Whisper Networks and Staying In Your Lane

For International Women’s Day, have a weirdly specific feminist rant…
A few days ago a sweet man of my acquaintance retweeted something a woman said about whisper networks. He added that he would love it if the women he knew felt able to tell him these things as well, so he could work to reduce the influence of these men, using his privilege to help.
It took me a good half an hour to work out why this nice offer made me so fucking angry.
This issue is a messy one. My initial response is a mental hiss of “piss off, MAN, this doesn’t concern you.”  This worries me. I do not like to be tribal about being a woman, and I do not necessarily feel you need a background of lived experience to understand the issue. Having reflected, I think the strands that contribute to my feeling this way are these –
  • You are asking a lot here. Talking to people about this kind of thing is a delicate process. You must relive any experiences you have, you must phrase your words so carefully, you must be mindful of the other person’s reaction. Also, it’s risky. I don’t know that whoever I tell about that time the head of marketing put his hand up my skirt after the Christmas party isn’t going to turn out to be his sister in law or whatever, or just tell him for some reason. That could fuck up my career considerably. That is a risk I am willing to take to give a 19 year old about to get into a taxi with Handsy Gary a heads up, but not so that you can feel good about playing white knight.
  • I suspect you of playing white knight. Now I mean this with love, because I certainly don’t think that trying your hardest to be a decent dude is a character flaw. Still, this feels performative. If you care, there are a lot of things you can do – strengthen your workplaces HR policies, ask what steps are being taken to protect women, call out any misogynistic shit that happens around you, whether women are present or not. There’s a lot to be done. Why do you feel the right thing to do is to break into a space you do not need to be in?
  • For whisper networks to work, they must stay need-to-know. Partly this is simply because if one person tells you something, it’s a warning. If many do, it’s gossip. The more people in this conversation, the higher the chance this veers into gossip. And fears of gossip will silence me. I will tell someone, as a private warning, something way too flimsy to repeat in other contexts, because trusting your gut keeps you and the people around you out of trouble. But I absolutely do not want some poor guy facing disciplinary action because I “got a bad vibe off him one time”. So I will stay quiet.
  • This is not our fucking fault. The reason I think this made me so angry, rather than lightly exasperated, is this – the problem here is NOT that I didn’t tell you some guy touched my arse in the coffee queue. The problem is him. I know that if I say that directly, then you’ll agree, but I’m still not sure you get it. You’re still addressing the women here, making it about our behaviour, the ways that we should change. The problem with sexual assault is not the whisper networks. The problem is the people committing them. Maybe your next tweet could be addressed to them – your feelings about this issue are their fault, not mine.

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