The power of gossip

Some of the women who were harassed by Harvey Weinstein mentioned a kind of code: whispered information passed between women about who to avoid, who was a creep. This code was even the source of a joke in an SNL skit from last Saturday; “the code was ‘he raped me.’ That way, if any men were listening, they’d tune us right out,” Kate McKinnon’s silver screen character quavers out.

IMG_1297 - Version 2Essentially, in fact as well as fiction, women gossiped to keep each other and themselves safe.

Now, arguably, this doesn’t fall into the traditional definition of “gossip,” but it’s certainly how the word is used in certain institutions, as in “now, now, make sure you’re not spreading gossip or slander about that man.”

Harvey Weinstein likely never would have been outed had it not been for this kind of gossip. If every woman had kept quiet about her own experience, then the women, collectively, would not have realized that there were enough of them to take this powerful man on.

If the victims of Catholic clergy abuse had all kept silent, the abuses would have been allowed to go on, shielded from the light of day. In so many circumstances, if the “gossip” from one woman had been heeded, then a second woman would not have been injured.

The parade of “MeToo” stories and hashtags should tell us one thing: women (and men) don’t always feel comfortable talking about who assaulted them and how. In no small part because this is so often dismissed as “gossip” or “slander,” and the victims are told both overtly and covertly to keep quiet about it.

This is why it is so problematic if any culture or community reacts to reports of sexual harassment and assault with “now, now, let’s remember not to gossip.” Very often, there is a motive for keeping the information quiet: churches look bad if their pastors or elders or seminary students are known predators. Schools rarely survive open discussion about two, three, four, teachers committing illegal sexual assault on students. But if there is a pattern of this kind, there is probably a reason for it. The culture of silence invites inappropriate behavior; where there is no significant consequence for terrible behavior in adult men (or adults in general), adult men will behave badly. Not all adult men or even most, but some will, and those who are tempted to do similar things will see that they, too, can get away with it.

So if any institution you are involved with — a club, a school, even a tight-knit group of friends — insists that “gossip” be avoided in matters of sexual assault, understand that that institution is not a safe place for anyone who is being or has been assaulted. But it is a safe place for serial assaulters.

If you’re noticing red flags around assault-related “be sure not to gossip or slander” admonitions, it’s worth doing a little digging. For example, ask schools what their policy is on reporting teacher harassment or assault. Do they report every illegal student-teacher action to police right away, or do they quietly shoo the teacher into a different kind of position in another town or district? Maybe just demote him (or her) to community tutor rather than full teacher?

Do schools tell parents if a teacher or principal is dismissed with pending criminal assault charges, or do they instead send out a letter noting his resignation for reasons unknown, painting the man as a wonderful and upstanding member of the community who is going to stop by the school whenever he feels like it? If a teacher becomes sexually involved with a student, do they spin it as merely an inappropriate “consensual relationship” or do they recognize that middle school and high school students cannot legally (in nearly all cases) or morally (in all cases, due to the power dynamic) consent to a “relationship” with a teacher? Do they ever repeat the teacher’s (legally bogus) claims that the “relationship” was all the fault of the student? Do they ever shrug harassment away because the teacher seems like such a nice guy otherwise?

Parents should know: if a student comes forward to report unwanted physical contact or inappropriate advances of any kind, what is the protocol for responding? Is the student taken seriously, even if the student is not considered a model of perfect behavior? Note: children and teens who are being sexually targeted and harassed may act out or react in ways that are not always productive. Even more insidiously, if they have a choice, predators often target children and teens whose credibility is already in question — or whose shame, social class, malleability or general “attitude” make them easy to manipulate. Like any predator, they pick the easy targets rather than the more difficult ones.

And, perhaps most importantly, is there a certain degree of transparency so that parents can be assured that these things are appropriately handled rather than swept under the rug? Can you, for example, get straightforward questions answered in a clear and straightforward way when you ask them?

This is particularly important where students are part of a culture that values obedience over independence. If children are trained from birth to obey quickly and without questioning, they will likely go along with things they are innately uncomfortable with if it’s initiated by an authority figure. Where authority figures are astute and caring, this won’t be an issue. But if they’re tempted to abuse their power, where they’re tempted to get their personal, extracurricular needs met by those they’re in charge of, this becomes a real problem.

What do you do if you find yourself witnessing or experiencing harassment in a culture or community that inherently or overtly promotes silence in such circumstances? To quote my dear friend St. Tara:*

I want to outline some strategies for whistle-blowers to keep themselves out of the swamp of proving their stories to a hostile audience just looking for a way to trip them up. Here’s what I have so far:

1. Stick to what you experienced and how you experienced it. If you had unwanted attention shown to you it ultimately doesn’t matter what was “meant” by it. Your experience is legitimate information that even people who disagree should be willing and interested to assimilate. 
2. Point to the culture/community pressure that made it difficult for you to speak up, either to defend yourself in the first place or to report it. 
3. Avoid trying to prove the nature or intent of the other person even when you’re personally very sure of the meaning.

In a nutshell, when it comes to the safety of yourself and those who are or may become targets of assault, fearing “gossip” should be much less important than telling the truth.


*special thanks to anonymous research assistants


2 thoughts on “The power of gossip

  1. The Gossip Card. It goes along with the Dissension Card, and the “Touch Not God’s Anointed” card, if you’re in a church setting. (I often wonder: From whence came your anointing? Did Samuel pop out of the Bible for a moment and drip some holy oil on your head?)
    You are spot-on, Katie. And I would venture to add, that any group that is paranoid of gossip, especially about its leaders, probably has abuse of some sort to hide.

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