Around 10 pm on January 10, writer and former editor at The New Republic Moira Donegan came forward as the creator of an anonymous online spreadsheet titled “Shitty Media Men” that had been created in October as a private space for women in media to disclose the names of men in the industry who they said harassed or assaulted them. The spreadsheet, Donegan explained in the essay in which she came forward, was only online for about 12 hours, but in that time it amassed roughly 70 names.
This week, rumors spread that the previously anonymous creator of the list would be named in a forthcoming article in Harper’s Magazine. Readers and writers alike protested on social media, fearing violent retaliation against the list’s author; some with pieces awaiting publication at Harper’s withdrew their work. The author of the Harper’s piece was, importantly, a woman—someone with a long history of rape-culture skepticism. Before she could be named by someone else, Donegan came forward herself. That night, I scrolled through Twitter and watched the social-media protest develop. I saw the retweets and likes accrue when women tweeted in solidarity, and I wondered if Harper’s would be responsive to this public outcry. The first thing I saw when I logged on to Twitter the next morning was Donegan’s essay.
As a young writer still in college, I have regarded the prospect of joining “the industry”—working for magazines, websites, outlets—with trepidation. I am only just beginning to learn its topography, to understand where I might fit in its already over-saturated landscape, how and in what way I can make a living doing something I love. I, like many young writers hoping for the same, barely understand—are hardly privy to—how the industry’s formal or informal channels operate. Especially the latter.
“Like me, many of the women who used the spreadsheet are particularly vulnerable: We are young, new to the industry, and not yet influential in our fields. As we have seen time after time, there can be great social and professional consequences for women who come forward,” she wrote. “At the time when I made it, I had become so accustomed to hearing about open secrets, to men whose bad behavior was universally known and perpetually immune from consequence, that it seemed like no one in power cared about the women who were most vulnerable to it. Sexual harassment and assault, even when it was violent, had been tolerated for so long that it seemed like much of the world found it acceptable. I thought that women could create a document with the aim of helping one another in part because I assumed that people with authority didn’t care about what we had to say there. In this sense, at least, I am glad I was wrong.”
Donegan’s essay described the reality of a field fraught with danger for young women just as much as it demonstrated the courage and resolve she proved is necessary to successfully navigate it. I read her piece, rapt, letting a perspective rarely granted to young writers (at least before they take the risk of making writing their career) wash over me: Through her recounting, I saw that the twin specters of the abuse of power and sexual misconduct, one of its sickening expressions, haunts anyone who aspires to have her voice heard as a professional writer. This is what they do not tell you in school. And whether you’re confronted with this reality in an office or over the requisite networking coffee or drink or launch party isn’t really up to you. What is, as Donegan points out in her essay—and in her actions creating the list—is how you choose to act when you see something wrong persisting without much hindrance.
For most of my life, from my privileged standpoint, sexual violence in the workplace happened to other people. I didn’t want anything about this obvious pattern of intimidation and violence against women to be true, at least not for me, because I had been told my entire conscious life that I lived in a new world, one distinct from the troubled past. As Dayna Tortorici—who first announced that Harper’s might publish a story naming Donegan as the creator of the list in a tweet that launched the public outcry—wrote in her devastating essay for n+1, “You can do anything was the refrain of my childhood. I was a daughter of the Title-IX generation, a lucky girl in a decade when lucky girls of lucky parents were encouraged to play sports, be leaders, wear pants, believe themselves good at math, and aspire to become the first female President of the United States.” Sexism was dead, I was also told, more or less, by the adults who encouraged me to take advantage of traditional avenues of success. I imagine they wanted it to be true just as much as I thought it was.
I recently learned about the “optimism bias” in a statistics class—a cognitive illusion in which people grossly underestimate the chances that they will experience bad events, no matter how common they understand those bad events to be overall. As 2017 came to a close and more and more powerful men were accused of sexual harassment and assault, I was not surprised by the constantly surfacing allegations, but I was depressed. Suffering under the delusion of the optimism bias, I thought to myself: “Well, thank goodness I don’t want to be an actress or a politician.”
Then came Moira Donegan’s “Shitty Media Men” list. It wasn’t until a few weeks after the list went viral that the strength of not only her bravery, but also the courage of every woman who participated in compiling, sharing, and discussing it, showed me that this problem was nowhere near as remote as I had hoped. As much as I would like to believe that men who pose a danger to women are easy to identify by their overtly misogynistic beliefs and behaviors, it’s clear that they thrive even at publications that pay lip service to feminist goals and claim the label of “progressive.” The men named on the Shitty Media Men list work and have worked at publications I would have considered myself incredibly lucky to write for. Having read the list, I wonder if a byline at any of those publications would be worth intentionally putting myself within range of known abusers. Am I supposed to regard those Shitty Media Men as occupational hazards? Am I content to strive for success within a field I know to be, at the very least, compromised by men who hurt women and the systems that protect them when they do? Should I revise my goals to prioritize changing the status quo, even if it’s at the expense of a career? As Tortorici wrote with startling prescience in December:
As we learned during the Long 2016, the self-evident harm of sexual assault is not self-evident at all: no automatic mechanism delivers justice the moment “awareness” is “raised.” Donald Trump remains the President. Social media, the staging ground for much of this reckoning, remains easy to manipulate. Our enemies pose as allies, and our allies act like enemies, suspicious that our gain will be their loss.
I am profoundly grateful for your radical work facilitating women’s safe and anonymous sharing of their experiences of abuse. Creating the list was central to building solidarity among women and increasing the viability of the whisper network, partial solution though it may be. Thank you for publicly resisting the patriarchal myth that we, individually, must be to blame for any sexual misconduct that befalls us. You resisted the patriarchal forces that aim to separate victimized women so that they don’t realize how common the violence is.
Your honesty about your professional experience pre- and post-list was eye-opening to a young woman writer like me: the frustration of witnessing complacency about known abusers whose actions are “open secrets;” the disturbing dearth of options for women who’ve been harassed at work and want to seek restitution; the prevalence and intensity of the backlash you faced, even before your identity went public, simply because you drew attention to the unacceptable things happening in the warped twilight of the open secret. You’ve provided me, as someone who wants to be a part of the industry you describe and, even more, as a woman who wants to do the feminist work you’ve done and are doing, a glimpse of the possibilities and perils of solidarity as an alternative to silence. Your insight is more pragmatic and inspiring than a lot of what I’ve learned from most of my adult mentors. “The experience of making the spreadsheet has shown me that it is still explosive, radical, and productively dangerous for women to say what we mean,” you wrote. What also rings incisive and true: “Protecting women is a position that comes with few protections itself.”
By holding space for women to speak openly about their experiences, your list enabled women in media to better take care of each other. It brought credible allegations of harm out of the realm of hushed rumor and solidified them into a collective demand for accountability. You said it only took about 12 hours to amass the list’s 70-ish names. This is staggering to me and proof that you’re right—there is a great need for spaces (virtual or otherwise) in which women can be honest about their experiences, where vulnerability can transform into the capacity to affirm and support each other. I haven’t been introduced to, or stumbled upon, spaces quite like this—and none so radical as the list— but I would like to, now that I’ve seen it.
Instead of leaving this moment dismayed at the backlash generated by the list and the other ways in which survivors of abuse are speaking out against their abusers, I am choosing to embrace the experience of “being challenged to imagine how we would prefer things to be.” For me, this can no longer be an exercise in personal denial of the dangers of misogyny as they exist today. It must be deeply rooted in an acknowledgment of the power of my own and others’ lived experiences.
Thank you for your role in making this moment happen. Thank you, Moira, for helping me face reality, ugly as it is.
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at [email protected].