The Feminist Whisper Network as Female Relational Aggression
Two years ago, my friend Joseph Massey, a prolific and highly respected American poet, woke up to find himself famous, though not in a good way.
A friend of a woman with whom he had had a consensual affair a year earlier created a website called The Poet Joseph Massey Is An Abuser. With a few mawkishly written paragraphs, the woman (anonymously) took aim at the life Joe had created over the past decade.
On the site, the woman claimed that “Over the past several years, far too many people have told me about [Massey’s] verbal and psychological abuse. I no longer feel okay sitting silently with this information. For many people in ‘whisper networks,’ it is now taken for granted that Massey is a predator.” The website creator did not seem to realize that “whisper networks” were not necessarily trustworthy sources of information. She wrote with complete conviction and moral urgency.
Her web statement about Massey detailed some of the whisper network’s allegations, including her own personal victimization, which amounted to the alleged fact that Massey had, at a poetry reading and while drunk, called the website’s author “hot.” Worse than that, he had called her “hot” in front of her partner. In public. The outraged author also alleged, more vaguely, that many “reliable” sources (i.e. vindictive women) had detailed a pattern of “grooming” on Massey’s part, whereby he started online relationships with women that became “predatory.” There were claimed instances of name-calling and verbal cruelty. It was alleged that Massey used his depression and alcohol abuse as covers for bad behavior with women.
In a sane era, the website would have attracted little attention. It was anonymous and totally unsubstantiated; and even if true in every detail (a big IF given the evident rancor of the writer), it did not reveal any particularly shocking behavior. Very few adult human beings have not at some point shouted at a lover, said something crude or inappropriate while drunk, or made comments during arguments that could be described as verbally cruel. With such a low standard for abuse, very few of us would escape disgrace. I certainly would not.
But this was early 2018, the era of #MeToo, the era of publishers and universities and industries all scrambling to distance themselves from any man accused of any form of sexual misconduct.
The website’s existence spread like wildfire through social media, and Joseph Massey became a marked man. It was sent to various publishers and organizations that had featured Massey’s poetry or employed him in various capacities, promising that “proof” of physical violence and sexual assault would follow (which it never did). Many of the organizations responded not by ignoring the anonymous complaint, but by promptly excommunicating Massey.
Scheduled poetry readings were cancelled, employment contracts were terminated, and publishers dropped away like flies. Friends who had asked Massey to blurb their forthcoming books suddenly didn’t want his endorsement. A tsunami of further vague allegations, many by women he barely knew, burst upon him. A feminist writer named Rebekah Kirkman wrote an article called “The Poet Joseph Massey’s Disturbing History of Abuse,” during which she enumerated, with no attempt to verify, the disgusting claims made against him.
Very few of Massey’s former friends stood by him, and many supposed friends became enemies overnight.
Two years later, Massey is still working to put the broken pieces of his life back together. He has continued to write, and has even published an article in the magazine Quillette about how he survived the mobbing. But he still sees references online to his supposed history of abusing women. He doubts he will ever regain the position in the literary world he once held, and he no longer wants to be a part of such a vicious, back-stabbing culture. Having eked out a marginal living as a poet for many years, he did not have the money to pursue legal action against those who libeled him, and the scurrilous website that began his year of hell still exists.
I wish I could say that Massey’s experience is an extreme example, a monument to #MeToo persecution at its worst. In fact, it is utterly common and achingly familiar to anyone who has been paying sympathetic attention to men’s plight over the past few years.
The feminist whisper network has become an abusive strategy of female destructive power. Although it existed long before the #MeToo movement, it has gained enormous momentum and public authority since 2017. Nobody can say how often whisper network sting operations have been carried out, but it is safe to say that many women and their male enablers, having come to believe that formal investigations allegedly fail female victims, are quite happy to take personal action to destroy accused men. The accusations do not need to be credible; nor do they require any proof. They simply need to be accusations. The alacrity with which once-friends or acquaintances are willing to join the anti-male mobbings is extraordinary and frightening.
Feminist whisper networks can only wreak their devastating havoc in a culture that has accepted the supposed pervasiveness of male sexual predation and of female helplessness. Our culture’s inability to recognize female relational aggression allows whisper networks to work swiftly and efficiently. Sadly, many men have been more than willing to sell out other men, and very few men or women have had the courage to insist on the presumption of innocence.