As soon as it comes out that a man has been sexually harassing or abusing people in his orbit, the men close to him become focused on innocence. Not the supposed innocence of the accused, for the most part — though of course some men will categorically deny that their friend is capable of such slimy behavior — but their own innocence. Before they think to relay their support for those the abusive man has hurt, or applaud their bravery in coming forward or even condemn the man himself, they must process their gut reaction to the horror stories about the guy. They feel sick, angry and betrayed, they say, since they had no idea this was happening.
You couldn’t ask for a better case study in this phenomenon of mass ignorance than the response to tweets and a Jezebel exposé about Eric Sundermann, who was fired from his job as head of content at music magazine The Fader when it came out that bosses there and at Vice, where he’d previously worked, had brushed off years of complaints regarding his sexual misconduct. Jezebel fielded comments from 11 of his former colleagues who said he “repeatedly groped women coworkers and aspiring music writers at bars and parties, often forcing himself into cabs with women too drunk to protest.” The institutional failure of Vice and Fader to protect their employees from Sundermann, or at the very least take their reports of sexual assault and coercion seriously, sits alongside the unwillingness of those in Sundermann’s vast media fraternity to acknowledge what he was doing. Apparently, while he was plying his subordinates with free booze on his tab in order to make them submit to his unwanted advances, few if any of his male pals took notice, while a women’s whisper network spread this warning: “Don’t have more than three drinks or Eric’s going to come get you.”
The thing about happy hours and parties is they’re communal occasions, when the majority of a professional team or cohort is sure to congregate. It is not as if Sundermann was the only man present for these gatherings, nor can we act as if men were somehow prevented from witnessing the public gropings and taxi getaways that led women to be wary of him. Like so many of his ilk, Sundermann wore the quality of an “open secret” — a predator shielded from consequence in part because their shittiness is so widely known as to barely shock anymore. Again, men weren’t excluded from that knowledge, but they refuse to admit that they possessed it and did nothing.
This is where the “I was completely in the dark” narrative takes hold, for the only alternative to reckoning with your passive complicity is a total memory wipe.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you truly “didn’t know.” If we want to read this statement at face value, it isn’t much of an acquittal. It would mean one of a few bad things. The first possibility is you’re too dense to realize that, say, an editor forcing his writer to make out with him is a problem; what you “didn’t know” is the bare minimum of professional ethics and responsibility for consent. In other words, you did know, you just didn’t think your buddy had done anything wrong.
Second option: You did manage the unlikely feat of never being present to witness the guy forcing himself on a person, or trying to abscond with someone incapacitated by drink — but women didn’t trust you enough to share these disturbing anecdotes. Why might that be? Could they have had the impression that you wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t care and were apt to downplay their concerns, or instinctively choose to defend your bro as a “good guy”?
Most plausible to me is door number three: Women told you what he was doing, you observed some of it yourself and you weren’t entirely cool with it. You understood, in some euphemistic way, that he was a bit “handsy,” or “made women uncomfortable.” The sordid reputation was clear as day. And yet, since you fell short of the conclusion that a man preying on coworkers who relented in fear of career sabotage or because they were blackout hammered ought to be fired, you compartmentalized this queasiness. You smothered it with silence. Perhaps you rationalized this as not wanting to rock the boat, start any drama or fracture the illusion of a sound corporate structure. And this attitude isn’t limited to the office — it can equally apply to the dynamics of a social group, where any confrontation risks the dissolution of friendships.
What’s really unforgivable in the “I’m just as surprised as you are” line, besides the fact that nobody else was surprised, is how it centers the emotive panic of the enabler. The dude who forever acted as though he weren’t present in the room, had no agency or control, now asks us to believe that he would have acted, if only he’d had the relevant information, or seen his boy cross whatever ambiguous line he draws between “problematic horny drunk” and “sex offender.”
If you aren’t going to apologize for turning a blind eye and not speaking up when you had the chance — the months and years of chances — then you’re better off remaining mute. You have a talent for that. Women suffered this man without your support, and they don’t need your self-absolution now. The next time they identify a creep, do them the favor of not assuming this is reckless exaggeration. Then you’ll have a shot at being more than a shrugging bystander.