You are in for a world of disappointment over the next few weeks if you thought that predatory dudes could be identified by their stated politics. Those of us who work with these men know better.
Let me give you an example: There’s a man whose name you might know. You’ve probably approved of everything you’ve heard from him. He’s responsible for a lot of work that’s saved a lot of lives and ended in some fantastic policy. He is a champion on any social justice issue, known for the amount he’ll sacrifice to right a wrong.
Also he likes to fuck 15-year-old girls. He reportedly likes to tell them that condoms are for girls who sleep around.
All the proof we have against this man, that I know of, is contained within the brains of minor children who have already been traumatized, and every time I see that fucker’s name I get stabby. Yet I still have to work with him, because he’s still who he is and I’m still just some lady who (allegedly) knows way too much about his disturbing predilections. I’ve told all the men we know in common to watch for rumors, but I can’t tell them why.
I’ve lost count of how many conversations I’ve had with women in media in recent weeks, wondering whether to insert ourselves into this narrative of powerful men behaving badly. We work in a male-dominated industry noted for its mercurial figures. So here we are, calling each other to discuss the complexities of what to do with the whispers we’ve heard and the behavior we’ve endured or witnessed.
We see lists of potential abusers being passed around behind closed doors because the only way to confirm their veracity is to see how many independent accounts we can collect about any particular person. Somewhere along the way we run across the name of a man we know. I haven’t decided yet whether it’s easier when we liked and respected them or had a story of our own to add, but either way we have to decide what to do with that name.
We know that silence is complicity. Some of us are women with substantial platforms, and we know our word would carry some weight. Few women in media aren’t feminists in application. We look out for each other. We don’t want other women to be hurt, and we’d like to see the industry change.
We’re struggling with the implications of the fact that sometimes we’re friends with these people you read about, sometimes they’re our mentors. It’s inevitable for those of us who are any kind of public figure that at some point we’ll be asked to comment on a man we admire at the same time we’re told he’s one of the men we’ve been warning about.
Not many of us write about feminism or sexism for a living; “working in media” can mean a lot of things. We know that once a woman’s made a public accusation she’s going to pay for it. We see that sausage getting made and it’s worse than you’ve imagined. More than one woman has seen her career end while her harasser or attacker gets a promotion. Accusing a powerful man of abusive behavior in this climate means signing your friends, family and coworkers up for hell for as long as the story lasts — and that’s before we discuss what the Internet does to these women, much less what it’s like to be in an international spotlight.
Al Franken is a hell of a good legislator and also sometimes he treated women like meat and both things can be true. The rush from ostensible liberals to clear his name to save his record has been stunning in its volume and velocity- she must be lying! She’s overreacting! She talked to him later! She touched another man’s ass once! She was wearing a whole bulletproof vest, for fuck’s sake, he couldn’t have molested her! He merely posed for a photo showing his sexual dominance and then published it for the world to see, it’s not like he actually did anything. Anyway, the photo was doctored! FAKE NEWS!
It’s been disheartening, for many of us who see these men when the cameras are off, to see that reaction. I get told enough by people who hate women openly that I should smile more and complain less and learn to go along to get along. That I should consider the reputation of the man who harassed me, or consider how I might have encouraged him to behave badly. I don’t need to hear it from the pussy-hat crowd too.
What we need to hear is more people like Al Franken. Who fucked up and without arguing validity said that he was sorry if he’d ever wielded power in a way that made someone with less of it uncomfortable. He assumed he had made the mistake. He’s handling this with about a million times the dignity and respect his fans are — and he’s right to do it. The discussion about what to do with the Frankens of the world isn’t the same as the one with what to do with men who have crossed the Rubicon between harassment and abuse.
Some of the men we warn each other about are popular figures. They are men you like, men whose politics are right on or that you trust when a story is breaking. Someone can be very good at their job and also kind of a dirtbag. Nobody is actually the person you see on TV.
Not all the men you’re going to hear about are going to be Al Franken, who crossed some lines and probably truly regrets it. A lot of them are going to be serial abusers with years of payoffs, or who chose young women betting that they wouldn’t say anything. Some are rapists. Some are pedophiles. We are addressing a whole problematic swath of human behavior here, ranging from the mild to the nauseating.
Some changes will come out of this, even if the discussion ends tomorrow. The limits of acceptable will contract a bit, and women are likely to talk a bit more openly amongst ourselves. But changing a culture will mean accepting that a whole lot of people have been behaving very badly until now.
No part of this discussion will be comfortable, but it is overdue.