“My career, at the time, was in his hands,” Allison Benedikt wrote at Slate this week, about the beginning of her relationship with John Cook, her husband of 14 years. They were colleagues at a magazine when they first kissed, and he was her senior. That kiss took place “on the steps of the West 4th subway station,” Benedikt writes, and Cook did it “without first getting [her] consent.” The piece is an intervention into the conversation on office sexual harassment, with Benedikt fearing “the consequences of overcorrection” on this issue. She does not think that “the initial touch, the scooting closer in the booth, the drunken sloppy first kiss, the occasional bad call or failed pass” are necessarily harassment, and has the happy marriage to prove it. Her piece was titled “The Upside of Office Flirtation? I’m Living It.”
Benedikt’s essay was widely shared on social media, praised for its “nuanced” approach to the messy nature of human relationships. Only a day later, however, we were reminded that there is a stark line between office flirtation and abuse. On Wednesday Lorin Stein, who himself is married to a former employee, announced that he is resigning from the editorship of The Paris Review amid an investigation into his behavior towards women in his orbit. Stein’s predation has long been a whisper-network item in literary New York. In a letter of resignation to the board of The Paris Review, Stein apologized for the way he has “blurred the personal and the professional in ways that were ... disrespectful of my colleagues and our contributors.” He said that he has come to realize that his behavior was “hurtful, degrading, and infuriating.”
Benedikt has my sympathy. She is in the tricky position of figuring out how the long-past actions of a man she loves fit into the new political landscape. If she is absolutely sure that she is a feminist, and if she is absolutely sure that she is against the harming of vulnerable people, then she is left with difficult questions: If she was merrily compliant with behaviors that are not acceptable in the workplace today, does that make her complicit with the culture of harassment? How can she defend her husband—and by extension herself—while maintaining that they were right then as well as now?
Ultimately Benedikt suggests that a man should not be condemned for the things that her husband did. But Cook did do something wrong. You shouldn’t kiss a junior colleague without asking. You probably shouldn’t kiss anybody without asking, as a rule of thumb to remember when you’re drunk. Consent is such an easy premise, and Benedikt’s reluctance to acknowledge it seems generational. Fourteen years ago affirmative consent was not such a widespread idea, and perhaps the simple words “Can I kiss you?” didn’t come so easily to a man’s lips. But the world has changed, and affirmative consent is now the standard. All college kids know this. Just ask!
It is not unreasonable to demand that men in workplaces act as if the year were 2017 and not 2003. At the same time, nobody is retrospectively prosecuting a man for acting as if it were 2003 in 2003. Nobody is hauling John Cook into the sex-crimes dock or putting Benedikt on trial for crimes against feminism. Nobody is suggesting that she thinks Stein’s behavior is okay, or that that the beginning of a loving marriage is the same thing as sexual harassment. But in writing her essay, in attempting to draw some universal principles from her specific experiences, Benedikt makes bad arguments with real-world consequences—of the kind that have kept the long-swirling rumors from Stein’s door until now.
I went to university late. I was 20 years old, and jaded from a bad relationship and a bad year at art school. Soon after starting my undergraduate degree at Oxford, I also started a relationship with a man in his thirties whose job it was to teach me. He did not coerce me; we pursued each other. I was very sad at the time and I could tell that he was too. He had moved there from another country and was isolated in the old boys’ club of Oxford. We were lonely and troubled people, and we made each other very happy. Our relationship continued for three years, until I moved to New York to work on my Ph.D. We went to weddings together. I ran up wooden staircases in buildings constructed hundreds of years ago to reach him. I slunk through shadows and took elusive cobbled paths through town to find him.
There was a lot of opportunity for coercion, but that didn’t happen: Once we started sleeping together, I made sure that my boyfriend never graded another paper by me again. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too, to sleep with a professor and keep my intellectual principles intact. I kept the relationship secret from almost all my friends. The whole thing was extremely fun, we traveled together, I loved him a lot. We didn’t get married or have kids, but I don’t regret it at all.
And I still think he did something wrong.
Professors should not have sex with their undergraduate students, even those who are older and more hardheaded and determined than the others. Academics abuse those junior to them all the time, and rely on a combination of tenure and shame to keep them out of trouble. This has also happened to me. I know that those two experiences—of a relationship and of an assault—are totally different. But they were both facilitated by the same permissive culture at universities. The first experience was good, the second was mindbendingly awful. I would have forgone the first to avoid the second.
The flaw in Benedikt’s argument is that it is so narrowly focused. It’s as if she thinks that the #MeToo campaign wants to take her marriage away. If Cook hadn’t kissed her on the steps of West 4th Street station in the light of the Duane Reade, she implies, she wouldn’t be married with those beautiful children. And then what would her life have been like? This is who I am, she seems to say.
When I say that professors shouldn’t sleep with their students, but that I don’t regret the time that my professor and I slept together, I am not contradicting myself. None of us can go back in time to change the past, nor do I have sufficient insight to know what life would have been like if I had never had that relationship. But I do know what I believe is right, right now. Justifying my own past is less important than protecting the vulnerable.
In muddling her experiences with her beliefs, Benedikt makes several missteps. The first is her undermining of consent as a crucial principle, and the endorsement of nonverbal seduction cues over verbal ones. “It is completely within the norm of human exploratory romantic behavior for people to take steps—sometimes physical steps—to see if the other person reciprocates their feelings,” she writes. It may have been the norm at one point, but no longer, at least when one person has professional or hierarchical power over the other. Use words. In California it is the law that state-funded colleges use the affirmative consent standard in investigating harassment cases. The law!
The second is subtler: the strong implication that the happy ending of heterosexual marriage and procreation excuses transgression. We see this idea all the time. If a horrible and destructive affair destroys a first marriage, but the second marriage produces children and a longstanding relationship, the transgressors are forgiven because it was fairytale fated. This is a toxic concept that abets dishonesty and asserts the happiness of people who marry and reproduce over other people’s.
The third is rhetorical. Benedikt extracts universal principles from her story, but there are so many contingent factors influencing her story to which the reader is not privy. There are nonverbal and verbal cues that are not in her piece that undoubtedly clarified the pair’s attraction to one another. There is the element of atmosphere, the intangible flavor that defined whether she, the inferior in this power dynamic, was or was not afraid. There is the personality of John Cook himself, who was interested in her as a partner and not as a victim. There was the enthusiasm of her nonverbal consent, which changes everything. In fact, “enthusiastic consent” is used as a standard in some colleges.
These contingent factors made Benedikt’s individual experiences okay. But because those factors are so various and so unpredictable, they cannot possibly be legislated for in harassment rules. When women say “do not kiss a junior colleague without consent,” they do so to protect the people who could be harmed by that action and are not otherwise empowered to protest. After all, we do not tell drivers that it is alright to drive drunk when there is nobody else on the road. We tell drivers never to drive drunk.
Benedikt is concerned that men may be unfairly targeted in the new anti-harassment culture. But in arguing for her husband’s innocence—which nobody was really concerned with, since this is a political discussion and not a personal accusation—Benedikt undermines the general position of harassment victims. She effectively backs up the platonic version of the man who says, “I didn’t know that what I was doing was wrong,” in order to defend the person that she loves—a position that was echoed in Stein’s statement. That is not how we put together responsible political arguments.
Every moment is only a single version of a multiverse of possibilities. If I hadn’t missed my train yesterday morning, I wouldn’t have had time to buy coffee. What would I have been thinking then, if I hadn’t gotten riled up on caffeine on the L train and formulated the outlines of this piece? It’s a rhetorical question, because we cannot know. I cannot know what other loves or joys I would have experienced if I hadn’t dated that professor. Benedikt cannot know whether she would or wouldn’t have married John Cook if he’d done things differently. Maybe she would have married someone else. Maybe she wouldn’t have married. Maybe she’d have been hit by a bus. The lives we live—the children we have, the people we marry—are not predetermined or specially right because they happen to have happened.
A few weeks ago I wrote here that the #MeToo campaign is not a positive assertion of feminist solidarity, but rather a shared experience of what has been done to us by others. When we come together to recall those times when we were harassed, we are raising our consciousnesses but we are not actually advocating for anything. The really important stuff happens after we’ve shared our experiences, and start deciding what to do next. I understand what Allison Benedikt is feeling, but that does not justify her solipsistic ambivalence about the anti-harassment campaign. Lorin Stein’s fall is the latest evidence that a new world is available, suddenly. We all experience the world as atomized beings, defined by our own pasts. But this moment is about our future.