As #MeToo stories go, Talia Jane’s latest was depressingly typical. Earlier this week, the Brooklyn-based writer was exchanging direct messages on Twitter with a male journalist. After ostensibly offering career advice, he abruptly pivoted: “Anyway, you’re so beautiful,” he typed. And then: “Anyway you are hilarious.”
Jane didn’t respond, but he then sent a third message, which I’d transcribe if it wouldn’t get me fired. Suffice it to say, it was a graphic description of a sexual encounter involving bodily fluids.
Now Jane responded: “This isn’t appropriate or acceptable.”
“Holy s---!” he replied. “That wasn’t intended for you.”
Truly, the lewd sentence had been so bizarre and such a non sequitur that his explanation almost made sense. Except, the message clearly appeared in the same window as their previous exchanges. And when another reporter later contacted the man to ask for clarification about the intended recipient, he declined to elaborate. (It probably was not intended for his wife — yes, he’s married — as this exchange took place late at night, when he presumably could have contacted her via a method more direct than DMs.)
I’m not naming the man, but Jane did, after some deliberation. She publicly shared images of their exchange to her followers on Twitter, and then revealed his identity: Turns out he’s a well-known Seattle Times reporter. Jane also shared her take on his “that wasn’t intended for you” excuse: “Feigning oopsie is pretty typical in sexual harassment,” she wrote.
Readers chimed in, agreeing.
“When I was 19 a manager in his 40s asked me out on a date and told me if I said no ... he’d sack me,” one woman wrote. “Then tried to make out the whole thing was a joke. It was not a joke.”
“So many moments of, [I’m] just kidding, lighten up!” wrote another.
“Yes,” a third replied. “It’s their ‘go-to-escape-route.’”
As I watched Jane’s story go viral — the Seattle Times reporter has been suspended — the “feigned oopsie” seemed the most irritating part of it.
It was his way of trying to assume control over the narrative: First, he got to say something disgusting. Then, he got to claim he actually hadn’t been disgusting, he’d just been confused. Then he got to drop the whole dilemma in Jane’s lap.
When I called Jane on Tuesday, she told me his subsequent messages — “If I were you, I would kill me” he wrote, before begging that he needed to protect his marriage — frustrated her as much as the original messages. She sensed that he expected her to reassure him that she would stay silent, and that it wasn’t a big deal.
“It felt like a tennis match,” she said. “Like you’re being set up to respond in a very particular way.”
It’s a neat trick, to immediately follow an obscene comment with an Oh, you misunderstood what happened. It causes the recipient to question their own sanity, perceptions and ability to read a situation. Essentially, it forces someone to choose between whether they’re being sexually harassed or whether they’re crazy.
I asked some friends to help me figure out how to describe the phenomenon.
No, someone responded. “Crasslighting.”
One friend told me about receiving unwanted naked pictures from an acquaintance who later said his phone had been hacked. She doubted it — the words accompanying the photos sounded like his usual texts — but tamped down suspicions. Then, more naked pictures. Re-hacked, he insisted.
Another acquaintance talked about a professional associate who regularly sent texts containing the word “foreskin,” and then blamed auto-correct. He’d meant “forehead,” he would explain — although there was no reason for him to be texting about any body parts at all.
A massage therapist told me about all of the clients who had requested “groin work,” then had indignantly insisted she’d misunderstood when she said she wasn’t that kind of masseuse.
It didn’t happen only to women: A podcast host forwarded me a message he’d received from a woman he barely knew. “I’ll chase you around the city til you can’t run anymore,” she wrote, crudely describing what she’d do once she caught him. She ended with a row of laughing emoji. The emoji, he assumed, were meant as an insurance policy against the possibility of him taking offense. She was just kidding, after all.
In each instance, recipients of these messages described feeling confused and embarrassed, wondering whether they should give the sender the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the phone had been hacked. Maybe it was a typo.
When I first sought out examples of crasslighing, one social media correspondent heatedly pointed out that texts accidentally go to the wrong people all the time. And that’s absolutely true. I once sent a flirty email to a colleague confirming vacation plans — a message meant for my husband. (I realized the error immediately and died a hundred times.)
Maybe the Seattle Times journalist hadn’t meant to message Jane. Maybe he meant to message someone else and was protecting her identity; maybe he’d been hanging out in an X-rated chat room and was embarrassed.
Maybe there are explanations. My decent-human willingness to consider reasonable explanations is what has prevented me from naming the journalist in this column.
But I think the most plausible explanation is this one: I think he meant to message Jane. He was trying to see whether he could get away with it. He was gradually upping the ante, message by message, to see if she’d tell him to stop. When she reprimanded him, he made up a story because he didn’t want to get in trouble.
I think this is probably what happened. Because it has happened to me and many people I know. And we can sense when something is an error, and when we’re being crasslit. And when someone is sorry, and when someone is just sorry they’ve been caught.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more, visit wapo.st/hesse.