What Comes After Whisper Networks?
This has been a particularly charged week to be a woman, especially one in media or entertainment. The publication of a New York Times investigation detailing Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment set off a whirlwind of chatter among women about how widespread not only sexual harassment, but also sexual assault and rape, are in these industries. You don’t have to have been unaware of the prevalence of sexual violence to be jarred by this conversation. 

But here’s the thing: most of the conversation is taking place in private. For me, it’s in my email inbox, my Twitter DMs, or at the bar with other women. Here’s what it looks like:

"Hey, just so you know, don’t be alone with W.”
“I know you’re new here. In case no one has mentioned it, X has raped women. That’s a fact.”
“I’d call Y a creep, but I don’t think he’s dangerous in the way Z is. I don’t know, I could be wrong.”

And as women have written in the past few days, these whisper networks are a lifeline. As a twenty-five year old woman new to both working in media and living in New York, where a significant portion of people in my social circles work in media (and these networks exist separately in left-wing politics spaces, which are by no means immune to sexual harassment or assault), I mean that: they are a lifeline, and have already served me well. 

But a concern keeps gnawing at my conscience, and I don’t have an answer that can satisfy it: What about the women who don’t get this information? 

They are the women who are the most likely targets of abuse: not well-networked socially with other women; young; new to these fields; alone. Relying on whisper networks all-but-ensures they won’t be privy to this information, and we — the women who rely on these networks — would be lying if we pretend we don’t know that this means these women will be victims. It’s not a question of if, but, when.

Having acknowledged that, which is by no means to blame any of us who rely on these whisper networks, what can we do?

S, an accomplished female journalist, wrote to me this morning asking that exact question.

In response to an essay I wrote for Jacobin this week about workplace sexual harassment, S asked, “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 cited a story by Anne Helen Petersen that ran at Buzzfeed on Friday. It’s a defense of our whisper networks as a “means of survival.” Which they are. 

But S pointed out that while there’s value in defending the necessity of these networks, articles like Petersen's raise a question: are we normalizing a system in which it is on women to do the significant labor of spreading this information, and avoiding sexual predators? I’m not the first woman to say that if women were to refuse to work with harassers, we would likely be unemployed. Which is why, as Petersen writes, “we’ve become dependent on unofficial modes of communication to protect ourselves.” How do we shift the labor required to protect ourselves onto our industries themselves, with their money and influence and power?

In the typology I set up in the Jacobin piece, whisper networks clearly fall into the category of political organizing, but are resolutely on the informal end of the political organizing spectrum. I agree with Petersen when she argues that these networks should not be dismissed as frivolous gossip; they’re unambiguously political. But how do we move them closer to the formal end of the organizing spectrum?

What would it look like to use these networks as a basis for demanding a new normal in media, entertainment, or any other industry? If our goal includes a world in which “men make it their duty to not just know, but to act upon that knowledge — publicly decrying and dismantling the hierarchies of power that shelter this sort of conduct,” as Petersen writes, how do we get there? 

Call me a cynic, but I don’t believe that Petersen’s goal is the step that follows where we are now, the age of informal whisper networks. Most men will not act upon knowledge about sexual harassment until we, women, have weaponized these networks, taking power by creating entities with teeth that can bring real consequences to bear on men who we already know are abusive. After all, what good is knowledge that a man is abusive, if your options are to decide to either accept a job working with him or remain unemployed?

The difficulty of speaking out individually about a powerful man is an obstacle many women cannot and will not overcome on their own. It’s no coincidence that Ashley Judd was one of the few women who spoke about Weinstein’s behavior on the record. She is successful enough to speak out (which, of course, isn't to dismiss the value of her decision to do so). But we can’t rely on powerful women to speak out sometime in the future about men who are ruining our lives now.

So, again, what do we do? If this were an issue within one workplace, the clear answer is to unionize, and utilize the union as a vehicle through which to collectively stamp out harassment or assault in the workplace. I stand by that: there is no better option that currently exists than a union when it comes to taking action against abusers in a specific workplace.

But this is a cross-workplace issue. We work for different companies, and sometimes, in different industries entirely. In the case of political spaces, these networks may not be connected to our employment at all. 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, rather than at the level of a specific industry, then it’s at that level that we can take the next step toward building the power of these networks. 

What that would look like? 

It could be a coordinated effort to centralize the information currently floating around our networks, in an attempt to better disperse what we already know about abusers. It could be a hotline for women to report abuse, one that guarantees anonymity and connects the victim with a woman in her field who is willing to guide her through the possible steps she can pursue to take action against her abuser— this would be a model very similar to that employed by unions, albeit in this case, we’d be using it across workplaces and industries, a rational response to an economy where workers hop from job to job on an increasingly frequent basis. 

This latter option is ideal, too, in that it addresses the necessity of due process, keeping these networks from being abused by anyone who, for whatever reason, seeks to falsely accuse someone. While I am not particularly concerned about false accusations in, say, the media or entertainment worlds (although due process is a fundamental necessity regardless), in the world of left politics — where there are regularly hostile forces seeking to disrupt important work — this concern is more clearly pressing.

Again, I don’t know the answers. I’m one woman, and this is by definition a collective problem requiring the knowledge of as many women as possible. But I do know that the status quo is one that enabled Weinstein to abuse women for decades. It’s one that allows male writers who have raped their colleagues to continue to write, even to write about feminism! It’s unacceptable, and we need to think about what we can do to change it. 

Note: this post isn't paywalled. It's impossible to write about this, an issue of such direct relevance to the broader public and seeking readers' input, from behind a paywall. If you want to support my future writing, subscribe to my Patreon, but it would be absurd to paywall this one.