Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,
Will so your accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. […]
As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.
—Measure for Measure
“A story like this is a password. Once you say it out loud, doors start to open,” wrote Toronto poet Emma Healey recently, on telling her friends about her experiences with a predatory male professor.
I heard stories from other students, other friends, people in the same literary community as me. A few of them were about this person, but most were about other men across the country in the same loose network – writers, editors, teachers. I heard about rapes and assaults. I heard about violations of trust and instances of gaslighting. I heard about men who had threatened women with legal action to stop them from talking about what had happened between them.
Without exception, every single one of these men is still working—writing, publishing, editing, teaching—today.
In her recent Globe and Mail piece, fellow writer Stacey May Fowles explains,
These conversations are not new. It’s just that we’re finally having them out in the open. While some of these predators have been operating for years without public acknowledgment or punishment, there has long been a shared back channel amongst women in Canadian literature – coded warnings relayed privately, chatter about who can be trusted and who is safe to be around.
She continues: “Is there something so broken in our literary culture that it encourages, sanctions and protects this kind of behaviour?”
In truth, it is broken, but there is nothing special about the Canadian literature scene. Every community, every industry, every scene has its own version of the secret backchannel that operates behind popular, successful, respectable predators. It’s only very recently that anyone even acknowledged its existence, and the cost of doing so is almost too high to be worth it.
The first time in my memory that anything like this made international news was the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. They revealed a systemic pattern of denial, silencing, and cover-ups that allowed abusive priests to continue with impunity. As press coverage spread, more and more victims began coming forward, and it became apparent this was a worldwide problem, with many of the key enablers now holding high positions in the Church.
Clerical celibacy is often assumed to be a major factor in the rates of sex abuse. But I’m not sure that’s true, or, at least, whether it has been more important than other causes, because it’s like this everywhere. We’ve seen the same sort of pattern in radically different settings, from ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Brooklyn (and, lest you think it’s a religious problem, atheism and skepticism) to college football. To fall back on the feminist axiom: rape is not about sex, it’s about power.
In fact one of the most apt descriptions of how this works comes from Cliff Pervocracy, who is referring to his local BDSM/polyamory scene:
When I posted about a rapist in a community I belonged to, although I gave almost no details about the guy except “he’s a rapist,” I immediately got several emails from other members of that community saying “oh, you must mean X.” Everyone knew who he was! Tons of people, including several in the leadership, instantly knew who I meant. The reaction wasn’t “there’s a rapist among us!?!” but “oh hey, I bet you’re talking about our local rapist.” Several of them expressed regret that I hadn’t been warned about him beforehand, because they tried to discreetly tell new people about this guy. Others talked about how they tried to make sure there was someone keeping an eye on him at parties, because he was fine so long as someone remembered to assign him a Rape Babysitter.
The backchannel is a deeply flawed system. As Natalie Luhrs writes, regarding the long history of widespread sexual harassment and assault in science fiction fandom,
I’ve also seen a handful of posts about how, at science fiction conventions, women will work together to let each other know who the serial harassers and creepers are. I find this extremely interesting because I have never been warned about anyone at any of the conventions I’ve attended. […]
And as I think about the back channel and the people who are talking about how they let people know who the creeps and harassers are, the more I think that access to the back channel is a kind of privilege. It’s a privilege of knowing the right people. Which is something that comes with time, effort, and actually being successful with networking.
Not everyone is going to be able to invest that kind of time and effort–or even if they do, they may not ever become part of the group of people who knows who the harassers and creeps are. And those people are often the most vulnerable to the creeps and harassers. They are the ones who aren’t going to be believed and who are going to be dismissed as attention seekers. Which then makes them even more vulnerable. This absolutely is not a situation where everyone truly does know who the harassers and creeps are.
There will always be people who are too new, unpopular, or just plain unlucky to get into the loop. There will be old-timers who aren’t privy to the backchannel and will end up unwittingly enabling their local predator. Etc., etc. This informal, deeply secretive system can essentially only ensure that “he rapes the other girl”.
But it’s what we work with because going public or using official channels very rarely turns out well. Quite frequently the predator has a lot of standing in the community, and people will come to their defence. Possibly predators are more likely to get away with it because of their high status. Or their particular psychological pathology gives them the sort of personality that lends itself well to leadership and popularity:
Often a larger-than-life character, he may be the charismatic founder of an organization, the successful president of a school, the beloved teacher, the energetic Scout master, the popular pastor or the well-respected principal.
Among leftists, activists, etc., criticism of a powerful predator may be shot down as an attempt to undermine “the cause”, whatever it is. The accused may even be using the language and tools of gender justice or anti-violence to provide cover for their actions.
They are always the first to lock arms with you and rail against sexism coming from these other types of men. They are always happy to poke fun at Pat Robertson saying something horrifically misogynistic. They like to think of themselves as “the good guys” and the jocks and bros as “the bad guys.”
If you want a taste of the typical reaction, browse the comment sections of the posts I’ve linked already.
Witch hunt. Lynching. Vigilante justice. Those poor boys. Ruin his life. False accusations. Surely the victim has some responsibility…
It’s not just Internet comments, of course. It’s your peers, friends, nationally syndicated columnists, CNN reporters, politicians, police, lawyers, judges. Right now two librarians are being sued for defamation by the man they publicly named as a predator.
Given all this, many of us opt to take other measures to keep safe. The backchannel balances a victim’s need for safety and privacy with potential victims’ need to know; it disguises vital warnings as mere “girl talk”. Until we live in a world where it is safer to speak out about sexual assault than it is to commit one, the backchannel is often the best option.
There is a #TOpoli backchannel. That’s all that ought to be said right now. I have just joined the NDP, and I expect that sooner or later I will hear about who to avoid at conventions.
All this is to say…
If you choose to go public:
You are a hero. You are a whistleblower exposing the working of rape culture and patriarchy. You make it that much easier for the next victim to tell their story.
If you have ever preyed on or harassed women:
We already know. We talk to each other. We’re talking about you.
P. S. Heads up: if you openly condone sexual assault or harassment, especially in the media, the backchannel is keeping track of you as well! *blows kiss*
P. P. S. Next, I’d like to talk about strategies for dealing with predators that have worked. Check out The Revolution Starts At Home, particularly Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “Pot Luck: Strategies From the Field”, for some examples. And leave feedback via email or in the comments below.
P. P. P. S. Update: Melissa Martin, Kelli Korducki and Scaachi Koul describe the backchannel that warned people about Jian Ghomeshi. It’s real; I’ve been privy to it, and passed on the warnings myself. So far,
five nine women have come forward. There are more.