me too

When Women Don’t Want to Talk

Photo: Getty Images/EyeEm

For those who have experienced sexual misconduct, the question of whether to speak out — or how, or when, or how often — never quite goes away. As a journalist who has spent the last two years reporting on sexual harassment and assault, by far the most common response I get when I ask people to go on the record about their experiences is “No.” This is true even when sources have spoken out before. In reporting New York’s story about the costs of coming forward, my colleagues and I contacted 100 women and men, asking if they would be willing to talk with us about their decisions to come forward about sexual misconduct, and how that choice impacted their lives, careers, and relationships. Sixty-five of them said no.

Some were (understandably) tired of being defined by difficult, sometimes traumatic experiences. “If you’d like to do a story about my 28-year comedy career, I’d be happy to talk to you,” one woman responded. Another told me that “my dream would be to never have to talk about it ever again.” A third pushed back at how women not only disproportionately experience sexual misconduct but also bear the responsibility of speaking about it after. “Have you contacted any men regarding this?” she asked. “If you haven’t, did you ever stop to think that that action is part of the problem as well?”

There were also women who were wary of their stories being used to further a “partisan” cause, especially if they were to be mentioned in the same sentence as Christine Blasey Ford. “Don’t presume that all people that care about this are liberal,” one woman wrote. “While heralding Christine [Blasey Ford] may rile up your liberal base, you unnecessarily come across as biased and untrustworthy with the other half of society.”

But the most frequent nos were from women who saw little reason to trust a journalist they’d never met with some of their most awful experiences. “You’re asking someone to divulge their deepest pain,” one wrote — and on the basis of what? Of course, she’s right, especially if you consider some journalists who, in their attempts to get stories of sexual misconduct on the record, abuse their own power. The line between pursuing a story for the sake of the public interest or for a career-burnishing scoop can be very thin, which puts unique pressure on those whose experiences form the foundation that breaking news is built on.

Paula Coughlin, the Tailhook whistle-blower and one of the women who spoke with me, told of a reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune who called her at her home in the evenings as the scandal was breaking, badgering her to go on the record. Later, when she finally sat down for an interview, “he asked me a lot of questions, but really nothing about the attack or the investigation,” Coughlin said. “It was all stuff he’d heard about my past sexual history, my relationships. He asked me if I had tattoos. It was a bullshit meeting.”

Even the most sensitive reporters have to ask sources intrusive, possibly painful questions that are likely to dredge up traumatic memories. That anyone agrees to open up, for even the slimmest possibility of change, is itself remarkable. Those who do often say they wish they had the freedom to tell their stories on their own terms. “I’m interested in why interviewers want to make me feel bad,” the writer E. Jean Carroll observed to me. “Why can’t they just have a woman sitting there matter-of-factly telling her story without … being sad, sad, sad?”

When I interview people about sexual misconduct, I try to give whoever I’m speaking to control over the process. I let them know that they don’t need to answer any question they don’t want to. If someone doesn’t want to go into certain details, I explain to them what I’m trying to make sense of with my questions, so that they might be able to help me understand another way. I listen, closely, not only to what someone says but to the way they say it. If they respond to my questions engagingly, and with a lot of detail, I keep asking. If they hesitate, or their tone shifts, I check in. I know there’s a difference between “No, but …” and “No.” And when it’s a hard no, I respect that and move on.

But that’s not usually the way it plays out. Once someone comes forward about sexual misconduct, it can often seem like they’re never allowed to stop talking. In addition to the standard consequences of speaking up — retaliation, threats, loss of opportunities, friends, income — women take on the responsibility of being spokespeople, saddled with the unspoken requirement that they always be available for comment, always available to return again and again to the scene of the crime.

Almost everyone we interviewed about the process of coming forward said that they did it to protect others. They put up with harassment and abuse for months or years on their own, only deciding to speak up when they realized that others were also being targeted. It makes sense that women would feel responsible for continuing to speak on behalf of those who aren’t able to, to remind a world determined to look the other way that sexual misconduct remains woven into every layer of our culture.

In spite of the incredible difficulty of continuing to speak, many still choose to, months or years or decades later. One of the most meaningful interviews I did for this project was with Sandra Bundy. In 1977, Bundy filed one of the first sexual-harassment lawsuits; her case is the reason that today, an employee can still sue an employer for sexual harassment even if it didn’t result in the loss of the employee’s job. I left Bundy two voice-mails before finally getting her on the phone. She wasn’t sure she wanted to talk to me at first. “This is really difficult,” she said, when I asked her about the decision to file her lawsuit. “You’re asking me things I’ve already answered” — she was referring to past news stories — “and it’s a little stressful for me to go back.” We almost ended the call. But then she asked, “Do you know I was a single parent with four children, with no assistance from their father?” Yes, I said, I’d read that in one of the stories about her. “It just took a lot of courage,” she explained. “In fact, I was demoted, and they tried to fire me when I took this case on. It took eight years to resolve this case, and during the case, I was subjected to a lot of other problems.” She continued to talk for 20 minutes without stopping. What she had to say helped me understand the roots of so much of what I had been hearing from other women and men in my interviews: how the realities of retaliation grind down even the most determined complainants; how even when a legal decision comes down in your favor, it does not equal justice; how knowing that dissuades so many victims from turning to the courts. Toward the end of our conversation, she said, “You’re asking me a lot about my personal feelings, and it’s difficult to explain. Nobody can feel the pain, the degradation — nobody can really feel these things but me. But I hope that my children and other women will reap the benefits of what I have done.” She had said what she wanted to say, and it was clear she was done talking. I followed her lead, and we hung up the phone.

When Women Don’t Want to Talk