When whisper networks let us down

By Sarah Jeong

In November, The Verge published the harrowing allegations by seven women outlining over a decade of physical and violent sexual assault by celebrated security researcher Morgan Marquis-Boire. When I first began working on the Morgan Marquis-Boire story, I had an inkling of how big it was. I thought — if I was lucky — I would manage to corroborate a very tiny slice of what had happened. I didn’t imagine I would end up conducting so many interviews, unearth 15-year-old traumas, and eventually become the recipient of a chat log in which Marquis-Boire explicitly confesses to serial rape. I also did not know I would become the repository for the denial, guilt, and regrets of others. I set out to report what happened and learned too much about the decisions that bystanders made, about what didn’t happen, and why.

Long before our story broke, dozens of individuals had already heard what Morgan Marquis-Boire had done. The stories of his violent behavior toward women, I heard over and over in my reporting, were an “open secret.” Once the open secret made it to those in power, he was quietly removed from many of his professional affiliations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and Citizen Lab. Not included in that roster was his former employer, First Look Media, which was never approached with any allegations. Betsy Reed at the Intercept told us that Marquis-Boire had already been let go at the time the story went live for unrelated reasons, and they were shocked to read the news when it broke. (Throughout our reporting, we reached out repeatedly to Marquis-Boire for comment and have never received a response.)

The most obvious question was an uncomfortable one: if so many individuals and organizations had known of the alleged assaults already, why hadn’t they come forward vocally and publicly with what Marquis-Boire had done?

In the case of at least one of the organizations that had cut ties quietly, the answer was straightforward: the victim who had approached them with her story had also asked them to be quiet about it out of respect for her privacy. She had wanted to move on with her life instead of publicly outing her attacker and herself.

The responsibility and culpability of harassers and abusers are self-evident. But what about that of bystanders? It’s easy to throw up one’s hands and loudly proclaim that those who knew but did not act had done the wrong thing. But the dilemmas presented to the people involved were often much more intractable than it is made out to be.

In the wake of Weinstein reporting, much has been made of the phenomena of “whisper networks,” informal chains of secondhand and sometimes firsthand information about sexual harassers or rapists in a community or industry. Whisper networks, writes journalist Moira Donegan, are a “long-standing partial remedy” in response to pervasive sexual harassment and assault. These are “informal alliances that pass on open secrets and warn women away from serial assaulters,” warnings that circulate privately among tightly knit cliques. Whisper networks aren’t burn books for amusing women or getting men fired. In a world where sexual assault isn’t taken seriously, a whisper network becomes a form of protection.

But joining a whisper network comes with a catch: it invites participants in on the condition of silence. And because of that, we often miss that whisper networks are a double-edged sword: the same secrecy that protects victims and whistleblowers can shield perpetrators as well.

One of the most-discussed whisper networks in recent memory is the Shitty Media Men list, an open Google spreadsheet of men’s names, accompanied by institutional affiliations and anonymized allegations. The individuals implicated on the list were less famous than Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, or Al Franken, but because it was by the media and about the media, the Shitty Media Men list received disproportionate media coverage. Although it was intended to be circulated quietly, the spreadsheet went viral shortly after its creation and was taken offline within hours. But the stories recorded within — warned to be, at the very top of the spreadsheet, unsubstantiated rumors — spurred internal investigations. A handful of men named on the list were fired in very public ways.

As women in media debated the merits of the spreadsheet, they also acknowledged that they were part of extant backchannels that prompted them to be careful around certain men. The term “whisper network” became pervasive throughout the discussion, and bled into how the media talked about Weinstein and the other allegations that were tumbling forth.

Outlets began to discuss whisper networks not only in the context of Weinstein and the entertainment industry, but in the financial industry and the academic world. The networks were handled differently in every case. The financial industry formed a kind of informal club. Academia produced a public spreadsheet, but one that was curated with all names — including those of accused perpetrators — anonymized. On college campuses, an online service called Callisto sought to replace one function of whisper networks with a system that would submit reports to sexual discrimination administrative offices at their schools if multiple victims named the same perpetrator. Whisper networks, apparently, were everywhere, “everyone” knew about them, and if you were in a community for long enough, you, too, would become part of one.

It’s generally admitted that the Shitty Media Men list was at least flawed in execution. For one, the scope of the list was not well-defined, eventually collecting stories that ranged from incredibly violent sexual assaults to unwanted workplace overtures, a mixture of allegations that all fit the bill of “shitty” but felt, to some, a little odd to be mixed together. The worst allegations that had been reported by multiple people were highlighted in red, but many of the details were opaque: it was unclear how many women had made the same allegation, there were no time stamps, no encryption, no sealed records to return to if an investigation was ever launched. The list also anonymized submitters and victims, making it next to impossible for the self-identified victims of one alleged attacker to find each other. And although anonymity allowed women to share without judgment or fear of reprisal, it also prevented women from making individual assessments of the credibility of the source. But most obviously: once this open document went viral, it became less and less reliable. The more people had access, the less implicit accountability — real or imagined — there was.

Donegan, who recently came forward as the original creator of the list, admitted that she had “created something that had grown rapidly beyond my control.”

The tired argument against whisper networks is that they bypass “due process,” supplanting a fair investigation with rumor and conjecture. This is both true and untrue. Whisper networks certainly aren’t due process, but they also don’t bypass due process: they exist in a vacuum of due process. Like setting bear traps for trespassers or spring guns for burglars, using a whisper network is dangerous and will most likely, at some point or another, backfire terribly. But in the face of pervasive institutional failure and vast conspiracies that maintain industry-wide silence, an HR complaint or an investigation within an academic institution, let alone a criminal case, seems to only spell more trouble for victims. Double-edged sword or not, whisper networks are the only reasonable option left on the table.

And it’s not much of an option. If there’s a lesson in the Morgan Marquis-Boire story I have continued to report on, it is that although whispers can lead to a downfall, the process can take decades, with victims piling up in the meantime. The Marquis-Boire story left unanswered questions on the table, questions that echo throughout the many stories that have flooded the news since the Weinstein story crystallized into a broader #MeToo movement.

Are whisper networks good? That question itself is a little flat. Whisper networks arise in a vacuum of justice. They alleviate an untenable condition; they do not actually address it.

Do whisper networks work? That depends on what you mean by “work.” For the participants of whisper networks — often women — these networks hum below the surface. Whispers are take it or leave it. Whispers are a defense, not an offense. The Shitty Media Men list, for example, was intended as a passive source of information, not direct action — although the scandal that ensued saw men that appeared on the list fired. But whisper networks don’t work for people excluded from the network for one reason or another. And because it is merely information rather than action, being part of a whisper network cannot guarantee your safety.

Whisper networks succeed, in the sense that, as writer Jia Tolentino points out, they tend to propagate credible information to women who adjust their lives to avoid men who are work hazards. But they do not stop repeat offenders from perpetrating again. There will always be vulnerable women on the fringes of the network. There will always be a fresh young crop to prey on.

A more interesting question is, why do whisper networks so often stay passive? And beyond that, what are we morally responsible for when the whisper network comes to us?

Because whisper networks are built on personal credibility and social capital, they often end up operating like exclusive clubs. Inexperienced, younger women often don’t have access to these protective backchannels when they first enter an industry or scene. Although rumors swirled around Weinstein for years, the constant influx of fresh talent into Hollywood kept him supplied with new victims.

Whisper networks have an exclusionary effect that manifests in dangerous ways. High-profile writer Jenna Wortham noted that the whispers documented in the Shitty Media Men list hadn’t made it to her or any of the other women of color she knew before it went viral.

When it came to Morgan Marquis-Boire, the exclusionary effect was most pronounced along geographic lines. Some sources speculated that Marquis-Boire had strategically moved from country to country to stay ahead of any consequences. Over the course of reporting, a clear difference began to emerge between the interviewees from New Zealand and the interviewees from the United States.

The New Zealanders all said that they had heard rumors early on and that his behavior was an open secret in their community. “Everyone knew,” but no one cared. The warnings, when offered, were sometimes explicit and sometimes oblique. He was “not good” to women, it would be said, or he was a “ladies’ man.” Over the years, darker rumors circulated, too. The New Zealand whisper network operated the same way the Weinstein whisper network had, albeit in miniature: though rumors circulated, women, particularly younger and more naive entrants into the insular goth scene of Auckland in which Marquis-Boire grew up, reported the same experiences over and over again. Marquis-Boire, said sources, effectively wielded social capital and influence against those who would speak out against him.

But in the United States, it was a different story: the Americans we spoke to said they were shocked when they heard the accusations. Very few were warned against Marquis-Boire until 2017. In the United States, the whisper network was newly nascent. It seemed that those women had only just begun to find each other and to share their experiences.

Even if you’re lucky enough to have access to a years-old whisper network, it won’t necessarily keep you safe. Some of the women and men we spoke to in New Zealand had previously heard rumors about Marquis-Boire, but until they had their own violent experience, they had not given them much credence. This was for a variety of reasons. In one case, the rumors were so heavily veiled that they might as well not have been said in the first place. One former partner reached out to The Verge after our original articles ran. Her experience, she said, was a mirror image of an account she had read there. Although she had heard in the past that Marquis-Boire was “not good” to women, she had not understood that there was a prior pattern and that what had happened to her was not an isolated mistake.

In other cases, what was widely known had been retold in a way that discredited the women at the heart of the stories. The stories carried by whisper networks are easily subverted, especially when the accused has enough social capital. Journalist Anne Helen Petersen connects the concept of whisper networks to the function that celebrity tabloids and gossip magazines often play in the entertainment industry, and to how gossip and whispers of any kind are socially stigmatized as a feminine vice. She describes how “pun, innuendo, and blind items” in celebrity tabloids had long pointed to the truth about Weinstein and his normalized “casting couch,” hiding alleged nonconsensual assaults behind consensual encounters both real and imagined. But the same tabloid press went all out to smear Ambra Battilana Gutierrez when she wore a police wire to record Weinstein’s admission that he had groped her. “Harvey Weinstein rapes women” could also be heard as “Harvey Weinstein sure gets in a lot of trouble with crazy sluts.” The signals inside the whisper network can become corrupted, and sometimes, the connections fail because the carriers choose to protect the accused.

The story most likely to have been heard by members of the Auckland goth scene was about Emma*. “Everyone knew about Emma,” Gabrielle*, a woman in the Auckland goth scene told me. “It wasn’t an open secret because it wasn’t a secret. Everyone knew about Emma and most people didn’t believe her.”

Gabrielle said that for many who heard the whispers, Emma’s story had been recast as a tale of “sour grapes.” Emma was a vindictive ex, and Marquis-Boire was her victim. What people heard was likely this: Emma and Morgan had dated years ago and throughout that time, they both drank too much and caused a lot of drama in public. Morgan was slutty and slept around a lot, and it pissed off all of the women he was ever with, including Emma. After breaking up, they still drank too much and their relationship went on and off, up and down. At some point in late 2004 or early 2005, they got drunk and Morgan chased his ex-girlfriend up Queen Street — the main thoroughfare in Auckland — and frightened her half to death. Emma’s friends made a big stink about it and told people it was time to kick Morgan out of their circles. Emma said some things about being coerced into sex, Morgan said some things about his “prim goth girlfriend” who had to be convinced to have sex, and everyone agreed that the two of them should have never dated. The word “rape” floated up to the surface and was met with a furious backlash.

In response to those rumors, Morgan passed around a screencap of an email that Emma had sent him, apologizing for “whatever fault” she had in the matter. For some, that was enough to seal the deal: the whole thing was just drama, “rape” was too strong of a word, and any other rumors swirling around were just part of the whole mess.

The story we heard from Emma was this: she and Morgan dated on and off for a couple of years. Looking back on it as a 35-year-old, she said, she could see that she had been a naive 19-year-old, pressured and coerced into sex on multiple occasions. She thought that if she didn’t give in, there would be consequences. But because she had always “acquiesced before he crossed the line” and she hadn’t thought of it as rape at the time, she didn’t feel comfortable using the word in our interview.

In 2003, after they had broken up, Emma showed up to a goth ball with her new boyfriend. Enraged, Marquis-Boire began hitting her with a cane. She ran into the bathroom and locked herself in a stall to escape him while he banged on the door.

“It was one of those really dramatic meltdowns when some person is yelling and kicking screaming and the other person is yelling and screaming and chasing and everyone just goes, ‘Oh my god, the drama. God, they’re bad drunks,’” said Emma. “At the time, even though he was trying to attack me in public, and I had to barricade myself away from him, people still rolled their eyes and took it as, ‘Oh, that’s just Morgan.’”

Emma’s relationship with Marquis-Boire did go up and down for years. She would intermittently end contact before Marquis-Boire reached out again and they resumed speaking. “He always apologized beautifully,” she said.

Sometime later, when they were on good terms again, Emma went out for drinks with Marquis-Boire, his best friend Carl Purvis, and Purvis’ girlfriend at the time, Chloe Ann-King. Marquis-Boire was already in a dark mood when the night started, but things got worse as he drank more and more. Purvis and Ann-King became worried and privately asked Emma if she was going to go home with him.

“I think I have to,” she told them.

“But you don’t want to?” they asked her.

“Yeah, I don’t want to, but watch what happens if I try not to.”

The couple told Marquis-Boire that they were taking Emma back home with them. Marquis-Boire lost his temper.

When Emma saw the look on his face she turned and started running up the street. He chased after her, yelling. Ann-King and Purvis chased after Marquis-Boire in turn. The scene was “farcical,” said Emma, looking back on it. But she was terrified at the time. She was wearing impractical boots and kept falling over, cutting her legs up.

At one point, Purvis shoved money into her hands to get a taxi, but Marquis-Boire jumped right into the taxi with her. She fled the taxi and got into a second one, which Marquis-Boire also followed her into.

“Carl sort of sighed and he came over and grabbed Morgan and started methodically punching him in the face,” said Emma. At some point during the struggle, Ann-King had tried to grab onto Marquis-Boire’s arm, and he flung her onto the pavement, where she hit her head and started bleeding.

Meanwhile, Emma had gotten away in a taxi, frightened that Marquis-Boire was following her. “I was terrified the whole drive home,” she said. “This is a man who carries a knife. On most occasions. And will threaten people with it.”

The story is not a straightforward account of brutal sexual violence. Emma was previously subjected to a physical assault with a cane, yes, but she is not the same kind of victim as described in our other reporting. Her relationship with Morgan Marquis-Boire was confusing, inexact, and fluctuated over time. That in itself is not rare in romantic relationships, but for outsiders looking into their history, it made her an imperfect and confusing victim. Emma herself was careful to tell us that she believed other women had been raped, but that the same thing had not happened to her.

Regardless, what happened to Emma and Chloe Ann-King that night is unambiguous. Emma was being threatened by an alleged serial predator more than capable of hurting her for saying no to sex. Ann-King was assaulted for attempting to protect her. “Watch what happens if I try not to,” became a terrifying prophecy — a prophecy not just about her, but about all of the women who came after her.

Within the community, the incident was recast as more drama among bad drunks. If Emma wept in fear, it was because she was a hysterical girl. And hysterical girls make things up, don’t they? What happened to Emma fell into a hole of ambiguity, and because the story and Emma were so widely discredited, even women who had heard about her were not successfully warned away from Marquis-Boire.

What if the people Emma spoke to had paid attention to what she said instead of attributing the events to her drinking habits or her on-and-off relationship with Marquis-Boire? What if the supposed ambiguity of Emma’s story had, in fact, never existed at all, but was instead an obscuring fog manufactured by what we collectively believe about women?

For Emma, the most important thing about what happened on Queen Street was that it had all happened because she had said no.

What would have happened if, in 2005, people had heard Emma’s message loud and clear?

Consider, for a moment, your own reaction while reading Emma’s story. Did you pause? Did you feel a moment of confusion or doubt? Did you come in assuming Morgan Marquis-Boire is a terrible man, or feel as though the story wasn’t “all that bad”? Did you, for a moment, wonder if Emma was really a victim? Did you, in 2018, hear Emma’s message loud and clear?

It’s easy enough to imagine that if one of your friends came to you with allegations, you would “do the right thing.” Many recoiled with horror when Rose McGowan accused Ben Affleck of knowing for many years what Weinstein had done to her. “‘GODDAMNIT! I TOLD HIM TO STOP DOING THAT’ you said that to my face,” she tweeted at him.

But even if we steel ourselves to “do the “right thing,” the “right thing” is rarely apparent and can come at huge personal cost. You could lose your friends. You could lose your job. A fire mysteriously destroyed the home of one of Roy Moore’s accusers shortly after he lost his election. When Weinstein Company executive Irwin Reiter conspired to eject Harvey Weinstein from the company and failed, Reiter found out that a security firm was scanning his computer.

For most people, the “right thing” is defined by what the victim wants. Publicly denouncing or even privately confronting an accused perpetrator hardly seems like the “right thing” if the victim objects. Forcing victims to go to the police doesn’t exactly seem like the “right thing” either. For many people, when a credible story comes to them, they see the full extent of their moral obligations as the two-step of believing and carrying the whispers forward. And although that in itself often becomes a radical and dangerous act, it also does little to stop future attacks.

When one of Marquis-Boire’s victims told her friend what happened, he says that, “As a friend, I tried to comfort her. I asked if she wanted to go to the police, she said she didn’t want to. And I felt like that was all I could do. I didn’t say anything publicly because I was in IT, too, you know, and I was afraid it would hurt my career. In retrospect, it was the wrong decision.”

His fears were well-founded. When one of Emma’s confidantes, Rajneel Singh, decided to take the allegations public, he found himself socially ostracized. Singh remembers the night he was roused by Emma’s desperate, terrified cries after she came home from the bar on Queen Street. Before he could get out of bed, she burst into his room and barricaded the door with a chair. She was soaking wet from the rain pouring outside and bleeding from cuts on her legs, crying about how Morgan Marquis-Boire was coming to kill her. It took several hours for Singh and his other flatmates to calm her down, but he eventually got the whole story out of her.

Over the years, Singh had heard stories about Marquis-Boire, including stories from Emma. But he had continued to tolerate him; in the insular goth community, Marquis-Boire was untouchable. “I didn’t really want to lose my social standing with so many people by not hanging out with them,” said Singh. “And that was my mistake.”

But what had happened to Emma crossed a line. “At this point, I basically turn on the guy,” said Singh. He took to LiveJournal and a web forum to describe what had happened and to denounce Marquis-Boire’s behavior. Over time, his social life collapsed. “Basically only a fourth of the people whom I used to socially hang with still made an effort to connect with me.”

Dana*, a longtime friend of Marquis-Boire in San Francisco, knew him as an emotionally supportive friend, a kind listener, a gentle man. She had heard that he had been “a shitty boyfriend” to past partners of his, but nonetheless, he was still surrounded by “doting former lovers.” He had issues with substance abuse, but she had never heard or suspected anything about her good friend being a serial rapist.

One day in 2014, Dana received a Facebook message from Chloe Ann-King, who told her about what had happened to Emma, how Ann-King herself had been physically assaulted on Queen Street, and also alleged a specific incident in which he had had sex with a woman not capable of consent. She also told her that she had heard many other similar accounts.

“I am not some random [person],” Ann-King wrote desperately, pointing to her education and her history as a political activist. “I have nothing to gain from telling you this. In fact I’ve placed myself at great risk to tell you.”

“That’s irrelevant,” Dana wrote back. “Even if you were some random, I wouldn’t take anything you say lightly.”

Dana was overwhelmed. She believed Ann-King, but she didn’t know what to do with this information. Ann-King told her that if Dana showed Marquis-Boire those messages, she would worry about her own personal safety. Dana promised to keep it to herself.

For a time, Dana decided to stay close friends with Marquis-Boire, holding on to what Ann-King had shared with her in the back of her head. “I wanted to believe that whatever fucked-up shit he’d done in his early 20s was long over,” Dana told me. “I fucking vouched for the guy. Pretty dumb, huh?”

In 2015, her friend Lila* told her that she had been raped by Marquis-Boire. In that moment, Dana dredged up what she had heard from Ann-King. Dana did not wish to destroy Marquis-Boire. Unlike Raj, she never fully renounced him. While she is no longer on speaking terms with him, she hoped he could one day redeem himself. But it was Dana’s choice to believe Ann-King that changed everything for Marquis-Boire. When she passed Ann-King’s allegations on to Lila, showing her that conversation in full in 2017, Lila understood her rape as part of a larger pattern and was spurred to action. After avoiding consequences for over two decades, Marquis-Boire was outed by Lila — first in his professional and personal circles and later to the press.

Sometimes, like Raj, your decision to believe and to speak up only results in being punished socially. Other times, like Dana, your decision results in the alleged perpetrator’s downfall — whether or not that’s even your intent. It’s a lottery that apparently very few are willing to play. It’s much easier to stay silent.

Because most bystanders look to victims for cues as to what to do next, the victims of sexual assault and harassment are given an undue burden in which they are not only inflicted with harm and subsequent trauma, but they face a moral decision in whether to go public or report their abuse to the police. No one can or should blame someone for staying quiet: after the onslaught of stories in the last few months, it should be manifestly obvious that speaking out has a terrible price.

But the decision to stay quiet still haunts victims. Lila initially chose to keep her story private and to move on with her life, but her tactics changed as she came to know more about the women in New Zealand. Simply moving on began to look more and more untenable.

It was a dilemma familiar to the women in New Zealand. “‘I’d always worried when I heard that he’d left New Zealand and started moving to Switzerland and the States,” said one victim. “I just kept thinking, ‘What woman was he attacking now? Who’s taking my and Emma’s place?’”

Sometime after she returned to Auckland in 2006, Marquis-Boire drugged and assaulted this woman again, she says. This time, she seriously considered going to the police. She had thought so hard about it that, over a decade later, she could describe to me where the police station was geographically situated relative to the apartment where she had been raped.

But she did not think the police would believe her. She was struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse at the time, and although Marquis-Boire had not yet achieved the profile he would, he had plenty of social capital. Still, in her interview, she expressed the wish to have been strong enough to go to the police: what if she could have stopped him before he hurt anyone else?

In the United States, only a third or less of sexual assaults are reported to the police, and the reasons why are varied: victims might not trust the police, they might not believe the police will do anything, they might fear reprisal from the perpetrator, or they might want to simply “move on” with their lives rather than let things drag out in the justice system. All of these are good reasons, borne out by reality. Even sexual assaults that are reported are undermined by institutional callousness, like the backlog of untested rape kits. In some cases, sexual assault victims are prosecuted for lying, only for their stories to be vindicated as truthful later on.

A minority of assaults are reported to the police, and a smaller minority of those result in prosecutions. Cultural attitudes inform juries, and in rape cases, jurors come in with certain expectations about the likelihood that the accuser is a liar and what counts as a “reasonable doubt.” Two years after 35 women accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault were photographed for the cover of New York magazine, a judge declared a mistrial in the Cosby case when a jury failed to reach a verdict.

When a case does result in a conviction, it can — if the defendant is privileged enough — impose a comically low sentence, like the six-month sentence received by Brock Turner, who was convicted of brutally assaulting a young woman behind a dumpster.

In New Zealand, the state of affairs is no better. Even fewer sexual assaults are reported to the police there, with, again, good reason. The general attitude of the justice system is perhaps most outrageously exemplified by the 2013 “Roast Busters” scandal in which a group of mostly teenaged boys allegedly gang-raped girls and boasted about it in a Facebook group. The police initially declined to make arrests, saying that no victims had come forward (an assertion that turned out to be untrue). It later came out that one of the boys accused was the son of a law enforcement officer.

As far as I could ascertain, the police never had any direct contact with Morgan Marquis-Boire. Many of the women who were interviewed felt discouraged by the legal system or the legal remedies that were available to them. Marquis-Boire’s globe-trotting lifestyle complicated things. Even though Marquis-Boire and one of his victims both lived in San Francisco when the alleged assault happened, the attack took place in Canada.

“What was the point of going to the police in Toronto?” she asked me rhetorically.

One victim in New Zealand described a rape trial that she had witnessed as a young woman — one that has resulted in no conviction. The assault had been particularly brutal; the victim herself was sympathetic. She couldn’t help but compare herself to the victim in that trial: what would have been the point of going to the police as a broke young woman struggling with substance abuse?

Emma expressed similar concerns, saying that prosecutors shied away from cases that involved extrinsic evidence and stranger-rapists. If that was the case, how could the legal system handle a case that the court of public opinion had deemed as merely “crazy drama”?

“In my country, we have the lowest rates of convictions for rape in the OECD (but the highest rates for violence against women in the OECD),” said Chloe Ann-King, who documented and corroborated years of assaults by Morgan Marquis-Boire for The Verge. “The conviction rate sits at 13 percent. I know the police and the justice system are not in our favor.” Statistics in this vein are always hard to pin down, but international studies suggest that violence against women in New Zealand is more egregious than in other developed nations.

Victims were “slut-shamed” in court, said Ann-King. “Women who report rape in my country can have their entire sexual history brought up in court, but the defendant has amnesty from that; you can’t bring up his history. Only a rape victim would be put on trial for her own rape.”

The various real-life cases that these women knew of sat like an invisible scar over their entire community. Some of the women we spoke to believed that they were “bad victims” and that it was all too easy for others to blame them for their rapes, even if the assaults had involved screaming, punching, hitting, bleeding, and in one case, medical intervention after the fact.

In the more politically radical circles that Morgan Marquis-Boire traveled in, carceral punishment is also frowned upon, and restorative justice — criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders and healing victims — is held up as a model for the future. For people of these political inclinations, policing in the United States is, for good reason, seen as overly punitive and frequently racist, and crime should be addressed through means other than retributive justice.

In the age of #MeToo, not only are most of us friends with victims of sexual assault or harassment, many of us have come to discover that our friends are accused of inappropriate behavior or even violence. It’s a natural impulse to want to believe that our friends are falsely accused. When we do believe the accusations, we want to think they are “not that bad.” When we cannot minimize what is alleged, we want to believe they can change and make amends. We want — sometimes without being able to articulate that desire — a middle path between disbelieving victims and nuking certain friendships from orbit.

“Morgan isn’t a demon. I don’t wish him dead,” Dana said to me last year. “I don’t want to see him damned for all time. I think there is still hope for him if he can get out in front of all of this and tell the truth.”

Though she was instrumental in corroborating one of the reports, she still hopes for Marquis-Boire’s redemption. “I hope the Morgan I held while he sobbed and told me he was a horrible, rotten person wasn’t just playing a very convincing long con and he faces this,” she told me.

Whether someone accused of what Marquis-Boire has been accused of can be rehabilitated is, perhaps, a matter of debate. Is it at all possible for someone to make enough of a change in their life and take enough action to eventually be forgiven of a decades-long spree of serial rape and assault? It’s a painfully difficult question to confront. Despite repeated overtures and promises to one of his victims, Marquis-Boire continued to hide and obfuscate the full extent of what he had done — to her, their friends, and to professional colleagues. The question of restorative justice, in his case, is largely moot.

If anything has characterized the aftermath of our reporting on Marquis-Boire, it would be mass denial. Where there was once mass denial that Marquis-Boire hurt these women, there is now mass denial about our collective culpability. Bystanders have claimed to have known nothing, or to have known all along and to have spoken out against him for years, whichever becomes most convenient to excuse their own action or inaction.

Whisper networks are imperfect because they operate in an imperfect world; this is about as trite of an observation as they come. But underneath it is the truth that we are trying so desperately to hide from ourselves: we don’t live in an imperfect world, we are that imperfect world. We are all Gabrielle and Emma and Chloe and Rajneel and Dana and Carl.

We don’t have to be perpetrators of serial rape in order to be stained with culpability. We don’t even need to personally know someone who has committed a terrible deed to be part of these stories. We built the world in which predators swoop from one target to the next with total impunity through our beliefs and words and jokes and songs and stories, through the shared world in which people communicated who was allowed to be believed and what acts could be condoned.

Our cultural tolerance, indeed, our expectation for women to endure unenthusiastic sex prevented one of Marquis-Boire’s victims from using the word “rape.” Our blindness to acquaintance rape made another victim struggle to make sense of her alleged rape — a rape she described as brutal and violent. “I was so young,” she said. “I thought rape was something that happened by strangers, I didn’t know that it could be done by your friends or people in marriages, or if someone didn’t want to sleep with someone and even if there wasn’t force, that was rape. I thought rape only happened with strangers in alleyways and that people could go to the police and everyone would get a conviction and live happily ever after. I was young and I didn’t understand what had happened.”

The assumptions we make about hysterical girls seep into juries and judges and prosecutors and police departments, they affect which cases get investigated, which get prosecuted, which get tried, and which result in conviction. We are only hearing about Morgan Marquis-Boire today because a handful of those assumptions are changing. Tabloid allusions to Weinstein’s “casting couch” masked an uglier reality; similarly, the whisper network told women that Marquis-Boire was “not good to women,” or was “a ladies’ man.” What happened to these women made better sense after concepts like “victim-blaming,” “gaslighting,” “no means no,” and “enthusiastic consent” had infiltrated the mainstream cultural consciousness in the 2010s.

We’d like to think that if a whisper network came to us, alleging the kind of things in the Morgan Marquis-Boire story, we would be able to do the right thing. But the likely truth is that at this very moment, we are being called upon to act, and we are failing without even realizing it. Worse, if a reckoning ever comes, we will likely pretend we were doing the right thing all along.

As the backlash to #MeToo builds in the air, we are talking a lot about ambiguous cases, the accusations that “go too far.” But our language is still evolving, we are still learning what it means to treat each other as human beings. We are still adding new words to our lexicon in order to separate out the jumble of pain and trauma and discomfort and confusion we cannot yet fully articulate. After immersing myself in this story for months, I can’t help but get the feeling that in 10 years’ time, when we have those new words in hand, we will be deeply ashamed of some of the things we are saying now.

“Everyone has a really selective memory now, but I was there,” said Gabrielle, when she detailed to us how well-known Emma’s allegations were. “I had those conversations. I’m not going to hide behind forgetting.” Gabrielle became friends with Marquis-Boire despite knowing — confirmed to her directly by Marquis-Boire himself — that he had abused women. She chose to speak to The Verge and corroborate one of those stories because she believed it was the right thing to do. The arc of Gabrielle’s story with its fluctuating alignments is much closer to what the typical bystander will experience — and, at the very least, Gabrielle is able to be honest about it. We all want to be champions of the good, but most likely, if we are lucky, we will be Gabrielles.

Most of the women we spoke to expressed skepticism about the justice system, and none of them wished harm on their alleged attacker. What they wanted was the whisper network put on the record. “He needs to have that tattoo on his forehead,” said Emma. “He needs to have that asterisk that goes beside his name when he’s going to conferences. If he’s still going to be invited into these things, people need to have that awareness to look at him out of the corner of their eye at least.”

“I just want everyone to know,” said another victim. “I want the light to be [shone] on him, and I want him to have nowhere to hide. And I want people to stop saying that we’re crazy because we’re not.” She did not wish harm or death upon him; death, in particular, she rejected, saying it would not bring her any pleasure. She wanted accountability.

In the absence of a functioning legal system, the justice that many of the victims sought became simply making their whisper network manifest, solidifying and giving weight to their words. The women we spoke to worked extensively with us to corroborate their accounts, voluntarily subjecting themselves to intrusive questions and often retraumatizing themselves in the process. They wanted to stop Marquis-Boire but were not sure they had succeeded.

More often than not, the women we spoke to — particularly the women in New Zealand — did not, perhaps could not, hope to neutralize him as a threat. They merely wished to be believed. After years of being unable to extend their whisper network overseas, they were relieved that people abroad were finally turning an ear to what they had to say.

I myself am ambivalent as to whether my previous reporting achieved anything worthwhile. It’s important to note that Morgan Marquis-Boire remains at large, last known to be on a permanent vacation in Thailand. I am sometimes haunted by a stray comment made on Twitter: Marquis-Boire losing his prestige and professional affiliations could not stop him from victimizing the women at a minimum wage job somewhere else.

Like whisper networks, my reporting exists in and because of a vacuum of justice. And in the Morgan Marquis-Boire story, it’s hard to point the finger at any one community or one institution or even one country. If an institutional failure occurred, the institution was just people. It is hard to believe that my previous story could have achieved anything for the better when it could have only existed because of pervasive moral failure across multiple continents.

If I have to offer one takeaway from all of this, it’s something close to apostasy in the era of #MeToo — namely, justice should not be defined by what victims want. The women in my story only wanted to be believed; justice is a world where they are allowed to want more.

Additional reporting by Russell Brandom and Laura Hudson