Throwback Thursday: Whisper Networks

Today’s throwback was inspired by my emigo Callie Wright, veteran podcaster, activist and Star Trek fanatic. Callie just repackaged her podcast The Gaytheist Manifesto into Queersplaining. In the first episode “Why We Whisper,” Callie deftly weaves together interviews with Stephanie Svan and Ashley Miller, bloggers at The Orbit and Deb McTaggart into a story explaining why women and other marginalized groups often resort to “whisper networks,” when powerful men (it’s usually men,) use their position to impose sexually on the folks around them. In this case they are referring to the Atheist/Skeptic Movement, but their analysis could easily translate to any organization, social movement or community that shares the kind of informal relationships that characterize activist movements. Sadly, Deb unexpectedly died as Callie was editing the episode. I never got the chance to know her but from the outpouring of grief I’ve observed from friends who did it seems like we lost one of the good ones.

The episode remembered me to a piece I threw up on Medium last spring after that Buzzfeed article detailing Lawrence Krause’s history of sexual misbehavior landed. I was engaged in my favorite unhealthy activity, arguing with assholes on the internet and in trying to explain why whisper networks come to be I painted him a picture with a classic Tortured Sportsball Analogy, which I will reprint here in it’s entirety. Looking back on it after listening to Callie, Ashley, Stephanie and Deb tell their story I feel like I did a pretty good job. I don’t remember if the douchebag was convinced.

Full disclosure, the events in this example are fictional. I used the example of a local disc golf club because it was an organization I was familiar with. But all of the power dynamics I describe are accurate and it’s exactly the kind of informal setting that predators can exploit.

CN:Tortured Sportsball Analogy, also sexual harassment)

I recently had a long Facebook “discussion” with a particular “Adjective Atheist” who I will not name because his identity really isn’t important to this piece. He posted about the current deepening of the rifts on our community after the recent Buzzfeed article detailing Lawrence Krause’s history of sexual misbehavior.

The details of our differences aren’t important either. If you know me you know I believe Krause’s (and Shermer’s and others) accusers. At this point I find most attempts at “objectivity” in these cases more banal than anything. But a couple things from that discussion stood out for me and I thought I needed to tease them out.

AA stated at one point that the Buzzfeed article was the first he had heard of the accusations against Lawrence Krause. When I responded that it was fairly well known in our circles he complained that was the fault of the “whisper network,” that the women who had quietly warned each other behind the scenes that Krause was unsafe to be alone with were at fault. If they had made a bigger stink at the time he would find the news more credible I suppose.

At one point I proposed that if someone acted like Krause in our disc golf league we would kick them out, hoping perhaps that by providing an example of how an informal association might deal with the problem. His response was pointedly legalistic, expecting that we would take each case to the organizers who would take appropriate action. It was then I realized that AA had zero experience with the social dynamics at work.

So here’s the story I crafted to try to explain it to him.

Imagine you are a woman who likes disc golf. Maybe you played in school or picked it up from a parent or a sibling. You decide you want to learn more, you check the web for meet ups and you eventuality find the Local Flying Disc Club. They have a weekly league, they do monthly tournaments for all skill levels. It sounds great.

It’s a lot of fun. You meet a lot of new people, make friends, learn about the sport. There aren’t a lot of other ladies in the club, but that’s ok. Most of the guys are cool, although like a lot of places with lots of dudes there’s a lot of “locker room talk.” But you can hack it, you’re no snowflake.

There is this one guy. He’s one of the top players, a local pro. He represents the LFDC at tourneys around the world. He has sponsorships with Discraft, he’s been club president before and could be again. He’s friendly and always happy to help with advice on technique. And he pushes sexual boundaries.

You’ve noticed that the older women in the club give him a lot of space. Maybe over beers after a meet you are warned to keep an eye on his wandering hands. You assure them you can take care of yourself. Which you’ve always been able to do, right?

Then it happens to you. The specifics are immaterial. What do you do? Tell someone, tell the current club president, he’s a great guy, he’ll understand. And he says he does and he says he’ll talk to The Pro. But you get the feeling he doesn’t quite take it seriously.

The Pro is a popular guy. He buys beers at the pub after meets. He has lots of friends in the league. And now those friends are paying more attention to you. The locker room humor is more pointed and directed at you. It starts to feel like harassment and you complain about that to the president.

But now you look even worse. The president talked to his friend The Pro, and he said that it was just a misunderstanding. Mixed signals, he’s really sorry. But by coming forward about harassment on the course from Pro’s cronies, now YOU are the problem. You’re imagining things. You can’t take a joke. You’re just making trouble.

It starts to become obvious. Mr Pro is important to the club and you aren’t. He knows all the park commissioners and helped design the newest course. You’re just a hysterical woman.

And forget about going to the police. I think we can all see why that would be laughed off.

Maybe it becomes too much. It’s not fun anymore. You can’t even seem to get up the energy to throw a round by yourself. The next spring your bag of discs end up in a yard sale and this becomes a thing you “used to do”

Or maybe not? Maybe you’ve gotten pretty good at this game. You think maybe you should be getting some of that sponsorship money. That’s a different tragedy. That’s going to require even more from you. Mr Pro isn’t going anywhere. He could make your career in the sport miserable if he wants to, and you know that the club won’t do anything. So you swallow your pride. You learn to laugh at the jokes and not rock the boat.

And when you see another young woman join the club, maybe you drop some hints or whisper a name to watch out for.

It’s the best you can do.

That’s how and why whisper networks form. Blaming women for doing the best they can to keep themselves safe from unwanted sexual attention or even assault is rank hypocrisy. It’s not the women being silent, it’s US. It’s our cowardice at play here. We’re the ones in power, we’re the ones who maintain the environment that says a man’s reputation is more important than a woman’s body. We’re the ones who can stop this.

If we won’t take this seriously then there’s no reason at all for anyone on the sidelines to take our movement seriously.

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