An Incomplete List of All The Men In The Media Who Have Wronged Me
On our first date, Charlie tells me he wants to write a book about sexism in science. His ex-girlfriend had been a researcher, and she’d faced harassment in the lab from her supervisor; he wanted to write about it. He knew lots of influential women science writers, he told me, and he’d talk to them all. When I questioned whether those women writers would be better as interviewer and not interviewee, he laughed — I was flirting with him, wasn’t I?
Lying in a hotel room a few weeks later, he outlined his idea again. He’d met so many women who had been harassed, sexually or otherwise, at work. Together, we reeled off the names of fellow members of the media we knew to be certified creeps — the office lech, the patronising commissioning editor, the TV scientist banned from events because of his proclivity for groping young women. I tell him again, less playfully, that while I admire his dedication I feel like someone else should be writing his patriarchy-smiting magnum opus.
“It sounds more like something I should write,” I said.
“But it didn’t happen to you,” he replied irritably. “It happened to my ex-girlfriend.”
I’m not quite his girlfriend, but months later we clash over the same thing — only this time when it happens to me.
Someone we both know sends me an unsolicited picture of his penis, immediately following it up with a jaunty email introduction to someone capital-I Important. Whether or not the blatantly transactional element of this exchange was as clear to him as it was to me, there was an unmistakable subtext. If I allow things to happen to me — or more accurately, if I allow things to happen in my general direction, because it’s not really about “me” in any sense other than the fact I fit the mould of “young” and “woman shaped” — I will be somehow rewarded. I’m not expected to be proactive about anything; I’m not expected to send pictures of myself, I’m not expected to meet up with this man. It’s a test. All that’s required of me is passivity: I ignore the dick pic, or at least what the dick pic means, I say thankyou for the introduction. I use it to further my career, we both pretend it was an act of selfless kindness, and I don’t let the general public know the man is a cheat or a creep.
This, according to Charlie, is wrong. Rather than passively accepting something that feels an awful lot like sexual harassment, I should apparently Do Something. Never mind that this person is older than me, and more well known. Never mind how well-connected he is in our industry, how effortlessly he could crush my career under his heel at any sign of dissent. The email introduction didn’t just say “this is a transaction that you have been forced to undertake”, it also said “I am giving you something; I can take something away too”.
But understanding this as I do — as many women who have been drawn into the orbits of older, more powerful men understand it — does not translate. Charlie calls me ‘cynical’ and ‘mercenary’ for taking the introduction and not immediately condemning the picture. I can’t express to him how impossible it would be to “call someone out”, can’t express how emotionally draining and potentially personally devastating it is to “call someone out”. He doesn’t understand this — as he doesn’t really understand his ex-girlfriend’s harassment, and never really will — because unlike me, he has nothing to lose. He’s much older than me, he has a career; a career so much less precarious than mine that he often considers just jacking it all in for a bit. He can do this because he has things I don’t yet have: a reputation, a name, money, experience. Yet somehow, with all of this, he thinks that by failing to stick it to the establishment I’m also failing as a feminist and as a woman. He doesn’t realise that despite his posturing and his endless mentions of female friends and how badly they’d been wronged by men, he has much more in common with my harasser than he does with the harassed.
The months we see each other are peppered with incidents like this — a wrong word at a press night or an inappropriate DM. One editor — who works for a respected science and tech website — responds with interest to one of my pitches and asks me to investigate further. “Let me know if your pretty girl head needs any help with the hard science stuff” is the sign off to the final email in our exchange. I don’t write the piece.
Charlie always deals with it pragmatically, surgically; for someone who wants to write a book about the harassment of women, he is impressively clear-headed when it happens to someone he cares about. Even when he talks about his ex-girlfriend — the unwitting muse for his whole project — he tells the story anecdotally, casually. There’s no sense of anger; there’s no fury or resentment or frustration. It’s just something that happened to somebody else — something that fits a wider narrative, maybe, but distant. Removed. He doesn’t even see the contradiction in his outrage when I tell him my ex boyfriend based a novel around my life — he’s critical of that, but not when I ask him whether a woman scientist should be the one writing a book about women scientists. He seems so desperate to say something that he hasn’t taken the time to question whether or not it should be him saying it.
It comes to a head one Tuesday afternoon. A man in my office has been bothering me for months, so much so that it’s become an in-joke amongst my team. The things he says to me are inappropriate but not so much so that I can do anything about them, and mostly take place privately. This time, though, he not only goes too far but he does so in earshot of someone else. He’s politely but forcefully told to go away, and I’m quietly reminded that I could probably get HR involved if I want. I won’t, of course, because why would I, a freelancer, try to do anything about a editor ten plus years my senior? Why would I go through the stress and the anxiety of all of that for the kind of offhand comment he’ll continue to make for the rest of his career?
I tell Charlie what happens over WhatsApp. He types. He types. He stops. He types.
“Sorry to hear that” he eventually sends.
“I was lucky someone else was there to hear it,” I reply. “But I feel upset.”
Delivered today: 18.28 WhatsApp tells me. Read today: 18.43. He doesn’t reply.
If you’re young and a freelancer — or even if you’re in a steady media job — every day is a concerted effort to let people know who you are. You want them to respect you for the things you do, despite the fact you might sometimes be flippant or outgoing or even a little silly.
Part of this effort is learning when and how to pick your battles. I can’t go to war every time someone implicitly or explicitly denigrates the book I’ve written because it’s expressly aimed at young people and must, therefore, be frivolous. It would be a waste of my time; I’d rather show them they’re wrong by selling fuckloads of copies. And similarly, I can’t call HR every time someone makes a sexist comment, I can’t publicly shame every famous man who inappropriately hits on me, I can’t tell every important commissioning editor that no, it’s not okay to talk to me like that. We work in an industry that is based not only on talent and luck and hard work but also on reputation and word of mouth. If you cause trouble for one man — just one man, one time — there’s always the chance that that’s it for you. You’re ‘unreliable’. You’re a ‘troublemaker’. You are To Be Avoided.
Of course I think women should communicate their experiences, whether directly or obliquely. I think if women are happy to speak out about particular men they should do that, and I’ll happily support them and amplify their voices. I think women should protect each other, warn each other, look out for each other. My problem is not ever with women, or how women deal with these issues — because there is no ‘wrong decision’ if something feels like it’s right for you — but with the way in which men don’t only suggest but insist that making large amounts of noise is the only way to proceed.
Most of these men, incessantly telling women to speak up against harassers and creeps and predatory older journalists, are probably doing it because they want to enact change in an industry that is a largely unrefined version of itself fifty years ago. On the whole, they are probably trying to be good guys. But what they also think is that because they understand and have adopted the radical vocabulary of online politics — a politics that has been partly responsible for giving women the language to discuss their harassment, by the way — that the world we live in has morphed and changed accordingly.
It hasn’t. Just because you understand what privilege is doesn’t mean that you don’t have it. Just because you can deftly use words like ‘discourse’ and you talk about quotas all the time and you don’t think anyone has ever asked for it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world, or even the rest of the media, agrees with you or understands you, or that the industry in which you work isn’t still systemically unequal. Knowing these things does not mitigate the beneficial impact they have on you or your career, just as the fact I know I have white privilege doesn’t mean I don’t actively benefit from it every single day of my life.
It’s all very well telling women that they need to ‘take a stand’ against harassment, that we all need to be ‘proactive’ and ‘work together’ to stop these things from happening. But it’s easy for you. Because like Charlie, who doesn’t understand why I can’t just tweet about my harassment, like the lecherous broadcaster who tries to buy my silence with unasked-for favours, like the office creep whose age and reputation protect him from me, an infant; you have far less to lose than me.