A few years back, curled up in the window seat of a rustic island cabin, I got a Facebook message from a woman I didn’t know. She was writing, very cordially, to tell me the man I was dating, the one with whom I had just exchanged sweet endearments, was her boyfriend. Of four years.
I felt an immediate sense of humiliation and rage and spent a sleepless night stewing in scenarios that would make this man feel remorse for his deceit. I didn’t believe we would continue to date since our history could only be measured in months, not years. But I couldn’t imagine walking away without acting upon a desire to hurt him.
From the Iliad to True Grit, revenge makes for good drama. The prolonged and obsessive compulsion to address a slight to one’s honor and pride is an epic plot point. But carrying out anything remotely resembling the macabre machinations of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl would, for me, be as enjoyable as watching the slow immolation of a baby animal.
Recently, professional porn and fetish performer Ali Knox Tweeted about her most satisfying commission. As featured in Rolling Stone, Knox was asked by a woman to make a humiliation video for her ex-husband, berating him for all the abhorrent behavior she’d endured during their relationship. Knox reports the woman “thought it would be a great way to have him hear what a terrible person he is.” Dubbed “Spite Porn”, Knox proclaimed it the most satisfying thing she’d ever produced. The video, an excerpt of which can be viewed on her site (no audio unless you pay), begins with a playful personal greeting followed by the revelation that Knox has become acquainted with this man’s ex-wife. She then launches into a scantily clad tirade over “his porn obsession, narcissism, and self-absorption.” According to Knox, “…stuff that could speak to most men.”
Knox’s byline on Twitter reads: “Hateful, mean, and greedy as fuck.” I’d say she’s well in touch with herself. Let’s not gloss over the irony that a woman who makes her living creating porn was shaming a man for watching porn. I have no problem with people getting off on humiliation if that’s their turn-on. But if this client’s husband loved to be humiliated, he’d likely still be married.
What I don’t buy is, according to Knox, “…that motherfucker deserves all the shame that I sent.” She’s mistaking one person’s side of the story as meaning there is only one asshole in this relationship. Given the vitriol unleashed with Ms Knox as the mouthpiece, I’d say there are at least two.
However, I’m puzzled that most men in Ms Knox’s life have been “self-absorbed narcissists.” Doesn’t that say something about her own choices? But, then, like the masked and the unmasked during a global pandemic, we seem to be inhabiting different planets. Why do I meet mostly good men? Or, if not good, then at least obviously imperfect and not my responsibility to fix. Loads of people on Twitter did a verbal fist pump in response to Ms. Knox’s viral revenge video, with comments such as “…another way for Godess [sic] to empower women and train men.”; “This makes my heart so fucking happy.”; and “You are truly doing God’s work.” After which I slapped my forehead and wondered, What would Jesus do?
Other comments on Twitter reflected my own uneasy feelings. “I’m not sure how this works but fuck it.”; “So…he’s moved on but she hasn’t. Am I reading that right?”; “He is probably laughing that his ex is still giving him so much attention to pay another girl to make this vid.” And my favorite, “Would you do the same for a man?”
One of the most delicate issues I struggle with as a writer about hetero sex and love is the gendered agenda. I’d rather we all work at simply being decent humans. Yet how can I help men understand the experience of women without pointing out that men are steeped in their own power bias? How can this feminist stand up for men without being branded a “him-pathizer” by the Sisterhood? Knox’s spite porn would seem to justify bad behavior by women in response to bad behavior by men, and hardly a way forward from a soured relationship. If we want our men to ultimately be vulnerable and loving, shaming them during or after a relationship is hardly the way to achieve that. If my partner retreated into porn and self-absorption, and he wasn’t that way previously, I wouldn’t claim to be blameless for the disconnect, nor would I take responsibility. But my job as a person attempting to love better is to let down my own defenses and engage with what’s broken. If it’s not fixable, the only decent thing to do is to walk away.
Conversely, men would gain much from confronting their retreat from engagement with women. One man told me his best friend in college would never break up with a woman. Rather, he’d become so unbearable and unresponsive that she would do the breaking up for him. Perhaps that was the strategy of our spurned woman’s husband. And it’s every bit as unhelpful as calling someone a self-absorbed narcissist.
I received some real insight into verbal abusiveness several months ago during a writing seminar at Hugo House in Seattle. When I asked the instructor why it was acceptable for women to write critically about men for their perceived failures, but we rarely see men doing the same to women, she didn’t hesitate with her response. “Because it’s OK to ‘punch up’ and not OK to ‘punch down’.” In other words, it’s unseemly for those in positions of power to criticize the ones below them. But the one who wields power is fair game. When applied to the sexes, this is problematic.
For a woman, ‘punching up’ essentially perpetuates the idea that she is inferior. It’s a stance of victimization and disregards the agency we have as women to act with integrity and as equals. I’m not denying that sexism is still pervasive. I’m only suggesting that seeing it everywhere limits the energy we put into fulfilling our goals. Women do themselves a disservice by believing men to be the guardians of our experience, suggesting men have more responsibility to seek consent than we have in making our boundaries clear. Or that men are, in general, more responsible for a failed marriage than women.
There’s simply no hierarchy when it comes to crappy behavior. Let’s also keep in mind that research on revenge has almost universally found that it hurts the one seeking it more than the person to whom it’s directed. It takes guts to ask those close to us how we might improve, whether professionally or personally. But bludgeoning someone with hateful messages and armchair psychological diagnoses gets us nowhere. An experiment carried out on the delightful Netflix series 100 Humans showed that plate spinning skills improved significantly after positive feedback from a panel of judges. Those receiving negative feedback consistently performed worse the second time around. If we apply this tactic to our interpersonal relationships might our loving skills improve as well?
It’s not that there’s no room for biting remarks in a relationship. Even the nicest of us are growing testy during isolation. And who doesn’t love lobbing the occasional perfect put down like, “Why don’t you leave so I can miss you again.” But unless I’m able to smile after the rage, show him that I still have his back, I’m well on the path to contempt and what Ms Ali Knox apparently feels for “most men.”
I’m trying to learn from the people I admire and emulate them when it comes to how I act in the world. Ruth Bader Ginsberg got to the Supreme court not because there wasn’t rampant sexism facing her at every level, but because she is a tireless and dogged defender of equality. She used her intellect, not to criticize men, but to eviscerate the laws that were blocking the rights of women and minorities. If women insist that name calling and spite porn are an acceptable way to deal with our relationship frustrations are we willing to accept the same from men when they perceive us to be falling short? As Martin Luther-King said, “…‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing.”
I’ve written long missives to men I feel have done me wrong. The letters were never downright abusive but undoubtedly full of self-regarding piety. Writing them felt cathartic. But they have all, for the most part, been ignored, leaving me to feel my sense of injustice exists entirely in my own head and my ex’s can’t be bothered to add to the narrative. These days, I’m trying to simply shut the fuck up and move on.
As for the man who had the other girlfriend? I didn’t write him a letter or pay a porn star to verbally abuse him. Though I didn’t exactly keep my opinion to myself. I convinced my erstwhile lover to meet for coffee and explain why he omitted the existence of his other girlfriend. Like most liars, he seemed convinced of his own magnanimity by wanting to avoid hurting either of us, which to him meant we shouldn’t know about each other. I shook my head and said I couldn’t agree. Rather than belittle him, I wished him well and thanked him for giving me his perspective. Then I sold our story to The Times of London. With the proceeds, I took his other ex-girlfriend out to lunch. She and I remain friends to this day. And we rarely talk about him.