[Content Note: Rape culture; sexual harassment.]
I've been following the seemingly bizarre ouster of Marc Smirnoff from the Southern literary magazine, The Oxford American, since the first reports of him being mysteriously locked out of the OA's offices surfaced. The OA has had a long history of money difficulties and I assumed this story would end up being about some kind of financial malfeasance. You know, good, entertaining gossip.
But as the story began to emerge, it became clear that this wasn't about financial issues, but about male privilege and rape culture and, more specifically, how creepy men in our rape culture trade on male privilege in order to behave the ways they do. And, surprisingly enough, this also seems to be a story about what happens when people stop granting a man that privilege.
Smirnoff's story (which I'll get to in a minute) comes at the same time as this post and discussion over at Captain Awkward's about the phenomenon of the Creepy Dude and it gets into how women are socialized to just accept and smooth over hurt feelings resulting from the Creepy Dude because otherwise, it would be awkward–as if his behavior isn't already making things awkward. You should read the whole thing, but here's how it ends.
It's really fucking sad and unfair. Welcome to our culture, where it's always this sad and unfair whenever women's safety is on the line.But then, a commenter tells this awesome story in the comments about her husband having to protect a girl from a creepster and how, even as he knew something was wrong, and he kind of saw that the creepster was ruining the girl's weekend, his wife had to point out to him that the creepster was obviously looking to harm the girl, and the husband just missed it.
This is how far Rape Culture skews our vision. Being sexually harassed and assaulted is seen as something that you should be cool (i.e. quiet) about. But GOD FORBID you break up the weekly games night with the temerity to be a victim of such a crime! Don't you know that your harasser has the best table for playing Settlers of Cataan?
I don't know how we fix it, but one step has to be to stop tolerating it when it happens to us and when it happens to people we love. Making our social circles and spaces safe means making them AWKWARD AS HELL and UNSAFE for creeps and predators. It means constantly reframing the conversation away from the dominant narrative, so when stuff like the situations in these letters comes up we can say "That's called sexual assault and it's a crime. So I need you to stop talking to me about his feelings and pressuring me to invite him to parties."
With all that in the background, we can now turn to this flabbergasting article in the New York Times about Marc Smirnoff's abrupt departure from The Oxford American (seriously, if there ever were a story to waste on of your freebies on, this is it). I don't even know where to start to quote from it. Let's go with this:
The next morning he berated the female intern in front of the other staff members when she refused to help clean up a mess in the kitchen. Then, after insisting that the intern ride back to Conway with him, he asked her if she wanted to hold hands. She declined, he said, saying she'd rather "hold hands with a dead dog." Still, he told her he wanted to take her to his favorite make-out spot.A woman tells Marc Smirnoff that she would rather "hold hands with a dead dog" than hold hands with him, and he still claims that his behavior was "acceptable to her in that moment"?! Holy shit! I kind of want to drive to Arkansas just so I can laugh in his face. Forget "What part of ‘no' don't you understand?" What part of "I'd rather have putrid decaying flesh in my hand than your hand?" makes you think your advances are cool?
Mr. Smirnoff's account matched the description the intern provided the magazine's board. The intern said she was repeatedly humiliated, sexually harassed and intimidated by Mr. Smirnoff on that occasion and others, according to a written statement from her that was obtained by The New York Times.
During a conversation with the same intern earlier that week, Mr. Smirnoff said, he hugged her and kissed her on top of the head.
None of those things constitute harassment, he insisted.
"It was acceptable to her in that moment," he said, saying that she did not object to his behavior at the time. "My take of it was that we were trying to see if we could revive our relationship, professional and personal."
This isn't "he said, she said" because he's literally admitting to the things she said he did as a part of his defense. He's literally (and I'm sorry to keep using that word, but it is exactly right in this case) claiming that, in spite of her hostility as reported by him, since he intended no harm, she had no problem with his behavior. And he's trying to talk the motherfucking New York Times into accepting that, if his heart is pure, she must have been okay with it at the moment.
Forget that I don't believe for a second that his intentions were good. And forget for a second how laughable it is to believe that a man as smart as Smirnoff envisions himself as some kind of bumbling, but well-intentioned fool who just doesn't understand the implications of what he does. Just focus on the idea that he believes, if he can just convince someone that he didn't mean anything by it, the damning facts which he himself presents should resolve themselves into something that leaves him with the moral high ground.
This is how the creepster gets by. It's uncomfortable for people to confront them and they get used to being able to use any old excuse to garner sympathy and get people to continue to make room for them. Smirnoff's story is so illuminating because he's so obviously angry and confused that asking people to consider his feelings and his intentions is not working this time. Which would seem to indicate that it's worked before.
On so many levels, this blows my mind.