What I Do When It’s “Just Rumors”

We all know that abuse, harassment, and worse have long invaded the entertainment ecosystem. That story goes back to the beginning of Hollywood…probably farther. But it’s still remarkable that someone as famous and successful as Harvey Weinstein was protected for so long and able to continue his behavior basically until he was less powerful and less important, at which point he could be brought down.

A part of this (certainly not all) is that most of what people heard were rumors. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t drop direct evidence of harassment, and I’m not here to discuss or question that. Speaking out or not is a decision that can only be made by victims.

But watching this, I have of course been reminded of the abuses of power that have happened in the YouTube community. I think we’ve been faster to speak up in this community, but still not fast enough or effective enough.

But I also don’t want to pretend that this is simple. Going back a few years, I had a friend who I knew had been a bad boyfriend. He’d cheated on girls, he’d done things I thought seemed pretty manipulative. But, also, these are things that happen in relationships. If a friend asked me, I’d be like “That’s not a guy you should get into a relationship with” but that’s very different from using a large internet platform to publicly denounce someone, right?

When it turned out that person was having exploitative relationships with fans, I felt (still feel) a lot of guilt. Was I one of those guys who stays quiet because it’s convenient? Did I not want to wade into drama and it resulted in more people getting hurt? I still don’t know the answer to those questions. But I do know now that there are steps between “silently behind the scenes warning my friends away from a person” and “publicly denouncing and declaring yourself the enlightened moral arbiter of the entertainment industry.”

And the most important step (and one I have taken a number of times) is talking directly with the person who might be (or might not be) abusing their power or harassing people. This might seem a little problematic…why go to the abuser, why protect them, why give them more chances? But for me, this isn’t about anything except decreasing abuse, and if someone might be (but also might not be) engaging in exploitative, manipulative, or abusive relationships, my first step is to DM them, text them, or have coffee with them.

And here’s what I say to these mostly male, mostly young, mostly new-to-success people:

I have heard that you might be hurting people. You have a lot of new power, and maybe more power than you think you have. If you use that power to get access to someone’s body, that’s abuse. It might feel natural, it might feel good, it might be exciting, but it is dangerous and wrong. You have far higher than average chance of hurting someone, of getting them in a situation where they’ll do something they don’t actually want to do. If you keep acting recklessly with other humans, you’re going to hurt people. Your power gives you so much, but it also means you have to be careful with people.

This is what I do when I hear rumors, or see something that worries me. I talk to people. I let them vent, and say that it’s hard to have relationships when everyone you meet already knows who you are. They almost always express a sense that it seems like everyone wants something from them now, and all or most relationships have begun to feel transactional.

I let them work through their fear that their career could be destroyed, and try to bring them back to the reality that their first priority should be not hurting people. I may be being too kind here, but I truly believe much of the problem (especially at the beginning) is based in ignorance. And I think that hearing early on that what you’re doing is wrong might stop people from getting to a place where they make their shitty behavior a way of life that integrates with perpetuates the entertainment industry’s pervasive, disgusting exploitation culture.

I know that’s not all of it, but most of what I hear is fear, confusion, ignorance, and frustration.

The reality is, call-outs don’t work without direct evidence, and most of what I hear is rumors, it’s third hand or deeper. I think a lot of folks believe that, if it’s just rumors, there’s nothing you can do. But yes there is, we can at least have a conversation. And that conversation could be the thing that stops a person from continuing harassment that they’ve confused for flirtation, or exploitation that they’ve confused for fun hookups.

This is an “and” not an “or” of course. We also need to publicly call out people when there is direct evidence, but there are many reasons why people don’t share direct evidence, which is why rumor and innuendo (that doesn’t get acted on) is everywhere. I am looking for the part I can and should play in this. It can’t just be “my job as a man is to not harass people and support the voices of those who have been harassed.”

I want to do more than that, and I deeply regret not having done more than that previously. If it’s a choice between having a conversation that might be uncomfortable, maybe losing a friend, or losing the respect of a colleague, and helping repair this broken culture of exploitation, I know which choice I need to make.

Of course these problems will never be repaired through silence, but there is more than one way to speak out. We can’t wait until there’s enough evidence for a public Twitter call-out to act.

This is the step between “quietly warning your friends away from someone” and “public call-out” that I haven’t seen discussed as an important part of breaking down this culture. If and when you hear that your friends or colleagues might be engaging in shitty relationships or harassment, the right thing to do as a friend and as a human is to talk to them about it. I will always regret not having done that enough in the past, and I am so glad I have done it since then.

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Novelist, YouTuber, Science Communicator, Community Organizer, Educational Media Creator

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