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It began the way most bad ideas begin at college publications: late at night, high on caffeine, and desperate to fill space. That’s when Micah Sachs, co-editor of Georgetown University’s independent humor magazine, the Gonzo, decided to parody one of the Hoya student newspaper’s most notorious columnists.
About two hours later, Sachs had knocked out “Sex is Fun,” a riff on a Hoya column called “Gender Gap.” Sachs and co-editor Johnathan Mathiesen proceeded to put the finishing touches on the Gonzowhich averages three to four issues a yearand shipped it off to the printer. They stacked the finished product in dorms and dining halls and prepared, as usual, to be Topic A in Georgetown conversation. After all, this is a magazine that once printed a fake Hoya announcing the death of Georgetown President Leo J. O’Donovan. The Hoya even penned editorials demanding to know when the next Gonzo issue would appear.
So, not surprisingly, when copies of the March 1997 issue appeared on campus the Wednesday before spring break, Georgetown students started talking. Eight months later, they haven’t stopped.
And what’s not to talk about? Not every campus rag can pump out a 400-word parody that prompts sexual harassment charges against its authors, two resignations from the mainstream student paper, scads of letters to various publications, and a few protests about censorship. Throw in a lawyer and a skittish administration at a conservative, Catholic univeristy, and you’ve got a first-rate campus potboiler.
“Gender Gap,” written by Kate James, was ripe for parody. It regularly opened with headlines like “Revenge is Sweet but Empowerment is Sweeter” and “Rationalizing Men’s Irrationality.” James generated the most letters to the editor of any columnist, even though her prose was relatively benign. At a school where almost no one wants to be slapped with the feminist label, James dared critique Georgetown men, argue in support of women in the military, and unapologetically promote women’s rights.
But Sachs’ parody of James’ column wasn’t inventive or funny. Instead, it was a mindless, explicit ghost-written confessional about her sexual romps with the Hoya’s editor in chief Clay Risen, whom she happened to be dating. Though Sachs had written it, the piece carried James’ byline.
Sachs’ attempts at double-entendre could make it to print only in a campus rag.
“So excited was I by this revelation that sex was actually fun, we went to press again the next night,” reads the piece. “For the next few weeks, since Clay and I spent most of our time in the Hoya office, we sneaked off for quickies in the business office. We fucked while John Keenan was yelling. We went doggy-style while Aaron Donovan was editing. While Adam Curry did layout, Clay laid me out. Staffers held our calls while I held his staff.”
Sachs-as-James “wanted it all the time….Once it got so bad I ran into his Econ class and yelled, ‘I’m your whore, Clay! I’m your whore!’”
The kicker: “Who am I to question the ancient order, the dominance of man over woman?” the column closes. “We women are just prostitutes at heart. For dinner and a movie, we’ll put out.”
Sachs proudly defends the piece as an exemplar of the Gonzo’s legendary nose for satire. “We can find humor in anything,” he says.
On the March morning the piece appeared, a friend of James’ came over and said he had to talk to her. He handed her the Gonzo, which ran a photo of her that had been reprinted without permission from the Hoya.
“I kind of felt like I was in a nightmare world. It was just so unbelievably horrible,” says James. “And the thing is, when I was reading it I kept thinking, the Gonzo is supposed to be humor. So I kept waiting for it to get funny. But it just got more and more disgusting.”
James might have expected as much. In its April Fools’ issue in 1996, her own Hoya had published a similar parody about two studentsDeirdre Davidson and Doug Smithwho ran the rival publication, the weekly Voice news magazine. Davidson and Smith also happened to be a couple.
The column, which purported to be from Smith’s point of view, talked about what a day at the Voice was like for him: sex on the layout table, sexual favors before editorial meetings, etc.
Davidson, who graduated last May and now works as a reporter for the Miami Herald, decided not to pursue harassment charges through the school because of her belief in freedom of the press. “That doesn’t change that [the incident] was gender-motivated,” she says flatly. She did bring the issue before the media board, a group of administrators, professors, and students charged with overseeing university-funded publications. The Hoya eventually apologized.
Once James had recovered from the shock of her involuntary porn-star cameo, she tried to remember what she’d done to Sachs to warrant the attack. But she could barely remember him at all. Though Sachs had written for the Hoya, James knew him by sight only. She could recall just one conversation with him, in line to see Star Wars at the Uptown cinema. Sachs had written an article in that Friday’s Hoya about the movie’s place in history, and James had walked up to him to compliment him on the piece.
Looking for justice, James turned to the school’s bureaucracy. She went to the director of the office of student conduct, Judy Johnson, and made her case for harassment and libel.
James says Johnson told her that the case wasn’t under her jurisdiction and that there was little recourse for her gripes: no libel rules, no sexual harassment policy, and a general harassment policy that didn’t appear to address her case. Then Johnson pointed her toward the affirmative action office.
Rosemary Kilkenny, Georgetown’s special assistant to the president for affirmative action programs, says the university does have a sexual harassment policy, which is outlined in the student handbook. “If the student fails to read the handbook, that’s their responsibility,” says Kilkenny.
But the policy didn’t help James much. In response to her pleas, the university eventually offered her exactly what she didn’t want: a moderated session between her, Sachs, and Mathiesen.
“What I wanted most was for it to just go away, for it to have never happened,” says James, now a senior. “Next, I wanted not to have to see Micah ever again, but the campus is too small for that.”
“I just got so frustrated with all the difficulties. I started to want it to be about the whole campus, how the attitude was backward, how they didn’t have a sexual harassment policy, and how people thought this was OK,” James says.
She and Risen wrote letters to the president and various deans. They received responses saying, essentially, sorry, now get over it. So James hired a lawyer.
“I thought about suing [Sachs], but I decided not to, mostly because it would take years, and I just didn’t want to deal with that.” But the lawyer did push the university’s administration to address the matter. “I think they were kind of trying to sweep it under the rug,” says James. “Some people were really supportive, but I think most of them thought if they didn’t do anything about it, it would just go away.”
Georgetown’s new solution: An apology from Sachs and Mathiesen would be published in the Hoya. It appeared in March, not without a sarcastic edge: “The March edition of the Gonzo contained an article which was so egregiously offensive to Hoya senior sports editor Kate James and editor in chief Clay Risen, [that] nothing less than an absolute and humble apology is in order on the part of ourselves, the editors of the Gonzo.” With it came a raft of letters, most denouncing James for being so pushy and rebuking Sachs and Mathiesen’s “cowardice” for giving in.
Last summer, the school also directed the two to write the text of university pamphlets on resources for combating sexual harassment. Says James, “It’s kind of like the blind leading the blind.”
Mathiesen did not return calls for comment. Sachsa 20-year-old who is just nervy enough to ask of a reporter, “Can you not put my age in? I want to get into bars”says the whole thing was “overreaction.” “All this pseudo-legal stuff,” he says. “What we did wouldn’t fit under the legal definition of sexual harassment.”
He says he feels some remorse, but that the punishmentfree-lancing for sexual harassment-prevention literaturewas “curious.” “I think they thought we should put our writing skills to good use,” he says, with his friends guffawing in the background. “It was just a nuisance.”
The affair has given Sachs more material for his self-indulgent shtick. In this month’s Gonzo, a bio underneath his picture announces that his goal is to be head of the Women’s Center.
The Gonzo saga still reverberates on campus. Rumors fly that Georgetown will soon pass a policy discouraging club members from dating one another. Which makes everyone laugh. “We made a flow chart once of all the relationships,” says senior Nancy Trejos, a former Voice editor who dated a few of her staffers. “Then we burned it.”
In a very close vote, the editorial board of the Hoya dismissed Sachs from his movie-reviewing job last spring. But Elizabeth Raposo, the Hoya’s editor in chief, reinstated him this semester.
In defense of her decision, Raposo says, “The Office of Student Conduct says you can’t tell someone they can’t be in your club.” She begins to talk about the issue as one of censorship, then stops and says, “There’s still a lot of tension around here. We have to move on.”
Nor does Raposo agree with James and Davidson that the campus is hostile toward women. “I haven’t felt unable to do anything because I am a woman,” she says.
Upon Sachs’ reinstatementhe has since written two movie reviewsRisen and James resigned. Risen, now a junior, doesn’t want to talk about the Hoya at all. In September, the Hoya published his explanation for resigning. Beneath it ran a long excerpt, in italics, of Hoya bylaws.
A new issue of the Gonzo appeared this month, with one sentence on the inside cover apologizing for “unfairly targeting [James and Risen’s] personal lives.” On the opposite page appears a new disclaimer: “We do not claim responsibility for anything you see or read here.”
Last month, the Voice ran a full-page Op-Ed column by James titled “Response to the Harassment.” (Like Risen, she refuses to be associated with the Hoya after Sachs’ reinstatement.) In the column, her first public statement about the incident, she complained that at several “points in my dealings with the Georgetown administration, I was misinformed, whether deliberately or by poor communication, about the status of my case.” She wrote of her flatlining GPA, her fear of holding hands with her boyfriend on campus, and her jitters about what her professors think.
James has given up on crusading against sexual harassment because, she says, “I’m just tired of dealing with it.” Attitudes like that have allowed Sachs and the Gonzo to claim victory. After all, James has stopped writing her column, while Sachs has no trouble finding platforms for his drivel.
These days, James volunteers at the Women’s Center instead of poking fun at the campus’s macho culture in print. She’s trying to make it to May, when she can leave Georgetown. “When I look back at my Georgetown experience 20 years from now,” James says, “I’m probably not going to remember all the good stuff as much as I remember this.” CP