Jenny (not her real name), 35, said that a man approached her and said hi while she was walking on the beach with her 9-year-old daughter last September. “He had a mask on, so I didn’t really pay much attention,” she told me. He walked away and then circled back and pulled down his mask. She recognized the actor immediately. David (a pseudonym) was down-to-earth, handsome, and charming. “He started asking me more personal questions about myself and ended up giving me his phone number. I was kind of in disbelief, and I didn’t really know what he wanted,” she said.
She said they began DM’ing after she tweeted at him later that day. “He was really nice at first, and he did seem interested in me as a person,” she said. She said she told him about her past experience with abuse and how she had experienced PTSD. “I felt that by doing that, I was letting him know that I wasn’t in a position to be objectified,” she said.
About two days later, she recalled, the messages changed in tone. “It was abrupt. It [went] from talking about normal life … and then [he] started requesting very sexual, and — now that I look back at it — very embarrassing things,” she said. She told me he asked for nude photos and explicit videos, which she sent and basked in his attention via Snapchat, phone calls, FaceTime, and texts.
They discussed meeting again in real life, but he said he wasn’t interested in a relationship. He said “he [had] just gotten out of one, that he couldn’t be there emotionally,” she told me. “I was OK with that.” But Jenny felt that he was sending mixed messages. “He was insisting he didn’t want a relationship while asking for things you would ask for in a relationship, like exclusivity,” she said. She told him she wasn’t dating anyone else, but he didn’t offer the same on his end. He also asked her not to tell any of her friends about what they were doing. “He [said] he was a really private person and he values his privacy, which I understand because he’s a public figure. But it was also a level of secrecy that made me feel uncomfortable,” she said.
Then, she recalled, he asked for something new. “He wanted to do this whole dom-sub thing,” which she said he had never stated outright but implied through his actions. He told her to refer to him as “sir” and to answer his questions with a “yes, sir.” When she had an orgasm over video chat, she had to say his name and then say “thank you” when she was done.
Later, she said, he started pestering her for increasingly explicit photos and videos. If she had raised any concerns, she said, rather than address how he was making her feel, he would say things like, “You [said] you were OK with it.” “It really, really messed with my head the whole time because he kept insisting he didn’t want a relationship, but he kept contacting me for months.” She said she stayed in touch with him for nearly a year, assuming that the actor was seeing other women — he was a movie star, after all — but also feeling pressured into doing things she didn’t want to do.
Stories like Jenny’s are emblematic of the messy post-#MeToo debates swirling around sex, power, and agency — especially in celebrity–civilian encounters. More and more stories are popping up on social media about these interactions and the complicated feelings women have about them — particularly around expectations of honesty. And perhaps most crucially, women now feel more comfortable uniting with each other to call out the power imbalances. But not everyone agrees on the most effective way to do it or how best to untangle the thorny questions that arise.
This summer, Jenny began following Deuxmoi, a crowdsourced celebrity gossip Instagram account. Deuxmoi, which declined to comment for this story, publishes unverified and uncorroborated reader-submitted comments about celebrities, including anything from sightings to purported leaks of information. The account’s bio reads, “statements made on this account have not been independently confirmed. this account does not claim any information published is based in fact.”
Rebecca Ortiz, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies the #MeToo movement and social media, said that accounts like Deuxmoi are useful for women precisely because they can’t be verified. “Somebody with power [is] going to be able to use that power against anybody who is accusing them. … To gain any power back, you have to sometimes go into these anonymous ‘unverified spaces’ because you’re not being heard anywhere else,” Ortiz said. But sharing stories anonymously can lead to backlash. “Voicing those stories in a space that isn’t verified plays into that tendency we have already to question victims and survivors. But it’s not the space itself doing that, it’s our culture. ”
It’s possible that untrue accusations of sexual assault could be shared on sites like Deuxmoi; the account has posted tips that later turned out to be false. But a fear of being accused of lying has led many women to keep quiet about assault, Ortiz said. That’s why some are more comfortable sharing their stories anonymously, particularly after the #MeToo movement led them to recognize they weren’t alone, she added.
Jenny saw a series of posts about a famous fortysomething actor from an early aughts TV show cavorting around New York City with different women. (We’ll call him John.) The posts featured reader-submitted sightings: John at a downtown hot spot with his arm around a woman, or at a famed restaurant with another woman.
These posts contained unverified information from unidentified sources but still inspired passionate conversations. Some readers reveled in the drama of John’s paramours finding out about each other, while others claimed to be the women from the posts, tweeting about being surprised or jokingly suggesting they all meet up because there were so many of them.
With claims like these proliferating on the internet, many of them impossible to authenticate, discussing celebrity activities with such fervor might seem trivial or unjustified. But Hilde Van den Bulck, a professor of communication studies at Drexel University, doesn’t think so. “When we talk about celebrities, we’re talking about ourselves,” she said. She has analyzed reader reactions to celebrity sex scandals and found that even though most people begin discussions with comments about the celebrity, they move on to more general issues.
It’s not a new story: women trading youth and beauty for social status, and men using wealth and fame for access to youth and beauty.
Dissecting a famous person’s sex life allows people to “talk about things that are difficult to talk about,” she said. “Even in 2021, talking about sex is still not that [easy]. It may be more easy to talk about [sex] through celebrities.” These conversations allow people to ask, Where do we stand as a society? Should we rethink our norms?
One of the women who said she met John over the summer was 24-year-old Casey. She attended an exclusive early aughts–themed party on New York City’s Lower East Side with her 23-year-old friend. John stood out among the sea of beautiful twentysomethings. He approached the pair and asked for Casey’s friend’s number.
A few weeks later, Casey said, she ran into the actor at a bar in Brooklyn and he hit on her. “I don’t even think he remembered meeting me when I was with my friend. I think he’s just probably hooked up with a lot of young girls that it probably doesn’t even register,” she said. She turned him down.
I asked Casey about the group of Deuxmoi readers who had called John out. While she thought it was weird for someone in his 40s to hang out with people in their 20s, she said women shouldn’t be complaining. “You can’t be like, ‘I’m being taken advantage of,’ because you’re not a child. You’re an adult. You clearly want to date someone with more money.” And she said the power differential works both ways. For example, some women might have wanted to have sex with him because they were Instagram influencers. “Once they find out he’s wealthy and has been on TV, that’s a motivating factor [for them],” she said. “On one [hand], these women are clearly using him for clout. And on the other hand, he’s clearly using them because they’re hot and young, so it’s on both ends a little messed up.”
It’s not a new story: women trading youth and beauty for social status, and men using wealth and fame for access to youth and beauty. “Youth and attractiveness is a different type of power,” said Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow who studies the psychology of sex at the Kinsey Institute. “There’s this tendency for the job and the money to be the sole focus of these power conversations, and I don’t think that’s the full picture.”
Meanwhile, Deuxmoi began publishing posts from women who were sleeping with other celebrities, and even more stories about the stars flooded in.
Jenny was inspired by what she read on Deuxmoi and wondered if other women had had exploitative experiences with David.
She tapped out a DM to the account asking if she could connect with other women who’d had encounters with David, which it reposted. Like Deuxmoi’s other Instagram stories, it stayed up for 24 hours before disappearing. She waited by her phone, curious whether anyone would reach out.
Celebrities are sexy precisely because they have power and fame; some of their fans crave proximity to that. “The idea of sleeping with a celebrity is a really popular sexual fantasy and one that most people will never have the opportunity to act out,” said Lehmiller. In a comprehensive survey of sexual fantasies published in his book Tell Me What You Want, Lehmiller found that 63% of heterosexual women claimed to have had that desire.
Some who do get to interact with celebrities no longer just tell their closest friends about it; they share their stories on social media. In May, a 19-year-old celebrity assistant shared on TikTok a screencap purportedly from her FaceTime call with then–51-year-old actor Matthew Perry after they matched on the dating app Raya, which she thought was “innocent” at the time. She later told Page Six: “It’s not really OK for these older guys to be talking to such young girls.” (Perry did not respond to a BuzzFeed News request for comment.)
One impact of the #MeToo movement has been women alleging on social media negative and even abusive experiences they’ve had with celebrities. In some cases, the celebrities have faced consequences. Recent sexual abuse accusations lodged on Twitter against comedian Chris D’Elia led to a lawsuit, his manager dropping him, and him being recast in a movie. (D’Elia denied the allegations.) A former employee of Andrew Cuomo, then the New York governor, made accusations of sexual harassment on Twitter. The governor was investigated by New York’s attorney general and has since resigned. (Cuomo denied the allegations.) Armie Hammer was accused of rape in March by a woman running the Instagram account @houseofeffie. Other women then contacted her, saying Hammer had abused or manipulated them, and she posted screenshots of alleged texts between Hammer and some of these women. (Hammer denied the allegations.)
But while most public #MeToo allegations are related to potential crimes, many of the claims surfaced by Deuxmoi neither rise to the level of criminality nor become anything more than an uninvestigated Instagram blip. As one woman who said she was involved with David told me, “This is not a #metoo case, but it is a callout and condemnation for disrespect toward women.”
Some readers thought that Deuxmoi’s posts were intrusive. “Why should the general public need to know if any actor sleeps around if they’re doing so legally and consensually? Millions of non famous men do that every day, are we gonna ‘expose’ them too?” one person wrote on a Deuxmoi subreddit (not officially associated with Deuxmoi). Another user chimed in: “Is it a cultural revolution to do the male version of slut-shaming?”
Recently, a New York Post article, inspired by Deuxmoi’s posts purportedly about the dating life of Succession actor Nicholas Braun, was called out on Twitter and Reddit for relying on unverified accounts and for dissecting the actor’s alleged liaisons. “Lol, what’s the story? Pleasant, personable male celebrity has no shortage of women interested in him? If he’s abusive or violent, expose him by all means, but that doesn’t seem to be the case by all accounts, so who cares?” one person wrote on the r/SuccessionTV subreddit. (Braun did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.)
Lehmiller said that criticizing someone who’s dating several people isn’t necessarily slut-shaming unless the focus is the “sheer number of sexual partners.” If a person isn’t transparent about having many partners, they could be criticized for practicing “unethical nonmonogamy … because the people involved are not consenting to what’s going on. And so then it becomes this violation of trust when they actually find out what’s happening.” But it depends on the circumstances; miscommunication can be a factor in people’s expectations of a romantic connection. “In a lot of relationships, monogamy is just assumed rather than being negotiated and defined,” he said.
After Deuxmoi posted her message, Jenny said it wasn’t long before her phone started blowing up. “There were women in the double digits contacting me,” she said. “It was constant.” So she started a group text where the women could compare notes about their experiences with David. One of those women was Madison (whose name has been changed for privacy). The 34-year-old said she met David in fall 2018 while she was working as a marketing and events manager at a private social house in LA and doing sketch comedy on the side. “We genuinely connected over talking about comedy,” she told me. “I was telling someone, ‘I feel like he’s going to mentor me.’”
Madison said they started exchanging emails in which he would tell her to have a beautiful day or call her lovely. She recalled that one day he came into the club with his girlfriend and awkwardly introduced them to each other. The girlfriend seemed cold. But the emails continued. “It was all incredibly flattering. … And I was like, OK, maybe he’s not with his girlfriend anymore.”
“In sharing our experiences, we really felt validated. … It was so relieving for all of us, like, we’re not crazy. We’re not being too emotional.”
She suggested that they move to texting. But as soon as that started, she claimed, he began acting like a different person. “It felt very Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.” He began asking for explicit pictures, she recalled, and she asked if he still had a girlfriend. According to her, he said he did but that she was OK with him having this sort of connection with other women. Madison said she declined to send photos but claimed that he kept trying to push their communications into a sexual realm. “I kept either avoiding it or not acknowledging it or [saying,] ‘Hey, I just want to be friends,’” she said. She said she wasn’t sure about his motives. She thought, Is this person still interested in my career? Do they want to help me?
She said she eventually stopped communicating with him. Several months later, a new TV show he’d worked on aired. She watched the early episodes and noticed there was a character with her name. “At first I was flattered, but it also just felt kind of messed up because this is someone who has so much power and has an authority over my career — not directly, but it felt like this person was taking everything they could from me, even when I didn’t want to give it to them. And then, at the end of it all, he took my name.”
When she saw Jenny’s post on Deuxmoi, she decided to get in touch “to see if it maybe would be healing or therapeutic in some way,” she said. What she found disturbed her.
In the group chat, Madison discovered that her story about David was actually tame compared to others’. Many of the women said they had experienced manipulation and pressure to have sex with him and make sexual videos for him. They said he continued to ask them to perform sexual acts and record these videos even after they’d refused, and that he had sent messages to many of them for months, persuading them that the more videos they sent, the more extreme the sex acts, the more he would like them. When they’d told David they weren’t comfortable with something sexually, he would talk them out of their hesitancy, they said. “Some men … believe that to get a ‘yes,’ they have to go through a couple ‘no’s first. But is that really a yes? Is that really consent? No, it’s not consent. It’s coercion,” said Rebecca Ortiz, the Syracuse professor.
“If you have to talk the woman into doing something she originally says she didn’t want to, that’s pretty messed up,” Jenny said. Some of the women in the group chat claimed that he’d lied to them about being monogamous, possibly putting their sexual health in jeopardy because he’d said he didn’t want to use condoms.
“It was pretty overwhelming for all of us,” Jenny said, particularly because some of the women believed that they were dating the actor. Those women “were heartbroken” to find out that there were dozens of others, she said. But the group was cathartic. “Every woman was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have clarity I haven’t had, and I’ve been just suffering. I’ve talked to friends, to family, and nobody can give me that clarity, because nobody knows what it’s like, especially to have gone through it with the same person,’” she said. “In sharing our experiences, we really felt validated. … It was so relieving for all of us, like, we’re not crazy. We’re not being too emotional.”
Not all the women in the group shared negative comments about David. Jenny recalled that one person said she’d had “a pleasant experience” but was respectful of the others. “They were still very supportive of validating and listening to the ones that did have different experiences,” Jenny said. “Nobody was like, ‘Oh, well, that’s not what I had. He’s just a nice guy.’ It was like, ‘I’m so sorry that that happened.’”
Jenny and Madison believe David’s behavior with them was coercive. Andrew Pari, a counselor and expert on sexual trauma, said some of the behavior outlined by the women I spoke to could fall within what some psychologists refer to as a “gray area” of consent — and that men are usually aware when a woman doesn’t completely consent. For instance, Pari said, a man asking for explicit pictures and videos after a woman said no, even if she eventually agreed, could be construed as coercive.
But according to legal experts, that doesn’t amount to assault. “Verbal ‘coercion’ just by constant pleading or persuasion isn’t enough for rape or any other crime,” Stephen J. Schulhofer, an New York University law professor who studies rape and consent law, told me in an email. “Only if the verbal coercion is a threat of physical injury, then it’s rape.”
Susan Estrich, a law professor at the University of Southern California, gave this hypothetical. “If he finally said, ‘I’ll kill you if you don’t do it,’ [then that’s assault],” she said. But if he said, “‘Can I ask one more time?’ And she said, ‘Oh, alright,’ that’s known as persuasion.”
Still, Pari said, the cultural conversation around #MeToo hasn’t caught up to the nuances of coercion, exploitation, and abuse. He said a person would be acting ethically if they explained that they were not interested in a relationship and acted accordingly. “But if he’s seriously dating and acting like there’s a deep relationship forming when there isn’t, then that’s abusive and coercive,” Pari said. “Most predators will use the least invasive method of getting what they want so that they can create the false impression in the mind of their victim that they were consenting and complicit,” he said.
The conversation about consent has come a long way. “I used to fight with people literally about whether no meant yes,” Estrich said. “Now, I think everybody agrees that no means no.” But, Estrich said, both conduct and context matter. “The fact that sex may be inappropriate doesn’t mean it’s unlawful … unless it’s nonconsensual. And traditionally the law required force or threat of force.” However, she cautioned, “I don’t think we want to infantilize women. We don’t want to assume that we’re not capable of acting as autonomous people.”
Madison was troubled not just by the claims in the group chat but also by how the other women felt about David’s alleged actions. “Women seem really upset and afraid of him, and afraid about talking about it or going forward or doing anything with it,” she said. So she and Jenny decided to take action. “I don’t want him to keep doing this to women,” she said. “I kind of feel like I have a responsibility to try to do something or share this information.” Madison and Jenny drafted a statement on behalf of the group:
[David] is an extremely manipulative person whose actions have caused emotional distress, trauma and fear to many of the women with whom he has engaged with. He has even put some of these women’s physical wellbeing into question. He has used sexual coercion and fame to take advantage of women and satisfy his own desires, with little or no regard to the emotional and at times physical safety of his partners.
They hoped to post it on Deuxmoi, but the account declined. One woman who told me she had a sexual relationship with David claimed that he “has herpes and did not disclose that to [her] or any women he was romantically involved with.” She added, “This is not just bad behavior, it’s also a crime in California.” (Under California law, knowingly passing on a sexually transmitted infection is a misdemeanor. Schulhofer, the NYU law professor, said that transmitting an STD can be considered a crime; however, in California and most states, “the defendant has to INTEND to transmit the STD,” he wrote in an email.) She also said that David is aware of the group chat “and he tried to turn the women in this group against one another (unsuccessfully of course).”
Jenny is aware that they could be dismissed as a group of women motivated by heartache and revenge. But they wanted to highlight the real-life experiences of unequal sexual relationships. “I want it to be understood that I’m not scorned. I’m not sad because I didn’t get him as a boyfriend,” she said.
They also aren’t interested in ruining his career. “I just don’t really want women to be treated this way,” Madison said. “I feel like there needs to be an education in our society that just because someone isn’t raping women doesn’t mean what they’re doing is OK.”
These kinds of stories have allowed women who are grappling with questions about power and sexual agency to realize that their experiences are not unusual. “The #MeToo movement has emboldened [these] women to say, ‘Yes, we can group together and be a force,’” Van den Bulck said. But that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to untangle the dynamics of a celebrity–civilian relationship.
The way we think about celebrity–civilian relationships has shifted dramatically over the past decade. Tasha R. Howe, a psychology professor at Humboldt State University who studied rock groupies from the 1980s, found in a 2014 study that most of the ’80s heavy metal groupies she surveyed did not regret having sex with rock stars. Seventy-eight percent of respondents did not feel that band members had “used them.” One former groupie told the researchers: “We all knew what we were doing. … We had no strings attached; everyone kind of used each other. … Everyone was young, having fun. … I never felt used or even disrespected.”
The 1980s were “a very different time in terms of acceptance of casual sex,” Lehmiller said.
“There’s a lot more expectation of accountability for bad sexual behavior [now], even if it’s not in the realm of sexual assault, but [rather] somebody who is engaging in behavior that feels exploitative or manipulative in some way,” he said. “I think people today are much more inclined to want to see that person held accountable for their actions than they were in the past. And I think that’s partially a product of #MeToo and these conversations we’ve been having lately around sexual consent.”
“When a guy that’s powerful in Hollywood promises a model or actress to help her get a part in the film and she sleeps with them, what do you call that?” Estrich asked. “How far do we want to go in saying that sexuality cannot be an element of a bargain? And at what point does pressure of one sort or another make sex nonconsensual? … We do need to talk about these gray areas. They’re legitimate questions. And right now people are afraid to discuss them.”
Madison hopes these stories expand the scope of what behavior we deem unacceptable from celebrities. “Our culture at large does not really recognize [this kind of behavior] as abusive,” she said. “I really want some kind of spotlight to be put on predatory behavior in celebrities and people in powerful positions. And I know that the #MeToo movement has brought a lot of that, but it’s not enough. I just think that we’re still so far behind understanding these dynamics of manipulation and coercion and abuse and how nuanced they can be.”
“What I want to see [from the collective],” Jenny said, “is a floodgate of women just being like, ‘Here’s my experience, and I’m finally free from this. I can finally speak my truth and be believed and be heard.’”
After starting the group chat, Jenny said she called off her relationship with David via text and told him how harmful his behavior was. In his response, she said, he claimed he’d never wanted to hurt her and acknowledged her pain, but added that she was being harsh in how she was judging his actions. Then, she said, he followed up with another message, offering to have a video call to clear things up. He tried to video call her, she said; she did not respond. ●