Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Protection Racket

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On Wednesday morning, BuzzFeed published a thinkpiece publicly revealing the fleeting existence of a list that began circulating among women in the media Wednesday afternoon, and was gone by Wednesday evening (a copy seemed to reappear late Thursday afternoon). Put briefly, the list, called Shitty Media Men, had roughly 70 names of men in the industry who were alleged to have engaged in a range of bad behaviors, from “creepy DMs” to allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

The allegations, along with the number of women making those allegations, were clearly listed and names could be added anonymously by women with whom the document was shared. Some of the allegations were no surprise; they’re so-called “open secrets,” some of which had already been reported by outlets like BuzzFeed and Jezebel. Some of the allegations were against men who are highly-regarded by many of their industry peers.

The list was born out of frustration, created shortly after the news of Harvey Weinstein story broke. Women watched as “shitty media men” tweeted their shock at reading articles about Weinstein’s alleged actions, sometimes editorializing on how they would never act so criminally or callously. Once shared, the list grew quickly and, a few hours later, the document’s owner made it private, and the information, save for a few screenshots and names committed to memory, was gone. Yet, by Thursday morning, only hours after the document’s appearance, BuzzFeed had published a piece on the list’s existence, handwringing over the method of sharing such information. The conversation about the list shifted away from the men and their alleged abuses to whether or not BuzzFeed should have published the piece and whether or not the list was dangerous or even irresponsible.

The debate seemed to dwell in details, particularly over the right way to make such serious allegations, rather than the allegations themselves. In the BuzzFeed post, writer Doree Shafrir took issue with the method of the list, if not the intention. “Lumping all of this behavior together in a big anonymous spreadsheet of unsubstantiated allegations,” Shafrir wrote, implying that the approach was irresponsible. That criticism that was repeated by many women on social media. “It’s really harmful to lump men who send ‘creepy DMs’ in with serial sexual assaulters,” one writer tweeted, and similar sentiments were echoed by a range of editors that labeled the list reckless and “fucked up.”

At the heart of both criticisms was that the list was too liberal in its approach: critics stressed that men could be added for sending creepy DMs or sexual assault, unfairly conflating the two acts. Though the reason for the addition was marked, and multiple allegations of abuse highlighted in red, the fear that shitty men might be confused with abusive men seemed to coalesce around the conversation. The fear seemed to be that women reading the list might confuse familiar bad behavior (like “creepiness”) with rape, and thereby unfairly conflate men accused of boorishness with those accused of rape and sexual harassment. But they weren’t conflated; they were annotated with individual allegations and men with multiple allegations were highlighted in red. Anyone familiar with a spreadsheet could easily tell the difference. But by virtue of the list—essentially a digital space to whisper—there was no gatekeeper to determine whether or not an allegation was either serious enough or believable enough. Instead, the list relied on the very notion that women should be believed—a rallying cry that has become increasingly less convincing in the last few years, frayed by politics and the keeping of “open secrets.

Added to that was a sense that naming shitty men required something more than an anonymous allegation. “Dozens of named men [...] were not given the chance to respond,” Shafrir wrote. It was an odd demand, given that BuzzFeed’s head of news referred to the list as a “digital burn book,” coding it as the meritless gossip of women or mean girls. If the list was idle gossip or even another network of women sharing secrets, then the response of the accused seems to serve no purpose other than to return the conversation to private, hushed tones. The worry over the public nature of the list eclipsed a more blinding story: there are a lot of men accused of sexual harassment, assault, and rape who work in newsrooms across the media.

In the space of 24 hours, the list had gone from a warning to a thinkpiece, chastised as harmful to men, irresponsible, and poorly done. Anonymity functioned paradoxically in the discussion of the list’s imperfections: While digital anonymity rendered the document untrustworthy (“The internet is trash,” Erin Ryan wrote), for many women anonymity wasn’t enough protection. Though the list was intended to be a women’s-only space, where words of warning could be shared, surpassing barriers like rank, geography, and race that often prevent the movement of whispered information, it was clear that men had seen the list as well. “Several men who were on the spreadsheet had reached out to other staffers at BuzzFeed News because they had seen it,” Shafrir writes.

That men on the list knew they were on the list was treated as some kind of strange indictment; that the knowledge would bring the men harm, not the women who might have put their names there. At Jezebel, some staff members indicated that even with anonymity they were too afraid to list men who had sexually harassed them, fearing that if the men happened to see their name, they would retaliate. On Twitter, Know Your IX co-founder Alexandra Brodsky reiterated that point. “I don’t care if they realize they’re shitheads but worried they might retaliate against anyone they thought added them,” she wrote. But this objection, that anonymity was an illusion of protection but not the real thing, seemed lost in the broader conversation of perfection, tailored as it was to the protection of men on the list.

It’s true, of course, that the list was not perfect. It’s a bizarre criticism, though, that seems to have become a stand-in to articulate discomfort with the actions of “reckless” women. But then there is no perfect way to warn other women, there is no perfect way to whisper about sexual harassment, because the minute a whisper becomes slightly more vocal, it’s immediately rendered suspect. Or, if not suspect, it’s reduced to gossip, the poorly sourced pastime of spiteful women. But as Jezebel contributor Amy Rose Spiegel wrote, “public anonymity, in solidarity with one another” works, and is one of the few tools women have to name abuses. At a 2015 literary conference, a group calling themselves “Invisibles,” plastered bathrooms with posters naming abusers; at Yale women plastered the campus with allegations of rape; in Chicago’s comedy scene women turned to Facebook to combat sexual assault in their industry. At my alma mater, a document semi-ironically called “Rape Fraternities” was shared across campus, regularly updated with anonymous reports.

These strategies aren’t new; second-wave feminism was built on the recognition that women’s spaces and anonymous voices—that women telling their stories—could shift the narrative in alternative spaces. Central too, was the recognition that public space is by no means neutral, that it is simply not welcoming of voices that would alter the closely held assumptions about gender or race. Privacy and anonymity are suspect because, as Elizabeth Gumport wrote in her review of Chris Krause’s radical consideration of public space, Where Art Belongs: “What the pretense of privacy often does is protect us from reality. It is called on to conceal the fact that there are two realities: the world as it is lived in by men, and the world of women, which has historically been exiled from political and philosophical consideration.” Public anonymity and list making, in the case of Shitty Media Men, was suspect because it revealed a public space that is necessarily hidden, forged by stories dismissed as gossip, and narrated in whispers.

If the debate over Shitty Media Men revealed anything, it’s that there is no way for a woman to level a sexual harassment or abuse allegation without having her methods and motives subjected to a detailed dissection. The list was intended to be a series of warnings between other women. Instead, it quickly turned into a warning to women of who owns public narrative and who is tasked with preserving it.