New Welsh Review
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life
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With extensive experience in journalism and editing at the Nation, the American author seeks out her own topics of interest in this exciting insight into sexual politics. Here, Wypijewski treads uncharted ground in sexual politics. Initially, you enter the essay collection with a sense of unease but finish it with a profound desire to question, to challenge, to respond.
This collection openly explores the faults within the American legal system and the way it deals with sexual politics. The author recognises the importance of humanity, not only that of the prosecutor but also of the defence, writing, ‘complex humanity, the mess of life, demands principled humanity.’ Wypijewski suggests ultimately that the state, rightly or wrongly, is the ultimate arbiter. She suggests there is ‘a fundamental conflict between the state and every individual’. Presenting on the left side of political debates, JoAnn Wypijweski is daring in the presentation of her opinions. She remains true to her beliefs (including highly unpopular ones concerning convicted sex offenders), illustrating that ‘scandal… has become the background noise of life’. She also shows how the media, and the criminal justice system can gain profit from keeping arguments simplified and free of nuance. In a world where ‘everyone wants to be believed’, where can we really place our loyalties and alliances?
The first chapter, entitled The Secret Sharer, recounts the case of Nushawn Williams, who was accused of knowingly spreading HIV to several women in the late 1990s. Williams’ face appeared on numerous Most Wanted-style posters. The media spun a story headlining ‘Pop Culture’s trinity of sex, race and danger’. Finishing her arguments with a range of questions – ‘Is he a monster’ and ‘Am I a victim?’ – Wypijewski demonstrates that in many legal cases there remain no winners. In turn, she summarises that ‘none of the young women with Nushawn Williams had enough options. Neither did he. Neither does Jamestown [the town in which he took residence in for this part of his life].’
In the second, title, chapter, the author once again emphasises the social, collective and political aspects sexual politics. She blames once again society’s apparent need to create all-encompassing terms explaining, ‘#MeToo has put ambiguous sexual interactions and harassment or assault into the same box…. Like all stories, it exists in a social context. Their reality has many dimensions.’ Through demonstrating compassion and empathy to those in both aggrieved parties, she suggests, ‘So much of the culture [ surrounding sex and its politics] teaches us to be afraid or ashamed.’ Recognising the issues under the umberella term #MeToo, is not an individual issue but a collective one, Wypijewski writes, ‘As a nation, we have been shocked to the core, only to be shocked repeatedly, and to feel as fearful and powerless as ever.’ The final words of this statement, ‘feel as fearful and powerless as ever’, highlights the interplay between between public consciousness, the media and the law. Thus, it identifies and criticises once again the ultimate power of the state that reigns over individuals and influences so many aspects of sexual politics.
Going on to explore the Boston Catholic priests’ scandal, prison abuser Abu Gharib, and even Donald Trump, Wypijewski offers new outlooks on some of the most well-documented cases in America over recent years. In doing so, she uncovers the consequences of a culture aggregated by moral panic and dependence on a legal system focused on punishment.
Wypijewski concludes her exploration of American sexual politics thus:
The police are brutal, the government is brutal, the populace is aroused (taking to the streets) or accommodating (switching from CNN to Homelandto football), brutalised or brutal too. America, cauldron of damaged life.
The simplicity of summing up all the issues raised as a metaphorical ‘cauldron of damaged life’ is both creative and compelling. It emphasises not only the extent of the problems but their multiplicity across several sections of society – not just ‘the disadvantaged’ or ‘the privileged’, not just the ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ but acknowledging the profiteers of scandal entertainment along the way.
What JoAnn Wypijewski has achieved is a robust collection of essays declaring that nothing is simple, solutions are complex and – indeed – the problems of sex and authority do significantly contribute to the mess of life.
Luanne Thornton is this season’s reviewer-in-residence in a project in partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts & Humanities.