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Whisper Networks Are Flawed — But Not Because Of How They Affect The Accused

Unsplash/Kristina Flour

No, whisper networks are not a ‘witch hunt.’ But they’re also not above reproach.

I would get my introduction to something called the “whisper network” on a crisp winter afternoon in 2014. The pub was a dive, orange hues cast over white and burgundy upholstery, a bar riddled with battlescars of patrons past, a jukebox collecting dust underneath a suspended speaker. I saw myself in the other patrons; women with the wild and vibrant hair I desperately wanted, hard femmes in glistening leather, mascs dressed so sharply they could cut glass with their suits. It smelled of wood and whiskey, still a reprieve from the biting cold.

I was sponsored by a woman in the community. “Munches,” as kinksters have come to call these events, are social gatherings meant to help you network in a safe, non-sexual environment as you enter the alternative underground world — the kind 50 Shades authors can only imagine through frosted glass. But my sponsor had soon abandoned me to navigate strange waters on my own, so I did what any good introvert with self-esteem issues would do: nursed a coke and ice while brooding on an empty couch, quietly chiding myself for thinking I could summon the courage to strike conversations with total strangers.

One of the men invited himself to the empty cushion next to me. I conversed at his insistence, albeit reluctantly. He was polite enough, even charming, much to my chagrin. He knew the right buttons to push. The conversation moved so quickly, and every concern and hesitation of mine was so readily dismissed, that when he invited me to coffee and I said yes, it felt like I hadn’t really answered for myself. In the week between his invitation and the date we were supposed to meet, my sponsor and would-be wingwoman reappeared after her unceremonious desertion with a cryptic message in my inbox: “Be careful with that one. He’s dangerous.” I met him for coffee. It ended at his house.

I was upset with my sponsor for being so vague in her warning — until I saw how the community responded to allegations that were made explicit. Six months later, a respected member of the community would step forward with allegations of wrongdoing, while also claiming to represent several of his other victims. This man had racked up a substantial body count — as more people came forward, the number of alleged victims reached 20 — and their testimonies were beat-for-beat recreations of mine, despite my never having met them or shared my own experience. We had enough to establish a pattern, the methods he used to rope in someone new and insecure, how he put you down if you wanted to discuss boundaries or slow things down, and how, once you were in, he took what he wanted regardless of your input, and told you this was normal.

(It’s not. Never accept that.)

I hadn’t gone public yet with my own story. And as I agonized over the prospect of doing so, a person I called a friend said to my face: “They’re just making it up to get back at him for dumping them.”

Variations on this response echoed throughout what I thought was my chosen family. The person who came forward was deemed a troublemaker, “stirring up drama,” as was anyone else who went public. Instead of discussing the man’s conduct, the community lamented the effect the allegations would have on the accused. Would he still be able to present his workshops? Are conferences going to invite him to speak? Poor thing, will he be banned from community parties even though he’s “only” been accused?

Words spent sympathizing with the perpetrator were matched only by those chastising the victims.

If you’re a woman or otherwise marginalized, it’s very possible that you, too, have been privy to a whisper network. Underground channels have long been used to warn people away from perpetrators of abuse — and in this age of #MeToo, they’ve dominated the news cycle.

It was reported that women working for Pixar warned newly hired women about “the Lasseter,” a move they’d perfected to prevent their boss, John Lasseter, from putting his hands on their legs. Women of Hollywood had whispered about Harvey Weinstein’s abuses so frequently that his creepiness became an open joke in the industry. Recently, the “Shitty Men in Media” list — a spreadsheet containing the alleged sexual misconduct of various high-profile men in media — made headlines when its creator, Moira Donegan, outed herself, on the heels of reports that Harper’s had commissioned a pieceto name her without her consent.

As was inevitable, the conversation about these networks has swiftly turned negative, with attention-grabbing op-eds decrying them as manifestations of the “witch hunt” mentality. Ironically, these hot takes demonstrate why underground channels are so necessary—while overlooking what can actuallymake them problematic.

I know from my own experience how crucial whisper networks can be; when stepping forward publicly so often leads to accusations of lying or worse, warning others on the down-low can feel like the only viable option to prevent further harm.

Yet according to many, these networks are actually an affront to goodness and justice. In recent weeks, there has been much hand-wringing about how whisper networks mark alleged perpetrators without “due process.” (Never mind due process for the victims themselves.) The misogyny behind such criticisms — rooted in the belief that women perpetually lie, and that many actions described as abusive shouldn’t be — is, of course, what leads victims to create such networks in the first place.

Warning others on the down-low can feel like the only viable option to prevent further harm. Click To Tweet

“This kind of mania will always at some point exhaust itself and this kind of zeal will always overstep,” writes Andrew Sullivan for New York Magazine, in a piece called “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of ‘Me Too,’” which criticizes the Shitty Men list for “slandering innocent people” and compares it, absurdly, to McCarthyism. Paraphrasing Dave Chapelle, Sullivan continues with a flawless demonstration of my point: “Sexual abuse is real and evil, but if you’re talking to someone on the phone who appears to be masturbating, you can always, you know, hang up.” In other words, it’s the victim’s fault for not preventing abuse, and while Sexual Violence is Bad, it is never Bad Enough to warrant whatever consequences are being currently discussed.

In this framework, that PTSD diagnosis you received after being violated won’t come into the calculation of how sexual violence should be handled. Neither will the risks of STIs or unwanted pregnancy from a condom removed without your knowledge (an act Sullivan dismisses as no big deal). Nor will the physical symptoms — the hair that stands on the back of your neck, the adrenaline that pumps through your body, the terror that simmers in the depths of your stomach — because your body remembers the pain of what happened. Determining the proportionality of the response can never involve the woman’s experience, because according to people like Sullivan, we consistently overstate how severe these harms are (or make them up entirely). Plus, think of all the men in the industry who could be fired!

All of which is the very point of taking accusations underground to begin with. When roadkill is more responsive than the system, is there any wonder the targets of sexual violence have found a way to work around it? Perhaps the people criticizing these networks should think about how their words provewhy such channels exist in the first place.

None of this is to say, however, that whisper networks are above reproach.

Donegan, for example, cites a piece by Jenna Wortham observing the dynamics of who is included in the whisper network, and how women of color are often excluded.

Moreover, whisper networks have largely been scrutinized and documented in the context of cisgender heterosexuality, which means queer and/or transgender people often find themselves excluded. My own experience provides ample opportunity to reflect on this, as the second assault I survived was perpetrated not by a man, but by a cisgender woman. In that case, I had no network to rely on.

The language I’ve used to discuss this issue so far has been gendered, and not without reason. There are many moving parts to this conversation: how women are not presumed to be rational actors by default; how men are inundated with messages saying women are passive flowers eagerly waiting to be plucked (at any time and any place); how women aren’t supposed to have desire, leading to the assumption that we have to be coerced into doing anything. But it’s possible to become so steeped in the gender dynamics of abuse that we lose sight of victims and perpetrators who fall outside rigid dichotomies.

In a world where all perpetrators are men and all targets are women, the solution is as easy as limiting access to whisper networks to women — but that is not the world queer women (as one example) live in. Our abusers can be in the network, and making an allegation through it means the abuser may be aware they’ve been accused. From there it’s no different than raising the issue publicly.

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that transgender people can be excluded from the network based on the cissexist whims of its participants, despite the evidence showing we’re more likely to be targeted.

These are legitimate criticisms of whisper networks, and they deserve to be discussed. But instead of having that conversation, we’re subject to pieces like Sullivan’s, or to nauseating letters for Le Monde that blithely conflate “jerking off in front of someone who has not asked to see you jerk off” with “flirting.”

Would it be better to live in a world without whisper networks? Absolutely. But it would be better only if we could instead trust our communities and institutions to handle these situations fairly. As is, we know that when we come forward, the default response is to drag our names through the mud.

Perhaps instead of interrogating victims, we can start asking why people — mostly but not exclusively women — don’t feel safe enough to discuss their trauma openly. Maybe we can acknowledge what it costs survivors when we’re told we should expect to share a space with our abusers. Maybe we can talk about how the careers and status of men are implicitly valued more than the boundaries and health of the women they work with.

Maybe, just maybe, it can dawn on us that we make lists of shitty abusers because there are so many shitty abusers to put on them.