Moira Donegan created the “Shitty Media Men” list so that women could talk privately about men they believed were dangerous. The list brought together women’s reports about dozens of men in journalism and publishing, with allegations ranging from inappropriate messages to sexual assault. Until this week, the name of its creator was not publicly known.
Donegan, a writer and former staffer at the New Republic, changed that on Wednesday night with an essay at the New York magazine vertical the Cut explaining how and why she came to create the list.
By making a crowdsourced document of women’s anonymous reports of sexual harassment, assault, and other misconduct, Donegan had hoped, she wrote, “to create a place for women to share their stories of harassment and assault without being needlessly discredited or judged.”
Women have long sought to protect themselves and others by using whisper networks, she wrote: “Informal alliances that pass on open secrets and warn women away from serial assaulters.” The list was a “whisper network” in Google spreadsheet form.
What happened to Donegan when the list became public knowledge shows exactly why women needed such a tool in the first place. Donegan had hoped that the anonymity of the list would “protect its users from retaliation.”
“No one could be fired, harassed, or publicly smeared for telling her story when that story was not attached to her name,” she wrote. But the public exposure of the list quickly led to debates about due process for accused men, debates in which the safety of women reporting harassment often fell by the wayside.
Many women, Donegan wrote, told her they were too afraid to add their experiences to the list, even anonymously. Looking at what she has faced in the past few months, it’s easy to see why.
Donegan made the list so women could speak without being harassed. Now she faces harassment.
After BuzzFeed broke the news of the list’s existence in mid-October, Donegan wrote, she lost friends and her job. (A spokesperson for the New Republic told Vox that Donegan did not leave the magazine because of the list.)
“The fear of being exposed, and of the harassment that will inevitably follow, has dominated my life since,” she wrote. More recently, she wrote, she learned that the writer Katie Roiphe was planning to identify her as the list’s creator in an upcoming Harper’s story.
“People who opposed the decision by Harper’s speculated about what would happen to me as a result of being identified,” Donegan wrote. “They feared that I would be threatened, stalked, raped, or killed.”
These are not idle speculations. Women who speak up about harassment are all too frequently met with threats, abuse, and smear campaigns. As word of the coming Harper’s piece spread on Twitter, the software engineer and congressional candidate Brianna Wu wrote about the threats she faced after calling out sexism in gaming:
1/ Rumor is, a traditional print magazine is about to out the woman that created the “Shitty Media Men” list, which would be beyond unethical.— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) January 9, 2018
If they do this, I want to tell you everything that will happen to her. I’m certain because it all happened to me.
2/— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) January 9, 2018
✅ She will get death threats to the point she will have to leave her home
✅ Same with rape threats
✅ Everything she’s ever done in her career will be poured over in attempt to get her fired
✅ Her family will be threatened. If she has kids, they’ll be threatened too
3/ Worst of all, this will NEVER END for her. Gamergate was almost four years ago, and I’m still dealing with it.— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) January 9, 2018
It is journalistically indefensible to put her in danger. There is no public interest.
You will end up a cautionary tale in a journalism textbook if you publish.
As Donegan makes clear at the Cut, the list was not meant as a public document or a work of journalism — a disclaimer at the top read, “This document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt.”
It was not intended as a way to punish men or get them fired or prosecuted. Though Donegan acknowledges that she hoped journalists might use the list to investigate some men, she knew they would have to do what the list, by its nature, could not: fact-check, confirm reports, and seek comment from the accused. If it was imperfect as a public record of allegations against media men, that’s because it was never intended as such.
Instead, the list was intended to help women stay safe. It was a way for women to share what they knew and warn other women, all without drawing the ire of trolls, misogynists, and their media enablers. Women have long been doing this informally, as Donegan notes — the list was a more formal version of a whisper network, one women could use to help protect others since official channels like human resources departments or police reports so often result in dead ends.
Donegan acknowledges that as a tool for safety, too, the list was imperfect — it was not available to everyone who could have used it. Passed around among social networks in a white-dominated media landscape, the list was not shared with many women of color. But for those who could access it, the list was supposed to prevent harassment and abuse. For Donegan, it may have done the exact opposite.
In the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein, many people have come forward to speak publicly about harassment and abuse. These people have done an enormous service to others, showing survivors everywhere that they are not alone. But not everyone can speak about their experiences under their names.
Donegan notes that “privileges like whiteness, health, education, and class” made it easier for her to take on the risks of creating the list — people without such privileges may suffer greater consequences than others if they choose to speak up. No one should have to face death threats just to tell the truth. We can be grateful to those who choose to report their experiences publicly, but, our society being what it is, we cannot in good conscience demand that anyone do so.
The fear that Donegan has felt and that others have felt for her in recent days is a reminder of a problem that is absolutely central to any discussion of harassment and assault: Speaking up about sexual misconduct is not safe. Changing that is a crucial project of any reckoning, any Time’s Up, any anti-harassment movement of any kind. But for now, it is reality. For now, survivors and their allies need private spaces where they can speak without fear of retribution. For now, they need whispers.