UNTIL THE SPRING of 2018, Jonathan Kaiman was the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. Today he is living at the home of his parents in Phoenix under conditions he describes as a form of psychological house arrest. There are no visitors, and his few remaining friends rarely call. He feels unable to make new ones, because he fears the reaction of anyone who Googles him. He's 32, unemployed, and perhaps unemployable--"I'm radioactive," as he puts it. And he's still trying to find the right combination of psychotropic medication to quell the recurrent thought that ending his life may be the best way out.
His concern about search engines is not paranoia. Because if you Google Jonathan Kaiman today, the results will likely lead you to conclude that he is at best a sexual creep, at worst, well, it's hard to tell--but something worse. He is one of the least famous, least powerful men on the lists published by The New York Times and Bloomberg of those who have lost their jobs in the wake of #MeToo. Kaiman was accused by two women, each once his friend, of behaving badly during separate casual sexual encounters, four years apart. The result of these accusations--even in the absence of any formal legal proceedings-has been a thoroughgoing destruction of his life.
Before it all fell apart, Kaiman's life was a success story. After graduation from Vassar, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in China. He stayed on, became fluent in Mandarin, and, starting as a freelancer, worked his way up the journalism ranks. He was detained multiple times by the Chinese government for his reporting on human rights. He discovered a little-known story about an American pilot held captive in China during World War II, spent seven years researching it, and last year sold a book proposal to Random House. He was also in his first serious, long-term relationship; he and his girlfriend were planning to move back to the United States, where he would write the book. That career is over, and so is the book contract. His girlfriend, Charlotte Arneson, has stayed.
Given the millennia during which women have had to take male abuse and suffer under institutionalized denial of and indifference to it, it is perhaps understandable that there is a willingness to shrug off the prospect that some unfairly accused men will become roadkill on the way to a more equitable future. A common feminist dictum holds there are no innocent men, as per the slogans #YesAllMen and #KillAlIMen. We are now in a time when a sexual encounter can be recast in a malevolent light, no matter whether the participants all appeared to consider it consensual at the time and no matter how long ago it took place. Looking back, it can be even harder--perhaps impossible--to know what really happened in a private sexual encounter.
But creating injustice today does not undo the harms of the past; instead it undermines the integrity of the necessary effort to address sexual misconduct. When we endlessly expand the categories of victim and perpetrator, we let loose forces that will not stay contained. Anyone, regardless of innocence, can be targeted and found worthy of destruction. And long after the headlines have faded, the damage continues to accrue.
'I DO NOT SHARE THE BLAME'
DURING HIS NOW-FINISHED nine-year journalism career, Kaiman was well-liked and well-respected enough by his colleagues to have been elected in 2017 as president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC)--a volunteer group that defends journalists' rights and organizes social and educational events for reporters and other expats working in the country. His successor as FCCC president said that before Kaiman's first accuser came forward, there were no complaints against him or even rumors about misconduct. Nor had the Los Angeles Times received any.
The end of Kaiman's career began January 10, 2018, with a post on Medium by a longtime friend and onetime fellow expat, Laura Tucker, now a law student in the United States. In it, she described a sexual encounter with Kaiman that had taken place five years prior, in March 2013. After an evening out drinking and flirting, Tucker drove Kaiman on her scooter back to her apartment. There, she wrote, they mutually and consensually undressed and got into bed. (Tucker's account is taken from her Medium post; Kaiman's accounts of what happened to him are from interviews and various transcripts, including his Los Angeles Times human resources inquiries.)
That the same generally agreed-upon set of facts can result in wildly different interpretations about an event, especially a sexual one, is illustrated by how Tucker and Kaiman described what happened that night. Tucker wrote that while making out in bed with Kaiman, she had a change of heart, so she stood up and said she didn't want to continue. She wrote, "He lay on the bed, not moving, watching me. I remember that he sort of smiled and seemed to pout." As they talked and she repeated that she didn't want to have sex, she wrote, "he began to whine," which made her feel "like it was too late to back out."
In Kaiman's telling, he was startled by Tucker's sudden U-turn and tried verbally to re-establish their previous playful mood. While they talked, he stayed where he was; he didn't want to make any physical move toward her. He says that after a brief conversation he concluded the night was coming to an end and that he should leave, so he sat up with the intention of getting dressed.
She described what happened next: "I am still so upset that I concluded the easiest, least confrontational way forward was to place male satisfaction above my own desires and to go back to bed." The sex made her feel "gross," she wrote, and Kaiman left immediately afterward. His recollection is that she was a full participant and that he stayed the night. When he went to kiss her goodbye the next morning, he says, he was surprised that she seemed distant and upset.
After he left, she stewed about what had happened. She was angry with both herself and him, and she wrote an email to tell him so. He felt "gutted" by her reaction, immediately apologized, and suggested they get together to talk it out. They met, and she ended up feeling his apology was insufficient. He thought that since she voluntarily resumed sex, their encounter was fully mutual, that his apology was appropriate, and that when they parted their friendship was on track.
It wasn't, she wrote on Medium, adding that she distanced herself from him and tried to avoid him at social events, especially those involving alcohol. He has electronic exchanges from her in the months following their encounter in which she sends him friendly notes and initiates get-togethers, including a suggestion that they meet over drinks. Eventually, she returned to the U.S., and they fell out of touch.
Why would she go public--giving Kaiman no warning--with this story of a long-ago, private event that, while regretted, did not involve a sexual assault? Especially since in telling it she was sure to damage someone who had been a friend and who held no power over her? Tucker provided both a societal and a personal explanation. She wrote that in the wake of #MeToo, she wanted to "add my voice to the broader outcry against sexual misconduct." She also said she had come to realize that "what happened was not my fault...and I do not share the blame. This was Jon's fault."
UNDERMINING THE FEMINIST ENTERPRISE
The journalists who uncovered these stories--the accused have variously denied aspects of their reporting--earned well-deserved prizes and praise. There is obviously much more to be done. Toward that end, Time's Up, an organization started by women in entertainment in the wake of the Weinstein accusations, has created a legal defense fund with a focus on helping women in low-wage industries, who have little to no job protection and rightly fear reporting systematic abuse and harassment.
But the accusations against Kaiman, and what happened to him as a result, should be a warning about the dangers of moral panics and of applying mob justice and the bazooka of social media to private relations. The entire feminist enterprise is undermined if society comes to the conclusion that women bear no responsibility for their choices in the sexual realm. I agree with points made in an interview with The New Yorkerby Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, a left-leaning feminist and author of Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Harper). She is a supporter of #MeToo, but she also expresses concerns about the potential undermining of hard-won progress.
"We've got to retain this idea that feminists have fought for over a century, for women to be treated as adults in the erotic realm and as sexual agents," Kipnis said. "And that is going to include making mistakes, and the right to make mistakes." Citing second-wave feminists, she praised the women who "really tried to be honest about heterosexuality as a relationship, not just something that was done to women, but something that women who are heterosexual participate in."
Now, just under two years since #MeToo broke, cases like Kaiman's are leaving the public--women and men, Democrats and Republicans--uneasy. I wrote in The Atlantic in March about the unfair treatment of former Democratic Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who faced multiple accusations of...