I know Lorin Stein a little bit. We weren’t exactly friends, but we were New York City friends, with all that entails. I regarded him, and believe the regard was reciprocal, as the sort of person with whom one could work to mutual advantage without the expectation of enduring loyalty. I believed that he was the sort of person—the rare sort of person—who could make writers better than they really were, and whose literary judgment was trustworthy. One of my goals in life was to write a work of fiction that he would judge to be good, and that he would help to make better. Many, perhaps even most, writers of fiction aspired to be seen as worthy of Lorin Stein’s attention. Not many were. He had earned the right to confer this privilege by a long record of editorial achievements for which he is justly esteemed.
People admired Stein for his devotion to his craft. They gossiped about him because of his carefully constructed persona. He could be winning, and devilish. He was often surrounded by women who were smart and personable and pleasing to look at, the kind who wore their erudition lightly, and fed upon, and fed, the leisurely mood he seemed to conjure wherever he went. When he fixed his unblinking, mesmerized gaze inches closer than you were accustomed to anyone fixing it, invading your personal space just enough to make you self-conscious, you were aware of a subtle assertion of power. It takes a great deal of self-assurance to impose yourself in the manner that was habitual to him. Whether it was sheer bravado, an act, or the true manifestation of a lordly nature was a subject of ironic (nobody really thought it was the third option) debate among people inclined to gossip about the tiny world we inhabited, where he was regarded (with a mixture of irony, resentment, affection, scorn, and awe) as a prince.
His image was an uncanny pastiche of a cool, poised, insouciant white man from an indeterminate midcentury American past. It had something to do with his appearance. Someone as frail and narrow shouldered as Stein really needed custom tailoring not to appear awkward. It also had to do with his manner. He sought to embody an ideal of amateur enthusiasm lost amid the corporate bureaucracies that the publishing houses had been subsumed by and become. Even if it was a put on, he carried it off.
When he was up for the editorship of The Paris Review in 2010, I told him that he was perhaps too perfect for the role for anyone to give it to him. But the instant it was announced, it felt preordained. There was an implicit understanding, something too self-evident to say aloud, that Lorin Stein, chiefly on the basis of his taste and skill, but also on the basis of who he was, what he looked like, how he carried himself, would inherit the mantle of leadership passed down from older men, white men, who had founded our esteemed literary institutions, established their style and tone, and who were still firmly in control.
He was also seen as a bit of a scoundrel. This was a term that one could apply to a frenemy, or even a friend, without the moral opprobrium that has since accrued around the practices to which it referred. If we try hard enough, we can remember the permissive world we all used to inhabit in the year 2016. We all knew men who tried to seduce a lot of women and often enough succeeded. We accepted them as part of the normal order of things in a world where no one we knew disapproved of premarital sex, homosexuality, or any private activity between consenting adults. We knew people of both sexes in the art world and the publishing world who mingled their sex lives and the thing they did to earn their keep. For them, the continuous pursuit of aesthetic bliss was co-extensive with the pursuit of sexual gratification. We allowed them this privilege.
We were living, it becomes increasingly clear, in a lawless interregnum between the widespread desublimation that began in the 1960s, and whatever lies ahead of us, when new rules couched in the language of safety and respect will regulate us. You’ll have to seek verbal consent before you kiss a woman or touch her in a sensitive place, or anywhere. Anyone can adapt to this new rule. No doubt someone, someday, will found a new art of seduction on the protocols of affirmative consent. They favor clever talkers.
Stein’s letter of resignation submitted to The Paris Review board conveyed acceptance of the new authority to which we are all now subject, one that has withdrawn the tacit permission once granted to powerful men to pursue sexual gratification wherever they spied the promise of it. He stood accused of dating interns and writers over the course of his career, of creating a sexually charged workplace atmosphere, of permitting his sexual desires to dictate his editorial decisions. He admitted to the first two, and vehemently denied the third. The attitude he adopts is in line with that of other men who have fallen from their perches in recent weeks, men accustomed to power who suddenly know humility, men who declare themselves the chastened beneficiary of epiphanies. These rituals dispel the illusion that the confessor was only ever someone seeking pleasure and giving it, rather than someone charged with power, besotted by it, and wielding it as the instrument of his sexual will and the locus of his gratification. What enrages women about these statements is precisely the recognition that this astonished male innocence is real and that the true index of male power was precisely this ability to bring power to bear, to be aroused by it, get off on it, without acknowledging it either to oneself or others.
“Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.” The quote is likely apocryphal, credited to Oscar Wilde by some, but capturing the claims of certain feminist theorists. Originally radicals from an insurrectionary vanguard, they later became a cadre of legal theorists and activists marching through institutions. After decades of patiently boring away at the popular assumptions that stood in the path of the realization of their aims, they emerged as a cultural and political force strong enough to impose their terms on archaic hold-outs and dead-enders. For many years, women sought to persuade the rest of society to adopt the doctrine of affirmative consent in law review articles and popular journalistic books and Tumblr accounts. When it was introduced to the world in the 1990s as the formal policy governing sexual relationships at Antioch College, it was widely mocked and derided as the reductio ad absurdum of feminist overreach. Even today, a general plebiscite would likely find a robust majority of the general public, and indeed, at minimum, a significant minority of college-educated liberals, or even self-identified feminists, rejecting it. But students of social change and the law will tell you that often the changes we later regard as fundamental, such as the attainments of the civil rights movement, were always at first counter-majoritarian, pushed through by legal mandarins conjuring hitherto unsuspected rights embedded in our fundamental law. Later these coups acquire the aspect of historical inevitability. Students of social change will tell you that sometimes coercive force is necessary to impose a norm unreachable through other means.
There has never been any principled defense of sleeping with interns or junior employees or using the office after-hours as a place to have sex. It has never been prudent practice to have sex with writers. It was always inappropriate, if often enough (let’s not forget), avidly desired and sought out by them. Such overt eroticism compromised everything it touched and created a poisonous dynamic for those forced to work in proximity to it in ways that could stymie the growth of a woman’s career. Yet it seemed that most everyone who could do the inappropriate was doing it. Alongside the official prohibition went a practice of benign neglect, lax enforcement. Now, we’re bringing ourselves into compliance with our stated ideals in the way all new disciplinary regimes are instituted: by making a public example out of those who transgressed. The punishment has to be severe enough to serve as a deterrent. One such punishment is to take away the thing someone loved most and did best, and never to let them near it again.
Is affirmative consent what we want? “It’s not what I want,” I recall being told by one female friend who can only be described as powerful and authoritative, and also one of the stronger voices in my social-media feeds cheering on the campaign against workplace sexual abuse. The logical end-state of this movement is the blanket prohibition of workplace desire and adoption of affirmative consent as the norm governing relations between the sexes. Will the campaign founder on such ambivalence, or in fact be fed by it, as we seek to impose legal and moral clarity on aspects of the irremediable tangle of human desire?
What I’ll say for now is we should try to hold in balance two truths. Sex is an intractable conundrum rather than a solvable problem. But that does not absolve us of the obligation to try to make better arrangements to minimize the chance that people are victimized by it. But we should attempt this in full recognition that there may not be a satisfactory way to render safe and tractable the will to domination and subordination that radical feminists rightly see as bound up in sexual desire without summoning up a will to purity and control—and vengeance—at least as destructive as the thing it opposes.
The paradox of a campaign that derives so much of its persuasive force from the image of female victims is that its success is predicated at every level on the fact of female power. Feminism is what happens when a growing cohort of women receive educations equal to or better than those men receive and notice the gap between their capacities and their de facto rights. Radical feminism is what happens when people who have achieved their formal legal enfranchisement notice the persistence of the Ancien Regime. The mainstreaming of radical feminist premises has effected a rolling coup that unseats powerful men accused of insulting the dignity of women. This is what happens when the rising expectations of a class on the march finally acquire means sufficient to its transformational ambition to change the world to suit its ideals.
Nearly a decade ago, a junior-level female magazine employee told me that many had their knives out for Lorin Stein. The world that preserved and protected his anachronistic privilege was on its way out, she told me, and the new dispensation would catch him in the end. As I watched Stein’s ascent to ever greater levels of prominence and acclaim in the succeeding years, I always wondered if and when the reckoning would come, always suspecting that someday it would: Such was the conviction I detected in this woman’s statement. It was easy to intuit the existence of a network of silent watchers cataloging everything and patiently waiting for the opportunity to strike. Surely Stein knew of its existence and blithely thought it would never have the strength to impose its will on him. He misjudged. The other part of failing to acknowledge your own power might be failing to notice the resentment and the resistance it engendered, to the point where you might fail to notice the point at which the powers summoned up against you exceeded your own. At such epiphanic moments, the invisible work of decades reveals itself, as a hollowed out structure of privilege gives way in an instant.
It’s too early to say what will replace it, but not too early to request those designing this new structure to recognize the changes that have already happened to their own status and power. Seventy percent of high school valedictorians are girls. Women under the age of 30 earn more than their male peers. Many colleges can only sustain a female-to-male ratio that does not dip below 60 percent women only through a policy of affirmative action for a class that systematically lags behind their peers: men. The claim here is not that equality has been achieved and that nothing remains for feminists to do. For there is, of course, a wider world beyond the restricted domain of the professional-managerial class in which women only seem to grow ever more powerful. In that unreconstructed world, the majority of women of all colors who comprise the working poor often labor beneath the thumbs of petty tyrants without recourse to the media or a human-resources department. Nor is it that the tables have turned completely for professional-class women. Just that the world has changed, and is changing. As the changes accelerate, feminists should remember something they know well from their own experiences with men: Nobody is so dangerous, to themselves and others, as a person or collectivity that wields power without acknowledging it.
Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.