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The ‘Shitty Media Men’ Legal Saga Comes to a Close

Years after being falsely accused of rape, Stephen Elliott will receive a six-figure defamation settlement from Moira Donegan.

· 7 min read
The ‘Shitty Media Men’ Legal Saga Comes to a Close
Flickr-posted photo of Stephen Elliott at a 2009 book reading / Moira Donegan’s 2017 “Shitty Media Men” Google spreadsheet.

In September 2018, Adderall Diaries author Stephen Elliott described the extended nightmare he’d endured since being falsely accused of rape on “Shitty Media Men,” the infamous Google spreadsheet created by Brooklyn writer Moira Donegan. Rape is typically a difficult crime to prove or disprove. But as Elliott noted in his widely read Quillette essay, the unusual nature of his sex life, which he’d been open about for years, made him an unlikely target for this kind of accusation:

I don’t like intercourse, I don’t like penetrating people with objects, and I don’t like receiving oral sex. My entire sexuality is wrapped up in BDSM. Cross-dressing, bondage, masochism. I’m always the bottom. I’ve been in long romantic relationships with women without ever seeing them naked. Almost every time I’ve had intercourse during the past 10 years, it has been in the context of dominance/submission, often without my consent, and usually while I’m tied up or in a straitjacket and hood. I’ve never had sex with anyone who works in media. I am not seeking to come out about my sexuality as a means of creating a diversion, as Kevin Spacey appeared to do when he was accused of sexual misconduct. I’ve always been open about my sexuality, and I have even written entire books on the topic. I’ve never raped anybody. I would even go one step further: There is no one in the world who believes that I raped them. Whoever added me to Donegan’s list, it was not someone with whom I’ve had sex.

In October 2018, shortly after Elliott’s Quillette article appeared, he filed a defamation suit against Donegan and the (still unknown) anonymous contributors who’d posted on her spreadsheet, seeking US$1.5 million and “a written retraction to each and every person to whom [the defendants] originally published the false and defamatory statements.” As first reported by the Daily Beast on March 6th, that lawsuit has now been settled, with Donegan agreeing to pay a “six-figure” sum to Elliott.

“I settled because [the suit] had already been [going on for] a very long time, and Moira settled because she knew she was going to lose if it ever actually did get to trial,” Elliott says. “If they’d stopped trying to get the case dismissed and just let it go to trial, this could have been sorted out years ago, and I would have accepted whatever the court decided.”

While Elliott wouldn’t disclose to me (or any other journalist) the exact amount that Donegan agreed to pay, he describes it as being enough to constitute a de facto admission of guilt: “They were never able to find anyone to accuse me of anything remotely close to rape, so I feel my name is cleared.”

“Moira came from a very rich family, so maybe it’s not a lot of money to her,” he adds. “But I don’t come from money. I was a ward of the state. It’s a lot of money for me.”

How An Anonymous Accusation Derailed My Life
Sydney. London. Toronto.

To this day, Elliott isn’t sure who put his name on Donegan’s list, though he strongly suspects it’s a woman whom he once fired from the Rumpus, the magazine he founded in 2009. “I didn’t sue Moira to find out who put me on the list,” Elliott says. “I sued Moira because Moira was actually responsible for the contents of that list, and she took advantage of and encouraged these vulnerable people to advance her own career. And she damaged her own [#MeToo] cause in the process. Because lists like that—anonymous lists that ambitious people use to denounce others in their field—are always full of false accusations. The list ultimately made women less likely to be believed.”

The Daily Beast reported Elliott’s legal settlement in a reasonably neutral way, as did the New York Times in its own follow-up story. Neither outlet was able to get a comment from Donegan (despite the fact that the settlement with Elliott apparently doesn’t preclude public comment from either party). Nor, surprisingly, did either reporter include the usual activist commentary to the effect that Elliott’s payout will deter (actual) rape victims from naming their attackers. One reporter did ask Elliott to respond to “criticism that you filed your lawsuit to attract a ‘new audience’ or get ‘attention,’” but then decided against including this point in the published article. (For the record, Elliott’s response was as follows: “Why respond at all to something so idiotic and obviously wrong? It’s not like I falsely accused myself of rape. I sued because I was falsely accused of rape. Because I wasn’t the only person falsely accused on that list. Because the list itself was a false accusation machine. Because a media blacklist full of anonymous accusations is inherently evil, and indefensible, and if you find yourself defending such a thing you should take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself what happened to your integrity.”)

Needless to say, the money doesn’t come close to making Elliott whole. “You never really get over such a thing,” he says. “My agent fired me … I don’t write anymore, or teach. I barely know anyone connected with the literary world, where I made my living for over twenty years. I had to learn to work in an entirely different field, and I lost almost all of my friends.”

On October 15th, 2018, Graywolf Press, which had published Elliott’s most recent book just weeks after Donegan circulated her “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet, publicly denounced Elliott’s lawsuit. “Graywolf strives to publish literature that reflects empathy, understanding, and generosity of spirit,” the Minneapolis-based publisher tweeted. “The lawsuit brought by Stephen Elliott is not consistent with those values, and in the strongest possible way we express concern for those who may be harmed if it goes forward.” I contacted Graywolf at its corporate email address this week to ask whom they’d feared would be “harmed” by the lawsuit, and to see if the company still stood by its tweet. As yet, I’ve received no response.

Nor have I received a response to a similar inquiry sent to Graywolf’s editorial director, Ethan Nosowsky, who condemned Elliott’s lawsuit using his own Twitter account. In this regard, Nosowsky adopted a weary more-disappointed-than-angry posture, tweeting that “for a time, I imagined that the author of The Adderall Diaries might be able to address his appearance on the Shitty Media Men’s list in a way that could contribute to the necessary conversation that is taking place in our culture.”

That stung Elliott, who told me on Wednesday, “I took $10,000 less for The Adderall Diaries from Graywolf than I was offered from [W.W.] Norton, specifically because I wanted to work with [Nosowsky] as my editor … It was a huge betrayal.” Certainly, one wonders if Nosowsky himself, if faced with similarly false career-ending rape accusations, would likewise abstain from rebuttal so that he might seize on the opportunity for cultural “conversation.”

Donegan created her anonymous-accusation spreadsheet in October 2017, just days after the New York Times reported details of substantial sexual-misconduct allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Both #MeToo and “Believe women” were trending heavily on social media. And there was mounting pressure on both journalists and law-enforcement officials to accept sexual-assault allegations at face value. Yet even in that moment, no prominent figure (to my knowledge) explicitly endorsed the truth of the specific rape allegation against Elliott. Immediately following the appearance of the “Shitty Media Men” list, Elliott tells me, Nosowsky himself repeatedly assured Elliott that he believed in his innocence.

In a way, this makes Graywolf’s treatment of Elliott even more unsettling: The publisher’s implicitly stated position seems to be that even an innocent man, facing far-fetched sex-assault accusations, should forfeit his legal rights and reputation for fear of inflicting some (undefined) species of “harm.” The same belief seems to be held by Elliott’s former colleague at the Rumpus, Isaac Fitzgerald, who denounced Elliott’s lawsuit as not only “utter bullshit,” but also “an outrageous act of violence against Moira first and foremost, as well as everyone who contributed to the list or found any measure of solidarity or hope or comfort or usefulness in it. It’s fucking unforgivable.”

In a long Twitter thread punctuated generously with progressive applause lines, Fitzgerald even denounced Elliott for having defended himself journalistically, on the basis that doing so “made him the victim.” To which any objective reader might properly respond: Well, yes, that’s generally how victims of false accusations tend to respond. They present themselves as victims because they are victims.

To the extent that Nosowsky or Fitzgerald were sincere about seeking to prevent the “harm” or “violence” that Elliott’s litigation allegedly caused, their decision to throw a former editorial collaborator under the bus backfired: According to Elliott, one reason why he stuck with his lawsuit for so long is that few people in the literary community would stand up for him publicly (even as some expressed support in private); and so the courts became his only avenue for salvaging his reputation.

“Honestly,” he tells me, “if any of these people had been willing to publicly defend me in that year after the list came out, the lawsuit might not have been necessary.”

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