The Next Step for #MeToo Is Into the Gray AreasLatest
Illustration: Jim Cooke
As we near the one-year mark of the public accusations against Harvey Weinstein—that he serially assaulted women; that he used his power to avoid any consequences for doing so—and the subsequent spread of the nationwide #MeToo movement, we are also facing its backlash. The initial ramifications were widespread and stunning: For the first time in history, it became, ostensibly, the mainstream inclination to believe the victims’ stories about sexual assault and harassment. But this transformation may have been far more incremental than it first seemed, and all the change brought about by the unleashing of pain and anger wrought by centuries of systemic oppression may still not be enough to break through in this moment, in which Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, after two allegations of sexual assault, has not withdrawn. Rather we are all barrelling toward what promises to be a grotesque repeat of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings of 1991. Accuser Christine Blasey Ford has already been so widely vilified that she’s had to move from her home due to death threats. The persistent message is that for every small step forward, the status quo will reel us back as forcefully as possible, and will always vilify traumatized accusers in doing so.
The institutional and political disbelief of and disdain for women by the administration—a continuation of the pussy-grabbing tape of 2016 somehow not having disqualified candidate Trump for the presidency—is powerful and seemingly insurmountable. For all the generalized sense of relief and catharsis that #MeToo has produced, and for all the public good it has done, its achievements are hard-won and fragile. For some, #MeToo’s nascent gains are already too much, and it is time to begin redeeming the men who have been accused, whether or not they have ventured to make amends or demonstrably learn from the moment. In the last month alone, debates have ignited about whether Louis C.K. should be allowed to make a comeback; or if Matt Lauer should be reinstated on television; or whether Jian Ghomeshi or John Hockenberry, as both wrote in personal essays, were #MeToo’s real victims. The public sympathy for these men and eagerness for their redemption is a depressing yet familiar iteration of what we’ve always known: that alleged abusers are, in all contexts, held by default to be innocent until proven guilty and so, logically, all victims are liars until proven otherwise; and that the experiences accusers know they’ve had rarely matter, and in most cases may as well have never happened.
#MeToo’s next direction is toward a deeper look at some of the most common and harder-to-define experiences.
Yet #MeToo’s next direction is toward a deeper look at some of the most common and harder-to-define experiences. It’s looking toward a more equitable world in which women and other marginalized genders can live less fearfully, by digging deeper into the gray areas and educating all of us about the harm they perpetuate. As #MeToo founder Tarana Burke told Yes! Magazine’s Zenobia Jeffries in January:
The gray area is really important to talk about because so many of us live in the gray area. People talk a lot about how men are confused about consent and they don’t know if they should touch this or touch that, or ask.
But I also think there are issues around consent for women as well because we’ve been socialized to believe that we have to give in to the whims of men. That you have to well, OK, he asked three times, he asked four times, I gave in on the fifth time. And I’m not saying that giving in is automatically sexual assault, but it definitely is a gray area.
How do we talk about behavior that is harmful and inequitable but isn’t illegal? How do we talk about the women affected by it? And what happens when accusations of such behavior are made against someone who is supposed to be an ally? These “gray areas” are embodied in a story Jezebel has been reporting since June, an example of the ways in which the messy contours of alleged coercion and manipulation are far more nuanced and more difficult to trace than behaviors that violate the law.
Jack Smith IV has made a name for himself over the last year and a half as a senior writer and correspondent covering the extremist right for Mic, a website known for its progressive takes on social justice. His 2017 arrest while covering the Standing Rock protests was a key moment that raised his profile, and he has capitalized on it, writing about incels, MRAs, and neo-Nazis; helming videos about racism and xenophobia; tweeting to his nearly 45,000 followers about the next white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and Milo Yiannopolous; and publicly speaking about, and positioning himself as an authority on, issues of misogyny.
Smith is the model of a type of journalist who has flourished in the age of #resistance: Defiantly left, he is fluent in the discourse of privilege, and has supplemented his writing and video hosting slots with his ability to exploit social media to garner as much attention for himself as the causes he supports. He is ensconced in media circles, and well-known across a certain cross-section of progressive journalism. (A recent former roommate is a staffer at Gizmodo, Jezebel’s sister site.) His reporting offers his audience less new information or a unique perspective but rather a straight white man who has allied himself with the marginalized. His visibility has landed him plum hosting gigs, including this segment on WNYC in which he discusses “virulent misogyny,” and incels and their relation to the #MeToo movement. He has been the host of For the Record, a Mic show in which he speaks authoritatively about “racism, sexism, and bigotry of all sorts.” On August 7, Smith appeared on a PBS show called The Open Mind with Alexander Heffner, in which the host described him as “one of the leading chroniclers of the modern age fascist and anti-fascist movements” and “a most audacious truth-telling journalist when the status quo of reporting is to magnify the sensational… Smith is forthright, forthcoming, demanding that we confront hate and hold accountable those who infect our society with it.”
Multiple women, though, say that Smith’s public persona doesn’t square with his behavior toward them. In a series of individual conversations with Jezebel, they have painted a picture of someone whose behavior is in sharp contrast to what would be expected of a fierce public advocate for progressive politics. In July, Mic’s Executive News Director Kerry Lauerman told Jezebel via email that Smith was on suspension subject to an internal investigation relating to alleged mistreatment of women, but to his knowledge “no complaints of this nature have been made at Mic against Jack Smith.” The specific facts of the investigation were not provided to Jezebel, but the women we spoke to say the organization did not contact them. On September 18, Lauerman provided further clarification to Jezebel, stating that Smith was back at work after an “internal review of [Smith’s] workplace behavior” found “no evidence that Jack had behaved improperly at Mic”:
In June, some Mic staff members came to us with allegations about Jack Smith’s private life that were circulating among outside reporters and on social media. We were naturally concerned by what we heard; one of Mic’s core principles is the fair treatment of all people. We immediately removed him as one of our video correspondents until we looked into the matter further.
We placed Jack on a paid leave while our human resource team began an internal review of his workplace behavior at Mic during his three years on staff. (It was after this that Jezebel first reached out to us, asking if he had a record of improper behavior at Mic). After interviewing key employees, as well as reading through the bi-annual performance reviews that have been in place for the past two and a half years, the team found no evidence that Jack had behaved improperly at Mic.
After concluding our review, we mutually agreed that he would return to Mic on Sept. 5, this time on contract as a reporter for Mic’s written politics team, subject to review at any time.
Jezebel spoke with five women on the record, each of whom separately contacted Jezebel after forming a sort of whisper network about their experiences with Smith, which date as far back as 2012 and to as recently as June of this year. Their stories are recounted here; all of these women accuse Smith of behavior they variously describe as emotional abuse, manipulation, and gaslighting. Three of these women say independently of one another that these tactics led to coercive sex. The United States Government Office on Women’s Health defines sexual coercion as “unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way. Coercion can make you think you owe sex to someone. It might be from someone who has power over you, like a teacher, landlord, or a boss. No person is ever required to have sex with someone else.” The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network goes further, explaining that assault doesn’t always involve violence: “Force doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex.”
In an era in which people manage their public profiles carefully to espouse views they hope will maximize their exposure, these accusations, in addition to casting light directly on Smith, also highlight the question of whether some are now cloaking themselves in the mantle of progressive politics while engaging in troubling behavior. Further, the accusations highlight the aforementioned lesser-explored aspect of #MeToo—what victims and advocates are to do when the specifics of an interaction are not illegal yet are aggressive, unwanted, and/or inequitable. Should behavior that may have, in the past, been written off as bad sex—or as bad actors as simply “caddish”—be socially or morally acceptable? Nearly one year on from the mainstreaming of the #MeToo movement, these complex questions are starting to be scrutinized by a wider audience.
What to do when the specifics of an interaction are not illegal yet are aggressive, unwanted, and/or inequitable?
Of the five women Jezebel spoke with on the record about Smith, all but one are journalists and writers; Jezebel is granting three of them pseudonymity because they fear both professional and personal consequences. Two of the women say they were drawn to Smith’s leftist persona and clout on social media. Erica Kay—who has chosen to use her real name and was the first known public accuser of Smith, via an August 2017 Twitter thread—tells Jezebel that during a sexual relationship with Smith from 2014 to 2017, which began when they met in college and continued well after they graduated, their encounters included instances of forceful sex she now describes as “coercive.” “Jenny” describes being pressured into sex with Smith while they were high on weed; “Nina” says Smith coerced her into sex after an hours-long barrage of emotional abuse and manipulation; and Becca Schuh (who has chosen to use her real name) describes emotionally manipulative interactions with Smith that she says created a climate of anxiety and fear.
Jezebel has repeatedly reached out to Smith for comment throughout the reporting of this piece, first contacting him for a response to some of these allegations on June 28. Smith spoke with this reporter via email and phone on June 28 and 29, but he declined to comment on the record before leaving for a weeklong vacation in Cuba. Jezebel offered to fax or snail-mail Smith in Cuba, assuming he would have limited access to internet and email, but he declined to provide us with his contact information there.
Jezebel’s subsequent attempt at contact included more detailed questions about the accusations over email and letters couriered to his home and office on July 11. On July 12, an attorney for Smith, Rose Meade Hart, sent Jezebel a cease and desist letter with expressed intent to sue for defamation should this piece be published. Jezebel has made numerous additional attempts to obtain Smith’s on-the-record response to these accusations—including another thorough detailing of the accusations sent via email and courier on September 17—but he has, through counsel, continued to decline to do so and reiterated the cease and desist.
Jezebel will update this piece should Smith or his attorney decide to respond with information or comment that they deem suitable for publication.
Nina was the first woman Jezebel spoke to, on June 14. She recounted an experience with Smith that had occured only a week before and appeared to be in the beginning stages of processing what happened, visibly shaking and stopping the conversation several times to cry into a pillow. Her account of one night resembles, in a compressed span of time, patterns of behavior others describe as having taken place over far longer periods with Smith.
Nina is blonde, thin, and stands a little over 5’3”. She told Jezebel that she first matched with Smith on Tinder. She said that their first two dates seemed normal, if intense. “Both times, we did have a connection,” she said, and on their second date, on May 19, they had consensual sex. For a few days after, they didn’t see each other because of conflicting schedules; after Smith was unresponsive to several text messages, Nina said she attempted to end their brief relationship, saying it was clear it was going nowhere. Smith texted later, writing, “I’m surprised you couldn’t sense my interest in you; you’re very sensitive to praise (not a criticism).” Nina responded, “ahh, i’m sorry, maybe a lot of this was in my head!! we texted a lot over the weekend and then the quick fall-off/non-replies to the two times i asked you if you were still into it got me thrown off.” She would later characterize this as Smith’s first attempt to gaslight her, by ignoring her and then making her feel that she had interpreted his lack of response incorrectly.
According to a meticulously kept, handwritten daily calendar and series of notes that Nina showed to Jezebel, she made her third date with Smith on June 6. That night, they attended a comedy show at the Knitting Factory with a group of friends, including her roommate “Lisa,” a writer and podcaster. (Jezebel is using a pseudonym for Lisa to protect Nina’s identity.) Nina says Smith’s behavior was quiet and withdrawn; he sat in the corner, which kept her apart from her friend group. She says she had about three drinks, an amount that made her drunk—“not blackout,” but drunk. Later, they went to a fast food restaurant near her apartment in Bushwick, where, she says, she made a joke about Tinder dating. He responded that he thought she wasn’t dating that much and “sniped” at her before badgering her into telling him details about the last person she dated. As they walked back to her apartment, she says, she offered to call him a car, at which point his demeanor abruptly shifted, turning sullen and angry.
When they returned to her empty apartment, Nina says, Smith began an hours-long bout of verbal abuse, standing over her as she curled up on the couch, pointing his finger and accusing her of lying to him about everything from her dating history to her age. She says he accused her of saying she is 27, when she is in fact 28, and later accused her of being 29. Nina tells Jezebel that she never lied about her age to Smith or a friend of his that she had dated. (For disclosure purposes, the friend Nina dated is a former employee of Gizmodo Media Group, and is one of the original sources on this story.)
Nina says she first burst into tears from what she describes as Smith “viciously” berating her for being “shady, dishonest, and a liar.” “I told him his body language was intimidating me,” she says, “and not to yell at me, to which he said, ‘This isn’t yelling.’” At one point, she says, he demanded to see her state ID, took a photo of it without permission, and then implied that the ID was fake, saying the photo didn’t look like her. “I was drunk and apologetic,” she says, “and still felt like I was in the wrong.” She went so far, she says, as to pull out her birth certificate and Social Security card to prove to him that she was being honest. She tells Jezebel she then told him to go ahead and take a photograph and posed with it, since he’d already taken the first one. “I was feeling wrong-footed,” she said, “and like I needed to be admitting to something.”
Lisa, Nina’s roommate, tells Jezebel that she came home around 2 a.m., and when she walked in she saw Smith guiding Nina into her bedroom with his hand on her arm. Lisa said she was alarmed but didn’t want to overreact, so she and her boyfriend stayed in the living room for about an hour, “quietly on our phones, keeping our ears perked.” In that time, she says, she heard Nina sobbing and heard Smith say the words “suicide” and “selfish.” (Nina tells Jezebel she made and recovered from a suicide attempt last year, and that she remembers Smith essentially saying that “he considered [the suicide attempt] selfish, or like I was just trying to get attention.”) “I was not good at that point; I just felt embarrassed and like this was a situation I had caused by being dishonest or ‘obfuscating,’” said Nina.
This continued for more than two hours, Nina says, by which time she was crying to the point that her face swelled, but did not ask Smith to leave because she “felt guilty and like I messed up and I should be trying to get his forgiveness.” As she continued crying, though, and continued to answer Smith’s personal questions about her family and attempt to take her own life, his demeanor changed yet again. “He gradually started comforting me. As I’m crying, he’s sort of rolling his eyes like, ‘All right, okay, come here,’” she says. “I’m still apologizing, apologizing, I asked him if he could hug me for awhile. And then he started making comments like, ‘You know, I could potentially forgive you. We could potentially get through this.”
It was then, Nina says, that Smith began kissing her, as she was still crying off and on. She says she told him to stop so that she could cry more, and that he did so for a time before he began trying again. Eventually, Nina says, “the tenor of the encounter changed”; he began taking off her and his own clothes, and to initiate sex, which Nina said “felt like maybe he was offering some kind of forgiveness.”
Nina was still upset, she says, and didn’t want to have sex, but didn’t say no because she felt she “had something to make up for.” She panicked, she says, and told him to get a condom from a drawer. She says she froze up and “was so disgusted I just wanted to rip my skin off,” but told him to be rougher “because I just wanted to build distance from myself [during] it.” She now describes what happened as “coercive sex.”
Smith sent her text messages the next day, June 7, which began, “Hey, last night was fun. You know, considering.”
“I feel like a horrible person and wanna die,” Nina responded.
“Haha do you? I thought it was pretty constructive, no?” wrote Smith. “Night certainly ended well… Was I too unkind?
“idk if you were too unkind or if i’m just a baby, but it’s probs the latter,” she wrote.
“Alright, well hopefully you still think I’m alright now that it’s the next day and light out and everything,” he wrote. “hmu soon and lemme know where things stand once you know how you’re feelin’”
Since #MeToo gained national momentum, the media has tended to focus on whether the horrific behavior of powerful people can be adjudicated in courts of law. The reckoning sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby have faced is a sea change decades in the making, but the focus on splashy, prosecutable instances has obscured some of #MeToo’s important work moving the lines so that all sexual maltreatment is considered socially unacceptable, whether or not it’s punishable by the legal system. In some countries with legal systems similar to that in the United States, the law is actually making room for these hypothetically fuzzier transgressions to be litigated. In England and Wales, for example, “coercive control” became a crime in 2015 under its domestic abuse laws, protecting “victims who experience the type of behavior that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse,” according to a release by the UK Home Office. In 2017, Scotland passed a domestic abuse law that includes criminalizing “psychological and emotional maltreatment and coercive and controlling behavior as well as physical attacks.” And France has had a law against “psychological violence” since 2010.
As #MeToo has also illuminated, the willingness of the accused to misuse their power and influence creates a pervasive fear of speaking out.
As #MeToo has also illuminated, the willingness of the accused to misuse their power and influence creates a pervasive fear of speaking out, even as law and custom slowly trend toward an acceptance of affirmative consent—a “knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity”—as a standard. Whisper networks therefore continue to take up the slack where legal or social systems might fail.
This piece is about the gray area. In the case of Jack Smith, the first known public allegations against him were not whispered, and were not the result of #MeToo. They came in the form of the aforementioned series of tweets by Erica Kay, a podcaster and writer who on August 21, 2017, began a Twitter thread alleging abuse and gaslighting in the context of her relationship with Smith. In a later thread dated March 4, 2018, Kay wrote: “that feeling when your abuser’s journalism career is flourishing and literally nobody cares. jack smith iv of mic dot com what’s good???”
Kay, who has also spoken about Smith on two separate episodes of her relationship podcast, The Ex Files, tells Jezebel that she dated Smith in 2014, when they were both students at Montclair State University. She says they broke up that same year but continued having a sexual relationship for roughly three years afterwards. She says that their interactions consisted primarily of forceful sex, which she now identifies as “coercive,” and that he employed tactics of control and manipulation, including an unwillingness to have sex with her unless she wore a specific eye makeup. (“I would be forced to put that makeup on before anything happened between us,” she tells Jezebel.)
“I would realize a day later, ‘Oh, no, I was not consenting to that’,” Kay says. “Because you’ve consented to being in a relationship with this person, you say that you love them, you try to do things to make the relationship better, and then this happens to you… It goes back to this whole thing where it’s legally hard to believe women.”
On March 25, 2017, Smith texted Kay saying, “You’ve outdone yourself with the lying this time. The times you said we had sex and then you ‘withdrew consent’ days later, constantly messaging girls who you you [sic] saw me TWEET with to ‘warn’ them about me.” Later in this exchange, he accused her of having spent years threatening and harassing him, and that he’d blocked her on social media. Kay’s telling shows the nuance of relationships such as these, and she explicates the complexity with which she related to Smith, which was often wanting to be with him at the same time as feeling manipulated and harmed. On an episode of her podcast, she describes Smith as having “dick too bomb.” Asked to explain her comment, she says, “Not every time was coercion, and I obviously wouldn’t have stayed with him if literally every time I didn’t want to have sex with him at all. [That ‘dick too bomb’ statement] was mostly me playing it off to be lighthearted on a podcast that’s mostly about comedy.”
Kay’s second round of tweets, in March of this year, received enough retweets that other women began reaching out to her to discuss their own experiences with Smith. One of these was “Judith,” a writer who also attended Montclair State but did not then know Kay even though they attended the university at the same time. She first reached out to Kay in late June after seeing one of her Twitter threads.
Judith says she began seeing Smith in 2012 and now refers to him as her “abuser.” “He pulled me into this world that was all about him and his desires and fulfilling those desires, and found ways to subtly punish me if things weren’t to his liking,” she says. “There were these emotional games that made me question myself and question my sanity.”
Judith said that after college, she stayed friendly with Smith on social media and occasionally in person, including accepting an invitation to see the Mic offices in January 2017, because even though in the past he had “push[ed my] boundaries,” she felt it was “safer to not alienate him.”
After a question about when her interactions with Smith shifted from him displaying typical bad boyfriend behavior to a point where she began to fear him, she says this:
“Over the last year I’ve had to admit a lot of things to myself in the context of the #MeToo movement. I realized that every time I saw him, I would have a physical reaction, my heart would start racing, I would have a tightness in my chest. He would always surprise me, like he would show up like it was a jump scare in a horror movie. He would say things to get under my skin; he would either be very cold and act like we didn’t know each other, or he would act very familiar with me.
“I was always [afraid of him] on some level, because I justified not cutting him out of my life because I kept thinking, ‘We’re in the same field, or I’m trying to be, and I’m not trying to make enemies for myself. I know that he could easily poison the well.’” (There is no evidence that Smith ever tried to “poison the well,” but his fairly prominent position in media circles was nonetheless a deterrent to Judith speaking out.)
“Jenny” first met Smith in 2014, when he was hired as a tech reporter at the Observer. She’s also a reporter, and so at first, she says, they knew each other in a professional capacity. In 2016, though, she had broken up with a boyfriend of three years and unrelatedly began seeing Smith more often on a friendly basis. She tells Jezebel that one night in September 2016, they got “extremely stoned” and Smith began talking about “other women reporters he’s slept with.” While high, she says, they eventually ended up sitting on his bed, but she was not interested in having sex with him. “I could tell he was trying to make it happen, so I physically turned around and faced the wall. He started leaning over me and being like, ‘You know you want to,’ and stuff like that.” She says she told Smith she wanted to leave and turned around, after which he started kissing her, stuck his hand down her pants, and said, according to a text Jenny sent the next day, “Do you still want to leave?”
Jenny says that she then “just let it happen” because, still stoned, she “wasn’t really in a frame of mind to make a thing out of this.” Smith then “pressured” her into sex in a way that made her uncomfortable, she says, and penetrated her without a condom or asking if it was okay. They had sex twice again, later that night and in the morning, both of which were consensual. During the morning encounter, however, he choked her without her consent: she says he “wrapped his bicep around my neck and restricted my breathing.” During the choking, Jenny says she asked Smith, “What are you doing?” and that he ignored her. A week later, she says, she confronted him in person about their interaction, reiterating that she had initially tried to leave and that his pressuring her had made her uncomfortable; he responded, she says, that he “didn’t remember” any of that but that her description of the night’s events didn’t sound good. The conversation, Jenny says, was terse, and they parted ways. For several months afterwards, though, she continued having a consensual sexual relationship with him, during which she describes his behavior as “pervasively manipulative and undermining.” In April 2017, she says, she told him that she no longer wanted to interact with him because of his relationship with a girlfriend in Toronto and because she found his behavior in their own relationship “erratic”—”He was sometimes emotionally detached, sometimes involved, and I got tired of the fact that he was obviously withholding things from me.” (She did continue occasionally reaching out to him over text.) Later, she says, she stopped speaking to him for a time because when she saw him in public, she would have panic attacks.
“I ended up being very depressed that I allowed someone to treat me this way,” she says, “and that coalesced into shame.”
When Becca Schuh, also a writer, first told Jenny she was interested in Smith around September 2017, both Jenny and Schuh confirm that Jenny immediately told her not to date him, but Schuh decided to continue the relationship despite Jenny’s warnings. Schuh was clear with Jezebel that all of their sexual encounters were consensual, but says that he engaged in a months-long process of emotional manipulation. “I think that he has a pattern with women where he is able to figure out the thing that they are most sensitive and vulnerable about,” she says. “For me, that is that not only have I never been in a serious relationship, but just that I’ve never had like consistent trustworthy affection that I don’t know whether it’s gonna turn on and off at any moment. I think that he gave that to me for a month on purpose, and then only gave it back intermittently, like it was a game… After he groomed this part of me that is the most sensitive, the most scared, it felt like he then spent the next six months poking it, to fuck with me for fun.”
Schuh provided Jezebel with multiple text screenshots dating back to April that show her discussing Kay’s tweets and related rumors about his alleged misbehavior toward women with Smith, including a screenshot in which she wrote, “i don’t think you’ve been emotionally abusive to me per se but the past couple weeks there has been an… um… influx of information to me from several sources that have been concerning on multiple levels.” She says she met up with him and talked to him about “allegations going back several years.” By way of explaining her friendliness and denial to him in that text that he was “emotionally abusive per se,” she tells Jezebel, “I was into him for a very long time and took me a really long time to contextualize the things I had learned about him. I was at a point where his approval and desire for me was the only [thing] that mattered and I don’t know if that’s necessarily relevant, but I personally think that relates to the manipulative aspects of everything.”
Manipulative behavior and sexual coercion of the type Smith is accused is notoriously difficult to define. The narrative around the Aziz Ansari story, in particular, was widely dismissed as just “bad sex,” but its true nature was, as Jezebel has noted, obscured by Babe’s sloppy reporting; leveled more clearly, the Ansari story could be interpreted as a night of repeated transgressions and sex that could have been characterized as coercive. As Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards wrote in February regarding that story and as a definition of the feminist philosopher Kate Manne’s concept of “the sex he takes”:
The “sex he takes” is not, according to the law, rape or sexual assault. It does not rise to the scrutiny of a judge and jury. It does not meet the legal definitions of sexual assault or rape. Its boundaries, shapeless and shifting, treat consent as something to be extracted, transforming sex into a commodity to be taken, rather than freely exchanged. Rarely can that sex be labeled explicitly as coercion because it conceals itself beneath a legalistic definition of sexual assault, treating consent as a binary, a simple “yes” or “no.”
One of the central arguments against the Aziz Ansari story—and so many since, including the accusations surrounding Keith Ellison—was that women are muddying the waters, that we are unable to distinguish between violent rape and encounters in which the boundaries of consent are blurred. But it is precisely the opposite: Women do distinguish between these experiences, and do not conflate them; we just would like the tentpoles to be moved permanently toward the expectation of equitable sexual encounters.
Women do distinguish between experiences, and do not conflate them; we just would like the tentpoles to be moved permanently toward the expectation of equitable sexual encounters.
This can be compounded when some men use progressive politics as a shield from—and weapon against—being held accountable for the most appalling, hypocritical behavior: Disgraced former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, to use a recent example, an alleged feminist, was forced to resign just three months after bringing a civil suit against the Weinstein Company for sexual harassment and discrimination after four women accused him of physical abuse, including choking or slapping them without their consent during sex. Additionally, survivors of this sort of trauma often blame themselves for their abuser’s behavior.
Judith, who has known Smith longer than any accuser Jezebel spoke to on the record, feels this type of self-blame acutely. “I feel, honestly, sick to my stomach about how complicit I felt over the years by just keeping him in my life, she says. “That’s what abusers do; they make you feel complicit for surviving. And I understand that on an intellectual level and I shouldn’t feel guilt over that, but I do, and that’s why I wanted to come forward.”
Ultimately, Jenny says, it was also Smith’s perceived hypocrisy that helped her overcome her fear at speaking out. “How can you…be this woke feminist progressive person who’s the face of this sort of purportedly leftist media organization and treat women the way you do?” she said. “It’s just unacceptable.”
The night after Nina’s experience with Smith, on June 7, her roommate Lisa attended a regular Thursday happy hour for journalists. There she met Becca Schuh through a mutual friend, and they naturally began talking about shitty men. Before long, Schuh mentioned Smith and described him as having been emotionally abusive to her; Lisa says her blood went cold, and she asked Schuh to describe her experience with him. When Lisa returned home to warn Nina about what she’d learned, she says, Nina was slumped over in their kitchen. It was then that Nina recounted her experience to Lisa, and Lisa encouraged her to come forward with her story. Nina would tell Jezebel repeatedly that she was afraid Smith would do what he did to her to someone else.
After the initial contact with Schuh, Lisa and Nina began gradually talking to more women who had experiences with Smith, some of whom reached out via Twitter. It was there they discovered Erica Kay’s tweets, too, and reached out to her to learn more about her experiences with Smith. “It was like, ‘I can commiserate with you, I had a similar experience, let’s share in our pain,” says Kay. “That’s how women behave with each other.” The women’s stories, for the most part, reinforced and contributed to a disturbing picture: a man who used manipulation and emotional abuse to exert power over accomplished, intelligent women. Schuh called it “grooming”; when asked to describe exactly what she meant by the term, she explained, “He got me very used very quickly to a specific type of attention from him, and very quickly gave so much of it to me. And very abruptly took it away, and only gave it back in tiny doses.” The women compared experiences, particularly their fear of speaking out; they agreed that Smith had, when they asked him about rumors that he’d mistreated other women from his past, characterized those women as “crazy.” “He was always very happy to trash talk all of the past women in his life,” says Judith. “And I think he came from a fear of us forming a whisper network and warning others.” Though the concept dates back decades, the term “whisper network” has become more mainstream since last October, after it was used to describe the way women and other marginalized people unofficially share information with each other to stave off alleged predators and other bad actors. Though the concept of the whisper network does not solely refer to men in a particular profession, a high-profile example of it was the Shitty Media Men list, which compiled anonymous accusations against men in journalism so that those interacting with the named might exercise caution. (Smith’s name was not included on the list.)
The emergence of whisper networks from the shadows—and women consequently overcoming their fear with the discovery that they’re not alone—is a central triumph of the #MeToo movement. And the wide span of time over which the allegations against Smith occurred and the urgency with which Nina was able to speak, despite her clear and recent trauma, is a testament to the potential for #MeToo’s objectives to actually come to pass. So long as messy sexual interchanges in which male power is not only presumed but expected exist in the shadows—the gray areas—what other recourse is there?
Update (9/25/18): After the publication of this story, Mic provided Jezebel with the following email sent to its staff announcing that Smith’s contract has been terminated:
An update from the leadership team: Because of the multiple, disturbing allegations made in this story against Jack Smith, we have terminated our contract with him, effective immediately.
This is not a decision we have taken lightly, and we’ll have more to say in the coming days, but wanted to let the staff know of our decision tonight, given the nature. Please feel free to reach out with questions or concerns in the meantime.
Update (10/4/2018): After the publication of this story, Jezebel received on-the-record statements from Jack Smith IV that included the following:
“‘Nina’ and I had a disagreement during which she cried. The discussion lasted under half an hour, during which I offered to leave more than once. I only turned down her offer to call a car because I insisted on calling my own, but she implored me to stay and talk. I did not ever ask to see her ID, as I never doubted her age. She was not crying when we were intimate and had not been for several hours.”
“I have never, nor would I ever, make someone change their appearance as a prerequisite for a sexual encounter.”
“I did not try to choke ‘Jenny’ in that encounter, and would never choke someone without explicitly being asked, which she did not do. As for the verbal complaint, I didn’t hear her ask me to do anything differently, but would have immediately moved if I knew she was uncomfortable.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece said Nina told Jezebel she lied about her age to a friend of Smith’s whom she dated. She did not say that to Jezebel. We regret the error.