In the wee hours of Thursday morning, BuzzFeed reported the existence of a Google spreadsheet full of alleged sexual misdeeds. Titled “SHITTY MEDIA MEN,” the document contains a list of a few dozen men in the media industry, each of whom is paired with a description of the accusations against him.
As of Thursday afternoon, some of the men on the list are labeled as stalkers or persistent harassers. There are detailed accounts of violence and rape—men on the list have allegedly forced nonconsensual anal sex, choked a woman “until she lost consciousness,” and taken off condoms without consent. Some, though, are named for misdeeds as murky as “weird lunch ‘dates’” and “creepy AF in the DMs.” The spreadsheet is anonymous, so no one can see who wrote what. It begins with a disclaimer: “This document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt. If you see something about a man you’re friends with, don’t freak out.”
In a way, telling women things they didn’t know about their friends was exactly the point of the document. Since the wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein began crashing down last week, many journalists (including me) have written about the pervasiveness of serial sexual harassment in every industry, reminding readers that it’s not just Hollywood with a problem. If you saw a friend or colleague’s name on the list next to rape allegations from multiple women, of course you’d freak out. All women like to believe that the men in their lives are the “good guys,” the ones who post feminist links on Twitter and would never come close to committing sexual assault. But sexual abusers often don’t harass their friends; many probably wouldn’t put their own actions in the same category as the actions of the assailants who rise to national infamy. Weinstein himself walked in a Women’s March.
The “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” document is supposed to be both secret and anonymous, a kind of physical manifestation of the interpersonal warnings women sometimes offer as protection against men who’ve done wrong. In almost every recent high-profile case of sexual assault or harassment by a man in the public eye—Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump—the first accusation is followed by another, then another, and sometimes dozens more. Some of these women had no idea whether their harasser had done the same thing to others; several of Weinstein’s accusers have written of feeling intense guilt after learning that he’d gone on to abuse other women while they remained silent. Harassment and abuse are easier to prove when there’s an established pattern, but shame, self-blame, and fear of retribution keep individual survivors isolated from one another. Telling other women about a mutual acquaintance’s bad behavior is one way to find other victims of the same man’s abuse before coming forward. It also allows the recipients of the information to take precautions when getting a drink alone with a colleague who’s said to have groped a friend.
Taking a collection of allegations that would normally be spread friend-to-friend and putting it on the internet raises several important red flags, though. First of all, though the list was never meant to be public, there was no way to guarantee it would stay in the hands of trustworthy actors. Men at nearly every major media outlet are implicated. BuzzFeed reported that several men on the list somehow got their hands on it, indicating that women sent the document in good faith to other women they wanted to protect, who then shared it with men accused of sexual harassment or assault. The barrier to entry for writing on the list is low to nonexistent, leaving it open to hijacking and reducing the trustworthiness of every bit of information to that of any other anonymous online comment. Since there is no way to tell who made what allegation, there is no way to put the claims in meaningful context, as there usually is with word-of-mouth warnings. And some of the reported behaviors, such as “flirting,” are relatively minor and subjective, though sometimes paired with more serious allegations.
The implications of these failings are severe. If rape and assault allegations can be brushed off as gossip from sources that can’t be held accountable for their reports, it throws a layer of doubt on all the accusations on the list, many of which are truly horrifying. The specter of one motivated person getting a hold of the document for the wrong reasons and creating multiple anonymous accounts to manufacture claims against a man in media is highly unlikely, but nevertheless possible; the slight possibility poisons the entire well. Hiring managers in media could get their hands on a list like this and use it as an argument against job candidates who seem too risky to hire but never had a chance to answer for their alleged crimes.
But if a woman has been raped, who’s to tell her she has no right to scream his name from the rooftops? Taking part in the word-of-mouth chain of mutual warning is a privilege young and less-connected journalists are unlikely to have. And if women ever want to make a case against an abuser, either to law enforcement or to an industry that enables him with jobs and connections, they’re far more likely to get results if they find other survivors first rather than going it alone. In a justice system that demands perfect victimhood, bulletproof evidence, and skin of steel of anyone who comes forward with a claim of sexual violence, there are few good options for recourse. Traditional chains of command for reporting workplace harassment can fail when those chains are full of abusers’ friends. The “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” spreadsheet was not a perfect system, but a perfect system does not exist.
Women have tried to create similar lists of alleged intra-industry harassers and abusers before. In Los Angeles, women in the comedy scene shared stories in a private Facebook group, leading to at least one police investigation and the effective ostracization of three men who’d racked up multiple accusations. I spoke to one woman, Jennifer, who helped create a similar document for women and gender-nonconforming people in her local arts community. (Her name has been changed at her request.)
Jennifer and her co-creators formed a working group after a woman accused a well-known man in their community of rape in an online comment. “At first, I felt like, ‘well, that’s a shitty thing to say,’ ” she said. But at the working group’s first meeting, woman after woman described other stories they’d heard about the same man, and shared personal accounts of his abuse. Not all the allegations involved rape, but a pattern of similar boundary violations began to take shape, corroborated by multiple independent accounts. As names of other men began to come up, Jennifer and her group had to decide what belonged on a semi-public list and what did not. They discussed whether it was appropriate to put rape on the same plane as “sketchy and unethical and coercive” behavior—in at least one case, they decided to leave an accused man off the list because his alleged violations didn’t rise to the level of assault.
“We didn’t necessarily feel like it was the best alternative, but we felt like there was no other alternative,” Jennifer said. “This sort of being an ‘open secret’ in whatever community doesn’t stop the behavior, as we’ve seen with Weinstein and all the rest.”
Some colleges have started using an app that purports to be a better platform for anonymous reporting. Callisto allows accusers to input their allegations into the app anonymously and choose to either report it to the school immediately, timestamp it and save it for later, or save the report and notify the accuser when any other student inputs an allegation against the same perpetrator. Other industries could conceivably make similar systems—Callisto’s code is public—to help aggregate assault reports and facilitate communication between survivors. As my colleague April Glaser wrote in Wired last year, features like encryption and identity verification could lend anonymous reporting mechanisms extra layers of both security and credibility.
The “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” spreadsheet does try to make a distinction between “physical sexual violence” and, say, “inappropriate communication.” When multiple women have accused the same man of the former, his line on the spreadsheet is highlighted in red. But red men are mixed in with ones accused by just one person of something like “workplace harassment,” which could mean anything from an unwelcome remark about a physical feature to offering a raise in exchange for sex. After closing the document, all but the most vile deeds became irrelevant. Only the names remained in my head.
The document was locked for a period of time on Thursday; it’s now once again publicly accessible to anyone who has the link. But even if it disappears, it will live on as an ethical quandary and potentially teachable case study. It forces people who consider themselves upstanding colleagues and allies to confront some difficult questions with no clear-cut answers. What should happen to men in our industry who’ve been accused of sexual violence? What if those accusations come from multiple women? What if those women are anonymous? It makes sense not to hire rapists. But should every man who’s ever verbally harassed a woman never work again? What about “creeps”? For those of us who believe that the prison system and sex offender registries do far more harm than good, what alternatives can we offer survivors and perpetrators? At what point could an industry consider a harasser reformed and hirable? How can women protect one another without trampling the rights of the accused?