A year after Harvey Weinstein was outed as an alleged rapist by the New York Times and the New Yorker, #MeToo is on the brink of evolving from being a movement about powerful men abusing women in the workplace to one more about men behaving badly in general.
That, at least, is what a piece published by Jezebel last week argues.
The piece, entitled “The Next Step for #MeToo Is Into the Gray Areas,” starts with a meditation on the future of #MeToo, but it’s actually a take-down of Jack Smith IV, a writer and video correspondent for the progressive website Mic. Smith is not exactly a public figure—unless you spend a lot of time on Media Twitter, there's very little chance you've heard of him. Over the last few years, however, Smith has made #Resistance journalism something of his personal brand, covering white supremacist movements and extremism in the U.S. Smith is also, according to Jezebel, a shitty boyfriend, and for this, he is now out of a job: Just hours after Jezebel’s piece was published online, Mic announced that their reporter had been fired. Even before that, the Mic Union came out in support of his alleged victims on Twitter.
Jezebel interviewed five women involved with Smith and their accounts paint a portrait of a man who is aloof, entitled, and kind of a prick. Only one of the allegations leveled at Smith, however, reaches the level of crime. The most serious allegation, from a woman Jezebel calls Jenny (this is a pseudonym), is that he nonconsensually choked her during sex. Smith disputes this. In an interview with me, he said that did not want to expound on the allegations at length, but that he would never choke someone without being explicitly asked and that he did not attempt to choke Jenny during that encounter. (Choking is an increasingly popular act during sex. In addition to endless choking scenes in porn, even publications like Women’s Health have endorsed it: "Having a man’s hands around your neck plays into the fantasy of being taken, also known as ravishment,” sex therapist and researcher Christine Milrod told Women’s Health in 2016. “As a result, you feel you have an erotic power over him and your dopamine receptors are firing on all cylinders.” That does not mean, however, it’s safe. Choking someone incorrectly can and has proved deadly.)
In Smith’s case, far more common than allegations of physical abuse were allegations of "emotional manipulation" and "gaslighting." Nina, a pseudonym for one of Smith's accusers, told Jezebel that she met Smith on Tinder. Jezebel editor in chief Julianne Escobedo Shepherd writes:
[Nina] 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.
Another of his accusers, Becca Schuh, said Smith “got me very used very quickly to a specific type of attention from him, and very quickly gave so much of it to me,” she said. “And very abruptly took it away, and only gave it back in tiny doses.” She called this behavior “grooming,” a term typically used in reference to children.
Another of Smith's former lovers, Erica Kay, told Jezebel that she began dating Smith in 2014, while they were both in college at Montclair State University, and continued to sleep with him for several years after they broke up. Kay classifies Smith's behavior as "coercive." Smith "employed tactics of control and manipulation," Shepherd writes, "including an unwillingness to have sex with [Kay] unless she wore a specific eye makeup."
In June, after rumors about Smith’s behavior began to circulate and Jezebel started looking into the story, the company conducted an internal investigation. “We were naturally concerned by what we heard,” Mic’s executive news director Kerry Lauerman told Jezebel. “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.” Through their investigation, according to Lauerman, “the team found no evidence that Jack had behaved improperly at Mic." Smith returned to work on September 5. He was fired less than three weeks later.
Jezebel’s article is almost as much about Smith’s hypocrisy as a progressive man acting badly as it is about the behavior itself. As one of Smith accusers told Jezebel, “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.” In light of this, it’s worth wondering if this story would have been published if Mic weren’t a hub of progressive politics and if Smith hadn’t presented himself, at least professionally, as a woke male. Being an asshole to dates isn't (or wasn't) all that notable; plenty of both men—and women—are coercive and manipulative to people they date. Being a bad boyfriend might not be criminal, but it has officially become a fireable offense (bad girlfriends, however, still get a pass).
Kay, the woman who told Jezebel that Smith would only have sex with her if she wore particular eye makeup, tweeted after the piece came out: “what he did to me was rape, even though it was through coercion and manipulation.” She also spoke about him more than once on her podcast, The Ex Files. In an episode that aired in April, she says: “I'm not going to say his full name because I guarantee that pussy would sue me. He's literally the worst person ever. Find my Twitter and I have at least three threads on why he's a [awful] human being and why he should not be employed at mic.com.” She also says that when she realized Smith was balding, she went out and got a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
The last time Kay and Smith slept together (which Kay called her “monthly dick appointment with Jack”), she says she noticed a Victoria's Secret bag in his bedroom, as well as an extra toothbrush, which made her suspicious. After leaving his house, she says on the podcast, “My stalker ass goes to social media. … He had me blocked since we broke up and I’m like, whatever. Still going to fuck you. Dick too bomb. I didn't give a shit about this man as a human being.” By combing through his Instagram (because she was blocked, she used her dog’s Instagram account to log in), she discovered that Smith did have a girlfriend. She later contacted that woman to tell her that she’d been sleeping with Smith for years, which, she says, Smith denied. (Kay, it should be noted, has a history of issuing threats: In March, she tweeted a screenshot of a text exchange with someone named Patrick. After a heated disagreement about whether or not the Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs is racist—she says it is; he says it’s not—she texts, “if you ever get anywhere in life i will personally make it a point to call you out for this. i will not forget. i am not the person to make enemies with.” Kay declined to comment for this piece.)
I have no doubt that Smith treated Kay and the other women in Jezebel’s story poorly. But still, he is not, according to the Jezebel report, accused of malfeasance at work or in a professional setting. None of the women Smith is alleged to have mistreated worked with or for him. Some worked in the same field, but he wasn't their boss or manager or in any position of power over his accusers. He also wasn’t prominent enough to make or break anyone's career. He’s not a politician or a nominee for the Supreme Court. Mic’s own internal investigation found that there was no evidence he’d acted improperly on the job. Still, Smith’s firing shows his personal life was clearly a liability for the company—which, according to a report published last week in the Wall Street Journal, is currently considering an offer to sell.
Over the course of the #MeToo movement, a small number of writers and thinkers expressed concern that what started out as a legitimate response to sexual assault, harassment, and inequity in American society will spin into a moral panic, in which poor but normal human behaviors take on the weight of crimes. Masha Gessen wrote about this possibility last year in the New Yorker: “A moral panic is always a reaction to something that has been there all along but has evaded attention—until a particular crime captures the public imagination,” she wrote. “Sex panics in the past have begun with actual crimes but led to outsize penalties and, more importantly, to a generalized sense of danger.”
If this piece from Jezebel is any indication, we’re entering the “generalized sense of danger” phase of the movement now. And maybe that’s a good thing. For far too long, many men have gotten away with brutality against women, both at work and at home. The man currently nominated for the Supreme Court has been accused of multiple counts of sexual assault. The man in the White House has been accused of similar crimes. Is a period of moral panic the appropriate corrective to decades of crimes? The answer, according to Jezebel, seems to be yes.
Straight men of America: take note.