Whisper networks were a survival tool for generations of women. It’s time to stop whispering

Whisper networks were a survival tool for generations of women. It’s time to stop whispering
Image: Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP
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“I know I never did that,” US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh told a Fox News interviewer earlier this week, addressing a New Yorker story claiming that, as a student at Yale, he thrust his penis in front of a fellow student’s face to mock her during a drinking game. ”If I had done that, it would have been the talk of campus.”

Kavanaugh is correct. Behavior like this, which the woman who described it to the New Yorker said profoundly shook and embarrassed her, would very likely have been the talk of campus. Indeed, Deborah Ramirez says she recalled a male student spreading the news immediately after: “Somebody yelled down the hall, ‘Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie’s face.’” Another classmate told the New Yorker that he recalled overhearing a female student tearfully describing the incident to another student soon after the party. And yet another said that what allegedly happened to Ramirez “become a topic of discussion among former Yale students soon after Kavanaugh’s nomination,” and was discussed in an email chain.

“I’ve known this all along,” said another classmate. “It’s been on my mind all these years when his name came up. It was a big deal.”

It sounds like whatever happened in that room was indeed “the talk of campus,” though it’s possible Kavanaugh himself didn’t hear much of the conversation. That’s the nature of whisper networks, which convey to their participants everything from prurient gossip to essential safety information: which parties to avoid, where to make sure you’re not drinking the “jungle juice,” which boys you don’t want to find yourself alone with on the second floor of a house party.

As the rise of the hashtag #whyIdidntreport has made very clear, people who have been harassed or assaulted often don’t disclose what happened to them, even to their closest friends or family. In the 1980s, in the places described by Ramirez—as well as by Kavanaugh’s other accusers—terms like date rape and consent were not yet in mainstream use.

Whisper networks are one way women have helped each other to avoid harm, but they are a far from perfect solution. “Whisper networks arise in a vacuum of justice,” Sarah Jeong wrote in the Verge, “They alleviate an untenable condition; they do not actually address it. Whispers are a defense, not an offense.”

The profoundly disturbing personal accounts that have emerged during Kavanaugh’s nomination process have reignited the whisper networks of his prep school upbringing and Ivy League college. Media reports have also laid them bare, exposing them to the harsh glare of public and legal scrutiny. Do they still have a purpose? Or is it time to stop whispering?

Whispered warnings

The conversation around Kavanaugh and his peers reads like the darkest John Hughes movie that never got made (and it’s worth noting that Hughes’ teen dramas from the time did in fact contain more than a few non-consensual sexual encounters).

“A large part of my high school experience were the parties at cavernous houses with multiple bedrooms, huge dark basements with enormous sofas and yards, and lots and lots of beer,” writes Alexandra Lescaze, in Slate, in what could be a description of a scene from Sixteen Candles.

Lescaze doesn’t know Kavanaugh, but she recognized in his accusers’ accounts the social scene those privileged teenagers inhabited, from her own Washington DC prep school experience: “We traveled in groups and knew never to leave a friend alone at a party, but there was so much drinking that we sometimes lost track of each other.”

One of Lescaze’s recollections eerily resembles those of another Kavanaugh accuser, Julie Swetnick, whose affidavit was released after Lescaze’s Slate article, and described gang rapes that she observed and one that she says she was subjected to during “beach week” festivities.

Lescaze too recalls seeing boys lining up to have sex with a girl incapacitated by alcohol or drugs at a drunken party: “I distinctly remember being at a Beach Week party with my then-boyfriend when it dawned on us that there was a drunk girl in a room down the hall, and boys were ‘lining up’ to go in there and, presumably, have their way with her,” Lescaze writes. Her boyfriend and another boy put a stop to what was happening, she says, but she also recalls: “We didn’t call it rape.”

Whisper networks as an incubator

Warning each other about toxic men is just one facet of the whisper networks surrounding sexual assault. Another crucial function for them has been as a safe place to hash out ideas about consent and sexual interactions.

In college in the late 1990s, I was part of a very active community of women who whispered with Sharpie pens, on the walls of women’s bathrooms. With our scrawlings, we warned each other away from certain dudes, probed the gray areas of sexuality, and made lame jokes and bad drawings.

There was texture and variation to the graffiti conversations around campus, which also existed in the men’s rooms and in co-ed bathrooms. One restroom outside the subterranean computer lab functioned like an advice column helmed by several columnists; the second-floor library bathroom was where writers were hard at work dismantling cis-beauty standards; another library loo was the realm of the pun and non-sequitur.

In the mail room, there was a bathroom in which a conversation about date rape grew so intense, and so important to many women on campus, that one student took it upon herself to take photos and document the whole thing. She shared her images with the feminist journal I edited, and we dedicated much of one issue to the conversation.

The central question was from a woman who had been hanging out and hooking up with another student. She said upfront that she did not want to have sex, she told her bathroom-wall readership. He persisted, she relented, and then, as she put it, she “felt lousy and angry.” Afterwards, she suffered from flashbacks of the night. “Is this rape?” she asked.

Some responses suggested she get over it and say no more loudly the next time. Some shared their own experiences, or suggested counseling. Others tried to find a way to describe this gray area: “Maybe you were raped, but he didn’t rape you, does that make sense?”

I recently dug out a yellowing copy of the journal in which we wrote about this thread. We asked the woman who documented the graffiti to frame its importance. “I remember being struck, each time I happened there,” she wrote in an essay, “by the continual discovery of of new answers to that first charged question.”

Where are we now?

In the fall of 2017, a digital version of that bathroom graffiti caused an uproar in the US media industry. The Shitty Media Men list—a Google doc listing unverified accounts of problematic behavior by men in the profession—was both praised and condemned.

“The anonymous, crowdsourced document was a first attempt at solving what has seemed like an intractable problem: how women can protect ourselves from sexual harassment and assault,” its author, Moira Donegan, wrote.

The Google doc as a format lacked the intimacy of a spoken warning, and somehow lost the wild intellectual freedom of the bathroom stall as well. It felt both formal and unsubstantiated. But it also made it clear how endemic harassment, coercion and assault are, how many women had been harmed, and how angry we all were. The Shitty Media Men List was messy and imperfect, but it marked a moment where the need to take seriously women’s experience with the full spectrum of sexual violence started to feel urgent.

The truth is that whisper networks have been effective ways to start to articulate difficult experiences—creepy behavior, coercive sex, and lack of enthusiastic consent—but not so great in addressing them. By its nature, whispering doesn’t demand action. And these networks are often exclusive, not just confined by gender but also race and class.

A shout from Christine Blasey Ford

At great personal cost, Christine Blasey Ford turned her whispers into a shout heard by an entire country.

As Ford, who says that Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party when she was 15, sat before the US Senate judiciary committee this morning (Sept. 27), her terror was clear to see. She recounted in harrowing detail her struggle with two older, stronger boys in an upstairs bedroom during a house party, and through barely restrained tears, she explained that she felt it was her duty to speak up—to tell the world about an ordeal she had not until recently shared even with her husband.

Her logic was that of the whisper network and the bathroom wall—to share her painful experience, in the hope that it would help others: “I thought it was my civic duty to relay the information I had about Mr. Kavanaugh’s conduct so that those considering his potential nomination would know about the assault,” she said.

In coming forward, Ford said she feared for her own safety, and that of her family, and her fears were not unfounded: She spoke of having her professional email account hacked, of being called names, threatened with violence and death. “My greatest fears have been realized—and the reality has been far worse than what I expected,” she said. “My family and I have been the target of constant harassment and death threats. I have been called the most vile and hateful names imaginable.”

The harassment and fear Ford describes, and the interrogation she felt she had to submit to, is why whisper networks exist in the first place. For a very long time, women have known that a public accusation against a powerful man was only certain to result in consequences for the accuser. Ford’s testimony won’t end the need to whisper, but it does move the conversation about sexual assault forward, and closer to the light of day.