It could have been a list of commie sympathizers, a list of Muslims suspected of terrorism, a list of White Supremacists. But it wasn’t. Moira Donegan’s list was of “shitty media men,” and within hours, it went out of control.
None of this was what I thought was going to happen. In the beginning, I only wanted to create a place for women to share their stories of harassment and assault without being needlessly discredited or judged. The hope was to create an alternate avenue to report this kind of behavior and warn others without fear of retaliation.
Donegan, a 2013 college graduate, doesn’t explain her impetus for starting the list. There’s no story of a rape or assault. Rather, she explains it as an alternative to the female whisper network (which can be “elitist or insular”) of guys to watch out for because “police are notoriously inept at handling sexual-assault cases” and HR departments are there to protect the company, not women. Her spreadsheet put it all in one place, judgment free.
The spreadsheet was intended to circumvent all of this. Anonymous, it would protect its users from retaliation: No one could be fired, harassed, or publicly smeared for telling her story when that story was not attached to her name. Open-sourced, it would theoretically be accessible to women who didn’t have the professional or social cache required for admittance into whisper networks. The spreadsheet did not ask how women responded to men’s inappropriate behavior; it did not ask what you were wearing or whether you’d had anything to drink. Instead, the spreadsheet made a presumption that is still seen as radical: That it is men, not women, who are responsible for men’s sexual misconduct.
It was, obviously, subject to all foibles of anon lists, and was criticized as such. It spanned allegations of violent conduct to “inappropriate comments.” The allegations might be true or not, and the list could be used for vengeance or warning. But it was just a list.
At first, Donegan felt that it was fulfilling her purpose, as the names and stories added to her spreadsheet felt truthy. Since the list would go no further than just being a list, evidence was irrelevant. There would be no consequences.
Nevertheless, when I first shared the spreadsheet among my women friends and colleagues, it took on the intense sincerity of our most intimate conversations. Women began to anonymously add their stories of sexual assault; many of the accounts posted there were violent, detailed, and difficult to read. Women recounted being beaten, drugged, and raped. Women recounted being followed into bathrooms or threatened with weapons. Many, many women recounted being groped at work, or shown a colleague’s penis. Watching the cells populate, it rapidly became clear that many of us had weathered more than we had been willing to admit to one another. There was the sense that the capacity for honesty, long suppressed, had finally been unleashed. This solidarity was thrilling, but the stories were devastating.
At this point, what was there to seriously complain about? Women telling each other stories? Whether true or false, people always talked about other people, telling stories of bad things that happened to them. Now it was on a spreadsheet that was moving around a certain circle? So what? They’re allowed to talk. And if so, then they’re allowed to write it down as well.
But like all ideas that seemed relatively innocuous at first, cathartic for sure and, with the caveat that these allegations were unproven, a fair warning within a community of writers about who might do harm, Donegan lost control.
Over the course of the evening, the spreadsheet expanded further: Many of the incidents reported there were physical, but there were also accounts of repeated sexual remarks, persistent inappropriate passes, unsolicited drunken messages. There was an understanding of the ways that these less-grave incidents can sometimes be harbingers of more aggressive actions to come, and how they can accrue into soured relationships and hostile environments. For clarity, I imposed a system that visibly distinguished violent accusations from others: Once a man had been accused of physical sexual assault by more than one woman, his name was highlighted in red.
To Donegan, her red highlight “for clarity” probably seemed like a prudent choice. Her assumption about what other people knew about the list is childish, but she was young and a believer in the narrative that women were defenseless, subjugated victims of the patriarchy. And she lacked the fortitude of more mature feminists.
I was incredibly naïve when I made the spreadsheet. I was naïve because I did not understand the forces that would make the document go viral. I was naïve because I thought that the document would not be made public, and when it became clear that it would be, I was naïve because I thought that the focus would be on the behavior described in the document, rather than on the document itself. It is hard to believe, in retrospect, that I really thought this. But I did.
Word broke yesterday that Harper’s writer Katie Roiphe was going to “out” Donegan. After Roiphe was viciously attacked for breaching the silence of the sisterhood, and Harper’s said that it wasn’t going to name names,* Donegan chose to reveal herself as the person who started the Shitty Media Men list.
Despite what Donegan had in mind when she started the list, that there would be no consequences, there were. There were consequences for Donegan, who says she lost friends and her job,** and there were consequences for the men who were named on the list.
A lot of us are angry in this moment, not just at what happened to us but at the realization of the depth and frequency of these behaviors and the ways that so many of us have been drafted, wittingly and unwittingly, into complicity. But we’re being challenged to imagine how we would prefer things to be. This feat of imagination is about not a prescriptive dictation of acceptable sexual behaviors but the desire for a kinder, more respectful, and more equitable world.
Donegan didn’t imagine her list would grow a mob of angry women, but no one can ever anticipate what a mob will do. She can presume to speak for women, what the mob really wants, but that too is the rosy aspiration of a child. No one tells the mob what it wants. And no one tells the mob when it’s time to stop storming the castle.
While Donegan may have started the Shitty Media Men list, and started it with the best of intentions, she lost control of it almost immediately. If this had been a list of people on the beloved side of social justice, there would be outrage over its intended and unintended consequences.
People do bad things, both male and female. Some criminal things. Some violent things. It’s bad enough when these are judged by a system designed to do so, but this was an uncontrolled inquisition, bolstered by self-righteous ideology and excuses. Women wanted revenge against the men they feared. Women called themselves strong and fierce, and then acted upon weakness and fear, protected by the lie that weakness somehow meant equality.
Donegan started a fire that raged out of control. It’s not her fault, even though she doesn’t appear to appreciate how little she had to do with this. Men who engaged in criminal conduct deserved opprobrium, though it should have come through the means by which society addresses crime.
When the conflagration finally burns itself out, and it will, there will be an opportunity to assess the damage. Many deserved to get burned. Many did not. The mob doesn’t care. And the law of unintended consequences will prevail regardless of the dreams and aspirations of the sad and fragile.
Maybe this fire was necessary, and the anger that fueled it was going to explode no matter what. Maybe this list should remind us why we created a system to distinguish real from fake, serious from trivial, controlled retribution from the fury of the mob. Donegan merely lit the match. She had no control over the mob. No one ever controls the mob.
*It’s unclear whether Roiphe was planning to name Donegan and switched gears following the backlash or whether, as was claimed, she was merely fact-checking. Regardless, before Donegan outed herself, it was clear that Harper’s did not intend to name her.
**There is no explanation for why she lost her job, but she asserts that she did as a consequence of the list.