It Doesn’t Have to Be Rape to Suck

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Photo: Corbis

The community of writers and poets known as “alt lit” was rocked by back-to-back rape scandals last week. Alt-lit writers are known for employing the vernacular and flat affect of Gchats and status updates to create autobiographical fiction and poetry that lands somewhere between introspective and mundanely personal — which is exactly the form the allegations took.

In an essay published on Medium, Toronto writer Sophia Katz dispassionately described being coerced into sex by “Stan,” a fellow writer and editor who invited her to crash at his apartment during a trip to New York. After two nights of polite deflection, Stan climbed on top of Katz, ignoring her request that he put on a condom while her eyes welled up with tears. The next morning, she explained that she came to New York to network, not to get involved romantically, and then spent a lot of time convincing Stan it wasn’t because she found him unattractive, though she did find him unattractive. “I knew I had nowhere else to stay, and if I upset him that I might be forced to leave,” she wrote.

Soon, other women wrote about similar run-ins with “Stan” on Tumblr, outing him as Stephen Tully Dierks, a writer and editor who is influential in the small scene. The week prior, alt-lit’s most successful writer, the novelist Tao Lin, had been accused of emotional abuse by his ex, E.R. Kennedy. Lin and Kennedy’s year-long relationship — when Kennedy was 16 and Lin was 22 — is the subject of Lin’s 2010 novel Richard Yates. In a series of tweets that have since been deleted, Kennedy accused Lin of profiting off real-life manipulation and rape by labeling it fiction. “tao lin literally copied and pasted my emails into his ‘novel,’ Kennedy wrote, “he took credit for my words, for my painful memories, for my story.”

That Lin was a shitty boyfriend in ways people who are not bulimic 16-year-olds might be less likely to put up with is not a secret. A recent review of Lin’s career in n+1 connected the dots between his personal life, fiction, and poetry, suggesting that Lin, like his Richard Yates character, “Haley Joel Osment,” really did try to control what his younger partner, Kennedy (or “Dakota Fanning”), wore and ate and browsed on the internet, yielding mutual frustration and misery. In fact, the salacious celebrity pseudonyms are widely taken to be a joke about how tritely autobiographical the novel actually is. Even so, Lin appeared somewhat sympathetic to Kennedy's account. In a measured Facebook apology, Lin denied the rape accusation but embraced the public criticism of his behavior in the relationship — even offering Kennedy the royalties for Richard Yates.

It says something about the moral margin we afford male artists that a 22-year-old man could have a harmful sexual relationship with a 16-year-old, write and publicize a hyperliteral novel about it (he once said it would be titled Statutory Rape), but avoid mainstream criticism until the widely known victim speaks out. Yet nobody, as far as I know, wants to put Lin in jail. What it seems like Kennedy wants (admittedly based on a few tweets) is acknowledgment that Lin’s art and status had a human cost, namely a teenager's well-being. Maybe it was inevitable that the compulsively self-reflective alt-lit community would eventually document its own toxic elements, but it’s nonetheless gratifying to see what’s revealed in the simple act of the women in a community telling their side of the story in the mode that gained the men recognition and following. The alt-lit jerk reckoning mirrors what’s happening in high schools and on college campuses, where rape survivors are forgoing their claim to privacy to prove “rape culture” is real, even where prosecutors and campus adjudicators fail to address it.

Now women are speaking up about situations that fall outside the conventional definition of rape but nonetheless reflect a gender power dynamic that leaves women sexually vulnerable. Katz never used the word rape, but her essay spells out many of the reasons women have sex when they don’t want to. There’s baseline need (she had nowhere else to stay), physical intimidation (he was on top of her), and, most insidious, a deeply internalized sense of obligation. I know so many women who, late one night, decided it would be rude or un-chill to deny a guy sex after enjoying his company or drinking his alcohol or doing his drugs — or at least not worth the confrontation and social retaliation that could follow.

I doubt most men want to have begrudging, resentful sex, either. (This is the thinking behind the yes-means-yes affirmative consent movement.) But it seems like every time someone explains that women and men do not always meet for sex on equal footing, the conversation collapses into a black-and-white debate of Was It Rape — one that, paradoxically, serves to protect men. When women at Canada’s Quest college filed sexual assault complaints against serial gropers and sneak-attack kissers, the college not only dismissed them, but accused the women of defaming their male classmates for gossip. In doing so, Quest sent a message that the reputations of men — men who, though not technically rapists, abused their power over women’s bodies — are more important than the safety of women.

There's been a sense among some who follow the alt-lit community that to believe Katz’s story — and Kennedy’s corroboration of Richard Yates — is to unjustly and irreparably “jump to conclusions” about Dierks and Lin. As if the dreaded Internet Court of Opinion handed down actual sentences, instead of staining your Google results until you do something more interesting than having sex with a 16-year-old. Not even the alt-lit writers on internet trial believe this is worse than the trauma their accusers describe. Dierks acknowledged that his shame pales in comparison to Katz’s trauma in his Facebook resignation from public life (screencapped by Gawker). Looking back at his own drug-fueled encounters, another alt-lit writer, Stephen Michael McDowell, remorsefully confessed that he too had sex with women who were not fully able to consent — and marveled at the lack of “life-altering consequences” facing him. Meanwhile, Lin considered legal action in response to Jezebel's reporting of Kennedy's accusations.. In Lin’s case, as on college campuses, it seems that accusing a man of rape is cause for greater alarm than taking advantage of a woman.

When women talk about rape or sexual coercion, what do they hope to achieve? That’s the question raised when critics take such women to task for naming names. (Or for not naming names, or for speaking up, or for staying silent.) Yet if a woman were really out to ruin a man’s life, she would probably press charges, or email his intern coordinator at Goldman Sachs, not pen a pseudonymous essay or write his name on the wall of the women’s bathroom, as Columbia students have taken to doing. Women shouldn't need greater justification for testifying about sexual encounters _ good, bad, coercive, or rape —than the fact that they happen. But what it seems most women want is to warn other women about a category of jerk courts have no name for: a guy who can’t be trusted not to exploit his power over her. Katz’s essay ends on a similar note: “The reality is I’m not the first person he has done this to, and if I say nothing, I have a feeling I won’t be the last.”

Katz’s is the kind of story that could cause some anxiety for men who’ve had sexual encounters they’re not proud of, in which she was too drunk or too ambivalent or too young — and especially if she has a Tumblr. But maybe men should be nervous, until they are so nervous and considerate and thoughtful that rape and coercive sex and regrettable sex cease to be an experience so common that it’s fodder for mundanely personal essays and autobiographical poetry.