I used to have a very elaborate inside joke with a few other women in media. It was called The Island, and the narrative went like this: All of the editors we know to be sexual harassers or professional bullies are on a plane together, probably heading to some sort of “ideas festival,” when the plane goes down on a small island. There, they are forced to live out the rest of their days with only each other to harass. In their absence, the rest of us go on to remake the media industry into a creative, forward-thinking, gender-equitable paradise. Fin.
It was funny to picture this scenario, but also sort of a sad coping mechanism. We knew these dudes were too professionally powerful, too entrenched to really be held accountable for their behavior. The Island became a code for telling each other who was a good guy and who was a bad guy—which upper-masthead men actually wanted to mentor us, and which ones just wanted the thrill of having a cocktail with an attractive younger woman under the guise of professionalism: “Is he on The Island or not?” Or, “Watch out, that guy’s totally on The Island.”
And so today, even though I’m on deadline for about four other things (sorry, editors!), I can’t stop reading about all of the drama at The Oxford American.
Most of the time, sexual harassment is not easily verifiable, not obvious to outsiders. Sure, sometimes there are emails or—shudder—voicemails. Irrefutable proof. But mostly harassment is a series of seemingly minor infractions: a quick “joke” about your legs, lots of inquiries about your sex life, three compliments about your looks for every one compliment about your work, a creepy gaze, a lingering touch. Lawyers will tell you to keep a log—to write down each of these little incidents. But it can build up so quietly. You might have a bad feeling about a dude, but not quite be ready to call it harassment until it’s gone on for months. In other words, it creeps up on you. Creeps creep up on you. That’s how they do!
The reason these guys still have jobs? Because the (typically) young (typically) female people they’re harassing have a lot to lose. Because a public accusation would instantly turn into a “he said, she said” situation. Because this situation would become a defining aspect of the accuser’s professional life, very likely wrecking it. Because it’s much safer to talk about this with our peers—usually just our female peers—over drinks or in Gmail. This chat is off the record.
There’s a reason The Island was a private joke, never a dramatic op-ed that named names. But I agree that knowledge is power. And, among women in the profession, there are definitely men in media who are well known as creepsters. There are names that pop up again and again in those Gchat conversations.
I can’t help but think there’s a technological solution here. Some way of creating a private message board where users are vetted but anonymous, where women can take this knowledge about who belongs on The Island and share it without fear of retribution. Kind of a professional version of Don’t Date Him Girl, only… better. I know, I know: There’s a potential for abuse with anonymous accusations. But really, it’s 2012. It’s a collective embarrassment that this behavior is still so common, and it warrants a collective response—one that goes beyond a series of private conversations and inside jokes.
I think a lot of people don’t realize just how common sexual harassment actually is. The only jobs I’ve ever held that I haven’t been sexually harassed at least once in were jobs where the vast majority of my coworkers were female or jobs where I didn’t directly interact with my coworkers. I feel like perpetrators of sexual harassment should actually be punished rather than victims just having a network to warn each other who’s dangerous, but that being said, I know from personal experience that deciding whether to report harassment or not is really hard.