In October, writer Moira Donegan created a Google doc. This particular document, a spreadsheet made after the first wave of public allegations against Harvey Weinstein hit, allowed women in media and publishing to anonymously record allegations of “shittiness” against men in their industries. The list was live for only a few hours, but in that time more than 70 men were named, alongside descriptions of misconduct that ranged from sending creepy messages to committing multiple violent assaults.
The “Shitty Media Men” list was endlessly dissected over the following weeks. Who started it? Who participated in it? Was it irresponsible? Were the allegations listed even true? Was the list itself indicative of a brewing witch hunt? Was the reaction to the list indicative of a coming backlash? We became so preoccupied with the sheer existence of the list that we downplayed what its mounting cache of claims revealed: that the media industry has a pretty serious sexual harassment problem.
This week, this “Shitty Media Men” debate took a turn when it became widely rumored that Harper’s Magazine was planning to name the creator of the list in a cover story written by controversial author Katie Roiphe. So, despite fears for her own safety and an “I am Spartacus” movement started by other women on the internet to protect her identity, Donegan decided to out herself in a piece for The Cut.
The resulting essay is a beautifully constructed explanation of not only when the spreadsheet was conceived of and how startlingly fast it spread, but also of why Donegan created it in the first place.
“The hope was to create an alternate avenue to report this kind of behavior and warn others without fear of retaliation,” she wrote. “Too often, for someone looking to report an incident or to make habitual behavior stop, all the available options are bad ones.”
It’s this point that is perhaps most salient; something that has been lost in our collective rush to talk about the document and the identity of the young woman behind it, rather than the forces that drove her to create it. The story of the “Shitty Media Men” list has been cast as a narrative about one radical act carried out by one radical young woman. In reality, it’s a story about broken systems and structures ― ones that have failed the most vulnerable among us so frequently that individuals feel they have no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
The structural problems media companies face are diffuse. Employees often aren’t empowered to report incidents of harassment to their managers without fear of retaliation, and managers often aren’t empowered to elevate the issue if it is reported to them. Companies may fail to lay out clear zero-tolerance policies. Human resources departments, if they exist at all, are tasked with protecting employees while simultaneously protecting their company from liability ― tasks that can be at odds. Underlying it all is a deeply rooted history of sexism, built into the very foundation of the industry.
As author Rebecca Traister put it, there’s a “rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do work because the whole thing is tipped toward men.”
This rot exists in non-media industries as well. Broadly speaking, when women (and gender nonconforming people and men) experience harassment or assault in a professional setting, the channels for recourse are limited and often unappealing. This helps explain why the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) predicts that 75 percent of workplace harassment incidents are never reported.
Going to your company’s HR department ― or, in some cases, to the police ― often requires a painstaking and detailed reliving of your initial trauma. Your story is guaranteed to be poked and prodded and picked apart in ways that can be deeply painful. In situations that involve potential criminal charges and life-altering consequences, this makes sense ― but it is deeply painful all the same. If you’re a woman, you might also face familiar questions, all meant to hold your narrative up to an imaginary model of perfect victimhood: What were you wearing? How forcefully did you say no? Are you sure he meant it that way? Were you drinking? Did you agree to be alone with him in that office? In that room? In that bar? Did you communicate with him after the incident? Why did you send that email? Why did you send that tweet? Why did you text that emoji?
And after all of this is done, it’s quite possible that the person you say has harassed or assaulted you will face few consequences. You might face some form of retaliation, as 75 percent of people who spoke up about workplace misconduct said they did in a 2003 EEOC study, or you may simply be left to work alongside your alleged harasser until you decide to leave your job.
Look no further than the recent reporting on Vice to find a glaring example in the media industry of how HR can spectacularly fail in its role as employee advocate. “As women, we get harassed everywhere and we don’t feel compelled to report it because it’s not considered a reportable offense,” said one former employee, who was told that she would continue to face sexual harassment in her career “because she was an attractive woman.” “We’re expected to put up with it; it’s the cost of doing business.” It is an irony not lost on those of us in the industry that even as media companies publish reporting on this reckoning, they have often failed to create a safe environment for their own employees.
In the weeks after the “Shitty Media Men” list began circulating, I began speaking to women who worked for companies that had HR departments ― women who reported their alleged harassment through the proper channels and ended up feeling utterly failed by their workplaces. Like the then 27-year-old research assistant whose boss regularly commented on her appearance and said he never would have hired her if he had known she wore glasses so much. She was told by HR that her boss was just “trying to help” her. Or the then 23-year-old basketball coach who told me that her colleagues and supervisor would touch her and openly talk about “what they wanted to do to” her, but was told by HR that it was simply a “he said, she said” situation. Both of these women ended up leaving their jobs and changing career paths. They are far from unique.
Once you’ve lived through one failed attempt at reporting sexual misconduct, you’re unlikely to even try to report similar incidents in the future. It’s this assumption of inaction that creates whisper networks ― those word-of-mouth chains by which women warn each other off shitty men.
“We needed the 'Shitty Media Men' list for a straightforward reason: There are a lot of shitty men in media and few effective ways to avoid them.”
Donegan took a “whisper network” and made it concrete, widening its access and laying it bare. Media power brokers ― top editors, influential reporters ― didn’t take notice when women shared stories about the predatory colleagues that they encountered at happy hours and in offices and on Twitter. Their whispers were quiet and invisible, as whispers are. When those whispers were written down, even in a forum that explicitly labeled them as rumors and (by Donegan’s account, intentionally) “had no enforcement mechanisms” by which to levy consequences, the powerful finally took notice. After all, typing is louder than whispering.
The weekend after the “Shitty Media Men” list was published, I sat in a room of women and talked about it. One woman, a writer I admire, compared the list to emergency medical care. If a patient is in danger of bleeding out, a medical team will do whatever it can to stop it. The work is messy and often imperfect, and sometimes there are losses. But it’s necessary.
Perhaps that’s where we are in this reckoning ― doing the imperfect, messy work of trying to stop bleeding that’s been going on for decades.
We needed the “Shitty Media Men” list for a straightforward reason: There are a lot of shitty men in media and few effective ways to avoid them. Let’s deal with that.