The Magic Number


I pay attention to members of several communities that claim to value critical thought, respect for others, egalitarian ideals, social responsibility, equal opportunity, et cetera-the whole lot. And so I also can’t help noticing the disheartening sexism in these allegedly progressive groups and organizations. Somehow, people who claim to value evidence and reason happily ignore the evidence and treat the idea of their own sexism with derision, and somehow people who claim to build their philosophy on equality happily harass the women around them.

Emily Crockett has an article at Vox about an ongoing harassment scandal in a progressive organization, and the quote at the end stood out to me:

“ ‘One of the things I keep thinking about is, what is the magic number of women it would take before an allegation will be believed?’ said Karen. ‘What would have happened if only one employee would have come forward? Are we ever going to stop somebody like this after one or two victims, or is it always going to have to go on for years, and follow them across different companies, and there has to be a critical mass of complainants before people take it seriously?’ ”

That sounds awfully familiar; it sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent atheists or skeptics or Christians are exposed for their harassment of women. It sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent Democrats or Republicans are exposed for their prejudice. People keep asking, what’s the magic number? How many women have to speak up for it to be enough evidence?

But, see, here’s the thing: I don’t think this is about evidence. I think when women are harassed, and they report it, they are not disbelieved—they are ignored. It isn’t a question of evidence, because the powerful people who receive these reports aren’t evaluating whether or not a report of harassment is true, they’re evaluating whether it is sufficiently inconvenient.

We talk about privileged people being unaware of their privileges, and that’s true as far as it goes, but I just don’t believe that powerful men can harass women without being aware; I think they just expect to get away with it. They view the women around them, and the attention of those women, as perks they are entitled to by their power. They are assholes. But they expect to get away with it because the rules say they can.

Now, you might be saying it sure doesn’t look like there are any rules about powerful men treating women with respect, and you’re right. The rules aren’t about that. The rules are about image.

Powerful men know that, by and large, they have images to maintain, and they know that harassment has a horrifically minor but nonetheless real impact on their image. So there is a rule that limits how much of a misogynist asshole you are allowed to be, and the rule is you can harass as many women as you want as long as they stay quiet. When harassment is reported, it becomes an image problem, and image problems are inconvenient and need to be dealt with. When harassment stays quiet, it is just a problem for the women involved, and women can be ignored.

So the magic number of women isn’t the number of women assaulted, it’s the number of women that make it inconvenient. If you’re a powerful man, it doesn’t matter whether your actions are hurtful to other people; it only matters if they look like it.

If you’re ready to put your head through your desk at this point, we’re on the same page.

There is a magic number, I suppose, and that number is one: one person in power who has enough of a conscience to listen. Or one person who has enough of a moral compass to make a lot of noise. Or one person who looks at powerful men and isn’t blinded by their power. That’s what it takes to challenge the rule.

And there is another magic number, and that number is zero: zero men who think the consequences of their actions are less important than their image. Zero men who think women are perks instead of people. Zero men who help other men get away with thinking that. Zero men who stay quiet when they see other men behaving this way.

Can we shoot for that number, please?


Image Credit: Lisbokt




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