Because formal reporting methods often re-traumatize victims of sexual assault or harassment, whisper networks—informal channels used by women to alert others—become entrenched. That is what I discovered while researching this subject for my dissertation.
These networks emerge when women are resolved to defend one another after learning of wrongdoing because they have learned from experience that formally reporting events is cumbersome and frequently ineffective.
I spoke with 20 women who used whisper networks in-depth and in private. Snowball sampling, a method for locating people eager to cooperate with researchers in an anonymous manner, helped me find them directly or indirectly through social media.
The ladies I spoke with ranged in age from 18 to 64, with over half falling between 35 and 44. The majority were of a Caucasian, highly educated, married or domestic partnership nature. The majority of people worked full time, but there were also some people who were students, self-employed, or worked part time. Their occupations and earnings were very diverse.
Gloria, one of the women I spoke with, stated, “There have just been so many horrific abuses in the nine years I’ve been a graduate student.” “The institution always made the problem worse when I notified someone there about the professor who assaulted me,” the victim said.
The offender acquired access to the report when Claire, a tenured professor at another university, reported the coworker’s repeated acts of sexual harassment. “He starts calling me right away. It’s legal, so he can do it,” Claire remarked. It was quite traumatic.
Bartender Jessie told how one of her coworkers was attacked in a back fridge. Jessie said how the man “like came in and just like cornered her and kissed her straight on the lips.” He was let go, but six months later, he was recruited back in the same role.
Her bosses said that they were opposed to training a new employee. When Jessie’s coworker left, she used a whisper network like Gloria and Claire did. In her situation, it was to warn other women to avoid painful interactions with this man in the future.
What’s at stake
Over one third of American women report having been the target of unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances from male coworkers. However, filing formal complaints about sexual harassment may have have the opposite effect of deterring the offenders.
Women who file these reports risk having their morals called into question or having their reputations tarnished, if they are not completely ignored. They might experience reprisals, such being demoted.
While the harassment is being unreported, the victims of it may lose their credibility for allegedly luring someone on, wanting attention, or being overly sensitive.
The limitations of whisper networks are highlighted in the October 2022 release of the film “She Said.” It describes the journey of two New York Times reporters as they looked into the numerous allegations of abuse committed by movie producer and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein.
Rumors of Weinstein’s crimes were apparently a “open secret” in show business before revelations of them came to light in 2017, intensifying the #MeToo movement. They were well recognised, but not openly discussed.
Currently, I’m looking into how successfully whisper networks support women who identify as LGBTQ, women of colour, and women with disabilities compared to straight, white women who don’t have any disabilities.
When information is shared through whisper networks, there is an implicit expectation that listeners will only tell those they can trust.
Women who identify as LGBTQ, those who don’t match traditional gender roles, and women of colour may thus be excluded. Additionally, because information is frequently communicated in an oblique or nonliteral manner, neurodivergent women, such as those with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, may be excluded from whisper networks.
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