We need to talk about the people who enable their friends’ sexual misconduct

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Moya Crockett
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Ryan Adams, Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK all reportedly knew people who turned a blind eye to their behaviour. If we want to stamp out abuse, we need this complicity to end, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett.

On Ryan Adams’ ninth studio album Easy Tiger, there’s a song called Everybody Knows. The lyrics tell the story of a one-sided relationship, but the title could conceivably be applied to the allegations about Adams’ treatment of women. On 13 February, The New York Times published a damning article about the 44-year-old American singer-songwriter, featuring statements from several women he had been romantically involved with.

These women, including Adams’ ex-wife Mandy Moore and rising indie star Phoebe Bridgers, painted a picture of him as an emotionally abusive figure who exploited his status as one of the world’s most successful alternative musicians and sabotaged women’s careers. One girl, known only as Ava, said she was involved in a sexually explicit online relationship with Adams that began when she was just 14.  

In the wake of the allegations, Adams has offered an ambiguous apology, claiming that the article is “upsettingly inaccurate” in places while also “[apologising] deeply and unreservedly” to “anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally”. But since the article was published, several more women – including actress Amber Tamblyn and model Karen Elson – have come forward to say they had heard similar stories about Adams’ behaviour or have had their own traumatic experiences with him. And according to Bridgers, people in Adams’ circle were well aware of how he conducted himself around women. They knew. 

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In a statement posted on social media on 17 February, Bridgers observed that while she had a strong support system of people who affirmed her decision to speak publicly about Adams, “Ryan had a network too”.

This network consisted of Adams’ “friends, bands, people he worked with,” Bridgers wrote. “None of them held him accountable. They told him, by what they said or by what they didn’t, that what he was doing was okay. They validated him.

“He couldn’t have done this without them.”

Phoebe Bridgers is just one of the women to speak out against Ryan Adams 

In underlining the complicity of those in Adams’ orbit, Bridgers raises an important point – one that often gets relegated to a footnote in conversations about sexual misconduct. And that is that while there are men who manage to successfully hide their terrible behaviour from everyone, they are few and far between.

For the most part, when a man treats women like s**t, people know about it. That’s not to say that everybody knows all the gory details and has engaged in a deliberate cover-up, or that abuse survivors are obligated to tell their story on anyone’s timeline but their own. Rather, it means that some people will have had an inkling that something was wrong – at the very least – and ignored it. 

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Maybe they’ve seen their colleague groping women outside the pub at after-work drinks, but brushed it off. Maybe they’ve heard rumours about a friend’s nasty behaviour, but clung onto the belief that it’s none of their business. Maybe they’ve observed their boss leering over female members of staff, but told themselves that they can’t say anything. And so they turn a blind eye, avoid conversations about the issue, and – above all – stay silent. They become like the three wise monkeys, stubbornly seeing, hearing and speaking no evil. 

Since the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017, we have seen many examples of situations where a man’s friends and colleagues were complicit in his abusive behaviour. Harvey Weinstein could not have carried on like he did, for as long as he did, had he not been enabled by staff who made jokes about his sleaziness and went along with his bullying, and supported by friends and acquaintances in Hollywood who were prepared to cover for him in return for favours

Harvey Weinstein was enabled by people who turned a blind eye to his behaviour 

Louis CK, too, was surrounded by people who openly mocked and dismissed the rumours about him masturbating in front of women without their consent – people like his fellow comedian John Stewart, who insisted in 2016 that CK was a “wonderful man and person” who would not harass women. Despite the fact that stories about CK had been circulating for years before some of the women involved spoke publicly about his behaviour, his career flourished. None of his close friends have ever said that they challenged him about the allegations before he admitted to them. And as producer and writer John Levenstein said in 2017, “anyone in comedy who says they weren’t aware of the rumours is full of s**t”.

It would be wonderful if we could rely on individual men not to harm women, but if the last couple of millennia have taught us anything, it’s that that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. And so in the absence of that, we need people – especially men – to recognise that if they have even the slightest sense that their friend or colleague is behaving inappropriately or abusively, they need to speak out. They have to be prepared to have some awkward conversations, so that someone else doesn’t have to experience something life-altering.

Speaking about Adams, Bridgers appealed to the men of the world to be better allies to women.

“Guys, if your friend is acting f**ked up, call them out,” she said. “If they’re actually your friend, they’ll listen. That’s the way this all gets better.” She’s right.

Images: Getty Images