Life Isn’t a Narrative: A Conversation with JoAnn Wypijewski

November 26, 2020   •   By M. Buna

JoAnn Wypijewski is a writer, editor, and journalist based in New York. From 1982 to 2000, she was an editor at The Nation magazine and co-editor, with Kevin Alexander Gray and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence (2014). She has written for CounterPunch, Harper’s, The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications. Wypijewski is currently on the editorial committee of The New Left Review and is most recently the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life (Verso, 2020), an anthology of her articles and essays written between 1992 and 2019; the book surveys sex panics and sex scandals over the last several decades in an endeavor to address modern sexual politics and expose how a certain culture of morality acted out in the media has been instrumental in the further expansion of carceral culture.


M. Buna: In your new book, you examine the #MeToo movement while emphasizing that “what we don’t talk about is the red thread” running through the discussion. One of the hidden aspects of this movement is how a unity through vengeance against the people accused of sexual misconduct functions as a fake, toxic solidarity (“rape is a heinous crime, except when wished upon those accused of it”). What are the traps inherent in the gratification of self-identifying against “the right people” and denying their humanity?

JoAnn Wypijewski: “What we don’t talk about” threads through the whole book. It implies a political question: what are the reasons, what are the causes and complications, beneath the stories we think we all know; and what are the consequences of thinking like the crowd — in emotional terms of Good and Evil, Gods and Monsters? #MeToo is just one of those stories, so this part of the title also signals that the book draws a bigger picture. The title essay was written at the height of the hashtag phenomenon, as an invitation to think more deeply about belief, history, power, piling on, and sex than we were seeing, and to contextualize that 24/7 media event within a long series of media panics around sex. I examine some of those panics elsewhere in the book — cases of a so-called AIDS predator, a so-called pedophile priest, a so-called child molester, a group of teenagers busted as so-called pornographers for sexting — as well as other flashpoint stories involving sex and violence, or accusations of violence. Some of my subjects involve heinous crimes (the Matthew Shepard murder, the Abu Ghraib scandal), some involve invented or exaggerated crimes, and some are murkier.

In any case, I don’t see life, and especially human beings, in terms of Good versus Evil, which is the coin of sex panic, and which inevitably enlists the public into what anthropologist Roger Lancaster calls the “poisoned solidarity” to which you refer. I wouldn’t say it’s fake, though. Unity via the thrill of quaking in fear and finding enjoyment in another’s punishment has had real effects. It helped build Prison America. It has justified forms of social death: the Sex Offense Registry and civil commitment (indefinite detention in mental institutions) for people who have already served their sentences. It has accommodated torture and the War on Terror. It feeds trial by media.

In one essay I talk about the 1989 Central Park jogger case in New York, in which five black and Latino boys, aged 14 to 16, were coerced into confessing to the brutal rape of a white woman, were effectively convicted before trial, and then spent agonizing years in prison while the actual culprit (who confessed in 2002) went on to rape more women and kill one of them. So, talk about traps. Now we know that the boys did not commit the crime so, as men, they are objects of sympathy; before, when white New York was crying for revenge, they were monsters. The harm to the boys is plain and terrible. The harm to society is less obvious; the monster story authorizes the righteous to become what they supposedly deplore. And they/we never need to face what we’ve become. A few individuals (the prosecutor, the police) are vilified. The city (in this case) pays $40 million. The media, the crowd, absolve themselves: “We were gripped by fear.” Irrationality becomes an acceptable, endlessly renewable resource.

With the public discourse dominated by fantasies of sexual danger, lying to protect our vulnerabilities is likely to become standard behavior. But could this behavior make us more prone to setting ourselves up as proper victims deserving of other people’s compassion, instead of acknowledging our own agency in negotiating the innate contradictions of sexuality and its complex expressions?

Back in 1984, there was an important conference of pro-sex feminists, out of which came a book called Pleasure and Danger, edited by Carole Vance, which remains a critical document. This was a period when a swath of mainstream feminism was not only sounding alarms about rape and domestic violence but joining with evangelicals and the Reaganite right against pornography, laying the groundwork for what would become the Satanic Panic, which sent dozens of adults to prison based on wild tales from little children, extracted under interrogation by self-styled therapists. The conference explored the construction of female sexuality — I should say “sexualities,” since there is no one-size-fits-all, as the book illustrates — and the potent, sometimes overlapping relationship between danger and pleasure in the lives of women. The subject was revisited 20 years later by the journal Sexualities. I mention this because contemporary discourse often suggests that, until #MeToo, no one talked about rape or other sexual harm but also because, as in the mainstream past, the singular focus on danger and victimization tends to overwhelm any critical understanding of sex as it plays out in the lives and work of real women, men, trans — and certainly any attention to pleasure and the complexities of desire. How do any of us exercise authority over our own bodies, pleasures, and risks? That’s not a simple question with a simple answer, but it is a necessary one. I don’t believe safety can be guaranteed in this life (and the promise of it invariably means repression), but we should all care about how violence structures our culture; we should all want to reduce harm. If we’re serious about that, and, vitally, if we hope to expand the possibilities for human happiness, then we need to have some honesty, about sex for sure, but also about all the other things — fear and anxiety, power and weakness, etc. — that get played out through sex, sometimes satisfactorily, often not.

You mention “lying to protect our vulnerabilities”: this is not new or limited to sex, obviously, but in that realm it’s likely to be with us as long as sexual desire is welded to shame.

If the #MeToo discourse functions as a silencing mechanism that limits the possibilities for nuanced and honest discussions of desire and pleasure, what exactly did this discourse foreclose?

#MeToo foreclosed thinking about the mess of life. That is, the complicated, contradictory, wondrous, awful, confusing mix that is reality, where typically there are no neat beginnings, middles, and ends, where people don’t generally fit into categories of innocence or monstrosity, and upon whose gender experience many forces impinge, including class, race, and the everyday humiliation we tend to call by other names — the job or poverty or precariousness, etc. Joan Didion once used the term “unsentimental compassion” when talking about the work of the great radical journalist Andrew Kopkind. I try to bring that to any consideration of the people in the stories I write — and, again, that involves thinking seriously about the reasons and causes for human action.

I want to distinguish here between #MeToo and Me Too as a phrase that Tarana Burke devised while working in the mess of life with girls and young women, talking about sex and life and violence and the hope for a measure of safety, pleasure, and power. Burke’s Me Too was a signal that anyone in her classes could use to indicate there was something she wanted to talk about but wasn’t ready to talk about. It was a way of saying, I want a hearing (but I’m not yet sure). #MeToo hijacked the phrase, memified it, and used it as a hammer to deny a hearing to anyone accused in the media. It had a punishing logic, which aimed to exile the accused but also, perversely, put the accuser in a box, denying their messy humanity as well. How do we grapple with the full reality of sexual violence and vulnerability — and need and opportunity and responsibility? Burke’s Me Too, which also involved family violence, recognized interconnected oppressions and complex humanity. A hashtag and a media frenzy, a Hollywood spectacle, a courtroom spectacle — those things depend on simpler “narratives.” Life isn’t a narrative.

Considering the paranoia and fear that enclose adolescent sexuality (especially the gay/queer kind), the term “safe sex” seems to be conveniently rewritten every time a teenager is involved, and punishment is the state’s response most often than not. Given that this institution is not particularly interested in making amends or reducing harm, what role do its laws play in the confinement of the teenager within the frame of accusation and sexual shame?

Let’s first call out the abysmal state of sexuality education in this country. I dedicate my book to students I taught at Brooklyn College between 2015 and 2017, many of whom took a class about media panic and the politics of fear. Every semester I asked those students to characterize the sex ed they’d had coming up. Overwhelmingly, their schools had offered very little, and, overwhelmingly, what they did get, focused on dirtiness, disease, and damage. Overwhelmingly, abstinence-until-marriage was presented as the safest sex. Now, we know this is nonsense — because most sexual violence occurs in the home, because most teenagers aren’t going to be abstinent, because coming into one’s sexuality is a process, in your head and your nerve endings, how you’re attuned to your body and mind, whether you’re comfortable in your skin, whether you get any help dealing with “the emotional part” (something a teenager I interviewed while reporting on an HIV panic longed for in vain), how you’re attuned to others. But, by and large, adults have abdicated their responsibility — until a kid does something wrong, something thoughtless or cruel sexually. Then we’re outraged. Really, I think America hates its children. The market system drenches them in sex, but we can’t talk about sexuality. It drenches them in violence, too, and that’s “entertainment,” or sometimes “justice.” Think for one minute about the fact that our laws say a 16-year-old is too young for unrestricted consent to sex, but s/he is old enough, in many states, to be tried as an adult for a crime, imprisoned as an adult, put on a Sex Offense Registry.

These are political decisions. The assault on sex ed, which goes back to 1968, was a deliberate organizing tactic using fear and lies to build a right-wing power base. A terrific history of that is Janice Irvine’s Talk About Sex, which, though published in 2002, has insights relevant to today’s politics. “Safe sex” emerged during the AIDS epidemic from the gay community’s erotic sensibility and political organizing for survival. School districts took the “safety” part, but decoupled it from eros, literally disinviting activist doctors and sex educators who spoke frankly to teenagers about sex. The criminalization machinery did the same thing, so that now in most states you can be punished (locked up in some cases for anywhere from a few years to life) for not disclosing your HIV status to a partner. Meanwhile, there’s very little to foster sexual honesty, to get comfortable with protection as part of sexual play. So “safe sex”? … Eh. It seems we’d rather our kids to get sick than informed. And then we roll the dice, hoping that if sex goes wrong it involves someone else’s sons and daughters.

People wouldn’t be shocked so by this country’s handling of COVID-19, by the way, if they faced its record on sexually transmitted diseases. Not just the history of the Reagan administration’s unconscionable indifference to AIDS as gay men died in droves in the 1980s, but the current indifference to sexual health. STDs reached an all-time high last year in the United States; syphilis, which was once almost wiped out, is raging, according to the CDC; but more than 50 percent of local STD prevention programs across the country have experienced debilitating budget cuts in recent years. So, there’s another layer of irrationality. 

When rushing to criminalize any desire that challenges heteronormativity, the left is quick to forget that the benefit of the doubt is everyone’s right — how does this affect its own interrogation of the narratives of neoliberalism/capitalism?

It’s hard to talk about “the left” because there’s no coordinated left project in the US that’s as organized as the right from the grassroots to the highest levels of political power. There is simply no cognate to the hard-right constellation that runs from QAnon and militias to evangelical churches to Tea Party Republicans to old-line Republicans to Fox/Limbaugh to Trump and Brett Kavanaugh to the Club for Growth. What I don’t think the fragmented left and the liberals or center-rightists in the Democratic Party and the media have fully grasped is how fundamental sex and fears of sex have been to building the hard right, and to achieving its main agenda, which has always been to expand military firepower and transfer wealth from the bottom to the top, the one percent.

So, Anita Bryant seemed like a joke when she launched Save Our Children in the late 1970s against homosexuals, but she was building the base. Phyllis Schlafly seemed like a joke when she began organizing what would be the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, but she was building the base. Ditto the anti-sex-ed posses who took over school boards. Politicians of the right never won office because they told voters, “We want to shovel money from you and your needs to our friends and make the US the most unequal society in the Western world.” No, they said, “We’re going to save your children, save your families!” And families were under stress, but the new order didn’t relieve them; it savaged their real wages and chained them to ever-more debt, increasing the transfer of wealth to the top (and the likelihood of family violence). Though the Democrats had already abandoned economic regulation and the working class, they joined the neoliberal game in full with Bill Clinton. Trump supposedly opposes neoliberalism, but his priorities — deregulation, tax cuts for the top, privatization, self-enrichment — speak louder.

Now various left forces are opposing mass incarceration, which exploded, along with the guard economy (police, surveillance, security jobs), under neoliberalism. At the same time, there are calls for more and harsher punishment of sex offenses. So, there’s a contradiction. And since sex prosecution — what David Halperin and Trevor Hoppe call the War on Sex in their excellent volume by that name — drives the fastest-growing imprisoned population, the problem with any public and media campaign that encourages the presumption of guilt ought to be plain.

In the high days of #MeToo, editorialists were writing that we shouldn’t worry if some innocent man’s reputation is ruined, shouldn’t worry about due process and who gets the benefit of the doubt, since most of these accusations don’t make it to court. I quote some of them. You don’t hear much of that talk since Tara Reade’s vexed claims were slapped down by some of the staunchest #MeToo voices. But we should be alert to the ripple effects of this situational view of accusation and ready belief. Joe Biden gets the benefit of the doubt, as he should. Harvey Weinstein’s defense raised a mass of doubt in his New York trial this past winter — his signal accusers’ claims were no better corroborated than Reade’s — but even putting on a defense was regarded as tantamount to a crime. Joe Blogs, the Everyman, often takes a plea in the hope of avoiding ruin, and is ruined anyway.

The politics of alarm and retribution thus have long tentacles, especially when sex is involved, because there it has potency across the ideological spectrum. This is, maybe, one way to understand QAnon. Whether the group actually believes its conspiracy theory that the Democratic Party is a secret society of pedophiles is beside the point. The idea of the child sex fiend around every corner has been promoted so hysterically by so many, for so long, that the word alone — “pedophile” — strikes terror in the heart. Most of the time the word — meaning one with a sexual attraction to prepubescents — is used incorrectly, even in the loftiest liberal press. But that hasn’t mattered.

A pitfall of the concept “rape culture” is its uniformity, its willingness to equate sexual harassment with rape, all under the umbrella of “sexual assault,” thus rendering the very term meaningless. What should any radical politics call for when trying to counteract such rhetoric, which ultimately robs the individual, defendant or not, of power over their own life?

The sloppy use of language, as noted above, can have practical effects on how we think, what we know, what we don’t even know that we don’t know. And since consciousness forms politics, it is a weighty matter. In any sex panic, terrible crimes get conflated with lesser affronts, with ambiguous sexual interactions, with behavior that is not criminal at all. It should be noted that some states have dropped the term “rape” and classify various alleged sexual violations as degrees of sexual assault. This complicates things. But in political and popular language, I think we ought not to dilute the severity of a claim of rape, any more than we would a claim of murder. It’s easy to see how the inflation of a lesser wrong harms the accused, but muddying terms does no service to people who bring claims of grievous harm. For all the language of victim/survivor that we use and hear, I think that as a society we are insufficiently attentive to human suffering.

Just as we are insufficiently attentive to human freedom. There’s a new book out, The Feminist and the Sex Offender, by Judith Levine and Erica Meiners, that I think is very important in arguing for a radical politics that recognizes harm (and all the ways to it) and advocates for justice through restorative or transformative processes. My book is not an action agenda; it’s a series of stories that, I hope, challenge the “habits of thought [that] reinforce and sustain the habits of power.” The phrase is from James Baldwin, about whom I have an essay in the book. It sticks with me because power is built as much on systems of belief as it is on guns or money. And it is certainly reinforced by belief, or what I also call the common sense of the time. Now, sometimes common sense is what it suggests, but often it’s been constructed in a thousand ways to compel a result that is not honest, not common in any noble sense that involves a feeling for humanity, but instead becomes merely habitual. The challenge of liberation, part of it anyway, is to recognize those habits of thought and separate ourselves from them. Or strive to. 

Sex is complicated. So is the idea of agency and consent. Is there anything that could be learned from gay and queer culture, where adolescents and adults often speak of sex in complicated ways? 

There’s a lot to be learned from gay liberation, chiefly that as one of the most intimate, deepest, and most highly valued experiences of human life, sex and how people relate sexually have to be concerns for any left politics, and frankly for anyone who cares about humanity. This may seem obvious, but in actual political practice we tend to stop the discussion at rights. Sexuality is often regarded as an add-on — normative, hence unremarked upon if you’re straight, and if you’re not, an identity that can be tokenized to get the picture that “looks like America.” Gay liberation insisted, no, sexuality is fundamental. That’s why human dramas involving sex reveal so much not just about individual lives but about the society, culture, and politics that affect people’s thoughts, ideas, behaviors. When the Combahee River Collective of black queer feminists coined the term “identity politics” in the 1970s, they were talking about a politics that took account of everything that defined human personality and everything that limited it. “You can’t work on one vector of oppression and think you’re going to solve whatever problem you’re addressing. You have to be able to understand how systems of oppression connect,” Barbara Smith, one of Combahee’s founders, summed up its ethos. Again, it seems obvious, so why hasn’t it been the template for radical politics?

Since sexuality was an acute point of oppression for queer people — they were attacked by parents, peers, and police, rounded up, put in mental asylums, suspected as “sexual psychopaths” — it was going to be openly discussed in the liberation movement, and once people start sharing their experience, it follows that there will be more complicated ways of talking and thinking about sex. There’s a story in my book that sketches the early days of the gay and lesbian community developing in Boston, and it mentions a conference that was held on intergenerational sex. There were a lot of speakers, a lot of debate; people disagreed, sometimes hotly, sometimes not. The conference wasn’t meant to settle the question; it was meant to explore a sexual reality, the mess of life. I’m not romanticizing the past, but you couldn’t hold such a discussion now. I’ve never thought being told to shut up advances one’s understanding of anything — except maybe the technique of a perfect putt and the habits of birds.


M. Buna is a freelance writer.