The Brave Reporting of JoAnn Wypijewski

By Richard Goldstein

The most important quality in a social critic is the ability to question an orthodoxy that advances under the banner of truth and justice. The more progressive the consensus seems, the more it needs a trenchant critique. And when sex is involved, the intricacies are so hard to untangle that any morality which does not allow for complexity is bound to sow cruelty. We saw this in the 1950s, when a sexual code considered decent had the actual effect of repressing the rights of millions: cruising queers, horny teens, adulterers (guilty of a crime in many states), and sluts (banished to the outer regions of the high school cafeteria). And we see a version of it today in the #MeToo movement. This urgent outcry against assault is also a moral system so sure of itself that it cannot imagine its excesses. That’s why we need writers like JoAnn Wypijewski. The great value of her work is that it complicates the issues which obsess us. And nothing is more all-consuming than her subject: desire and its rigid regulation in the name of probity.

Wypijewski is part of a very brave group of critical thinkers who oppose the culture of punishment that has found a media-driven home in feminism today. (A reading list of these dissenters should include the essayist Judith Levine, the anthropologist Roger Lancaster, and certainly Wypijewski.) You won’t find these writers on the Oprah Winfrey circuit, but a few courageous publishers have kept their work alive. They are inheritors of the bold spirit of sexual liberation that flourished in the 1960s, and they bear witness to a shift from its emphasis on unleashing desire to policing it in vengeful ways.

Wypijewski calls this revisionism “carceral feminism,” a phrase that aptly describes the process by which a movement for justice and equality can end up authorizing mass surveillance and imprisonment. But more often this new moral code focuses on banishing accused offenders from social and professional life. Wypijewski locates this strategy in a long history of moral panics triggered by scandals — some real, others fantastical — from “white slavery” and pedophile priests to teenage sexting and satanic rituals at daycare centers. The notion that children must be saved from a worldwide cabal of elite pedophiles, which fuels the Q-Anon conspiracy theory, is fully in keeping with this florid tradition. Wypijewski connects the dots to find the pattern in all these eruptions. For her, they are not just about sex, but also about the “alarm over innocence (stereotypically, white women and children) imperiled.” To be caught in such a frenzy is to embrace revenge as a response to the contradictions of erotic life. This is fertile ground in a society that veers between promiscuity and Puritanism, periodically taking refuge from one by grasping at the other.

Feminism gets sucked into this vortex because it is hard to argue against taking whatever action seems necessary to combat sexual violence. Yet the means to this end add new layers of insecurity to the fraught search for love and gratification. The result is a free-floating sadism, ever expansive in its search for targets. “Strip away the veneer of sexual liberation,” Wypijewski writes of this tendency within feminism, “and the enthusiasm for punishment is palpable.” If you disagree with her thesis, all the more reason to read her new book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo (Verso). It will complicate your thinking, even if it doesn’t change your mind.

Wypijewski has traveled the country to find back-stories that the media have preferred to overlook: a black man who spread HIV to his white sexual partners without informing them of the risk; an activist priest who had sex with adolescent boys and became the most hated man in Boston; the murderers of Matthew Shepard, themselves victimized by the contours of a fragile life. In each of these notorious cases, Wypijewski allows us to see the social dimension, so that we can understand how difficult it is, even in the most seemingly simple circumstances, to uncouple sex from the particulars of class. Compassion may seem absurd when dealing with killers of gay men and spreaders of a fatal disease, but how can we judge the accused if we refuse to see the context of their acts, and how can we condemn them if we don’t understand the role that caste and stigma have played in their lives?

And so, under the guidance of this intrepid reporter, we visit an upstate New York community where a quarter of families are poor, and where a black man who knew that he was HIV-positive had sex with women who weren’t aware of his status, thereby earning him a classic tabloid sobriquet: “the lethal Lothario.” In court, the defendant “had to wear a spit mask attached to a wooden collar with a stick jutting out,” a reaction that had much less do with AIDS than with race. From there, we drop in on the meth-drenched town of Laramie, Wyoming, where two young men of meager means killed a gay man of a higher class. Wypijewski wants us to fully comprehend the implications of that divide, and to place this murder within “the everyday, undifferentiated violence” of life in Laramie. “None of this,” she notes, “is a defense for what happened, but it complicates the singular picture of hate crime.”

For good measure, she also dips into the “grand Guignol” of Woody Allen’s ordeal. Several investigations concluded that he had not molested his daughter when she was a child, but her accusation was sufficient for a publisher to withdraw his memoir after a staff revolt. This raises a profound question for civil libertarians: How can we be so sure of an unsubstantiated charge that we decide to suppress an artist’s work? Allen’s new film, an innocuous comedy that was a hit in Europe, will never be seen here, because no American distributor would dare to touch it. We may never know whether he is guilty, but as Wypijewski writes, “In panic, all the stories are true, and all the accused are guilty by default.”

There are some very revealing quotes from partisans of #MeToo in this book. One unblinking correspondent for Teen Vogue writes: “Sorry if some innocent men’s lives have to take a hit in undoing the patriarchy. That is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.” A well-connected commentator tells readers of the Washington Post that “the courts aren’t where our national conversation is taking place, so let’s not dither about the dangers of proclaiming innocence or guilt.” In this climate, degrees of culpability do not exist. Al Franken, one of the Senate’s most progressive members, must resign because, years earlier, he took a smarmy photo of a sleeping female reporter. A media executive must step aside because he had an extramarital affair with a colleague. A five-year-old is declared a sex offender because he touched another boy’s penis. Does any of this leave a discomforting feeling, though you know that some powerful men commit real sexual crimes? If so, Wipijewski’s book will add to your unease, because even when guilt is clear, she finds circumstances that demand a closer look.

Still, there remains the pain of women and men who have told their stories of abuse. Beyond the issue of moral panic and how it shapes perceptions of our own distant past, that pain cannot be denied. Our obligation as liberationists is to find a way to acknowledge the impact of sexual violence without making sex itself the villain, to foster justice without feeding repression. To me, that is the challenge posed by this utterly necessary dissent from the current rush to repression. I hope it is the subject of Wypijewski’s next book.

I am the former executive editor of The Village Voice, the author of six books, and a professor at New York University’s Tisch College of the Arts.

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