justice under the law or the defendant’s right to the attorney of his choice.
Tabling our chat about Weinstein until JoAnn’s Internet returned, I pivoted from Hollywood 2020 to Baghdad 2004 and the shocking military “detainee” sex scandal of Abu Ghraib.
JoAnn’s book has an excellent chapter on Abu Ghraib, much of it based on her attendance at a very different kind of court proceeding, the U.S. military trial of 21-year-old Lynndie England who was convicted, essentially, of torturing prisoners for fun (and kinky fun at that!), while the rest of the military *only* practiced torture for serious purposes. JoAnn covered all the big trials of Abu Ghraib, which is a lot more than can be said for the mainstream media which, though salivating nonstop over “The Photos” when they appeared, were largely MIA when it came to covering all but the first of the trials.
Like everybody else, I was appalled and fascinated by “The Photos”; I wrote about them for Counterpunch as “Bush’s POW Porn,” and I made a collage, “The Theater of Cruelty,” (with a hat tip to Antonin Artaud) which I talked about as I waited for JoAnn to reconnect. Also, like everybody else, I felt that 21-year-old Lynndie and her cohort soldiers were the guilty perpetrators of these frankly abusive and fairly outrageous stunts and, of course, they ought to be disciplined. But the perpetrators of the war itself, the Rape of Iraq, the Afghanistan invasion and the culture of routine torture that predated it and festered in its wake, were far guiltier. Humiliation is really awful, but murder is a hell of a lot worse. If anyone was going to prison, it ought to have been the Murderers-in-Chief, Bush, Dick and Rummy the Bechtel-Dummy. And then there’s Gina Haspel, who supervised “black sites” which set the pattern for prisons like Abu Ghraib, and as a reward for her steady stewardship of America’s notorious torture palaces, was promoted to head up the CIA as its first female director.
One of the legal people who “accommodated” the American torture of detainees and later, as a judge, ruled that War on Terror prisoners have no habeas corpusrights, was Brett Kavanaugh, now Supreme Court Justice of the United States, and yes, JoAnn has another insightful, nuanced chapter about Lying, Crying Brett in her book.
When JoAnn reappeared (Zoom teaches you to go with the flow), we chatted a bit more about Abu Ghraib, Brett and Harvey, then we moved on to a subject that is closer to home.
An old friend of mine, Ron Jeremy, probably the world’s most famous male porn star, was arrested a few weeks ago, and is now locked up in LA’s notorious Twin Towers jail on $6.6 million bail, several women having accused him of “forcible rape” and assault. (My interview with Ron’s assistant, Albert Minero, Jr., on Bedside Chat 14, fills in some details.) Unsurprisingly, the #MeToo mobs of social media have judged and juried him to be 200% guilty. Ron’s most prominent public critic, Ginger Banks, who has also gone after another “old-school” porn veteran, John Stagliano, of sexual assault, proudly calls herself “the Ron Jeremy police.”
Although JoAnn learned of the Ron Jeremy scandal only in the past few days and is appropriately careful not to take sides, she is naturally skeptical of another sex scandal that has so many similarities to the Weinstein case. The big difference is that this one is inside the porn industry and its “conventions,” the blatantly slutty underbelly of the more discreetly slutty Hollywood.
Ron’s case came along too late to find its way into What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo. But the book includes a wealth of cases and stories, culled from 30 years of sex scandal-focused investigative journalism, accompanied by an effervescent curiosity, diamond-sharp wisdom that is rarely heard these days (or any day) and a sense of compassion that seems to envelope the reader in the author’s warm, strong arms.
At least, it enveloped me.
We wound up our chat as JoAnn ends her wonderful book, with a pithy quote from the late great James Baldwin about how we need to guard against “habits of thought that reinforce and sustain the habits of power.”
Perhaps, before we say yes to the next invitation to poisoned solidarity out of “habit,” as we so easily and often do, we should try to think for ourselves.
I’ll sum up with one of my favorite quotes from What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: “Marx was wrong. Sex, not religion, is the heart in a heartless world.”