Sex Panic in America (review)


“What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life”
By JoAnn Wypijewski
Verso Books, 2020; 320 pages 
ISBN: 9781788738057

“Secrets, like scandals, flourish in gardens of embarrassability,” writes JoAnn Wypijewski, a former editor of The Nation, in this loosely arranged, challenging essay collection, which explores the intersections of sex and power that have been tried in the courts of public opinion. 

Wypijewski dissects this idea, and many others, as she takes on the Harvey Weinstein-triggered #MeToo movement, Catholic priest pedophilia, Woody Allen’s personal life, and Madonna’s Sex book, among an array of subjects.

No form of justice

Written between 1992 and 2019, some of the works remain more relevant than others — such as the lengthy first piece, “The Secret Sharer.”

Delving deeply into the late ’90s crossover between the AIDS and drug crises, Wypijewski masterfully depicts tragedy in an upstate New York former factory town, where many young women were infected with HIV by a smooth-talking drug dealer who arrived from New York City, where he infected other women before leaving Brooklyn.

It seems easy to draw conclusions, yet the actions of both the exploiter and the exploited, and the intersecting elements of power, sex, and class-system circumstance, build until the reader recognizes that no form of justice could truly right the wrongdoing — because it was so much more complicated than just one man’s criminal behavior. 

Sign of the times?

In contrast, the piece about Madonna’s Sex book, written in 1992, seems dated.

Madonna was very much of her time, and when her book was published in the shadow of the AIDS crisis — post-Mapplethorpe NEA scandal but before the Internet era of free porn for all — it became an instant bestseller because of its naked Madonna photos and its unrestrained celebration of sexual pleasure. 

Twenty-five years later, it doesn’t seem like a truly significant cultural moment. The book had unique hinged metal packaging and caused a stir when published — but before reading this essay, I hadn’t thought about Madonna’s book in decades … and probably won’t again.

In an attempt to focus on American society’s deep hypocrisy, based on its Puritanical roots, Wypijewski occasionally shares a personal story, such as in the book’s title essay about the #MeToo movement. She writes about running a department decades past, having an affair with an intern, and telling him: “Of course this means I can’t hire you.” 

By sharing this tale, it appears that she relates more to Harvey Weinstein than to the women he took advantage of?

Courting controversy

As she interrogates the complications of transactional sex and power, Wypijewski challenges the reader to move past collective media-dictated beliefs, and go beyond the hashtag herd mentality to draw one’s own conclusions when she writes,“Sex figures as a preternatural danger, emotion swamps reason, monsters abound, and protection demands any sacrifice, including the suppression of opposing views.” 

Controversy is a thread running throughout the collection, and sometimes it works more successfully than others. In her essay about Woody Allen’s alleged molestation of his daughter Dylan, Wypijewski posits that Mia Farrow, her journalist son Ronan, and daughter Dylan, were motivated by revenge after Allen married his unofficial stepdaughter Soon-Yi when she was 21 and he was 53. 

The author points out that Farrow coached Dylan on her recollections and that the courts decided there was no proof that any abuse occurred. Wypijewski makes clear that the public as well as the Farrow family was condemning Allen for his unusual choice of marrying his ersatz stepdaughter.

“To a society jacked on the politics of personal indictment and the pastime of instant opinion,” she notes, “this modern Grand Guignol has been like catnip to Fluffy.” 

Where one stands on the issue of marrying your girlfriend’s adopted daughter is a matter of personal moral choice, and even if the behavior is abhorrent to you, it is neither illegal, nor, in the author’s opinion, worthy of criminal pursuit.

Authority issues

In each of these essays, Wypijewski presents a point of view “for a future where we are not handmaids of punitive authority but authorities over our own bodies, pleasures and risks” — yet in many of the works, people (mostly men) use their position and power to victimize vulnerable individuals. 

The collection is deeply thought-provoking in that the reader must finally ask: What is society’s responsibility for protecting its most vulnerable members versus the responsibility of the individual to self-inform and self-protect? 

Those in power serve their time or don’t; those victimized either suffer torment throughout their lives or let go of it. Being an authority over one’s own pleasure when it involves others must include mutual consent, and being an authority over our own risks includes mutual disclosure. In many of the situations depicted in these essays, neither is realized — but is society truly to blame? 

Referring to the book’s subtitle, that must be “the mess of life.”

This article has been updated to clarify that Soon-Yi Previn was not Woody Allen’s stepdaughter.

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