Until the spring of 2018, Jonathan Kaiman was the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. Today he is living at the home of his parents in Phoenix under conditions he describes as a form of psychological house arrest. There are no visitors, and his few remaining friends rarely call. He feels unable to make new ones, because he fears the reaction of anyone who Googles him. He’s 32, unemployed, and perhaps unemployable—”I’m radioactive,” as he puts it. And he’s still trying to find the right combination of psychotropic medication to quell the recurrent thought that ending his life may be the best way out.
His concern about search engines is not paranoia. Because if you Google Jonathan Kaiman today, the results will likely lead you to conclude that he is at best a sexual creep, at worst, well, it’s hard to tell—but something worse. He is one of the least famous, least powerful men on the lists published by The New York Times and Bloomberg of those who have lost their jobs in the wake of #MeToo. Kaiman was accused by two women, each once his friend, of behaving badly during separate casual sexual encounters, four years apart. The result of these accusations—even in the absence of any formal legal proceedings—has been a thoroughgoing destruction of his life.
Before it all fell apart, Kaiman’s life was a success story. After graduation from Vassar, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in China. He stayed on, became fluent in Mandarin, and, starting as a freelancer, worked his way up the journalism ranks. He was detained multiple times by the Chinese government for his reporting on human rights. He discovered a little-known story about an American pilot held captive in China during World War II, spent seven years researching it, and last year sold a book proposal to Random House. He was also in his first serious, long-term relationship; he and his girlfriend were planning to move back to the United States, where he would write the book. That career is over, and so is the book contract. His girlfriend, Charlotte Arneson, has stayed.
Given the millennia during which women have had to take male abuse and suffer under institutionalized denial of and indifference to it, it is perhaps understandable that there is a willingness to shrug off the prospect that some unfairly accused men will become roadkill on the way to a more equitable future. A common feminist dictum holds there are no innocent men, as per the slogans #YesAllMen and #KillAllMen. We are now in a time when a sexual encounter can be recast in a malevolent light, no matter whether the participants all appeared to consider it consensual at the time and no matter how long ago it took place. Looking back, it can be even harder—perhaps impossible— to know what really happened in a private sexual encounter.
But creating injustice today does not undo the harms of the past; instead it undermines the integrity of the necessary effort to address sexual misconduct. When we endlessly expand the categories of victim and perpetrator, we let loose forces that will not stay contained. Anyone, regardless of innocence, can be targeted and found worthy of destruction. And long after the headlines have faded, the damage continues to accrue.
‘I Do Not Share the Blame’
During his now-finished nine-year journalism career, Kaiman was well-liked and well-respected enough by his colleagues to have been elected in 2017 as president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC)—a volunteer group that defends journalists’ rights and organizes social and educational events for reporters and other expats working in the country. His successor as FCCC president said that before Kaiman’s first accuser came forward, there were no complaints against him or even rumors about misconduct. Nor had the Los Angeles Times received any.
The end of Kaiman’s career began January 10, 2018, with a post on Medium by a longtime friend and onetime fellow expat, Laura Tucker, now a law student in the United States. In it, she described a sexual encounter with Kaiman that had taken place five years prior, in March 2013. After an evening out drinking and flirting, Tucker drove Kaiman on her scooter back to her apartment. There, she wrote, they mutually and consensually undressed and got into bed. (Tucker’s account is taken from her Medium post; Kaiman’s accounts of what happened to him are from interviews and various transcripts, including his Los Angeles Times human resources inquiries.)
That the same generally agreed-upon set of facts can result in wildly different interpretations about an event, especially a sexual one, is illustrated by how Tucker and Kaiman described what happened that night. Tucker wrote that while making out in bed with Kaiman, she had a change of heart, so she stood up and said she didn’t want to continue. She wrote, “He lay on the bed, not moving, watching me. I remember that he sort of smiled and seemed to pout.” As they talked and she repeated that she didn’t want to have sex, she wrote, “he began to whine,” which made her feel “like it was too late to back out.”
In Kaiman’s telling, he was startled by Tucker’s sudden U-turn and tried verbally to re-establish their previous playful mood. While they talked, he stayed where he was; he didn’t want to make any physical move toward her. He says that after a brief conversation he concluded the night was coming to an end and that he should leave, so he sat up with the intention of getting dressed.
She described what happened next: “I am still so upset that I concluded the easiest, least confrontational way forward was to place male satisfaction above my own desires and to go back to bed.” The sex made her feel “gross,” she wrote, and Kaiman left immediately afterward. His recollection is that she was a full participant and that he stayed the night. When he went to kiss her goodbye the next morning, he says, he was surprised that she seemed distant and upset.
After he left, she stewed about what had happened. She was angry with both herself and him, and she wrote an email to tell him so. He felt “gutted” by her reaction, immediately apologized, and suggested they get together to talk it out. They met, and she ended up feeling his apology was insufficient. He thought that since she voluntarily resumed sex, their encounter was fully mutual, that his apology was appropriate, and that when they parted their friendship was on track.
It wasn’t, she wrote on Medium, adding that she distanced herself from him and tried to avoid him at social events, especially those involving alcohol. He has electronic exchanges from her in the months following their encounter in which she sends him friendly notes and initiates get-togethers, including a suggestion that they meet over drinks. Eventually, she returned to the U.S., and they fell out of touch.
Why would she go public—giving Kaiman no warning—with this story of a long-ago, private event that, while regretted, did not involve a sexual assault? Especially since in telling it she was sure to damage someone who had been a friend and who held no power over her? Tucker provided both a societal and a personal explanation. She wrote that in the wake of #MeToo, she wanted to “add my voice to the broader outcry against sexual misconduct.” She also said she had come to realize that “what happened was not my fault…and I do not share the blame. This was Jon’s fault.”
Undermining the Feminist Enterprise
#MeToo is a necessary and important corrective to some horrifying, copiously documented, and criminal-level behavior, and also to the kind of persistent harassment that still characterizes too many workplaces. It has toppled a number of famous men, including entertainment executives Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves and talk show host Charlie Rose, who stand accused of a variety of workplace depredations, including forcing themselves on women who worked for them (Weinstein is facing criminal charges) and threatening the careers of those who resisted or complained.
The journalists who uncovered these stories—the accused have variously denied aspects of their reporting—earned well-deserved prizes and praise. There is obviously much more to be done. Toward that end, Time’s Up, an organization started by women in entertainment in the wake of the Weinstein accusations, has created a legal defense fund with a focus on helping women in low-wage industries, who have little to no job protection and rightly fear reporting systematic abuse and harassment.
But the accusations against Kaiman, and what happened to him as a result, should be a warning about the dangers of moral panics and of applying mob justice and the bazooka of social media to private relations. The entire feminist enterprise is undermined if society comes to the conclusion that women bear no responsibility for their choices in the sexual realm. I agree with points made in an interview with The New Yorker by Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, a left-leaning feminist and author of Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Harper). She is a supporter of #MeToo, but she also expresses concerns about the potential undermining of hard-won progress.
“We’ve got to retain this idea that feminists have fought for over a century, for women to be treated as adults in the erotic realm and as sexual agents,” Kipnis said. “And that is going to include making mistakes, and the right to make mistakes.” Citing second-wave feminists, she praised the women who “really tried to be honest about heterosexuality as a relationship, not just something that was done to women, but something that women who are heterosexual participate in.”
Now, just under two years since #MeToo broke, cases like Kaiman’s are leaving the public—women and men, Democrats and Republicans—uneasy. I wrote in The Atlantic in March about the unfair treatment of former Democratic Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who faced multiple accusations of misconduct: “A Morning Consult poll from last October found that 57 percent of adults are as ‘equally concerned for young men facing possible false allegations as they are for young women facing sexual assault.’ And a poll last year from the anti-polarization group More in Common found that 51 percent of Americans ‘believe that too many ordinary behaviors are labeled as sexual harassment.'”
‘A Messy, Drunken Hookup’
After publishing on Medium, Laura Tucker that same day tweeted her post, tagging Kaiman and adding the #MeToo hashtag. She appears to have joined Twitter for the sole purpose of disseminating the Medium account: As of August 2019, two posts about Kaiman are her only tweets. (Tucker did not respond to requests for comment.)
The accusation created a small storm in Twitter terms but one that had a colossal effect on Kaiman’s life. He took to Twitter himself and issued an abject apology: “@laura_tucker, I am so, so deeply sorry—I did not in any way mean to pressure you into an unwanted or uncomfortable sexual encounter, and I thought we had talked through the issue as peers and friends.” This didn’t stop people, some he thought of as friends, from publicly denouncing him.
That day, Kaiman saw that he had a message from an old friend, Felicia Sonmez, and assumed she was contacting him to offer advice. She wasn’t. She was writing to him about a sexual encounter they’d had the previous September that unfolded after a long, alcohol-filled day and night of partying. She wrote in part that “it has taken me a while to fully process what happened that night….I remember thinking your behavior was aggressive at the time; it’s taken me a while to realize that actually, that kind of forcefulness totally crosses the line into inappropriate behavior.”
Kaiman immediately called Sonmez, a journalist who was living in China for language study and who now works for The Washington Post. Though he offered her an apology, he was shocked by her assertion. He says what happened was “a messy, drunken hookup,” one that they each pushed forward at various points. After that night, they had discussed the encounter; he thought they had thoroughly excavated an event that both agreed was a mistake, especially because Kaiman was in a relationship with Arneson at the time. But now Sonmez was telling him that Tucker’s blog post had galvanized her to reconsider it. They talked for about 20 minutes, with Sonmez telling Kaiman she was uncertain what she was going to do next.
A regularly scheduled meeting of the board of the FCCC was set for the following day, and a discussion of the Tucker allegation was added to the agenda. It wasn’t clear what the response should be, since Tucker had described a private encounter unrelated to the club. At the meeting, a correspondent asked Kaiman if he knew of other accusations against him. He said he didn’t. He said that, he explains, because he didn’t know if Sonmez intended to come forward, he didn’t know how she would characterize what happened, and he considered the encounter to be consensual.
But Sonmez had deputized a friend on the board to tell the board that he knew of another accusation against Kaiman, without revealing that Sonmez was the accuser or giving any specifics. So when Kaiman demurred, the board member called Kaiman a liar, then told the rest of the board that he knew of a second accuser but that he could say no more.
That vague, anonymous assertion was enough for the board of this group of journalists to conclude that Kaiman could no longer be president. They allowed him to resign, and he released a letter acknowledging there was “an allegation of sexual misconduct” against him, the shadow of which meant he would not “be able to effectively run” the organization. The board issued a statement thanking Kaiman for “his hard work, enthusiasm and many contributions to the club.”
All this infuriated Sonmez, as she later explained publicly. She believed there was a missing s in his letter of resignation—Kaiman should have cited the allegations, not the allegation, against him. She also felt the board should have made a statement explaining that Kaiman was forced out because of concerns about his sexual behavior.
After the meeting, Kaiman reached out to Sonmez and they got back on the phone. It was, he says, an agonizing conversation that went on for 90 minutes. During it, he says, he felt himself psychologically unraveling: “It was like my brain was on fire.” He knew Sonmez had the power to decide his entire future. He was trying to apologize while also defending himself. He was sincerely sorry she thought he had crossed a line; given what he saw as the mutuality of their interactions, though, he didn’t think he had.
In her text to Kaiman, Sonmez conceded her memory of parts of their encounter remained hazy, and he says she repeated that in their conversation. He told her that his was too—even though it was quite sharp—because as they spoke, he says it was becoming clear to him that she was trying to get him to build a case against himself. He thought it was possible she was recording him. At points, she took an inquisitorial tone and began grilling him about his past, seeking confessions of other violations.
Kaiman says he has never forced himself on anyone and is sickened at the idea of it. But in the wake of #MeToo, he understood that one of the lessons was for men to examine their sexual behavior and consider that women may have differing perspectives. Trying to be accountable, then, he told Sonmez about a trip he took with a female friend when he was in his early 20s that ended awkwardly. They had shared a hotel room, and in the morning they had started having sex. She then changed her mind, and he’d immediately stopped. Not long after, the woman moved away and they lost touch.
His conversation with Sonmez ended inconclusively, with Kaiman still unsure of what she planned to do. But a few days later, Sonmez sent Kaiman a friendly text asking what he was up to. He responded that he had just arrived in New York on a planned trip, and she replied, “Gotcha.” After that, he heard nothing more for months. He continued with his work. It seemed possible everything might be OK.
‘Everything I’d Worked for Is Over’
On May 15, 2018, Kaiman, then back in Beijing, learned a “gotcha” of epic proportion was coming his way when he got a call from his successor as president of the FCCC, John Sudworth, a BBC correspondent. Sudworth had bad news: Sonmez had written a lengthy letter accusing Kaiman of sexually violating her. She had asked that this letter be publicly circulated to the several hundred members of the FCCC. Sudworth told Kaiman a summary of it, and Kaiman said the account wasn’t true. Sudworth replied that the letter was about to go live and recommended that Kaiman get a lawyer and a psychiatrist.
Kaiman says he walked outside, lay down on the sidewalk, and wept. He knew that “everything I’d worked for is over,” he says. He thought of the many forced confessions he had seen on Chinese television, in which an accused person is paraded before the cameras to express remorse for betraying the state. Foreign correspondents were often the only people in the country who could openly criticize such coerced contrition, he says. But his fellow journalists were now “forcing a similar act on me,” and none of them “demanded evidence or an even-handed response.”
The letter had a threefold purpose: to accuse Kaiman; to support Tucker; and to condemn the FCCC for what Sonmez saw as its institutional failure to publicly identify Kaiman as a sexual violator.
Sonmez’s account is in places elliptical and inflammatory. Kaiman says she leaves out important details and that his memory of crucial points differs substantively from hers. She described a very late-night sexual encounter in mid-September 2017, which happened after a daylong FCCC party that ended with people gathering at a karaoke bar. Sonmez wrote that portions of the evening were consensual, including kissing at the bar—Kaiman says she initiated the kiss—after which she offered Kaiman a ride home on her scooter, just as Tucker had driven him on hers.
Sonmez, who is about four years older than Kaiman, wrote that they both got off the scooter when she had to stop to get past a barrier, at which point “Jon lifted up my dress and began digitally penetrating me without my consent.” She said she had to forcefully push him away, at which point he “began unbuckling his belt and pulling down his shorts. We were on a public street, it was dark and no one was around. Jon is much bigger than me, and it took me repeatedly telling him no and pushing him away for him to finally stop.” She continued: “It gives me chills to think of that moment and imagine what he would have done if I hadn’t been able to get him to stop.”
Kaiman says that when Sonmez stopped her scooter, they began kissing. He reached under her dress and she started unbuttoning his pants. Then Sonmez expressed discomfort at engaging in sexual acts in public, so Kaiman stopped immediately and offered to walk the rest of the short way home.
Kaiman says Sonmez insisted on driving him. She doesn’t explain why she let him back on her scooter, but she acknowledges she drove him to his apartment. He says when they got there and got off the scooter, they kissed while standing outside the building and again fondled each other’s genitals. But he was feeling guilty about cheating on his girlfriend and said that what they were doing was not a good idea.
Her version is that he resumed his assault: “Before I knew it, Jon had backed me against a wall around the corner from his front door. We were kissing, and then he again began unbuckling his belt and taking off his shorts. Again I told him no, I didn’t want to do that.”
Sonmez, Kaiman says, wanted to walk him to his apartment, six floors up. She had been to his place previously, so she knew how far it was. He says that because of the hour—it was about 2 a.m.—and the alcohol, he was making poor decisions, and he agreed.
Sonmez wrote that “many parts of the night remain hazy in my memory.” In reconstructing her thought process, she said, “I don’t remember what was going through my head as I went upstairs, whether I wanted to take a nap or get some water or maybe make out.” In other words, despite what she described as a chilling escape from Kaiman only minutes earlier, she put him on the back of her scooter and took him to his door, where she claims she was sexually violated again. Then, under her own power, she hiked the many stairs to his apartment with the idea of possibly resuming consensual sexual contact.
Sonmez wrote that she “ended up naked on the couch in Jon’s room with Jon on top of me. He briefly performed oral sex on me and then he had unprotected sex with me. I remember that he was already inside me before I had the wherewithal to ask him whether he had a condom; he said no. He continued for what I imagine was a few more minutes. I put on my clothes and unsteadily drove off home soon after.”
Kaiman says his memory of the evening is clearer, and his account diverges from hers. When they got to his apartment, he says, they undressed and he performed oral sex on her. She asked if he had a condom, he got one, and they used it. Afterward, he says, she performed oral sex on him. (He adds that in his 90-minute phone call with Sonmez, while they did not discuss the use of the condom, both agreed about the rest of this sequence of events.)
The most incendiary allegation in Sonmez’s account deployed her doubt about what happened that night in a way that inflicted maximum damage. “I am devastated by the fact that I was not more sober,” her letter stated, “so that I could say with absolute certainty whether what happened that night was rape.” That line was quoted in stories about Kaiman’s suspension in the Los Angeles Times and by the Associated Press, whose story was picked up internationally, linking him forever, he says, to the word rape.
Kaiman says that when he and Sonmez finished their encounter, he felt awful that he had cheated on Arneson, who was out of town, and suggested Sonmez leave. She did, and he did not text her to make sure she had arrived home or get in touch the next day. She contacted him shortly afterward to discuss what had happened. He says she rebuked him for failing to check in with her, and in her letter she wrote that she also told him at the time that “it is never okay to try to have sex in a public place with anyone who is as drunk as I was.” He offered his apologies.
She too apologized, he says, for driving while under the influence and for possibly impairing Kaiman’s relationship with his girlfriend. According to Kaiman, they agreed what happened was embarrassing and they would both keep it quiet. Afterward, Kaiman made little effort to maintain the friendship.
Kaiman was right that, during their lengthy phone call following his resignation from the FCCC, Sonmez was building a case against him. Of his skeletal account of the brief, long-ago hotel room sexual encounter, she wrote in her letter that “it sounded very much to me like the incident could have been even more serious than what Laura and I experienced.” Sonmez also wrote that during this conversation Kaiman admitted he had behaved in a “brutish” fashion with her. He has no memory of saying that, nor does he believe he did behave in such a fashion, but he says it’s possible that he may have said so at her urging.
The FCCC posted Sonmez’s letter on Twitter, and another social media storm engulfed Kaiman. The Los Angeles Times suspended him and opened an investigation.
One of the key domestic goals of the Obama administration was the elimination of campus sexual assault. With the urging of administration officials, especially Vice President Joe Biden, “affirmative consent” became a standard rule for all sexual interactions on college campuses. This is the requirement that each touch, each time, even between established partners, be preceded by explicit—preferably verbal, more preferably enthusiastic—consent.
Biden, who was the administration’s point man on Title IX—the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education— has explained in many speeches and interviews that the focus on campuses was because students were a captive population through which to change the culture’s attitudes about sex. The idea was that students would welcome these rules and take them with them after graduation, remaking society. The speed and success with which this is happening has been stunning.In a December 2017 article, New York Times gender editor Jessica Bennett described how issues of female consent play out in the world, writing, “Sometimes ‘yes’ means ‘no,’ simply because it is easier to go through with it than explain our way out of the situation. Sometimes ‘no’ means ‘yes,’ because you actually do want to do it, but you know you’re not supposed to lest you be labeled a slut. What about when ‘yes’ isn’t really an enthusiastic affirmative—or an affirmative at all? What about a woman who doesn’t feel that she can speak up because of cultural expectations? Should that woman be considered unable to consent?”
Bennett, with all the power that accrues from a position that helps set the agenda for what’s considered appropriate sexual behavior, raises the possibility that women are inherently incapable of giving consent. Bennett is certainly right that sex can be ambiguous and confusing. But requiring that men intuit that a “yes” actually means “no,” because women lack the wherewithal to know their own minds or to express themselves, revives the pernicious belief that women are perpetually childlike.
Sonmez wrote that in the immediate aftermath of her encounter with Kaiman, she “partly blamed” herself for it. But as with Tucker’s realization that only Kaiman was responsible for what had happened between them, upon further reflection, Sonmez concluded that she bore no fault and that it was Kaiman alone who was in the wrong.
How a Mob Forms
Moral panics are as intrinsic to human society as they are dangerous—the modern American list includes McCarthyism in the 1950s, along with with the “Satantic abuse” day care scares and “recovered memory” accusations of the ’80s and ’90s.
Kaiman’s own grandfather, a successful animator and puppeteer named Lou Bunin, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. His three daughters were instructed not to open the door to the FBI agents who occasionally came knocking. Eventually, Bunin’s wife changed her name and, acting as his agent, was able to get him enough work to eke out a living. Bunin actually was a Communist sympathizer, Kaiman acknowledged to me. But though his life was damaged, it was not destroyed. More than 60 years later, on the basis of equivocal and heavily disputed accusations, Kaiman’s life is in tatters.
In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin Press), Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt write that moral panics are situations “in which a community becomes obsessed with religious or ideological purity and believes it needs to find and punish enemies within its own ranks in order to hold itself together” (my emphasis). Such search and destroy missions can be ecstatic experiences. Quoting a founder of sociology, Emil Durkheim, they write that groups can provide a “collective effervescence” when individuals come together and achieve a feeling of oneness.
Lukianoff and Haidt use the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a central example. It began in the 1960s, with college students rising up to expel “enemies” of the revolution. Universities were shut down, and “many professors, intellectuals, and campus administrators were imprisoned or murdered.” Lukianoff and Haidt write that one of the “cruel features of the Cultural Revolution were the ‘struggle sessions,’ in which those accused of ideological impurity were surrounded by their accusers, taunted, humiliated…as they confessed to their crimes, offered abject apologies, and vowed to do better.”
The meeting of the FCCC to discuss what to do about Kaiman in the wake of Sonmez’s letter, which took place in the home country of the Cultural Revolution, became a demonstration of the “collective effervescence” of a group purge. As Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik has written, becoming part of a group can provide an “enthralling thrill.” The minutes of the meeting show how a mob forms in real time.
One of the oldest clichés of journalism goes, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” But this gathering of professional reporters seemed unconcerned with checking things out. Sudworth said that in circulating Sonmez’s allegations, there was no intention to “litigate their veracity.” What an extraordinary statement from the head of an organization of journalists. Hearing both sides and gathering evidence—the process of “litigating veracity”—are generally considered reporting essentials. Kaiman was given a bare minimum of advance notice and no opportunity to respond. The FCCC purposefully released an unrefuted allegation, and virtually everyone who spoke at the FCCC meeting accepted it as fact. (Sudworth and the FCCC did not respond to requests for comment.)
Journalists are also trained to analyze and question accounts. But no one at the meeting raised any concerns about Sonmez’s own account of her actions—for example, her decision to go to Kaiman’s apartment with the idea of possibly making out with someone who had, only minutes before, she claimed, perpetrated a sudden sexual violation that still “chills” her.
Instead, the minutes show people jostling to denounce Kaiman. One correspondent “asked whether members had a responsibility to do something about a predator running around.” Another correspondent said she or he had earlier worked on preventing sexual assault on campus and believed that when dealing with such allegations, “a reasonable argument [is] to be made for suspending regular jurisprudence.” A female reporter announced she wanted to be included as one of Kaiman’s victims. She explained that she’d had a sexual encounter with Kaiman several years earlier: “At the time, she did not see the encounter as an assault, but [she] had reconsidered after reading Sonmez’s account” and now claimed she’d had too much to drink to give “proper consent.”
Kaiman knows who this accuser is, and he says they had sex on two separate occasions. He says both occasions were consensual. They eventually had a disagreement over politics, and the friendship cooled. (The accuser declined to comment for this story.)
Although the FCCC members were not interested in evaluating the claims made by Sonmez, they were encouraged to report any “evidence” they had against Kaiman to the H.R. investigator at the Los Angeles Times.
‘How May I Live Without My Name?’
What happened to Kaiman cannot be dismissed as a singular case of #MeToo excess. A growing number of men have seen their lives damaged after unfair, even questionable allegations—with some accusers expressing the goal of pushing the boundaries of #MeToo. For example, Mic writer Jack Smith IV was the subject of a lengthy investigation published last September in Jezebel, which exhaustively documented that Smith had been a lousy boyfriend to several women. One woman, who had an intermittent but long-running sexual relationship with him, said he insisted that she wear a specific kind of eye makeup before they had sex. (Smith denied this and other allegations.) Katie Herzog of The Stranger noted that this woman later tweeted that such behavior by Smith constituted “rape.”
Smith, 29, was not famous, but he was carving out a beat covering extremist movements on the right. Before the Jezebel article was published, Mic editors heard that there were allegations of improper behavior by Smith. He was suspended, but he returned to the job after an internal review found no inappropriate conduct by him at Mic. Smith did not work with any of the women quoted in the story. Jezebel‘s explicit goal in exposing his alleged transgressions was to have #MeToo take aim at what it called “common and harder-to-define experiences” that “women and other marginalized genders” are subjected to. Smith was fired immediately after the story appeared. He is no longer working in journalism.
The case of Harris Fogel, 60, who was until last March a professor of photography at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, takes #MeToo full circle—back to the college campus.
Philadelphia magazine reports that in March 2016, Harris was in Las Vegas at the annual meeting of the Society for Photographic Education. There he greeted an old friend, a female professor of photography who worked at a different institution, with a kiss on the cheek. Later that month, Fogel was at a photography conference in Houston where he participated in evaluating the portfolios of aspiring photographers. After reviewing one female photographer’s work, he offered to let her send him more, reached into his pocket for his business card, and accidentally pulled out his room key card. He recalled saying, “Here is my business card—oops, my room key,” put the key card away, and handed the photographer his business card.
#MeToo broke in October 2017 with the first New York Times story about Harvey Weinstein. In December, Fogel was told that two harassment accusations had been filed against him within a day of each other—one from the professor in Las Vegas and one from the aspiring photographer. He was investigated by his university’s Title IX office and fired for “serious violations” of the school’s harassment policy. He is now suing. His suit asserts that the complainants knew each other and coordinated their filings, that he was not allowed to offer a defense during his hearing, and that a dean who disliked him used the harassment claim to get rid of him.
Canadian political scientist Eve Seguin, who has written about mobbing in academia, calls such career destruction “social murder.” And since humans are social creatures, social murder sometimes leads to actual death. There have in fact been several #MeToo suicides, and they’ve gotten little attention in the United States.
The movement’s reach swiftly became international. In December 2017, Benny Fredriksson, then 58 and the head of a major Stockholm cultural center, became the subject of an investigation by a Swedish newspaper, which alleged that he harassed and mistreated women. He was specifically accused of trying to force a pregnant actress to get an abortion, and the Irish Times reports that a second newspaper called him a “little Hitler.” Fredriksson swiftly resigned, but the accusations continued on social media.
In March of last year, while accompanying his wife, the famed opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter, on a performing trip to Australia, Fredriksson took his own life. The backlash in Sweden against #MeToo was fierce. It turned out he had not tried to force an actress to get an abortion; it was later reported that he had expressed regret to an actress that she couldn’t appear in a stage production because she would have been eight months pregnant at the premiere. The Irish Times reports that “an official investigation dismissed the claims against him as unfounded” and that the Swedish newspaper was fined for printing unsubstantiated allegations. In an interview four months after her husband’s death, von Otter said he had resigned, even though the characterization of him was untrue, because he felt unable to defend himself. He fell into a deep depression as friends and colleagues abandoned him—out of fear, she said, that if they publicly defended him, they would be attacked themselves. She said she hopes a lesson of Fredriksson’s death is that “we’re not in the Middle Ages, we don’t pillory people, spit at them or stone them.”
Kaiman himself has grappled over the last year with acute suicidal thoughts. Without the constant support of his mother and his girlfriend, he says, he’s not sure he would be alive. Arneson gave him a mantra that he says has proved helpful: You can always kill yourself tomorrow; just don’t do it today.
Kaiman and Arneson, 29, have been together since 2016. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. from Thailand, and her father is of Norwegian-German heritage. A year after graduating from Carleton College, she moved to Beijing, where she worked for an education consulting company. She and Kaiman met there, and she was attracted to his sense of adventure, his passion for his work, and his kindness to friends and younger journalists.
Arneson says that, except for the single encounter with Sonmez, for which he was abjectly remorseful and for which she forgave him, Kaiman has been a devoted boyfriend. Given what’s happened, she acknowledges that “there is no logical reason to stay.” Then she adds: “Except that I love him and I believe in him. If I left Jon, I don’t think I would be able to live with myself, knowing I gave up on him.” They have tabled any discussion about marriage and children, since Kaiman doesn’t know if he will be able to help support a family.
The pair now alternates between living at his parents’ home in Arizona and her parents’ home in Minnesota. She recounted to me the low moment of telling her parents that her boyfriend was accused in a sex scandal. Her father read the news coverage and asked her if the accusations were true. She told him they weren’t. Her father said that if she believed in Jon, then he did, too.
Kaiman and Arneson agree he is not the same person he was when they met. He told me his suicidal thoughts do not seem irrational to him. “I felt my identity had been annihilated,” he says. “Once your identity has been annihilated, who are you? The self that I was had been murdered, and I was never going to get that back.” He recently reread The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials (which also served as a commentary on McCarthyism), and quotes the character John Proctor, who was accused of witchcraft but spurned an offer to save his life by publicly confessing. Before his execution, Proctor explains his refusal: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!…How may I live without my name?”
Arneson recalls folk tales about individuals encountering their doppelgängers. In these stories, the two can’t exist simultaneously, so one version must dispatch the other. She says Kaiman’s doppelgänger is the version of him found on the internet. This rendering of Kaiman is not who he really is, she explains. But the online world exists in perpetuity.
They both want to believe there will be something better, and Arneson sometimes sees flashes of the Kaiman she first knew. But she says, “You would hope in a civilized society it wouldn’t be so easy for someone to lose so much so quickly.”
Trial by Twitter
How do you defend yourself in a trial by Twitter? Kaiman discovered you can’t. After Sonmez made her accusation and he was suspended by the Los Angeles Times, he was constrained in his ability to publicly defend himself. Because of the workplace investigation, the Newspaper Guild advised against saying too much. And trying to explain his side of the convoluted sexual encounter with Sonmez on Twitter was impossible.
Kaiman eventually put out a brief statement that read, in part, “My experience that night with Felicia differs fundamentally from her account. I am saddened and, quite frankly, horrified that a group of professional journalists would unquestioningly take her version of events as absolute truth before hearing (or, in most cases, even asking for) my side of the story. I am genuinely sorry that I’ve caused Laura and Felicia pain—I had considered them very close friends, and would never intend to hurt them.” He wrote that the allegations “have irrevocably destroyed my reputation…and any hope for a rewarding career in the future” and added that he wouldn’t wish such an experience on anybody. Afterward, he heard privately from some people offering support, including colleagues at the Los Angeles Times, but few wanted to openly be associated with him.
Prior to Tucker’s account, Kaiman’s career at the paper had essentially been unblemished. His last employee evaluation read, in part: “Jon has had a year full of rich, well-reported stories that provided a smart and lively look into Asia for Times readers. Jon was able to pivot adroitly between breaking news—providing quick, well-crafted stories within minutes after a big news development—and more deeply reported, expansively written features.” After the first accusation by Tucker broke, Kaiman immediately reported it to his editor, and high-level discussions were held at the paper about how to respond.
Kaiman was asked if he’d ever sexually harassed anyone associated with the Times or been involved sexually with anyone there. He was also asked if he’d ever raped anyone. His answer was no, and Times executives ended up taking no action against him. I was told by editors who do not wish to be quoted that leadership concluded Tucker had described an encounter that had nothing to do with the Times, and while she regretted it, by her own account it was not a sexual assault. But the Sonmez accusation changed everything.
Even though it is disputed by Kaiman, that charge established in the minds of many that what happened between Kaiman and Tucker was not just a single regretted event but part of a pattern. And pattern is an explosive concept in the world of #MeToo. Indeed, in the most notorious #MeToo cases—from Weinstein to convicted felons Bill Cosby and Larry Nassar—there are well-documented decades of repetitive, even ritualized violations. The World Health Organization recently included in its International Classification of Diseases the diagnosis of “compulsive sexual behavior disorder,” described as “a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses.”
In her letter, Sonmez wrote that her accusation against Kaiman proved that “his problematic behavior appeared to be part of a wider pattern.” Her claim was widely accepted, even though prior to Tucker’s blog post there had been no accusations against him, and even though the “pattern” of “problematic behavior” consisted of two separate hookups more than four years apart between Kaiman and a longtime female friend.
People, of course, are entitled to tell their own stories. In telling theirs, Tucker and Sonmez each expressed their concerns about the effect on their own lives of coming forward: Tucker said that it was “embarrassing and frightening” to write about what happened, while Sonmez wrote that she “struggled with whether to go public,” in part because she was job hunting and worried she might “scare away” potential employers. But the professional lives of both women appear to be thriving. Tucker is in the class of 2020 at the University of Texas School of Law, and shortly after Sonmez released her letter about Kaiman, she was hired by The Washington Post. Sonmez declined to comment for this story. Instead she directed Reason to a quote she gave in an article in the South China Morning Post in which Kaiman explained his side of what happened. She said, “It saddens me to see that Mr Kaiman still does not realise the impact of his actions or take responsibility for them. His statements do not exhibit an understanding of the meaning of consent.”
Meanwhile, we are now in a time when the uncertain circumstances surrounding one regretted sexual encounter and another hazily remembered (and fiercely disputed) intimate encounter are sufficient to destroy the accused’s life.
Fairness, Not Frenzy
Kaiman was subjected to three H.R. interviews at the Los Angeles Times. At one, the female investigator had a sticker on her computer that read, “The future is female.” The last interview, in July 2018, revolved around Kaiman being asked to rebut the mostly anonymous accusations that came in from the FCCC members who had been encouraged to provide evidence against him.
He was told, for example, that there were reports that, at the karaoke club the evening he and Sonmez got together, he was rebuked for touching the breasts and buttocks of women he was singing with. He said this accusation is “false and preposterous,” that he’d never done such a thing and therefore never was rebuked for it. He was also asked whether, in his early 20s, he had read the book The Game, an exploration of “pick-up artists,” or men who believe certain seduction techniques will lead to successful sexual conquests. He had—it had been a major best-seller—but as he explained to the investigator, that didn’t mean he himself was a pick-up artist.
The questioning made clear to him that his private sexual behavior as a young, single man was on trial—behavior unrelated to the workplace. He told the H.R. person that during college and in the years shortly after, he had felt shy and inept around women. Gradually, he said, he gained more confidence, and over the years, in the hothouse of the hard-drinking and hard-partying expat culture in Beijing, he’d had a number of sexual partners.
The interviewer then asked him an existential question: “Why do you think multiple women have come forward with these accusations?”
That kind of query has been posed to many a man facing Title IX proceedings. A federally funded organization, the National Center for Campus Public Safety, provides training materials for people running Title IX investigations. It encourages investigators to accept the account of an accuser as accurate, even when it is partial or fragmentary, and even when the accuser has told shifting versions of what happened. It also recommends that the accused be asked to account for discrepancies between his version of what happened and the accuser’s. Investigators are prompted to have the accused evaluate the emotional state of the accuser and, if the accused denies the allegation, to ask why the accuser “would fabricate this.”
Kaiman declined to try to explain the thinking of his accusers. But an article by political scientist Eve Seguin describes how workplace mobs tend to operate. She writes that when a mob makes someone a target, what happens follows the pattern of a show trial, with the conviction coming first, followed by the collection of so-called evidence. Seguin asserts that the evidentiary process is fatally tainted by the twisting of everything the targeted person has said, written, or done as proof that the target is irredeemable.
While Kaiman was waiting for the Los Angeles Times to complete its investigation, the paper was going through its own turmoil regarding sexual harassment. Several high-level executives of then-owner Tronc were accused of harassment in the workplace just as the sale to the current owner, billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, was underway. This made a young Beijing correspondent who had received international notoriety even more of a liability. On August 9, 2018, Kaiman received an email from the Times telling him his “treatment of women brought undue negative publicity on your news organization” and demanding he resign or be fired. He resigned. (A spokesperson for the Times declined to comment on Kaiman’s case.)
Kaiman’s publisher, Random House, exercised a morals clause in his contract and canceled the book he had sold for a six-figure advance. He and Arneson moved back to the United States, jobless and homeless. Slowly, the two have considered how they might move forward. They decided to both apply to law school, with the idea that Kaiman would start a second career, one defending the accused. But he doesn’t know if any schools will accept someone who has appeared on a list about #MeToo.
When an accusation is lodged, we must respond with fairness, not frenzy. We need to better understand the psychology of mobs and how people come to join them. We need to grapple with how technology is implicated in all of this, because as Fredriksson’s widow put it, this isn’t the Middle Ages—today, the destruction of someone’s reputation and career can be immediate, global, and permanent. We need to recognize that a misunderstanding, even one about sex, is not a sufficient cause to result in the obliteration of someone’s psyche and desire to live.
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