On Wednesday afternoon, or maybe before that, someone created a document that named men who work in media and listed various allegations of their behavior toward women. It was crowdsourced and open access; anyone who had the link could read or add to it, which was both its foundational flaw and the only way it stood any chance of working as intended. The idea was to centralize the information being shared through backchannels and whisper networks so that it might be more accessible to women—at least once they got ahold of the link—regardless of whether or not they were socially well-connected in the industry. It was an unruly and radical experiment, a digital reinvention of an old tactic, and it exploded within hours.
By Thursday morning, BuzzFeed had published a story about its existence, which was more or less an inevitability with that many journalists viewing it at once. The document was premised on an expectation, laid out at the top, that women would keep it among themselves. It asked for solidarity of the sort that requires organizational discipline and mutual trust, but in a context—the nebula of digital media—where those things largely don’t exist.
And so the experiment became the story.
Soon enough, there were think pieces. As the day went on, some of the same group texts and direct messages that had earlier been sharing men’s names with one another turned into sprawling debates over the tactic of making that information semi-public. Was it a witch hunt? Was it irresponsible to put allegations of rape in the same space as vague assertions about potential creeps? Could people be trusted to parse out the difference? Where before there had been the illusion of consensus—something has to be done!—fractures showed.
By Thursday evening, the document had gone from public to private and back to public again. Then it was deleted entirely. As it happened, several women I spoke with expressed the same disappointment that it had been derailed before it could develop and cohere in meaning. But forcing these discussions in a more public context may still be a positive, if unintended, outcome of the last 24 hours.
Because in addition to functioning as an imperfect resource, the list was a decision to start somewhere. Its creator and contributors tried their hand at work that no one really felt equipped to take on alone for fear of getting it wrong. Formal channels of redress—telling a supervisor, lodging a complaint with human resources—don’t exist everywhere, and have often failed where they do. The document, even if it was exposed to an audience for which it wasn’t intended, was nevertheless a chance to articulate things that might otherwise be hard to say, and struggle through the nuances of power, harm, and accountability involved in addressing misogyny and abuse in our industries and peer groups.
Another thing, perhaps just as essential, was also revealed: This was always going to hurt.
For many journalists and people in media expressing shock at the list—both as a tactic and its contents—there seemed to be a common belief that identifying and working against institutional and social patterns of control and dehumanization in our industry could maybe be done in a way that wouldn’t be so disruptive. That it maybe wouldn’t touch our personal relationships or change all that much about how we function in our professional lives. That it could be straightforward enough, a clear arc toward something better, instead of a process of grappling messily in the space of not always knowing the best next step: Something must be done, just not this. As if just hiring the right manager or implementing increasingly thorough anti-harassment trainings could do the trick for us.
But of course this isn’t true, has never been true. It can be very easy to write off a man you don’t know if he’s hurt a woman; it can be very hard to know what to do with the men close to you. For some people, seeing that list meant seeing the names of friends, colleagues, recent hires, ex-partners, and bosses alongside allegations that they had raped, physically abused, or demeaned women. Over the course of the day, I had several conversations with female friends who asked a variation of the same question: This man is close to me, either professionally or personally; what is my role here?
There are models of community intervention and restorative justice—established and led by women of color community organizers as alternatives or supplements to calling the police—that exist for people hoping to support victims and help hold abusers in their lives accountable. But this is an imperfect fit in the current context. This is an industry, a network of thousands of precariously connected individuals in a for-profit system, not a radical community interrogating its own praxis.
Even as journalists organize, both formally through unions and informally through information sharing among freelancers and others, this remains a heavy lift. But if the allegations are credible, then some of what happens next, particularly in a vacuum of more formal accountability, will need to be done among friends and peers.
One of the more subtly nauseating things Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced studio director and serial abuser, has leaned on in these last weeks is this claim to “therapy.” He will get help, he says. Do hard thinking before returning, triumphantly, to win more Oscars. As a colleague commented to me the other day, this is rich people speak for fucking off for a few months. But I also believe that a restorative mediation process of the sort that has been specifically designed (and practiced) for abusers is necessary if the violence is going to stop. It’s another place where I don’t have great answers. But if the option is that or nothing, I don’t believe we can choose nothing.
But there are also ways to make formal channels of reporting more accountable so that women may feel more comfortable pursuing them in certain cases, since there is no single method of redress that will work every time and for every woman. Are the managers who saw their employees’ names on the list going to address the existence of allegations internally? Are colleagues talking about unionizing as a means of holding management accountable? Are union members meeting to discuss and update processes around reporting, investigation, and protection? Are companies considering what mechanisms exist for people to come forward if they experience harassment or abuse? Are these same companies interrogating what happens with those complaints if they are filed?
This week has been an agonizing reminder that laws and policies against harassment mean nothing if they are not vigilantly enforced and interrogated for their efficacy. But it’s also been an uncomfortable moment to ask ourselves what we believe should happen to abusers if they are, in rare instances, exposed.
As I write this, I am waiting to see if the man who sexually assaulted me when I was 17 will accept my friend request on Facebook. Every hour or so, I check. I reached out, after more than a decade of silence, because I want to interview him. After he assaulted me, his roommates, who were also my friends, kicked him out of the communal home they shared. He left the city and stopped coming around to the places we all went. I never saw him again, and hadn’t thought of him in years. When I decided I wanted to interview him, about what happened that night and what happened to both of us after, I had to ask another friend to tell me his last name. I had forgotten it.
The experience has informed a lot of my thinking about men—the ones we know and the ones we don’t—and what happens after they’ve hurt someone. Because most abusers are never confronted, I know my situation is an outlier. But I still don’t know if John, which is not his real name, assaulted anyone else after he assaulted me. None of our friends in common did either when I spoke to them this week, since every single one of them stopped speaking to him. It’s like he disappeared, but of course he didn’t, not really. He just went somewhere else, met new people, maybe tried the same thing again and maybe didn’t.
That some men, once confronted about their abuse, seem to disappear is a different problem than the staggering number of men who are able to commit violence without facing any kind of consequence, but it remains an urgent question. The options are, again, complex. Never fully satisfying. I don’t believe victims have any responsibility to be in contact with their abusers in the name of harm reduction, but I believe that other people should be, if the idea is to stop the abuse rather than just make sure it doesn’t happen around us.
What if the list gets a man fired? Unlikely, but it’s possible. What if these men are shunned from their professional and social groups—perhaps the goal of some of the women who added names to the list? How will we know if the harm has been stopped, or if it has just stopped for some?
When I think about these things, I do it selfishly. I don’t lose sleep at night thinking about men who have lost educational or career opportunities because of a false allegation of assault for mostly the same reasons I don’t lose sleep over the thought of a truck veering into my apartment and killing me: The odds of both are exceedingly low. But talking through these things—making our terms clear where we can, acknowledging ambiguity and differences in power where they exist, interrogating unintended consequences that may cause additional harm—is a necessary part of what will inevitably be a fraught process of mitigating violence. Maybe you thought this could be painless, or that it somehow wouldn’t touch you. Maybe you can let that go now.
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