There’s always been a lot at stake for women who level sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men—the possibility that nobody will believe them, that their careers could be ruined in retaliation. That they might be branded as liars or told that whatever happened to them, they brought it on themselves.
There’s also the risk that they could be believed and blamed, in a fucked-up way, for the consequences the man faced.
In Alabama, five women have accused Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls. One woman claims Moore molested her at 14. Another says that he attempted to rape her at age 16. On Monday, The New Yorker and local media reported that Moore was barred from a local mall in the 1980s for badgering teenagers. It would take an all-around competition’s worth of mental gymnastics for a person to believe that, given the evidence, Moore was not a thirtysomething creep early in his career.
And yet yesterday, Moore voters debased themselves over and over again on cable news to defend their guy. One local man—greasy bangs glued to his forehead—claimed that the girls had sordid reputations and compared the molestation of a teenage girl to stealing a lawnmower or experimenting with drugs. Breitbart has already sent some of its top reporters wheezing down to Alabama as they attempt to discredit the women. That’s not to mention that, in coming forward, the women had to relive what was likely one of the least pleasant experiences of their childhoods.
And that’s what happened at a moment more amenable to believing women than any other moment in recent history.
But some targets of sexual harassment don’t act out of fear that they will be believed, and their reporting will harm the career of their harasser, or the careers of people whose livelihoods depend on their harasser, or fans of the art that the harasser makes.
Yesterday, lead actresses from the television show One Tree Hill released a statement in support of a writer who claimed the showrunner had sexually harassed her. In the letter, they wrote “Many of us were told, during filming, that coming forward to talk about this culture would result in our show being canceled and hundreds of lovely, qualified, hard-working, and talented people losing their jobs. This is not an appropriate amount of pressure to put on young girls.” They added that they were also afraid of disappointing the show’s fans, many of whom said the show helped save their lives.
Telling young women to keep quiet for the good of the fans is an inappropriate amount of pressure to put on them. The only person responsible for setting in motion events that lead to a man’s career being destroyed over sexual misconduct allegations is the man who commits sexual misconduct. The best way to not be expelled from one’s industry in disgrace for being a rapist, for example, is by not raping.
Yet I’ve worked in and around industries, from finance to media to comedy to television. I’ve known women in each of those worlds who have had violating things happen to them at the hands of more powerful men. Almost none of those women have gone public with those accusations.
Instead, they’ve asked themselves a series of deeply unfair questions. Like: Is it worth it to complain to the head of the junior board of a charity about a prized young philanthropist with a Roy Moore-like penchant for pursuing teenage girls, knowing it’ll cause a stir? Or is it easier for the object of his unwanted affection to simply avoid events where she knows he’ll be? One woman warned me off a famous man in an adjacent industry who sent her unsolicited lewd late-night messages when they worked together on a project. I asked her if she ever planned on naming him publicly. She shrugged. Not worth it, she said. Years back, I was on set with a man who told me, in front of the crew, that I’d have to leave the set because he couldn’t stop staring at my legs. I didn’t leave. I laughed, because I didn’t want everybody to know how uncomfortable I was. I could have said something and gotten him in trouble. I decided instead to just shut up and take it, because I didn’t want to get anybody in trouble. Most people don’t like to get other people in trouble, even if the other people deserve it. Putting women in a position to have to grapple with these questions is another way in which predators victimize their targets.
Other women who have weighed coming forward ultimately decide not to because they’re aware that they could potentially ding a man’s career while he could destroy theirs. The New York Times story on Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct, to which the comic admitted, was in the works for months. Other outlets were chasing it for longer than the Times but weren’t able to get women to speak on the record. Perhaps it was because they knew somebody of his stature could have destroyed their careers, if he’d wanted to. Perhaps it was because they knew that if his actions destroyed his career, the same people the One Tree Hill cast was warned off disappointing—fans, cast, crew, other staff—would trace their setback to the women. Never underestimate the hateful power of a herd of wounded fanboys.
The appeal of “whisper networks” in certain industries hinges on the implicit knowledge that coming forward can end badly. Harrowing warning stories relayed to other women in confidence allow women access to information that protects them without subjecting men to the sort of career totaling that has faced the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin, and Roger Ailes. It spares whistleblowing women the embarrassment of having a man’s downfall—which is ultimately his fault—errantly pinned on them.
But the only way to truly prevent men who commit sexual misconduct from re-offending is by turning to the media or to authorities, a difficult prospect no matter how credulous one’s claims. As I’ve written before, coming forward with accusations of harassment against a powerful man is akin to setting off a bomb with oneself at the center. Perhaps the explosion will be large enough to take him down. Perhaps it will damage the people around him but leave him unscathed. But either way, it’s hard to escape the ordeal, as the whistleblower, without sustaining some damage of one’s own.