A few years ago, my friend’s and I crowded into the toilet cubicle at a pub that we all frequented and wrote a list of names on the wall. Our toilet graffiti was finished with a heading “list of men to avoid” — an idea ripped from the pages of Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak, and part of the long tradition of women privately warning each other about dangerous men.
This behaviour is commonplace. Friends will ask around for second opinions on potential Tinder dates and we will covertly trade names of people who we know to be unsafe or abusive. Spreading words of caution and quietly blacklisting the abusers who exist within our workplaces and social circles is one of the ways that women and other marginalised people look out for each other.
Many women protect each another by sharing the names of men you cannot trust and who are not safe. This happens all the time, in private.
— Witchy Witcharatna (@KishWidyaratna) October 12, 2017
More recently, I’ve seen these warnings shift from murmurs to very public social media posts, which makes sense in a world where the internet bestows power and influence onto dangerous people who would otherwise be anonymous. The first time I encountered people publicly naming abusers was back in 2013 when I was a regular fixture at YouTube gatherings and the majority of my social scene was dominated by people who lived and worked on the website. When the YouTube community was rocked by a string of sexual abuse and harassment allegations against high profile creators, the information wasn’t disseminated through whispered rumours but through a string of Tumblr posts, videos and screenshots.
Fawn Mead, the ex-girlfriend of one of the accused, said that she felt obliged to spread the word to best be able to protect people. “When I found out what happened, the first thing I wanted to do was make sure everyone knew. The only way I was going to do that was going on all social media sites and spending a day telling everyone. That was the only way I could protect the masses.”
Whilst naming and shaming abusers is one of the most effective ways to dispense community justice and protect vulnerable people from further acts of abuse, it is not without its own risks. The group of women behind the #SolidarityNotSilence campaign publicly named their abuser but are now fighting a defamation claim (you can donate to their legal fund here). It seems particularly unfair to weaponise the civil court as a tool to silence survivors when the criminal justice system so often leaves survivors traumatised, revictimised and bereft of any semblance of justice.
“I don’t think the left is necessarily worse when it comes to misogyny, but it should be better.”
Sophie Howell recounted how her experiences with the criminal justice system made ‘trial by social media’ seem like a good alternative. “As a person who’s been through the criminal justice system — that whole process is so traumatising and archaic and not designed to support survivors that I sometimes feel like why not use social media”
Pip Williams agreed that criminal justice isn’t something to be depended upon. “I think [publicly naming abusers has] grown out of a way for women and other marginalised people to protect each other in a system notoriously stacked against us. […] we can’t rely on criminal justice, so sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands.”
Some of the latest allegations to gain traction via social media were made against journalist Sam Kriss. The accusations were shared so widely that Kriss’s name was among the top trending topics in the UK. It’s always disappointing but hardly surprising when somebody who positions themselves as left wing or as a feminist is revealed to be an abuser. There is an expectation that people who voice their opposition to misogyny , harassment and abuse won’t mirror those dynamics and behaviours in their own life, but they do and with troubling frequency.
I’m shocked to read a disturbing account of sexual harassment by a left-wing journalist I know: all my solidarity is with the victim.
— Owen Jones? (@OwenJones84) October 19, 2017
Speaking on Twitter, Emily Miller addressed the harassment that is endemic on the left and how it can often be difficult to out these abusers in activists clothing.
“The left has a harassment problem […] I don’t think the left is necessarily worse than the right or center when it comes to misogyny but it should be better […] it becomes harder to out people considered feminist allies when they use their politics to deflect attention from their shitty behaviors and I think men can avoid self-examination by telling themselves ‘I can’t be an abuser [because] I do so much to help women’s rights!’ […] you should always be wary of any man who makes feminism part of his brand”
Whilst abusive people are still being afforded positions of influence with alarming prevalence, survivors naming and shaming the people who wronged them is often the only way that they see any kind of justice. Communities, scenes and industries need to do better to ensure that they are not inadvertently creating safe havens in which abusers can thrive. They need to send a clear message that harassment will not be tolerated and to stop leaving all the heavy emotional lifting to survivors. It is vital to build accountable communities rather than rely on survivors coming forward. However, considering the current state of things I don’t expect to stop seeing the names of abusive people in my news feed and I can only commend survivors for publicly speaking their names.