Whisper networks set up by women for women to warn against sexual harassment are a lot older than you might think. Rebecca Astill looks at their modern digital incarnations in Wales, and asks if the ultimate need is for such networks to become more public.
How do women keep each other safe? Throughout history, communication has been integral to women looking to protect one another in an intimidating and, oftentimes, dangerous world. “I tried to ignore them, but they did a U-turn and carried on following me. Every time I saw a similar truck in the following weeks my heart would drop a little.” This is Gwenan, a 22-year-old communications assistant from Kidwelly, recounting her experience of being followed and harassed by a group of men in a truck in Cardiff city centre. She’s one of the 64 per cent of women who have been sexually harassed in public in the UK. In an attempt to avoid a repeat of her ordeal, Gwenan joined the ‘Overheard at Cardiff University’ Facebook group, where women share posts warning each other about predatory men they have encountered. There are groups like this for women living in towns and cities across Wales, and you don’t have to look very far to see that Gwenan’s experience is the norm for young women all over the country. A post in the ‘Overheard at Swansea University’ page describes an eye-patched man in his 50s filming women in the street. Another on ‘Cathays Connect’ details a man approaching women and offering money for sex, and when being rejected saying, “Oh baby, come on”. The members of these groups always make sure to pinpoint the location of the incidents, sometimes with a snapshot of the perpetrator, as a warning to other members of the group.
Social media is often blamed for many of contemporary society’s woes, but these pages are lending a crucial lifeline to women. And they’re not just for reporting incidents – pages like ‘Cardiff Women Walking Home’ help women get back from a night out safely, while those under the ‘Prick Advisor’ umbrella allow women to post about exes and other men to steer clear of. There are regional pages including a Welsh and South West version, and the UK page has 100,000 members. The allegations range from cheating to sexual assault.
Women looking out for each other under the radar isn’t a new phenomenon. ‘Whisper networks’ have existed long before the digital age, and Facebook groups are just the latest iteration of this centuries-old tradition. What began as secret, untraceable conversations between women has evolved into more public displays. At Brown University in the 1990s, for instance, women would write men’s names on bathroom walls. Over 30 names were included on this ‘rape list’ which quickly spread to other bathrooms at the university. The New York Times reported that one dialogue read, ‘Help. I know one of these guys. Quite well. I would never say anything to him, but, is there someone I can talk to to actually confirm that this is true? I want to make sure I’m safe.’
Around the same time, what became known as The Glass Ceiling Club was formed in New York. This was a group of young women from the investment bank Bear Stearns who convened every couple of months. They met at local restaurants making sure their employees were unaware of the meetings, at which they discussed how to make the workplaces more female-friendly. In her semi-autobiographical novel Opening Belle, Maureen Sherry, a former senior manager at the bank, explained the group’s meetings often fell to discussing predatory male colleagues – usually repeat offenders. They also discussed survival hints, like staying on the busiest floor.
The past has shown how professionally dangerous it can be for women to come forward about sexual harassment. In 2018, a report called ‘It’s (still) a rich man’s world’ by Young Women’s Trust found that a quarter of young women feared they would lose their job if they openly made a sexual assault claim against a colleague. Sometimes, speaking above a whisper has unfortunate consequences.
One of the most prominent and shocking whisper networks to appear in recent years was the ‘Shitty Media Men List’. This Google spreadsheet listed rumours and allegations of sexual misconduct by men in the magazine and publishing industry. The spreadsheet was only active for a couple of hours but was exposed in a Buzzfeed article and subsequently posted on Reddit. What started as an anonymous list designed to enable women to share stories of sexual harassment in a judgement-free place, led to the exposure of senior men in the media. Many of these were then formally investigated, leading to some leaving their places of employment or being fired. Though the consequences were broadly welcomed, it was a particularly thorny issue; most women had added to the spreadsheet in the understanding they would remain anonymous. When the list was made public – with entries specific enough to include identifying features – many found that anonymity snatched from them.
At the beginning of 2018, Moira Donegan wrote an article for The Cut, exposing herself as the creator of the spreadsheet. She explained that it was never intended to be a weapon, but as an ‘alternate avenue’ for young women who would face professional implications if they came forward officially about a colleague. She drew attention to a few shocking entries on the spreadsheet: “There was the hard-drinking editor who had worked in all the most prestigious editorial departments, who would down whiskeys until he was drunk enough to mention that he could help your career if you slept with him. There was the editor who would lean too close but who was funny enough that he would often charm women into consensual encounters that were then rumoured to turn abruptly, frighteningly violent.” It seemed to Moira that while the experience of sexual harassment was pervasive, the opportunity to speak up about it seldom existed at all.
In UK workplaces, a Statista study found that 13% of women had been the recipient of whistling, rude gestures or comments, or suggestive looks in 2019. In the UK, there is no law against this sort of harassment. A new Women’s Aid report found that 80% of women between 17 and 24 had been cat called and 38% had been followed. Without sufficient laws in place, perpetrators can freely shout sexual comments without fear of reprisal. In a society which refuses to shelter women from such harassment, technology has adapted to offer solace and protection where possible. Still, the continued need for whisper networks – in their new, digital format – is symptomatic of a broader societal issue pertaining to the cultural problem of crimes against women and girls. Until legal reform, we can only hope that this kind of digital collectivism might seed doubt in the minds of predatory men.
This may ultimately rely on whisper networks transitioning into a more public space, as with the ‘Shitty Media Men’ list. Though it didn’t come without complexity, it was the public leaking of the list which ultimately resulted in real consequences for the men involved. Private Facebook groups may be effective in helping women avoid specific undesirable characters, yet they can do little to stop the continuation of sexual harassment in wider society. Until names and identities are public, consequences will unfortunately remain minimal.
Rebecca Astill is a Journalism Masters student with a particular interest in current affairs issues affecting women, digital culture and investigative journalism.
(Header image credit: Kristina Flour)