The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women have always tried to warn each other about dangerous men. We have to.

And society's reaction is always the same: to try to prevent it.

Lupita Nyong'o, Paz de la Huerta, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cara Delevingne are just a few of the women accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual violence. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

While serving as a bridesmaid in my cousin’s wedding at the age of 14, I was relieved that the groomsman I was matched with was especially friendly with me. I had anticipated not knowing anyone at the wedding, seeing as they were all 25 and older and mostly from Arkansas, 3,000 miles away from me. “You’re really mature for 14,” he told me, touching my forearm, just as an older woman I’d never met or seen approached us both and they greeted each other warmly. “Now Alana, you be careful with this one, he’s trouble!” she said jovially in her thick but charming Southern accent, and they both laughed. He went to get a drink, and the woman’s smile suddenly dropped. She pulled me close to her and said, “Sweetheart, you stay close by your mama and sister. If he asks you to go anywhere with him, don’t.” She let go of my arm and walked away. Two hours later, the groomsmen asked me if I’d ever driven before and whether I’d like to drive his truck around. I declined his offer, and to this day, I wish I had found and properly thanked that wedding guest who had warned me away from God knows what.

I’ve spent the past 18 years having variations on this conversation with other women. So have countless others — though these conversations are often less explicit, full of caveats that maybe we’d misjudged a situation with a man but still, please, be careful. So at 6:06 p.m. on Wednesday, when a colleague and friend texted to see if I’d seen “the spreadsheet going around about predatory men in media and publishing,” I assumed it was yet another compilation of women’s testimonies about being on the receiving end of inappropriate or violent behavior by men in our industry, with names fully redacted. That is how we tend to do it in media, and in all industries, I suppose: We share opaque anecdotes of ill treatment from men so as not to accidentally reveal the identity of predators, harassers or even the guy in the office who just can’t take a hint. We speak their names only in hushed voices to confidantes we are entirely certain are not well acquainted with these men, lest we offend them for their choices in friends.

But at 6:20, when I got a second message, it included the document itself, titled “S—-Y MEDIA MEN.” It included what I never thought we’d have the collective courage to gather and share: the full names and the alleged misconduct by men who work in media and publishing. The allegations were at once disturbing and depressingly predictable: sending inappropriate direct messages, targeting young female co-workers, having affairs with subordinates, sexual harassment, intimidation. And rape. The informal, disconnected networks of whispers were gathered in one place. Despite the sickening contents of the document, there was one grimly hopeful feature: Men who were accused by more than one woman of “physical sexual violence” were highlighted in red. There were a lot of red highlights. And while these signaled the likely existence of serial predators, they also told women something they’ve long needed to hear after they’ve been harassed by a colleague: I believe you. You’re not alone. You’re not crazy.

Women shouldn’t trust the men who call themselves allies

By the next day, the document’s existence was suddenly public, thanks to a skeptical story on BuzzFeed. And various members of the media — including many women — were calling the document “harmful” and “undermined by its recklessness”; another said such a document would undermine assault reporting. Others sympathized with the creation of the document but disagreed with its execution. They generally offered no substantive solutions as to how this epidemic of harassment might be mitigated instead. And “this is not the way to do it” is really just another way of saying, “Don’t do this.”

BuzzFeed described the list like this: “The allegations on the spreadsheet range from ‘flirting’ and ‘weird lunch dates’ to accusations of rape, assault, stalking, harassment, and physical violence …” It called the document “complicated” for “lumping all of this behavior together in a big anonymous spreadsheet of unsubstantiated allegations against dozens of named men — who were not given the chance to respond …”

That always seems to be what happens when women try to assert themselves informally, privately. It was BuzzFeed that made a public spectacle of a private attempt to warn women who might not otherwise have access to this kind of information. To call their claims “unsubstantiated” in light of the existence of the red highlighting for serial violent offenders is to say that women’s corroborating (albeit anonymous) testimony is not considered substantiation. To “boohoo” for the poor, hapless men who send creepy messages and invite women to lunch for ostensibly professional reasons then turn flirtatious is to take the already low standards we have for men in the workplace and bury them underground.

Harmful! Misguided! Stupid! Reckless! Suddenly the men accused on the document were not the problem, but the victims. Women were not reporting these men to the police or to their human resources departments or in a companywide memo, but to each other. Declaring that women undermine the assault reporting process, rather than the predominantly male institutional powers that pursue such allegations, is heaping an even more incredible burden on those of us in hostile work environments. This kind of informal attempt to protect one another isn’t new — and neither is the attempt to thwart it by a culture whose distrust of women is downright pathological. When women attach their names to allegations like this, what happens to them next is predicable: character assassination, interrogation, various cruelties about their appearance, motivations and sexual histories. When they report these incidents to human resources or the police, they have abysmally low chances of seeing justice served.

Women know there is a difference between a guy who gets handsy at holiday parties and one who drugs multiple women and rapes them. But she has a right to know about both of them so that she can avoid their company as she sees fit. Women don’t need to be told that lists like the media one are “lumping in” the merely inappropriate with the criminal. Anyone who encounters it knows that “inappropriate AF” is not the same thing as “violent.”

Of course Weinstein’s victims smiled in their photos. When I was harassed, I smiled, too.

I am not suggesting that every man who sends an inappropriate late-night message has violent intentions. But these behaviors are often the first steps toward getting a woman alone and into a situation where these behaviors can escalate. Maybe she’d rather hedge her bets by limiting further contact after the first creepy late-night message, just in case. That’s what we’re told to do by society, anyway: Never be with a man alone. Never be nice to a man who might be flirting; he might get the wrong idea. Keep meticulous records of everything men have ever said to you just in case they become predators. Predict the future. Read minds. Smile.

Women are already trying desperately to keep our heads above water in workplaces that deny us sufficient credit, compensation and trust. Are we really supposed to keep three separate types of informal warning systems, tiered and coded according to the level of violation, just to make sure that the boundary-pushing jerks don’t get embarrassed because they’re so much better than men who have turned violent? Do you know how much more work women do in media to prove they belong there? Do you know how many names of women in media are splashed across the Internet with libelous, repugnant and public lies about them because they dared offend a man?

Until the institutions that define, enforce and deliver consequences for these violations actually start protecting women, women will have to make do with what we can. These informal networks of information-sharing are not battle cries to pursue vigilante justice; they are calm directives to other women to simply be vigilant.

By the time BuzzFeed reported on the media list, many of the accused had already been alerted that they were on it. The rest found out soon enough. But with or without a spreadsheet, just as women have always done, we will find another way to protect each other. If our employers and our legal system and our social niceties will not keep predators away from us, we will keep ourselves away from them. It might be a whisper in the bathroom at the holiday party, a quick and earnest DM on social media, a dead-serious directive at a wedding, a list that goes around some Wednesday night. To whomever started that list and added to it, if they’re reading this, I want to tell them thank you.

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