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A lawsuit against Emma Cline shows how sexual humiliation is used to silence women writers

It’s a move straight out of How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Emma Cline, author of the 2016 novel The Girls, has been accused of plagiarism by her ex-boyfriend — whose lawyer reportedly tried to slut-shame her into a major settlement.

Cline’s ex, Chaz Reetz-Laiolo, retained superlawyer David Boies to deal with Cline, the New Yorker reports, alleging that Cline stole fragments of Reetz-Laiolo’s unpublished writing and used them in The Girls. This May, Boies sent Cline a draft of Reetz-Laiolo’s complaint, saying that he planned to file it in court if she didn’t settle.

Rather bizarrely for a plagiarism suit, the complaint included a lengthy section titled “Cline’s History of Manipulating Older Men” that detailed her sexual past, which Boies allegedly planned to use to discredit Cline in front of a jury. (Boies was also previously retained by Harvey Weinstein, and personally signed off on the contract Weinstein used to retain a spy firm that assembled discrediting dossiers on those who Weinstein feared would expose him. Boies now says his involvement in that contract was “a mistake.”)

The Reetz-Laiolo scandal has some sinister echoes in the literary world. In 2014, book critic Edward Champion publicly blackmailed the novelist Porochista Khakpour with information about her sexual past after she deleted a comment he made on her Facebook page; months earlier, he wrote a misogynistic screed against Emily Gould in which he characterized her career as the result of “careerist bedhopping.” Other, less public scandals abound, in which men attempt to shame successful women writers through their sexual pasts.

These scandals are not just isolated incidents of bad behavior. They are very particular versions of the systemic culture of sexual violence that we are currently beginning to uncover throughout American society. And these cases show us that sexual shaming is a way not just of humiliating, demeaning, and hurting women, but of silencing them.

The complaint against Cline conflates accusations of plagiarism with her sexual history

Cline’s The Girls is a novel with a particularly feminine viewpoint. It’s about the peculiar, intense intimacy of adolescent female friendships, and how they can become so insular and all-consuming as to feel like a cult. (Also, the title is The Girls.) It’s the kind of book that would be difficult for a man to write; it feels like a woman’s book.

The Girls is also a major hit. It was the splashiest novel of summer 2016. Cline got an advance of nearly $2 million for it. A producer acquired the film rights before the novel was even published.

A letter from Boies’s law office alerting Cline of the complaint against her informed her that they were seeking to immediately halt distribution of The Girls and production of the movie unless she settled out of court.

According to the New Yorker, Reetz-Laiolo’s complaint against Cline alleges that she installed spyware on an old laptop of hers that she later sold to him, for the express purpose of stealing his work and spying on him and two other women. In a response to his complaint, Cline’s lawyers say that the allegations are false and that Cline installed the spyware on the laptop because Reetz-Laiolo was abusive to her, and she wanted to protect herself and find out if Reetz-Laiolo was cheating on her. The “plagiarism,” they say, amounts to six lines from one of Cline’s manuscripts that match Reetz-Laiolo’s manuscript, which do not appear in the published version of The Girls and which can be easily explained by the fact that the couple was living, reading, and writing together at the time.

In an article published earlier this year, Cline describes an unnamed ex-boyfriend who she says choked her. In the article, she threatens to tell someone what happened:

I told him I would call the police. He said that if I did, he would tell my parents I had sold underwear on Craigslist. He said the police wouldn’t believe me because I didn’t bruise. … When I contemplated writing about the incident — corroborated by 2012 chats with a friend, multiple emails to multiple different people, an essay that mentioned the choking that the boyfriend had read — his only comment that “our fight” “lacked context” — I was informed that I wouldn’t be believed because I had stayed friends with this person even after he had choked me. I was told I wouldn’t be believed because in the same chat where I confessed my fear, anxiety, and confusion about my boyfriend’s violence, I also made sex jokes. I was told I wouldn’t be believed because I’ve looked at pornography, written a sex story, dated older men. I was told I wouldn’t be believed because I said I loved the boyfriend. I was told I wouldn’t be believed because I hadn’t called the police.

That essay doesn’t say that Reetz-Laiolo was this ex-boyfriend, but Cline’s complaint accuses Reetz-Laiolo of choking her. And the reasoning Cline describes here certainly matches the reasoning displayed in the complaint Cline received from Reetz-Laiolo’s lawyers in the “Cline’s History of Manipulating Older Men” section. (The section was removed in October, in what a spokesperson for the law firm described as a “gesture of good faith.” The New Yorker notes that the section was pulled just as Ronan Farrow prepared to publish an article detailing Boies’s involvement in similarly slut-shaming dossiers prepared by Harvey Weinstein.)

The New Yorker summarizes the section’s contents as follows:

“[E]vidence shows that Cline was not the innocent and inexperienced naïf she portrayed herself to be, and had instead for many years maintained numerous ‘relations’ with older men and others, from whom she extracted gifts and money,” the section began. What followed were thirteen pages containing screenshots of explicit chat conversations with lovers, including one in which Cline had sent a naked photo of herself (the photo was blacked out in the letter) to a boyfriend, explicit banter with people she’d met online, and snippets of her most intimate diary entries. All of this material had been recorded by the spyware and remained on Cline’s old laptop, which Reetz-Laiolo now had in his possession.

The subtext of both the complaint and the conversation Cline recalls in her Cut essay is that because Cline is a woman who has had sex — and who, perhaps more damningly, has written about sex — she is not to be trusted. Reetz-Laiolo’s complaint takes the insinuation a step farther: Because Cline has had sex, she is not to be trusted, and because she is not to be trusted, she cannot have written her own book.

It’s a move straight out of How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ’s 1983 magnum opus on how the world works to prevent women from writing and belittle those who do: She didn’t write it. Look what she chose to write about. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ University of Texas Press

Ed Champion used the same strategy to try to silence two women novelists in his 2014 flameout

Reetz-Laiolo is not the only person who’s used sexual humiliation to silence women writers. It’s also a weapon in the arsenal of proudly iconoclastic book critic/blogger Ed Champion, most notably used against the novelists Emily Gould and Porochista Khakpour.

In 2014, Champion wrote an 11,000-word essay decrying Gould as a “middling millennial.” The whole thing read as a disturbed rant about women who were more successful in the literary world than Champion, and it was troublingly laced with misogynistic imagery. To wit: “When a minx’s head is so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage, it’s often hard to see the sunshine.” Or: “She was not a real writer because the only person she could tap was the uncreative figure staring back in the vanity mirror.” Or: “She’s still the same scabrous and manipulative opportunist that she was when she deflowered a 14-year-old boy at the age of seventeen.”

Later that year, Champion turned against Khakpour. Until then, the two were publicly friendly — no easy feat, given that Champion’s mercurial temper was legendary in the book world. But then Champion posted an offensive comment about a Slate editor on Khakpour’s Facebook page, and Khakpour deleted it.

Champion took to Twitter and declared that if Khakpour did not apologize for this terrible sin before a stated time, he would release the name of the man who took nude photographs of her without her permission. As Khakpour stood her ground, Champion began to tweet out a menacing (and now-deleted) countdown: “Five minutes. Who is the man who photographed [Khakpour] in the nude? I’m not afraid, and I won’t be intimidated.”

“Fuck Porochista Khakpour,” he wrote. “I busted my ass to push her books, and she invents conspiracy theories in lieu of seeking therapy.”

“Oh god please if anyone knows any lawyers, anything. I can’t do this,” Khakpour wrote on Twitter. “my life is very hard. i am very poor & work very hard.i can’t take this.”

Champion eventually tweeted out the name in question, only to delete the tweet almost immediately. His account was suspended from Twitter but has since been reinstated, and he continues to tweet and blog.

But his pattern with both Gould and Khakpour follows the same template Russ laid out in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, the one Reetz-Laiolo is following now. Gould, Champion says, is “not a real writer:” She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. He writes vindictively about how he “busted his ass” for Khakpour, implying that her success is due to his work: She wrote it, but she had help.

And Champion’s critique of both Gould and Khakpour is premised on the idea that what really makes them suspect is the fact that they are women who have bodies and who may have had sex. Gould had sex as a teenager, and this makes her a “scabrous and manipulative opportunist.” Khakpour has a body that was at one point naked and photographed against her will, and this is shameful and worthy of blackmail. Women have bodies, and sometimes those bodies have sex, and this, the logic goes, calls their ideas and work into question.

This strategy is fundamentally about silencing women

People outside of publishing use the threat of sexual shaming against women, too: Notably, Harvey Weinstein hired spies and private detectives to compile dossiers against the people he feared might speak out against him, and those dossiers contained information about their subjects’ romantic and sexual pasts.

But when sexual shaming happens in the literary world, its subtext becomes clearer: Because the shaming is in response to women writing, we begin to see that this kind of shaming is fundamentally about silencing women. This shaming is not some kind of misguided flirtation or moralizing. It is a misogynistic exercise of power.

“What should have been a happy milestone — publishing my first novel — has turned into a yearslong nightmare perpetrated by someone I believed I had finally escaped from,” Cline said in a statement to the New York Times on Friday. “My only experience of publishing a novel has been one where I am under acute attack, with my sexual history weaponized against me by a cadre of male lawyers. I’ll never be able to get back the years I’ve now spent responding to an ex-boyfriend’s baseless legal assaults and ludicrous, billion-dollar claims instead of writing another book. That’s a loss I don’t know how to fully comprehend.”

It’s also a loss that this kind of shaming seems specifically designed to create. Cline being unable to write a new book is a feature, not a bug, of Reetz-Laiolo’s suit, and underlines what we stand to lose when women’s sexuality is used as a weapon against them.

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