Was it the justified outing of a minor celebrity cheater or a cruel and dishonest act of self-promotion? The debate over model Melissa Stetten's now infamous tweets about soap actor Brian Presley's clumsy, malapropism-laden attempt to hit on her during a cross-country fight has gone viral. In case you missed it, the 22 year-old Stetten put her inflight WiFi to devastatingly clever use the night of June 6 as she flew on a Virgin America redeye from LA to New York, livetweeting every embarrassing detail of her married seatmate's adulterous come-ons. By the weekend, People, Glamour and the Guardian had picked up the story, and Presley –- a 34 year-old father and star of the old ABC soap Port Charles — issued a blanket denial on his Facebook fan page of Stetten's account of the flight.
The media take-down of Stetten has been as quick as it was foreseeable. If there's one enduring truth, it's that virtually every woman who relates a story of inappropriate or violent sexual behavior by a famous (or even not-so-famous) man will be accused of making it up. Right on cue, the Daily Mail quickly attacked the model's reliability, citing as evidence a tweet Stetten sent out earlier this year claiming to have won the MegaMillions lotto; they neglecting to mention it had been an April Fool's joke. The British tabloid also cited Stetten's reference to a recent miscarriage, her relationship with 51 year-old shock jock Anthony Cumia, and her anti-depressant prescription as reasons to question her veracity. Though Stetten is hardly alleging rape, the Mail's attack on Stetten is reminiscent of the discrediting of the accuser in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case — and in countless other cases before it. And while the media go after Stetten's credibility, Presley's online defenders have turned vicious, predictably calling her a "cunt" and a "pretentious passive aggressive bitch."
Though neither Stetten nor Presley are especially famous, the story has blown up because it provides a fascinating new wrinkle on an exasperatingly routine story. Married men have been using the confined space of airplanes to hit on women for ages; they also do it on buses, on trains, and they probably did it on stagecoaches in the Wild West. Most women who travel learn to develop a host of strategies for coping with creepy and unwanted come-ons. An older generation might have suggested Stetten change her seat. She had something better in mind: an ingenious, funny, but pointed attack on the all-too-familiar hypocrisy of men like Brian Presley.
I don't think Melissa Stetten is making up the story. It's a lot less credulity-straining to imagine a married, Christian, 30-something father hitting on a pretty young model than to conclude that she managed to invent the entire thing in the middle of the night on a red-eye, complete with enticing her own followers to tweet vital links at precisely the right time. Stetten didn't even realize who Brian Presley was until her friends linked his IMDB and a Christianity Today story on his sobriety. That doesn't prove that she didn't fabricate the whole encounter, of course, but it makes a lie a lot less likely. (Oddly, though Presley has been married since 2002, the IMDB still lists him as merely "engaged.")
The real debate, however, is about more than what he said versus what she said. It's about whether if the story is true, Stetten did the right thing by live-tweeting the blow-by-blow details of Presley's come-on. As Sarah Jones writes at PoliticsUSA, the assumption of Presley's defenders isn't just that Stetten is making the story up. It's that even if her account is accurate, a woman in her position owes a man like Brian "either a) a romp in the mile high club or b) secrecy." The rage at Stetten isn't just coming from those who think she's lying – it's coming from those who suspect she's being all too truthful. Nice ladies protect drunken married men from the consequences of their own actions. Good women keep their mouths shut.
Near the end of her tweet stream, even Stetten wonders if she's gone to far, asking self-consciously: "Did I just ruin Brian Presley's life via twitter?" Judging by the public reaction, many people agree she has. But by asking the question, Stetten herself is buying into the notion that because she's a woman, she's somehow charged with protecting a man from the consequences of his own recklessness. Even if Presley's life is "ruined," which seems highly unlikely, it's a mistake to hold a woman responsible for that destruction simply because she had the audacity to tell the truth. Why should a stranger on a plane have greater respect for his reputation and his marriage vows than he himself is willing to display? Can we please stop assuming that men have a right to outsource both their self-control and their discretion to every random woman who has the outrageous audacity to be attractive in public?
The reason we should cheer Melissa Stetten isn't because she's a young, pretty model who used her snarky wit, her Twitter network, and Virgin America's inflight Wifi to start an (literally) overnight media sensation. The reason we should cheer her is because she didn't do what women in her position are "supposed" to do, which is quietly put up with the come-ons of older married dudes in various stages of intoxication. Brian didn't just disrespect his marriage by slipping off his ring in the airplane lavatory before returning to his seat, he disrespected Melissa by presuming that she was young enough, dumb enough, and C-list-star-struck enough to fall for it. That so many don't see Presley's behavior as more than deserving of Stetten's response says a great deal about what we expect women to endure.