At the end of September, a group of anonymous University of Washington students launched a new website. Called, “Make Them Scared,” the website solicits and publishes the names of men, both in and outside of the school, who have been accused of rape, sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. It’s the Shitty Media Men list, UW edition.
The Shitty Media Men list was a collection of anonymous allegations against men working in media that circulated online in the wake of #MeToo. Like Make Them Scared, it was created anonymously, although the originator eventually came out. Allegations on the list, which was hosted on a Google Doc that anyone with access could edit, ranged from flirting and “weird dates” to physical abuse and rape.
When Make Them Scared first launched in September, anyone could submit a claim anonymously and the alleged abuser would be automatically added. Shortly after, the unknown creators of the list decided that anonymous accusations would no longer be accepted. Now, the creators know the accusers’ identities—which they verify through the accuser’s Facebook account—but their identities are not made public. And, like the Shitty Media Men list—which advised readers to take allegations "with a grain of salt"—the UW list comes with that caveat as well: "We do not have the ability to absolutely determine whether any accused party is guilty of the accused acts,” the site reads, "so take all names listed with a grain of salt."
This project is not supported by everyone on campus. On Monday, the editorial board of The UW Daily, the student newspaper that first broke this story, outlined their concerns in an editorial: "The editorial board cannot justify the actions of the list’s creators," the board wrote. "It completely circumvents due process and trivializes the seriousness with which accusations ought to be received. It ends up lending more credit to the argument that even truthful accusations should be viewed with suspicion and as part of a vengeful agenda, not one that seeks justice."
The creators of the list, however, believe they are beginning a movement, and hope that other campuses will follow suit. “We want to give victims a sense of justice and rest that other avenues deny them,” the creators told the Daily in an email. “Although catharsis for victims is part of it, we aren’t publishing the names for the sake of that alone. We also want the list to serve as a deterrent for future perpetrators, and as a resource for potential victims to consult for their own safety.”
Of course, a site like this could go very, very wrong. The number of false rape allegations that are never reported to police is unknown, but most studies put the percentage of false rape allegations that are reported and investigated to between 2 and 10 percent. It’s rare. But for those who are falsely accused, the consequences can be deadly serious.
Stephen Elliott is one of about 70 men included on the Shitty Media Men list last year, and he isn't shy about his problems. Elliott has written about his issues with drugs, with sex, with family, and with homelessness over and over again, including in his 2009 memoir The Adderall Diaries, which was turned into a movie staring James Franco. A profile of him in the Chicago Tribune called him, "intriguingly damaged, sweetly introspective and with enough personal baggage to inform four semiautobiographical novels—so far." What Elliott is not, he insists, is a rapist, and finding out he'd be anonymously accused of rape (along with "sexual harassment, coercion, unsolicited invitations to his apartment, and sneaking into the Binders," a women's only Facebook group) came as a shock. In an essay published by Quillette, he explained why: "I don’t like intercourse," he wrote. "I don’t like penetrating people with objects, and I don’t like receiving oral sex. My entire sexuality is wrapped up in BDSM. Crossdressing, bondage, masochism. I’m always the bottom."
In interviews with The Stranger, Elliott said that his behavior both in and outside the bedroom can be both atypical and unprofessional (he does not, however, know how he ended up in the Binders Facebook group.) A longtime friend of his told me that Elliot (who, as a child, was a ward of the state and lived in group homes) was "raised by wolves" and has "zero boundaries.” He’s the kind of guy who will talk about sex in front of your grandma. It's easy to see how his behavior could be construed as—or could be—sexual harassment.
Still, Elliott says he’s never come even close to raping someone. Not only is sexual violence not in his character, penetrative sex just isn’t a part of his sex life. Of course, rape can take many forms and is not always penetrative, but, according to Elliott, “I don’t think there is a person in the world who honestly believes that I raped them. I just didn't do it.”
Elliott has no idea what or who put him on the Shitty Media Men list, but soon after it came out, a number of his friends, along with his Hollywood agent, stopped returning his calls. He was unable to find work in LA, where he had moved in the hopes of breaking into TV writing. Were the calls not coming because of the list, or was it some other reason? Elliott doesn't know, but the accusation took a major toll on his life. He relapsed on drugs and was deeply suicidal. Instead of killing himself, however, Elliott got sober, started going to meetings, and contacted former lovers and friends, asking if he’d ever raped them, even without his knowledge. He wanted to apologize and hold himself accountable if he had. No allegations, however, came forth.
Elliott also started writing about it. Getting an essay about being anonymously accused of rape published, however, wasn’t easy. “New York Magazine agreed to run it,” he wrote in the essay that was eventually published by Quillette. “I worked with the editor for a few weeks and then, just as I believed it was about to be published, they informed me that it wouldn’t run after all. It was then accepted by two senior editors at the Guardian, but the essay was spiked again, apparently after other editors revolted. I’ve never had an essay accepted somewhere and then rejected. Now it’s happened twice.”
According to emails provided by Elliott, just three hours after an editor at the Guardian accepted his piece, he reneged on his offer. “As you can appreciate with a piece of this nature, various discussions have to be had with a number of editors and a collective view taken,” the editor wrote to Elliott. “The balance of that view has changed which is the reason I’m writing you now.” He advised Elliott to “save [himself] the agony” of further rejection and self-publish his piece on Medium.
In the year since the Shitty Media Men list became public, no further allegations of sexual abuse against Elliott have emerged. After his essay came out, however, two writers came forward with other accusations of wrongdoing. Marisa Siegel, the current owner of the Rumpus, the literary website Elliott founded, published an essay about how he once barged into her hotel room at a conference. The experience, she wrote, left her “shaken.”
Elliott admits he did this, but, he said, it wasn't some sort of "sinister plot." He says he needed to talk to Siegel and, yes, went about it in a wildly unprofessional manner. Elliott's long-term friend told me that he could easily see Elliott doing this. "He'll eat the food out of your fridge," Elliott’s friend said. "He just doesn't have any boundaries."
This lack of boundaries has come up before. In 2015, award-winning novelist Claire Vaye Watkins wrote an essay in Tin House about her own uncomfortable encounter with Elliott while in graduate school. She says that Elliott, who was visiting the school and whom she’d offered to put up for the night, repeatedly asked to sleep in her bed. Elliott admits this is true, but, he says, he wasn’t trying to hook up; it just seemed more comfortable than the air mattress on the floor. That, however, wasn't apparent to Watkins, and it's not hard to see why she, or anyone, would have been uncomfortable with this request. “It wasn’t cool to ask to get in her bed,” Elliott told me. “Now I see that.”
After Elliott’s essay came out, a former Rumpus employee, Lyz Lenz, made several accusations against him on Twitter. Lenz did not work at the Rumpus when she encountered Elliott but was volunteering for the website at a conference, where, she says, Elliott asked her back to his hotel room to watch a movie and, on the same occasion, pulled cash out of her back pocket. She also said that he “demanded” she work on his book project for free.
Elliott told me that he doesn’t remember pulling cash out of Lenz’s pocket but if she said he did, he believes that it happened. He also said that the movie he asked her to watch was one he was in the process of editing and that he asked lots of people, male and female, to watch it with him. (This was confirmed by Elliott’s friend.) As for demanding unpaid labor, that is not, according to emails provided by Elliott, strictly true. While Elliott did ask Lenz if she wanted to work on his book project, he also offered to pay. (When I asked Lenz through Twitter whether she’d “be able to share the email where he asks you to work for free” and whether I could “get a comment from you about your experience with him,” she wrote back and said “Sure,” and provided her email address. Then, soon after, she changed her mind and said she wouldn’t be commenting any further.)
Whisper networks about abusers have likely existed as long as women have been abused. And for good reason: For much of human history, sexual assault and rape weren’t considered criminal offenses. In parts of the world, it’s still perfectly legal for men to rape their wives, and in the U.S., rape often goes unpunished. It's an unfortunate truth that women sometimes need protection from men, and whisper networks can help provide it when the justice system fails them.
Today, however, these rumors aren’t just whispered, they are posted online, often—as in both Elliott and UW’s case—with no investigation or statement from the accused. This, as The Daily editorial board pointed out, is a problem, and not just because it has the potential to ruin the lives of innocent humans. It also gives ammunition to those who would like to discredit movements like #MeToo. “The catharsis of reporting an assaulter's name and filling out a quick online form that might bring public shaming to those who’ve caused you pain is easy to imagine,” the editors wrote. “It’s simple, but unfortunately, that’s the problem. Accusing someone of a sex crime should not be totally effortless, because then the allegation loses its power.”
The creators of Make Them Scared didn't respond to a request for comment. On the website’s FAQ page, however, they acknowledge the potential downsides of a project like this. “Most people already know the statistics about false reports,” the website reads. “Basically, they’re very, very rare. In an anonymous system? Probably markedly less rare. In any system where an accuser has to attach their name to the accusation? We’re back to very rare. And our accusers have attached their names to their accusations for us to see. In exchange for their trust, we're here to take all the backlash they'd encounter if they went public with their names.”
Of course, they don’t investigate the claims, just publish them. And by running the website anonymously, the creators won’t personally feel any of the backlash. Whoever is running the site is just as nameless as the accusers themselves.
When reached for comment, SARVA, the UW organization that helps victims of sexual assault, said they haven't taken an official position on the list. The University, however, has. "The contents of the website are very concerning," said Victor Balta, UW spokesperson, said in a statement: "We do not know who is behind the site, and it is in no way affiliated with the UW. The UW is committed to our work toward preventing sexual violence and sexual harassment, maintaining support and protections for anyone who experiences such violence, properly investigating and addressing allegations, and upholding due process.” He urges anyone who has experienced rape or sexual assault to go directly to the University police as opposed to the internet.
As for Stephen Elliott, he might not be a rapist, but he has clearly made women uncomfortable in the past. During our conversations, he seemed mystified that anyone he worked with at the Rumpus or elsewhere would have looked at him as an authority figure—which, regardless of his awareness of it, he was. This power dynamic was invisible to Elliott, and his failure to see it didn’t just hurt some of the women around him, in the end, it hurt him as well. Still, there's a wide gap between causing someone discomfort and committing rape.
Today, Elliott is living in a new city, doing manual labor, and thinking back over his interactions with women, trying to figure out where, exactly he went wrong. He doesn’t blame anyone for his situation but himself. He said this, more than once, when we talked. He does, however, hope that Make Them Scared’s creators are fully aware of the consequences of publishing the names of the accused without thoroughly investigating the claims first. “Know that you’re possibly ruining someone’s life,” he said. “And then if you still want to do it, at least you’re doing it with the full knowledge that it’s forever.”