When a whisper network fails

Rumors and innuendo about a man’s bad behavior can only go so far.

When a whisper network fails

Rumors and innuendo about a man’s bad behavior can only go so far.

In my early twenties, my social and professional circle was a cohort of other young Brooklyn writers whom I met through a loose online writing scene. I’d stumble across a good take on my Tumblr feed, reblog the author, follow them on Twitter, reply to them a few times, then eventually meet at a party or for a drink. The result was a patchwork network of connections, many existing mostly online but some evolving into real friendship. I spent my time placing freelance pieces at now-defunct blogs and drinking beer in my friends’ decrepit apartments, trying to determine how we could architect a living from putting our opinions about Kanye West on the internet.

It was a convivial and progressive group, and as a fledgling writer I was in a promising spot to launch a career. There was always a smart person at hand by whom to run an idea, or a party where I could finagle an introduction to an editor. I wrote a lot of personal essays but also covered music, health, and relationships, and was beginning to get interviews for full-time gigs. I wasn’t lighting the literary world on fire, but I was on the path to making a living as a writer. Then, just as I was getting started, I quit.

When I was 24, a friend reached out to tell me his friend, also a writer, wanted to go on a date with me. I wasn’t interested, but I agreed. I felt it’d be rude to say no; I hadn’t figured out that turning down unappealing invites is both a personal right and one of life’s great pleasures. I’d met this prospective date at some parties, and thought he was funny; I figured I could leave after one drink, send a polite didn’t feel a spark but would love to be friends! text the next day, and maybe have a useful connection for the future.

We met at a bar near his apartment (in retrospect, never a good sign). We had a few drinks and a pleasant enough time; he was very funny. Then he sexually assaulted me.

Denial is a wonderfully powerful mechanism, and it kicked in immediately. I brushed the whole thing off. It had probably been a misunderstanding, one of those alcohol-fueled boundary crossings that are common in industries like music or media, and even more common when you are 24.

A few months later, he invited me to a party. Knowing other friends would be there, I went and had an uneventful night. After I said my goodbyes, he followed me to the hall, closed the apartment door behind him, and asked me to spend the night with him.

I said no, and looked to leave, but the old building had a massive, heavy wooden door between the hall and the foyer. As his cajoling intensified, I did some calculations: I was trapped in a tiny hallway with a very tall man who’d harmed me before looming over me. My friends had all gone home; I’d been caught up in a conversation and stayed later than them. I began to sense I was moments from being raped, but I wasn’t sure I could get to the end of the hall, through the heavy door, and then out of the building quickly enough to avoid him if he tried to grab me.

A moment later I panicked and bolted, and he didn’t follow me. The next day, I texted him to say he had terrified me, his behavior was unacceptable, and that he was never to speak to me again. I added that if I ever heard that he’d pulled a similar stunt with another woman I would tell everyone we knew what he had done. His apology was rapid and shallow. I wondered if he made it often.

Many people I know have stories similar to mine. It’s the almost-but, the narrow escape, the gray area.

This was pre-MeToo, pre-“Shitty Men in Media” list. I stopped going to parties, anxious about seeing him, and then stopped seeing most of my writing friends at all. I kept half an eye on him as he wrote for minor outfits, and more prestigious ones, and finally landed a recurring contract position at a major magazine. The part-time fashion job I’d taken to pay rent and leave me time to write became a full-time job, and then my career path. Rifling through a rack of expensive coats at a trade show in Europe, I would look at my phone to see news about another wave of media layoffs and feel more confident about my choice.

Many people I know have stories similar to mine. It’s the almost-but, the narrow escape, the gray area. You tell your roommate but not the police. A man flexes his power over you because he can. Just a bad night and a lesson learned. Something to try to forget. Maybe you’d even gotten it all wrong.

After the second incident, I reached out to the mutual friends I had with my attacker, at first alluding to my experiences with him and eventually describing his behavior outright. I wanted to know if other women had been hurt by him; I wanted people to be as alarmed as I was, and I wanted someone to have my back. I didn’t find any of those reactions. All my supposedly progressive Brooklyn peers were comfortable accepting actions that should be unacceptable, their wording eerily identical: “Everyone knows that dude is a creep.”

I was first bewildered, and then angry. Everyone had known, except me. Everyone had known, and they’d still set me up on a date with him. I felt failed on a fundamental level: If they all suspected he hurt women, why hadn’t anyone told me? Perhaps every single one of them assumed that someone else had clued me in.

Yet he was at their birthday parties, and their weeknight drinks. He was retweeted into their feeds and published on their websites. The social and professional acceptance extended to him, despite his vague odor of disrepute, superseded the way he treated women. His behavior wasn’t quite heinous enough to warrant action, everyone had decided — he was a louche, sure, and he partied too much, but he wasn’t famous, or even very well known. He was just a creep.

What really wounded me wasn’t having to dodge one mediocre writer’s half-assed assaults — it was that I’d reached out for support afterwards and found nothing. It was the unruffled reaction of my peers when I told them what had happened, the implication that I should have known what to expect from him, when I genuinely had no idea at all. It was the words used to minimize his behavior — creepy, sketchy, bad vibes, never liked that guy — spoken by a community whose existence turned on the idea that words were of value.

Sometimes people asked why I stopped writing, and I said I burned out, or that I’d seen the instability of the industry and decided to cut and run. Both are true: I wrote so relentlessly through college that I graduated exhausted, and the financial realities of media jobs in the late aughts became clear to me soon after. But mostly I’d been stripped of the illusion that I was safe or supported in that world, and so I no longer believed I was capable of the vulnerability necessary to produce any decent creative work.

Looking away from these men allows a rot to set in and to grow.

Even now, an abuser is typically only shunned after there’s incontrovertible evidence of horrific acts, corroborated by multiple sources. The “creeps” get to coast along, clutching their free pass into polite society, but just because these men are not Weinsteins or Johnny Depps does not excuse them. They are less powerful, and so perhaps a bit more careful. They know precisely where the line falls between the gray area and the crime, but their violations are violations nonetheless.

I’d mostly pushed both experiences to the back of my mind when a few women online began discussing the former VICE and Fader editor Eric Sundermann, who was accused in an exhaustively crushing Jezebel piece last November of abusing scores of women who worked for and with him. I was pretty sure I hadn’t met him, but we’d run in the same circles, been at the same parties.

The details of his behavior were sickeningly familiar. Women writers just out of college, pressured into extreme intoxication at sloppy parties, pushed into small spaces that they could not escape. I noticed two of the women who’d gone on the record were described as “former” music journalists, just like I jokingly called myself a “retired” writer. I noticed that although many people in his world knew exactly how he acted — and many women raised their concerns — nothing was done for years.

Looking away from these men allows a rot to set in and to grow. There are women who have experiences like mine, or experiences far worse, and forge ahead in their chosen careers anyway. That is an act of significant bravery. But I’d guess that there’s many more of us who come to realize that that navigating a morass of sexual harassment and a community indifferent to it is another structural problem in a path already rife with them, and decide to get out while we can. Who can blame us?

I feel at peace with my decision to pursue another career (and one with ample health insurance), though I miss the writing friends I left behind. I recently sent details of my assault to the employer of the man responsible, not hoping for punishment or retribution, but to establish a paper trail when another woman comes forward. They were gracious and sensitive, and took me seriously in a way no one did five years ago. Glacially and painfully, it seems we might be changing. I have to hope we are.

Jessie Lochrie is a writer, digital marketing executive, and founder of Blake Goods. She lives in Brooklyn.