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Episodes: When did you know?


Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 15 2017

9 min read


At my last newspaper job, there was a masturbator. He would wait for somebody to enter one of the men's room stalls next to him, and once he was sure you were there for a bit, he would start to jerk off, loudly and luridly, making little noises all the while. You couldn't see him, of course, but he made sure you knew he was there. I used to try to wait him out, to catch a glimpse of who he was, but he never caved. I always left before he did, vaguely embarrassed by the whole thing.

I would tell some of the women I worked with -- for most of the coworkers my age were women -- and they were always baffled by this, by the thought that this might be going on. We always treated it as kind of a weird joke, a bizarre thing that just sort of happened to some of the men who worked there. (This was when one of my closest lady friends there was being stalked by a different coworker.)

It happened infrequently enough that I started to think maybe I was hearing things, even though a few other guys also told me it had happened to them. And then, one day, I decided enough was enough. I was going to stake out the bathroom after I left, to make sure nobody else entered and the only person who exited could be the masturbator. When he finally did exit, it was one of the most prominent reporters at the paper. I instantly doubted myself. It couldn't be him, right? Why would it be him?

I say all of this not to suggest I was sexually harassed or anything like that. I have, ever since I left that job, filed this under "weird things that happened to me," but in recent weeks, I've started to realize that, at the very least, it was the sort of thing I and others should have taken more seriously, should have taken up the ladder to HR. I would hope just about anybody could define it as "inappropriate workplace behavior." But it was just this strange thing that happened rarely enough that it was possible to doubt the thing you knew you knew.

Besides, even now, I doubt myself. It didn't happen, right? And it wasn't him, right?


In high school, I used to drive around with this girl from a nearby town. There wasn't anything romantic there, nor did I nurse hopes of there being anything romantic. She was just far enough out of my league for both of us to be aware of it, but in that way where friendship was still plausible, even in a tiny town where everything turned into a rumor.

Anyway, she told me one night that she loved burned out and abandoned old houses. Well, I said, there was one I knew about out in the country, and would she like to go see it?

At first, the drive out was pleasant. I pointed out the houses of my family and people I knew. And finally, we came to the farmstead that had been abandoned. To see the house, you had to pull up on the yard, so I did that, and instantly, everything in the car changed. Whatever warmth had been there flew out the window, and she was wide-eyed, obviously terrified. I suggested getting out of the car and looking around, and she started screaming, "Take me back to town!" When I finally acquiesced, after a few more clumsy attempts at suggesting how cool it could be to look around this weird abandoned farm in the middle of the night, the relief poured back into her.

My hands never left the wheel. I didn't suggest anything more than getting out of the car. But, as I realized (embarrassingly) several years later, she was convinced something terrible might happen if we did.

We didn't drive around much any more after that.


Two stories, neither of which I'm proud of:

In college, we had a friend, who was known for her drinking exploits. One time, she woke up to find somebody having sex with her, who wasn't her boyfriend, which she knew because he... felt different, if you catch my drift. She told the story to us as a joke, so we all laughed, but in recent weeks, this story has come back to me, too, and I hate myself for letting that story be a joke, for not even saying "that's pretty fucked up," which was a thing I knew, at least.

After college, I had another friend, who found himself at the other end of legal trouble after he had sex with a girl who had passed out. He swore to me that it wasn't rape, that she had been into it, that she had been awake. And because he was my friend, and I never knew her identity, I believed him, because I wanted, badly, to believe him, rather than to rewrite everything I knew about him. The girl and her family later dropped charges against him because they were advised nobody would believe her. She had been so drunk.

Later, another friend, who had briefly dated this second friend, told me about the one time they had had sex. It was consensual, she said, except it also wasn't, not really. At some point in the midst of foreplay, a switch flipped, and everything went too far, too quickly. But neither of us knew what to do with that information, so we just pretended it was okay.

This was less than 10 years ago. The girl I knew in college, that was less than 15 years ago. Rape, for all of us, was something that happened to other people in the news.


At another job before my current one, one of the writers for the section I headed up emailed an inappropriate joke to another writer, a woman. It was something along the lines of, "If you're so uptight, you probably just need a really good date. ;)" It was clearly inappropriate, but it was also a situation where it could have been a joke gone horribly wrong.

Still, I did the right thing. I believed women. I reported him to HR. HR looked into it and gave him a stern lecture about his behavior, then made sure things were okay with the other writer. We didn't have further problems with him, and he continued to write for us for a while after that. At the time, I thought, "Okay, he made a bad joke, but that's all it was, and he learned his lesson."

Years later, when I was talking to a small cadre of my favorite critics, all of the women in the group had had some sort of inappropriate, or even outright harassing, contact with him. They didn't say anything, because all of us thought maybe we were just taking his comments the wrong way. Surely he wasn't bad, right? He was such a feminist!


I could keep going, could keep telling you stories that wander all over the spectrum of behavior, from "thoughtless but understandable" to "technically legal but horrible still" to "should have been reported to HR" to "that was almost definitely rape." Friends and family members, acquaintances and enemies, men and women — I know too many stories for one cishet white dude who's been with the same woman since 18. I don't know what I would prove by that, though. I don't know what I'm proving by doing all of this. A friend, just a couple of weeks ago, told me about her very clear sexual harassment story, then wondered if she should name and shame the man who harassed her, because she is a young, successful critic on the ascendence, and he is a very old man, on the other side of obsolescence. What do you do with that?

I've been thinking, maybe counterintuitively, about the fact that I grew up just five miles from a Native American reservation, about how when I was a kid, we would talk about how white South Dakota was, because there were so few black people around, as if there wasn't a whole legacy of ashes just down the highway, one that we pretended we had nothing to do with, even though their story was also our own, and it made us look horrible. We always framed their poverty and destitution as a story about choice, about any individual's inability to pull themselves out of their situation. And just enough individuals managed to let us feel good about our inability to examine ourselves.

We did this with women, too. Worse, we got so many of them, like my friend from college, to believe it. We made rape, assault, harassment something that happened to them, perpetrated by the faceless, instead of something that was done by somebody, somebody with a face we knew. We believe in heroism and narrative so much that we turn history into something that happens to us, not an active force that attempts to suck us into its maw. We believe we can escape it. We can't.

We have a moment of clarity right now, but we have had clarity before. I hope, I hope that our little boat doesn't run out of gas, that it clears the farthest reaches of the vortex, that we can find our way back to shore. I fear we'll slip back into the black depths.

But I will try to be better, and apologize to those I've failed. It's all I can do.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. (I almost never do.) It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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