Commentary Media

Public Shaming of Sofia Vergara Isn’t About ‘Debate’

Amanda Marcotte

The New York Times op-ed section gave space to Sofia Vergara's ex so he could demand she turn some frozen embryos over to him. There's a way to have this debate without allowing toxic people to attempt to control and shame their exes in public.

Last week, New York Times readers bore witness to a surreal and stomach-churning situation as space in the op-ed pages was turned over to Nick Loeb, trust-fund baby and ex-boyfriend of TV star Sofia Vergara, for the obvious purpose of emotionally abusing Vergara through public humiliation. Ostensibly, Loeb was attempting to argue his case for keeping some frozen embryos that Vergara made with him prior to their breakup. But anyone with an ounce of education on the issues of domestic violence and stalking could smell a man with an obsessive need for control all over his writing. Loeb could hardly be bothered to conceal this motivation, in fact, writing about how he “began to push for children” during their relationship and how, when she kept putting it off, he “gave her an ultimatum.”

The piece has a few perfunctory “pro-life” statements about Loeb’s casual Catholicism and his deep love of children, but the actual sense the reader gets is that we’re dealing with a man who has no respect for women’s autonomy. In the piece, Loeb even whines that a previous girlfriend had an abortion “and the decision was entirely out of [his] hands.” Ugh, it’s like she thought it was her own body and not his property! Overall, for all the chatter about “life,” it was evident that the publication of Loeb’s piece was way more about giving voice to a man who personally wants to exert power over the women in his life.

Feminists immediately cried foul, pointing out what should have been obvious: that this was an overt attempt on Loeb’s part to punish Vergara for deciding not to have children with him. Rewire’s own Jodi Jacobson told the Guardian, “It’s reproductive coercion and it’s using a public platform to try to get public sympathy for reproductive coercion.”

The outpouring of public criticism forced the Times to respond, but its reply left much to be desired. The editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal took a defensive tone, saying the section “is intended to spark discussions, debate, controversy and even some yelling.” He implied that the critics were just closed-minded and unwilling to listen to differing points of view, writing, “It is jarring, perhaps, for Times readers to see such a strong ‘pro life’ article on our pages, just as it was recently when we published an article by Bobby Jindal that took strong right-wing political positions.”

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This is poppycock. The critics of the article, by and large, do not object to people making “pro-life” arguments in public. We may argue with them or encourage people to see the true anti-woman motivations lurking beneath the surface, but the vast majority of pro-choicers oppose censorship. The objection was to using “pro-life” as a pretext for enabling emotional abuse and bullying, which public editor Margaret Sullivan tipped her hand to by writing “the word ‘tabloid-y’ — if that is, indeed, a word — comes to mind.” In other words, Loeb’s piece wasn’t a political analysis of a complex situation; it was, in the gross tabloid style, an invasion of someone’s privacy. In a sense, it was even worse than what the tabloids do, because their interest is in simple titillation, whereas this is about trying to bring a woman under a man’s control.

After all, there are plenty of ways to put forward the “pro-life” argument without giving space to a man to launch a public attack on his ex using tired and misogynist tropes about evil careerist women supposedly reneging on their duty to give men children. You could give space to one of the many, many conservative writers out there to make this case—most of them would be delighted. In fact, the Times already does this, employing Ross Douthat as a regular columnist so he can relentlessly grind his ax about how sexual freedom for women is the end of civilization as we know it. Douthat is frequently full of it, but at least he doesn’t use his platform to launch some creepy personal vendetta against an ex-girlfriend. Sure, more abstract pieces about embryonic life versus women’s rights may not get the same traffic as inviting people to shame a sexy TV star on behalf of her creepy ex, but at least people will believe you as the editor when you claim your only interest is in fomenting debate.

Contrast this gross display with this excellent article by Zachary Jason of Boston Magazine about the incident that kicked off GamerGate, when a vindictive and obsessive man named Eron Gjoni, in an overt attempt to punish a woman for not wanting to be with him any longer, took to the Internet to paint her as some failure as a woman because of her private sexual choices. Like Loeb, Gjoni has a bunch of high-minded excuses for putting his ex-girlfriend in the virtual stocks so that his fellow misogynists can lob digital tomatoes at her. But unlike Rosenthal, Jason isn’t taken in by Gjoni and his fellow GamerGaters blathering about “ethics in journalism” or whatever their excuse is this week. He argues that Gjoni has a “slinking obsession” and “wouldn’t let her go.” Rosenthal should have, like Jason, refused to enable a man who needs to dial down his obsession. Instead, he allowed him to flog it in public.

There’s an irony in all this, which is that, if anti-choicers are smart, they would put some serious distance between themselves and Loeb. For one thing, his claim to be “pro-life” doesn’t pass muster. Embryonic death is built into the IVF process, something Loeb tacitly admits by mentioning the loss of some during Vergara’s own process. If you think embryos are actually children, IVF is the equivalent of letting a dozen of your children sleep in a snowstorm on the grounds that only the toughest survive. No big surprise that the best Loeb can do to explain how he, someone who doesn’t seem religious, discovered this deep well of love for embryonic life is that he went to some Catholic masses with his nanny as a kid. It’s not very persuasive.

For another thing, the obvious creepiness dripping off Loeb’s piece is the sort of thing anti-choicers would be wise to avoid associating with. Anti-choicers have long understood that if they admit that they’re in this to control and punish women for things like career ambitions or sexual autonomy, they will lose. So instead the talking points are all things like “life” and “protecting women.” Aligning themselves with a man who comes across as an entitled trust-funder who cannot believe that a woman is allowed to tell him “no” isn’t a good look for anti-choicers.

And yet, perhaps because most anti-choicers share Loeb’s apparent obsession with control, very few in the anti-choice press seem to pick up on the fact that his creepiness hurts their cause, nor that his religious gabbing comes across as insincere. Plenty of anti-choice activists are running up to support Loeb and shame Vergara, letting that urge to chagrin an independent woman overwhelm basic political sense. But perhaps it’s hard for them to see how all this looks to outsiders. This is the same movement that encourages activists to show up at clinics to publicly embarrass the women going into them, so Loeb probably just seemed like a natural fit for them. As much as they know intellectually that they should try not to come across as prurient creeps, it appears anti-choice activists can’t help themselves.

For her part, Vergara is handling her ex’s tantrum with grace. “I’m not going through anything,” she told Howard Stern when he asked about it. “He’s going through something.”

“I’m doing the right thing. I didn’t do anything wrong,” she added. At least someone in all this seems clear about what, exactly, is going on.

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