Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Most people would agree that the story of Tucker Max is a cautionary tale, but not everyone will agree on the moral. Max is, judging by his Website, an appalling character, a charming drunk with a knack for getting into trouble, behaving badly and publishing ruthlessly funny accounts of his exploits that are humiliating to all involved--but especially to the women foolish enough to get themselves entangled with him. One of the latter, it seems, is Katy Johnson, a two-time Miss Vermont whose Website advocates, among other things, abstinence and sobriety. Needless to say, Max' posted account of an evening's interaction with Johnson painted a rather different picture of her character. Johnson sued, and has so far won an injunction forbidding Max to mention Johnson or his claims about her on his Website.

Now, I have no idea whether Max' unflattering portrait of Johnson is in any way accurate, but let us assume for the sake of argument that it is. (After all, a defamatory tale about a beauty queen, invented out of whole cloth by a notorious jerk, would make for a rather straightforward, uninteresting libel lawsuit.) One lesson that free-speech enthusiasts such as Eugene Volokh apparently draw is that prohibiting "kiss and tell" writings in the name of protecting women's reputations does great damage to First Amendment rights. He's no doubt correct, but to me the legal aspects of the story are by far the least compelling. An anonymous female correspondent has offered Volokh a somewhat less legalistic, and hence more interesting, perspective: "He was doomed the second his case was assigned to a female judge. I'm not an easily offended woman, but Max is the worst kind of cad. He is every woman's worst nightmare come to life."

Now, I know of some people who would dismiss this reaction as unfairly indulgent towards Max' "victims". And they have a point--after all, if Katy Johnson's behavior was unexceptionable, then why should she complain that Tucker Max is telling the world about it? And conversely, if her behavior was less than exemplary, then whom but herself does she have to blame for the entirely predictable consequences?

Indeed, let us reverse the roles for a moment, and imagine that we are dealing, not with a callous man's humiliating public account of his evening with a naive, vulnerable woman, but rather a callous woman's humiliating public account of her evening with a naive, vulnerable man. (I'll leave the details of the hypothetical humiliation to the reader's imagination.) How many people would feel genuine outrage at his victimization, as opposed to gamely advising him to "chalk it up to experience" and move on?

Being a bit of a softhearted type myself, though, I recognize that people make foolish decisions sometimes, and don't necessarily deserve public humiliation for them. Of course, a glance at Max' Website makes it clear that for a woman, giving this fellow so much as the time of day is more than a run-of-the-mill foolish decision. What could possess any woman, let alone an abstinence activist, to hook up with this guy? An obvious answer--again, one that someone more coldhearted than myself would give--is that the lady doth protest too much, and her advocacy of abstinence and temperance is a hypocritical overcompensation for a shamelessly uninhibited streak. But then, Katy Johnson makes a bad poster child for Max' depredations in any event, since she can apparently take care of herself--winning, for example, a court injunction against him.

Much sadder are the numerous cases of horribly messed-up women whose tales Max recounts with a kind of rubbernecker's detached fascination--even as he himself instigates the accident. It is these women on whom Volokh's correspondent presumably took pity in condemning Max so bitterly. (And I daresay that more than a few otherwise intelligent, sensible women--and men, for that matter--have managed to make fools of themselves at one time or another in their choice of opposite-sex companion.)

But if effectively throwing the book at Max--whether legally or merely socially--is a legitimate means to protect women against his like, then what about, say, the methods proposed by Katy Johnson? Aren't more of the kind of vulnerable women susceptible to Max' charms likely to be protected by social norms that promote abstinence and sobriety than by the occasional court injunction against a cad's Website? Given the existence--indeed, ubiquity--of Tucker Maxes in the world, might it not be more productive for the prevailing culture to fortify people in advance against their lures than to attempt (fecklessly, we can assume) to deter them with social opprobrium?

Something tells me that neither the free speech advocates nor the cad-bashers will think to draw that lesson from the episode.

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