On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Rebecca Traister, a writer-at-large for New York magazine and the author of the books All the Single Ladies and Big Girls Don’t Cry. Her story in the current issue of New York is about the wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations that have roiled various industries, from politics to journalism to Hollywood.
Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss what Traister has learned reporting on sexual harassment and assault, whether Hillary Clinton should have to answer for her husband’s sins, and the coming societal backlash to women speaking out.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: In your new piece, you write that ever since this dam broke, especially after the Weinstein scandal, more and more people have been reaching out to you and just sharing these awful stories. Is this just because you’re a journalist who writes about this stuff, or is it people you know?
Rebecca Traister: I think it’s a combination of things. The basic thing is because I’m a feminist journalist. So there’s that level of: Here’s a person who has written about, for years, and from various perspectives, and who sometimes goes on television and talks about things like harassment and sexual assault. Obviously, it’s something I wrote and talked about a lot last year with regard to Donald Trump.
It has been a startling experience. Even today, I’ve been sitting at my computer trying to respond to people who’ve sent in more of their tales. And no, most of them I don’t know. Most of them are people who found my email address on the internet, or they’re writing through my author website, and they’re telling really harrowing stories.
Is this about them wanting you to write something? Or is it about them just wanting to share their experience with someone who they hope will be a sympathetic ear?
It is a mix. There are a few who say, “I want you to do this story.” And that’s a whole separate conversation about what is now considered reportable and what isn’t. But I think it’s a weird mix of impulses, because most of the people who are writing me are not writing wanting to go on the record, or exactly precisely wanting to have the person they feel did this to them exposed and brought down. But I do think, first of all, they want to get their stories out.
There’s something about having had a story, which for many people are stories that have been bottled up inside for huge portions of their lifetimes. There’s something about getting it out into the open, telling someone. Maybe they’ve told people in their lives before, but also telling someone as part of this moment of revelation.
If you look at the worlds that this has affected most, which I would probably say are politics, journalism, and Hollywood, they’re all fields where the bad actors—no pun intended—are somewhat famous, and where the people making the accusations are either somewhat well known, or have access to journalists who can write about this.
It makes you think that this is a class thing in the sense that, there are a lot of women who are in jobs where this is not the case, probably paid less on the whole, and it’s much harder for them to get their story out.
It’s much harder for them to get their story out, in an infrastructure sense. Like, what is the degree of separation between them and the press? What are the access points to get to people in the media?
But this is a class story in part, because it’s also about security and stability. So this is happening in fields right now where, yes, the accused perpetrators are themselves well-known, and therefore there’s an editorial argument to be made about, “Oh readers will recognize who they are and they’ll read with interest” and everything. But it’s also true that the people who are in their fields, who have gotten close enough to experience abuse, are in, by definition, kind of high-paying fields. Even the sense of a whisper network itself, sort of involves a degree of safety net, that you have a network of colleagues or friends who you would whisper to to begin with.
Two-part question. One, how do you think Trump’s role as president is playing into the societal urge to get this stuff out there? And two, if this had all happened a year ago, would it have had an effect on the election?
So it did happen a year ago. This is the thing we forget. Now this has grown so much that I think we can say a smaller version happened a year ago. But certainly the biggest version of it at that point to date in my life happened one year and change ago. After the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump brags about how you can just grab women by the pussy, whether or not they want you to, which is assault, OK—after that tape, I believe it was more than 20 women came forward on the record, including the journalist from People magazine who told of how she was writing a story about him and he kissed her against her will, stuck his tongue in her mouth. The woman who said that he assaulted her on an airplane, groped her with his octopus arms. We barely remember this, right?
But at the time, it was on the cover of the New York Times, it was front-page news. There were hashtag campaigns, there was a Twitter campaign, where I can’t remember how many women, hundreds of thousands of women, maybe more than a million women, contributed their stories of the first time that they were assaulted or harassed. This felt explosive. And with the election around the corner, and what was then, we were told, the likelihood that Hillary Clinton would be elected. And also the sense of power that we had. On Election Day, pussy will grab back, right? There was a sense there was something we could do about it.
Instead, what happened was that his election became one of the bigger metaphors for what actually has happened on a million small levels, in all of our work lives. Which is, the crap guy who groped you, or propositioned you, or retaliated against you at the workplace got the bigger job. And it didn’t even matter that you filed the complaint, or that you told your friends, or that you’d confronted him, or whatever you did. It didn’t matter. He got promoted. That guy got the job.
And in fact, the popular vote thing I think matters here, because there was this sense like, “we can vote against him.” And 3 million more people voted for his opponent, and he still got the job. It was like the perfect example of how the systems align. I’ve written this in the past. It’s not just that the systems align, literally a system that was invented, the Electoral College, to preserve the power [and] the ability of people to enact power abuses. And that was how the Electoral College was developed. To preserve the power of slave states over nonslave states.
And I think that that metaphorical thing that happened is responsible for the wildness at this moment. Because there’s something scary, and sort of Wild West–y about this. This is not happening through typical channels. There is stuff that is being reported in the media, but there are also sort of anonymous lists being compiled. There’s a kind of sense that this thing could go out of control and off the rails at any moment.
There has been some conversation recently about Bill Clinton and the allegations against him, which include sexual harassment and even rape. This was something that Donald Trump himself brought up in the campaign. And it also seems like we’re at a moment where a lot of feminists and a lot of people who voted for or supported Bill Clinton are re-examining the accusations against him. What, if anything, do you think Hillary Clinton should or shouldn’t have had to answer for about Bill Clinton’s behavior?
We were always going to get back around to evaluating Bill Clinton. And I think it’s a necessary feminist conversation to have. It’s not easy.
Even if you take the rape claim out of it, [this is] something that was never really wrestled with appropriately by the left and by feminists during Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the Starr investigation and the Monica Lewinsky story. It’s because, in fact, the investigation itself was a partisan-motivated attempt to take Bill Clinton out of power, and that’s true. And there were so many on the center left who were anxious to defend Bill Clinton on those grounds. And that included feminists who were also relieved after 12 years of Republican presidential power, and the unification of Republican politics with the religious right, to have a guy who supported reproductive freedoms, who appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, they were anxious to defend him.
But what really got lost was the analysis of even the relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which both of them have claimed was consensual. And Monica Lewinsky to this day says it’s consensual; however, this was an obvious abuse of power that certainly fell under the rubric of sexual harassment, and we didn’t have that conversation.
We now have tools and lenses and, I think, a rebirth of feminism that would be anxious to go back and take that apart. But the moment where it was slightly pushed on us was last year when Hillary Clinton was a candidate for president. One thing that I think very firmly is that it’s not Hillary Clinton who should be answering the questions about Bill’s misdeeds. Nor is it she who should have paid the political price. And a point that Michelle Goldberg makes in her piece today and that I wholeheartedly agree with, is that to some degree [Hillary] did pay the price. Because the lingering questions about Bill sort of made it more difficult for her to assemble a feminist coalition that should have been behind her, especially as the opponent to Donald Trump.
When men are accused of sexual misconduct, their wives often play the role of offering them credibility after those accusations. I totally understand how awful a position that is to be put in, but if these men really are committing misconduct and the women are playing the role of giving them some credibility, that seems a legitimate thing to criticize them for.
This comes out of my own work about marriage and the dependency relationship and how marriages existed in the past. I see that argument as a way of, again, implicating the women in the misdeeds of their husbands. There are huge tolls to be paid if you’re a wife who doesn’t stand by her husband. I have no idea on a purely personal, individual level, none, what Hillary Clinton or any wife thinks of any given husband’s infidelities or abuses.
There is one record that I know of, of Hillary having a conversation with a friend about Monica Lewinsky in which she says it was consensual. Like, it crossed her mind that she needs to think about “was this relationship consensual?” So of course, yes, there is that. And do I wish that Hillary had denounced the power abuses of the relationship with Monica Lewinsky? Yes. The Juanita Broaddrick case is so muddy that I’m not sure. But I do think that structurally, it’s not just the wives’ choice always. There are all kinds of social, economic, historical factors.
It’s too complicated to hang it on Hillary is what I’m saying. That doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of how she behaved. I wish she’d done things differently too. But I also think that the expectation that wives play certain roles is a really complicated one.
Bill Cosby’s wife would probably be the better example of someone who spent time basically smearing the women who have accused her husband of things.
I wrote a column about Camille Cosby and Hillary Clinton last year. Both of them and their experiences, and how they get stuck with that. I would defend both of them actually. I would.
I’m not crazy about Camille Cosby, but I also think that that position, the historic position of a wife, is a really untenable one. I don’t think you think about wives’ relationships to husbands without looking at the way that marriage has disempowered women to begin with, including Camille Cosby. Even women who have money, and who have careers. Hillary Clinton has a career, has power. But the dependency relationship of marriage makes those questions really sticky in ways that I think is hard to assess from the outside.
I want to ask you a little bit about the “Shitty Media Men” list, as it’s been called, where this was, I guess you’d call it a whisper network that became a spreadsheet and listed about—
That’s a dangerous transition by the way. The whisper network to spreadsheet is a very dangerous move ...
What did you make of it, when you heard that men were appearing on this spreadsheet that listed their names, where they worked, and what they were accused of doing, anonymously?
I have completely mixed and contradictory feelings about that one. The negative probably came first. I think it’s a very dangerous document. The charges on there are a huge range. Now, somebody recently defended it to me by saying, “Yeah, but it only says it’s a shitty men list. It doesn’t say everybody on here is a criminal, right?” And I was like, Oh, that’s a reasonable point. But the range in there and the collapse of categories between men who are named and anonymously accused of assault and rape, and also men who are named and they’re sort of like, “he slides into your DMs,” and “awkward work lunches.” And it’s like, whoa, there is a very wide gulf between violent assault and the awkward work lunch. Right?
So I was worried about the collapse of categories. I was also immediately worried about the peril to feminism itself and to this conversation, because a list like that, every second that this has been happening, I am acutely aware of the fact that there’s going to be a backlash any second. And that the power dynamics will be reversed. The women will be seen as the aggressors doing harm to men. And the men will be vulnerable to the women. That’s exactly what happens in all kinds of circumstances. That’s why people who want to take issue with Black Lives Matter, a movement that resists state-enforced violence against black men, talk about them as violent mobs. It’s because whoever is protesting a power abuse, the way to undo that is to recast the group with less power as the aggressor. And that will happen here. And that list was a very, very easy way in which it was going to happen.
I also worry that the people who made it were going to be quickly identifiable, because it was a very esoteric list. One of the top reactions I heard from people were like, “What about that guy? He’s not on it.” You looked at it, and you thought of all the men you knew in our profession who you thought should be on that list but weren’t.
Feel free to say names on this podcast.
Sure! The other thing is, I care very much about civil rights and criminal procedure and the presumption of innocence. Those things matter to me. I am married to a criminal defense attorney, a public defender. And there are such things as false accusations about every kind of crime, including rape and assault and harassment. All of those were my negative reactions, like, this is a dangerous document. It is dangerous both to the men who are named on it, or who might get added to it. It is also dangerous for not only the women who made it, but for other women who are trying to have this conversation.
It seems like you’re getting ready to say “but.”
Well, I would say “and.”
So at the same time that I feel all those things, I also was fascinated by its creation. Because I’m writing a book about women and anger in politics and social change. And to me it was such a dangerous, sort of risky thing to do that it was symptomatic to me of a rage that was bubbling over. And that was fascinating to me. And also kind of awe-inspiring.
And so I say “and” because it doesn’t contradict my negative feelings. It is something I felt simultaneously. And I’ve written this since. There is something about this kind of behavior, this extremely bad idea of putting all your names in a Google Doc and then sending it around, in a way that’s going to be weaponized by the right, because a lot of those guys are left-wing guys or progressive journalists. But the desperation of that speaks to the intensity of the fury that so many people are feeling, and that to me is very powerful. And it’s almost like I stood back and was like, “Well, shit, that is some radical feminism right there.”
I am 42 years old, I was born in 1975. I have never lived through a period in which truly radical feminism, like dangerous shit, was something that was part of even the feminism that has been rebirthed over the past decade or so. And I’m a little awe-struck by the sheer, “Fuck it, we’re going to do this” quality of the anger. And that list was symptomatic of it.
I now see that Shitty Media Men list as what should have been a clue that this was not going to recede as quickly as I initially thought that it might. That this was going to be a rolling expression of anger and resistance to this kind of behavior. So all my feelings about the list are not negative. Some of them are positive.
When I have been talking to people, especially people I would say over 55, I’ve noticed an incredible resistance to and anxiety about this change sweeping society. Even from people, men especially, who are liberal. And it’s definitely made me anxious about what political backlash there might be to this broad feeling that men’s power is going to be circumscribed in some way.
It’s very worrying to me; I’m just waiting for it. I think it’s going to be really bad. I mean it’s going to be bad in ways that could conceivably be violent. I have all kinds of nightmares about the form that the backlash is going to take.
The reason there is a backlash is because white men still have power. And so there will be resistance from those power-holders, combined with the various people who want to support that kind of power. That includes lots of white women, and older people who came of age in a different world. There are lots of us who want to return to the norm; ultimately that norm adheres around the power structures and the ability to abuse power that we’ve always known, and that is fundamentally a white patriarchy. And that’s how we know there will be a backlash, because we still live in a white patriarchy and so there will still be the power and then the incentives laid out for people to come and quell this.