A sisterhood of secrets

In the age of #MeToo, local women find ways to support, educate and protect each other.

Fueled by grooves of funk and soul music flowing from the deejay booth, men and women crowd onto a small dance floor to sweat the night away. The Sunday ritual known as Church happens weekly at The Press Club in Midtown Sacramento and has been a late-night destination for nearly a decade.

Yet, there’s one specific difference that sets it apart from other local dance nights: small signs posted throughout the bar informing customers that sexual harassment of any kind is not tolerated.

It’s a simple directive, encouraging women to seek a bartender or security guard immediately if they ever, at any time, feel uncomfortable. It’s also troubling that we live in a world where signs must reaffirm a place as a safe space.

But the ugly reality is that sexual assault happens: Every. Damn. Day.

In fact, the most horrific form, rape, is highly under-reported, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which estimates that 63 percent of sexual assaults are never filed with police.

But with the viral nature of the #MeToo movement, which exploded in 2017, many women now feel emboldened to say, “Enough.”

Many are also finding myriad ways to support, educate and protect each other. Whether it’s an ally watching your drink from behind the bar, an artist sharing stories through an exhibit or an underground internet forum to warn women of predators, Sacramento boasts a strong sisterhood of protection.

Secret, not silent

One way women protect each other is through so-called “whisper networks,” a term coined at the peak of the #MeToo movement.

Often, these networks exist as private Facebook communities, via word of mouth, in chat forums, or even as crowdsourced spreadsheets.

The purpose: to warn others about predatory men—whether they’re in positions of power, or the regular Joe at the bar—and to share these chains of information as a preventative tool.

For example, there’s the Google spreadsheet released in October 2017 by an anonymous New York-based journalist. The list, titled “Shitty Media Men,” named approximately 70 men who have worked at prominent media organizations such as The New York Times, BuzzFeed and The Atlantic. Accusations ranged from harassment to rape and after the list went public, some of the named men were fired or resigned.

Still, as Vox reported earlier this month: “… none of the men who appear on the Shitty Media Men list, even those who were accused of multiple counts of rape, have faced criminal charges.”

Locally, such whisper networks exist in a handful of invitation-only Facebook groups. One is 30 members strong; its members say they prefer to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of information.

Such groups share information such as which bar to avoid because of its shady reputation as a haven for date rapists, where men use alcohol for predatory behavior, and to also caution others when known predators are out and about.

The Sacramento networks may be a tight-kept secret for now, but elsewhere women are talking.

Mikhala Taylor Lazetich, for example, has plenty to say. For the past six years she has worked as a bartender at various dive bars, restaurants and breweries. Now, she’s often behind the taps at The Press Club.

Lazetich, who says she’s a sexual assault survivor, says bartenders and security guards are often the first line of defense in keeping women safe.

“I talk to other female bartenders and … there’s a lot of people rising up and getting frustrated when you see the same person, who is a known predator, or you hear the same name keep getting mentioned over and over again,” she says.

With a recent uptick of new bars opening in Midtown, Lazetich says the area has become a weekend warrior Disneyland. Women in the industry regularly discuss the problem, especially because alcohol exacerbates existing risk factors.

“There’s a larger discussion that we’ve had about inherent sexism within the industry itself and how a lot of female bartenders put up with a lot, even behind the bar. It’s kind of like, ‘Suck it up, buttercup',” she says.

Instead of acceptance, though, Lazetich says she and others focus on prevention.

“There’s so much potential to have that network of, ‘Hey, so-and-so just left the bar. We clearly know he’s problematic … be on the lookout,” she says.

There isn’t set training on what bartenders should do when they suspect someone was roofied, but Lazetich says those behind the bar can take simple steps such as watching drinks when a customer turns her back.

Such preventative measures don’t have to be drastic. At The Press Club, it’s a simple sign and bartenders talking to each other and looking out for one another.

“I think our whispers are getting louder. I think the fact that there are so many strong people in so many different facets in the community that are standing up it’s inspiring others to get louder and louder,” Lazetich says.

‘I see you, I believe you’

Three years ago, the pop-up art exhibit ArtStreet captivated Sacramento. As part of the installation, artist and sexual assault survivor Sarah Marie Hawkins created an interactive, social art exhibit titled Faceless. For the group project, 20 women agreed to share their stories of sexual assault, posted next to an intimate photograph of their hands or another part of their body. The stories and pictures were real, but the women remained anonymous.

For Hawkins, giving women a platform to tell their stories and witness community support is how she uplifts fellow survivors. As someone who has always said, “I hear you. I see you. I believe you,” she says she wanted to show the women who participated in Faceless that Sacramento also had their backs.

“They were being intimate and vulnerable similar to their assault, but it was by choice,” Hawkins says. “I wanted them to see that you are taking a part of yourself back. Visual is really powerful.”

ArtStreet attendees were also given red dot stickers to place near each remembrance of sexual assault that reminded them of their own experiences or that of a family member or friend. On opening night, Hawkins ran out of dots. By the end of its run, the exhibit had been showered with more than 60,000 stickers.

“I think the most powerful thing was when we were tearing down, and I took the portraits down and there were these black spaces in between that were people,” Hawkins says. “Seeing those black images made me think this is so small … This is so little compared to what the reality of the statistics are.”

For some, the statistics are still shockingly raw. Jesa David’s husband died in September 2015. Just one month later, the Sacramento resident says she was raped on Halloween.

She didn’t talk about it until November 2018, when she posted her story on social media where it was shared multiple times and drew more than 100 comments of support.

David says she went public with her friends because she wanted to stand up to her attacker. She wanted to take back her power and dispel myths about assault.

“It’s not what you’re wearing,” David says, recalling her Halloween costume. “I was dressed like a ‘20s paperboy.”

Initially after the attack, David says she was depressed and unsure what to do.

“Then the #MeToo movement started that fall 2017,” she says. “I kept reading all these stories online, and friends were talking about their experiences.”

With her friends’ encouragement, David says she felt heard and finally decided to file a police report.

“This happens to so many people and nothing ever happens to those men, except they have to live their miserable life as a rapist,” David says. “Now, I’m strong enough. I’m not afraid of him.”

Her case is still an active investigation, she says. Regardless of the outcome, David says it was her responsibility to share her story so that it doesn’t happen to another woman. She says she also leans on the support of her sisterhood, whether that’s her immediate group of friends or her participation in a local whisper network.

David thinks it’s “sad” but necessary and telling that such networks remain anonymous.

“There has to be a place where women can have that privacy and that trust where they can be believed,” she says.