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It’s time to weaponize the "whisper network”

Women have always whispered warnings to avoid certain men. But sexual harassment needs a better solution.

Harvey Weinstein in Los Angeles, California, in 2014.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

“Hey, just so you know, don’t be alone with X.”

“I know you’re new here. In case nobody has mentioned it, Y has raped women. That’s a fact.”

“I’d call Z a creep, but I don’t think he’s dangerous in the way W is. I don’t know, I could be wrong.”

These are the kinds of warnings whispered in private among women in work spaces. They are spoken at the bar with other women; they appear in my email inbox or my Twitter DMs. This is the whisper network that exists, informally, among women who want to protect themselves and other women from sexual harassment.

It’s a phenomenon that has been part of the public conversation of the past few weeks. The publication of a New York Times investigation detailing Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual harassment set off a whirlwind of chatter among women about the widespread sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape that exists not only in entertainment and media, but across other industries.

This news has brought to the surface the private conversations women have been having — the warnings whispered to each other to avoid getting hurt. As women have written in the past few days, these whisper networks are a lifeline. And as a 25-year-old woman new to both working in media and living in New York, I mean that literally: They have helped keep me safe. But a concern keeps gnawing at my conscience, and I don’t have an answer: What about the women who don’t get this information?

They are the women who are the most likely targets of abuse: not socially well networked with other women, young, new to these industries, naive, alone. When we rely on whisper networks, we ensure that these women won’t be privy to this information, and we — the women who rely on these networks — would be lying if we pretended we don’t know that some of these women will become victims. It’s not a question of if, but when.

So having acknowledged that, what can we do?

An anonymous spreadsheet of dangerous men was a flawed but important attempt

Last Wednesday, some women in media put forward one answer to this question.

On my commute home from work, I got a message from a female friend that said, “In case you haven’t been shared on this,” followed by link to a Google spreadsheet.

This spreadsheet contained a list of men in media and allegations of inappropriate behavior against them. The list, titled “SHITTY MEDIA MEN,” could be edited anonymously by anyone with access to it. While a couple of the allegations were minor — “creepy af in the dms” comes to mind — most were serious, with rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and physical violence littering the “alleged misconduct” column. They added up to a warning: Be careful; don't be alone with this man; if you can avoid taking a job with him, do so. A man I am close with was on the list: When I read the allegations against him, it felt like the ground was falling out from beneath me. It still does.

The existence of the list was reported by BuzzFeed less than 24 hours after the creation of the document. After the story was picked up by other outlets, the list quickly went offline. Many women have criticized BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a story on a document never intended to be public. The document was a flawed but understandable attempt to make the whisper network more concrete — and in doing so, to democratize it. Considering that the women who don’t have access to the private whisper network are the women most likely to be targeted by abusers, the document was a laudable effort driven by women’s collective impulse to protect one another.

But Shitty Media Men was also disastrous in some ways. No mechanism to verify the allegations had been developed — and no chance for a large number of women to weigh in. Still, the speed at which it spread spoke to a voracious hunger among women in media to do something, even a flawed something, to stamp out sexual harassment and assault in our industry.

The informal whisper network needs to be formalized

Two days before the spreadsheet was created, an accomplished female journalist wrote to me asking a question posed repeatedly since the news of the secret list broke.

“What would it mean to formalize the whisper network and use it to take power rather than to accept men's power and do the added work of working around it?” she asked.

She cited a recent story by Anne Helen Petersen about whisper networks as a “means of survival,” as well as an essay I wrote for Jacobin recently about workplace sexual harassment. She then raised the question: Are we normalizing a system in which it is left to women to do the significant labor of spreading this information, and avoiding sexual predators? As Petersen writes, “We’ve become dependent on unofficial modes of communication to protect ourselves.” So how do we shift the labor required to protect ourselves onto our industries themselves — onto the people and institutions with the money and power?

As a grassroots effort to resolve a political problem, whisper networks clearly fall into the category of political organizing. But they are resolutely on the informal end of the spectrum. They are far from frivolous; they’re unambiguously political. But how do we expand and institutionalize these networks, moving them closer to the formal end of tactics?

Rallying cries that men need to do their part by speaking up feels insufficient, to say the least. Call me a cynic, but most men will not act upon knowledge about sexual harassment until we have weaponized these networks. Nor do I trust HR departments, loyal to the company above all else, to adequately investigate allegations against the men who hold power in that company. We need entities with teeth that can bring real consequences to bear on men who we know are abusive.

We also cannot rely on powerful women to speak out against dangerous men. It’s no coincidence that Ashley Judd was initially one of the few women who spoke about Weinstein’s behavior on the record. Her career is stable enough to allow her space to speak out without fear of destroying her job prospects. That the stories in the Shitty Media Men document were anonymous shows that many women still believe the consequences of going public about harassment are too high. And these women in US media, as white-collar workers, have more room than, say, low-wage or undocumented workers to come forward.

Collective action is the best way forward

So, again, what do we do? If this were an issue within one workplace, one answer is to unionize, and to use the union as a third party — not beholden to the company — through which to collectively stamp out harassment or assault. When a victim comes forward with an accusation through a union, she has the legal expertise of the union on her side, as well as the institutionalized collective power of her co-workers.

Of course, unions aren’t a cure-all. At least one actress who says she was harassed by Harvey Weinstein, Mia Kirshner, has written about why she did not trust her unions — the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists (ACTRA) — to forcefully deal with the issues. Kirshner pointed out that the SAG union will typically ask the studio or production house to investigate any alleged abuse internally if a worker reports harassment to the union. “You can imagine its effectiveness,” she writes. “Especially when the person being investigated runs or owns the studio.”

Kirshner also proposed changes that the unions could institute, suggesting that a harassment complaint should trigger a third-party independent investigation, for instance, and that unions should ban one-on-one meetings in hotel rooms. Rather than give up on unions, we should strengthen them.

But this is a cross-workplace issue, so unions may not be enough. We work for different companies, and sometimes in different industries entirely. This complicates our ability to place demands on any one employer. If whisper networks operate at the level of the social world of women, whatever the industry, then we can take the next step toward building the power of these networks.

We saw one example in the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet. But while false reporting is far from common, the ability to input an allegation anonymously and online runs the risk of declaring men guilty without verification. This in turn tars all the allegations with an uncertainty that stops us from acting on them. Further, the whisper network, formalized or not, accepts the status quo, in which women work around abusers rather than forcing them out of our workplaces.

I can imagine a hotline for women (and men, who are not immune to sexual harassment or assault) to report abuse, one that connects the victim with a woman in her industry who is willing to guide her through the possible steps she can take. We’d leverage tools across workplaces and industries, a rational response to an economy where workers hop from job to job on an increasingly frequent basis.

In the long term, I can imagine a more formal body that compiles allegations, verifies their validity, and acts on that information — perhaps by connecting women who accuse the same man so as to enable them to coordinate a legal or public claim against him. This could be done through existing professional associations or unions, or as an entirely new project.

Whatever we do, we should encourage victims to file complaints and speak out publicly. It’s encouraging that so many articles about this have been written in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, but we should be skeptical as to what will come of this public conversation. Trauma sells and gets clicks, but we won’t stamp out these problems by changing social norms or improving “workplace culture” alone. We must show that the accused, not the accuser, will suffer when a case goes public, and do so by building institutions of support for victims who come forward.

I don’t have the answers. I’m one woman, and this is a collective problem requiring the knowledge of as many women as possible. But I do know that the status quo enabled Weinstein to abuse women for decades. It allows men in media who have raped their colleagues to continue to write, even to write about feminism. Relying on a whisper network isn’t enough; the current situation is unacceptable, and we need to think about what we can do to change it.

This essay is adapted from a Patreon post.

Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin and a PhD student in sociology at Northeastern University. You can follow her on Twitter @alexnpress.

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