clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The controversy around Katie Roiphe’s Harper’s essay on #MeToo, explained

The fallout from Roiphe’s essay on sexual harassment and “Twitter feminists” continued long after publication.

Protesters at a #MeToo rally in New York City in December 2017
Protesters at a #MeToo rally in New York City in December 2017.
LightRocket via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

To Katie Roiphe, #MeToo is a bit of an overreaction.

In her essay “The Other Whisper Network,” published in February by Harper’s, she reiterates an oft-aired concern about the “Shitty Media Men” list, a crowdsourced spreadsheet of reports of sexual misconduct by men in journalism and publishing. Some of the allegations on the list, according to Roiphe, were simply too small to be worth worrying about.

“I can’t imagine sitting with one of my smart, ambitious students in my office,” she writes, “lined with shelves of books like The Second Sex and A Room of One’s Own and I Love Dick and The Argonauts, saying, ‘Before you go work there, I just want to warn you, that guy might leer at you.’ I would worry I was being condescending, treating her like a child who doesn’t know how to handle herself in the world.”

Roiphe’s essay had been anticipated for weeks, ever since word spread on Twitter that it might name the creator of the Shitty Media Men list, who was then anonymous. Moira Donegan subsequently came forward as the creator of the list, and Roiphe folded what she called “the prepublication frenzy of Twitter fantasy and fury about this essay” into the piece itself.

Fallout from the piece continued after publication — on April 18, former Harper’s editor James Marcus told the New York Times he had been fired due to his opposition to the piece. The magazine’s vice president of public relations, meanwhile, disputed his account and said that the story had been “the most successful story we’ve had in a couple years.”

Roiphe’s discussion of the controversy around her essay forms part of the core disjunction of the piece: Much of what women are reporting as sexual misconduct is not really all that scary, Roiphe seems to argue, but the prospect of public criticism is very fearsome indeed.

The “other whisper network” of Roiphe’s title refers to women who, she says, are afraid to air their criticisms of #MeToo in public: “Amid this welcome reckoning,” she writes, “it seems that many women still fear varieties of retribution (Twitter rage, damage to their reputations, professional repercussions, and vitriol from friends) for speaking out.”

Roiphe’s piece is part of a larger strain of #MeToo backlash, one that casts survivors and their allies as repressive agents eager to punish anyone with whom they disagree. This view conflates criticism with prosecution and discomfort with oppression. The current conversation around sexual harassment and assault is new for many people, and it’s no surprise that some are uncomfortable.

It’s reasonable to ask for some empathy for that discomfort, and certainly to demand that everyone be safe from harassment. What’s not reasonable is to ask survivors to stop talking.

For Roiphe, some fears are valid — others are not

Katie Roiphe originally gained notoriety by criticizing what she called the “neo-Puritan preoccupation” with date rape — her past writing on sexual assault was one reason many were concerned that she had been assigned to write about the Shitty Media Men list for Harper’s. The essay she eventually produced is of a piece with her earlier work in that it casts a central feminist and leftist concern — in this case, workplace sexual harassment and assault — as a bit panicked and hysterical.

According to Marcus, “the piece was widely disliked by the entire staff” of Harper’s. He told the Times in April that the magazine’s publisher had suggested running “a contrarian piece on #MeToo movement,” an idea Marcus thought was unwise due to the magazine’s “longtime reputation as a gentleman’s smoking club.” Ultimately, he said, he was fired over his opposition to the piece.

Giulia Melucci, the vice president of public relations at Harper’s, took issue with his account in unusually confrontational language. Asked why Marcus had opposed the piece, she said, “Maybe because it was a good story? It was the most successful story we’ve had in a couple years. He may have been against it, but it was good for the magazine.”

One of the central strands of Roiphe’s essay is a critique of women’s fear. She quotes the writer Rebecca Solnit: “Women are so hemmed in by fear of men, it profoundly limits our lives.”

“The idea of this ubiquitous, overwhelming fear is repeatedly conjured and dramatized by Twitter feminists,” Roiphe writes. She seems to argue that at least for some women, this fear doesn’t truly exist. She quotes one anonymous woman who says, “I feel blessed to live in a society where you are free to walk through the city at night. I just don’t think those of us who are privileged white women with careers are really that afraid.” And if other women are afraid, Roiphe implies, maybe that fear is unjustified.

Roiphe takes both Donegan and the New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister to task for their concerns about a man who, in Roiphe’s words, “was fired many years ago from Harper’s Magazine following an instance of sexual misconduct and now writes for New York.” Of this man, Donegan asks, “What about the women at New York who feel uncomfortable working with him? Why is their ability to feel safe at work less important than his second chance?”

Roiphe deems these questions unnecessary, noting that the man in question does not have women reporting to him and does not work in the office. “The looming threat of his mere existence to the safety of the young New York employees seems somewhat overblown,” she writes, “I can’t help thinking it is @MegaMoira” (Roiphe repeatedly uses an old Twitter handle to refer to Donegan) “here who is endowing him with a power he doesn’t have, and at the same time, not giving those allegedly scared and unsafe young women at the magazine enough credit: Why should they care about a writer puttering at home?”

It is reasonable to have a conversation about the appropriate consequences for acts of sexual misconduct, and about what constitutes a safe workplace for workers of all genders. Roiphe’s aim in her Harper’s essay, however, is different. Donegan, Traister, and other “Twitter feminists” are either exaggerating women’s fear of harassment to punish men, Roiphe argues, or perhaps accurately conveying fears that women simply shouldn’t have. Other women, she suggests, are suffering from a very valid fear: the fear of being shamed.

Roiphe reports that she has been subject to online harassment as a result of attention around her Harper’s piece, which is reprehensible — calling a woman a “harridan” for her journalism, however much one disagrees with it, helps no one. But Roiphe seems to reserve all of her sympathy for women who fear criticism for their skepticism over #MeToo, leaving none for women who fear the harassment and assault that inspired #MeToo in the first place.

Roiphe opens her essay with a discussion of the more than 20 women who spoke to her about their feelings about #MeToo, under the condition of anonymity: “Here in my living room, at coffee shops, in my inbox and on my voicemail, were otherwise outspoken female novelists, editors, writers, real estate agents, professors, and journalists of various ages so afraid of appearing politically insensitive that they wouldn’t put their names to their thoughts, and I couldn’t blame them,” she writes.

The source of their fear is a political climate Roiphe pins on “Twitter feminists”: “Social media has enabled a more elaborate intolerance of feminist dissenters,” she writes, “as I just personally experienced. Twitter, especially, has energized the angry extremes of feminism in the same way it has energized Trump and his supporters: the loudest, angriest, most simplifying voices are elevated and rendered normal or mainstream.”

Roiphe references the harassment she experienced in the run-up to her essay’s publication, and asks, “With this level of thought policing, who in their right mind would try to say anything even mildly provocative or original?”

Roiphe’s Twitter account was created in January of this year, and her piece drips with disdain for women who use the medium. By referring to Donegan and the writer Kaitlin Phillips by their Twitter handles (in Donegan’s case, an outdated one) rather than their names, she seems to be inviting readers to ridicule them: How could you possibly take someone named @MegaMoira seriously, she suggests.

At one point, she justifies talking about Twitter so much by pointing out the apparently staggering fact that people who use it have other jobs — “some of these seemingly fringe figures are actually writers and editors who publish in places like The New Republic and n+1.”

As anyone who uses Twitter regularly knows, Roiphe is quite right that the platform can be unpleasant and, at worst, dangerous. In fact, few have done more to combat its dangers — including the kind of harassment Roiphe reports — than feminists who are active on Twitter. But examining the ways feminists actually use Twitter is not part of Roiphe’s project — instead, she is content to use the term “Twitter feminists” to describe a somewhat amorphous group she identifies as contemporary thought police.

The conversation around #MeToo is uncomfortable for a lot of people. It’s also necessary.

Roiphe is not the only one to describe women speaking out about harassment as though they were agents of a repressive state — Andrew Sullivan, writing in New York magazine about the Shitty Media Men list and #MeToo more generally, called contributors to the list “today’s McCarthyites.”

“They believe,” he wrote, “they are fighting an insidious, ubiquitous evil — the patriarchy — just as the extreme anti-Communists in the 1950s believed that commies were everywhere and so foul they didn’t deserve a presumption of innocence, or simple human decency. They demand public confessions of the guilty and public support for their cause … or they will cast suspicion on you as well.”

While some men have lost their jobs due to reports of sexual misconduct, this is not generally what happens to those who merely refuse “public support” for #MeToo. Public critics of #MeToo have generally received a version of what they doled out: criticism.

Criticism can be deeply unpleasant, and it’s understandable that people are afraid of it. Humans are social animals, and social opprobrium hurts us, even when it doesn’t rise to the level of harassment. I have heard from multiple men, in public and in private, in the last few months, that they are afraid of being criticized for their views on #MeToo or the allegations against a particular celebrity, and their fears are entirely rational: Criticism is deeply uncomfortable, and no one enjoys it.

But sometimes we have to tolerate discomfort in order to have a necessary conversation. “To hold a lot of opposites in our minds seems to be what the moment calls for,” Roiphe writes, “to tolerate and be honest about the ambiguities. If we are going through a true reckoning, there should be space for more authentically diverging points of view, a full range of feelings, space to hash through what is and is not sexual misconduct, which is an important and genuinely confusing question about which reasonable people can and will disagree.”

The conversation Roiphe calls for sounds a lot like the one that is, in fact, happening right now. Authentically diverging points of view? Read, perhaps, Andrew Sullivan on testosterone, gender, and #MeToo; and this response at Slate by Evan Urquhart, a trans man who takes testosterone.

A full range of feelings? Read Allison Benedikt on how her boss became her husband, Leslie Jamison on female rage, Jenna Wortham on how whisper networks can leave out women of color, Heather Wilhelm on why she “cannot honestly say #MeToo.”

Space to hash through what is and is not sexual misconduct? Read Grace’s story about her date with Aziz Ansari (if you haven’t already) and then responses by Bari Weiss, Caitlin Flanagan, Aditi Juneja, and 18 readers of the Lily, the Washington Post’s site for millennial women.

Americans of all genders are already having a robust conversation about the nuances of sexual misconduct, with criticism flying in all directions. Roiphe surely knows this because she’s part of it — fear of “thought policing” aside, she published her piece anyway.

Roiphe has certainly never let criticism stand in her way, and neither have the many people who have written and spoken about #MeToo in recent months, expressing, despite Roiphe’s protestations to the controversy, a wide variety of views. Certainly no one deserves harassment or threats, but the idea that the conversation around #MeToo has become prohibitively unsafe for skeptics is not borne out by the evidence.

To some degree, the current public conversation around sexual harassment and assault is uncharted territory for everyone. Survivors have long been speaking out, or trying to speak out, about their experiences, but they are being heard and their words amplified in new ways. Many people — many men, in particular — have never really been asked to think about the prevalence of sexual harassment, and are now doing so for the first time.

It is inevitable that criticism will arise from this moment. It is inevitable that many people will feel uncomfortable, and that some people will feel hurt. We can approach this discomfort empathetically — we can acknowledge, for instance, that some women are not bothered by workplace flirtation, or that some men are afraid of saying the wrong thing — without shutting down the necessary discussions that are engendering it. We can acknowledge that #MeToo stories can be hard for some people to hear without asking survivors to stop telling them.

The women who spoke out against Harvey Weinstein, and the many people who have come forward to report harassment and assault since then, did not make an easy decision. They faced career repercussions, shaming, threats, and abuse for speaking publicly about their experiences, and they did so anyway. In the conversation inspired by their testimony, we should seek to keep all parties safe from harassment and threats, but we cannot keep them safe from criticism.

What survivors have done in last few months was not easy. We cannot expect the conversation that comes next to be easy, either.