For attorney, journalist, and anti-bullying activist, Andrew Rossow, helping strangers minimize instances where they find themselves victimized by online trolling, harassment, and other forms of bad digital hygiene has pushed him to make sure that victim’s stories are told (and resolved).
What he didn’t expect was that one day the victim would be him. Over the years, Rossow has helped contribute significantly to today’s digital age of lawyers by helping define the boundaries of internet law through his private practice, teaching an upper level law school course at his alma mater, writing and journalism, and his globally trademarked anti-cyberbullying movement.
But one story he never expected to be exploring was his own and having to understand the difference between today’s legitimate #MeToo Movement and the “weaponized” #MeToo movement that many individuals, including Rossow have now fallen victim to.
On July 3, Rossow published to his column at Thrive Global, his story on sexual assault, which occurred 17 years ago when he was 13-years-old. While he was met with hundreds of warm responses of support, ranging from phone calls and text messages, to emails and social media messages, thanking him for his bravery and courage, he unfortunately was met with some who felt it was appropriate to publicly shame him for sharing his story, causing him to question whether he did the right thing by opening up to not only the legal community of practitioners he belongs to, but to his entire world.
After reading what could only be described as an incredibly powerful, moving, and inspirational piece on behalf of men and women suffering from similar trauma, we reached out and spoke with Rossow about why he chose to come forward 17 years later and his experience following his brave reveal.
Rossow shared that he has been ready to tell his story for many years now, but never really knew how except through his writing. “I’ve actually had it written for quite some time,” he shared with us. “The article you read on Thrive is actually the first part of my book that I’ve been working on for the past two-years,” he continued.
But as he continued on about his decision to release his story ahead of the book’s publication, it was one we didn’t expect.
“Three-months ago, I was informed by the outlet I was writing at during the time that an accusation of sexual harassment and retaliation had been made against me,” Rossow revealed.
“You could only imagine my reaction and shock after hearing that, as that was something I never dreamed I would ever hear apply to me. I was raised to be chivalrous, polite, and respectful to women and those around me. So, I was at a loss for words as to how I could ever have engaged in such behavior, especially after what was done to me in the past. I just couldn’t fathom it; it makes me sick to my stomach even pondering such a possibility.”
Greg Nelson: Wow. Can you elaborate more on the nature of the accusation?
Andrew Rossow: Of course. Back in October, the outlet which informed me of the accusation (which to clarify is not Thrive Global) brought on a writer who in my opinion, was and is still exceptionally gifted in her ability to write and persuasively so, as she has an outspoken writing style that seems to be missing from many news outlets when it comes to vocalizing opinions.
I was one of the editors who helped oversee many writers, including this individual.
Over the course of the next three months, I had the ability to observe and learn her writing style, where we would go back and forth on unraveling angles to stories that had not yet been explored, as many outlets seem to care for only surface-level stories. Not us.
Anyway, during these months, we got to know one another on a social level, and what I mean by that is texting back and forth about opinions on some nerdy television shows we both shared a common interest in, specifically The Mandalorian on Disney+. As we continued to text one another, and I forget who initiated, but the point is it did take place, there was what could only be described as ‘G-rated’ flirting–simple compliments. This happened in one or two conversations, but textually never grew beyond that.
At some point, this individual had indicated to me she and I did not share the same sexual interests, to which I was confused and misread what she had sent, sending one additional text thinking it was still “flirting”. The individual then responded with a text stating, “That’s very nice, but for the sake of professionalism you should probably not flirt after I told you that I’m not interested. Sorry to be blunt.”
On reading this, I immediately understood what she was trying to say, and immediately stopped. I then sent an immediate apology, to which she said “No, I’m not mad. All good.”
I felt bad. Of course I felt bad, because I read a situation wrong and never pretended to assume this individual’s sexuality. And that was it. Plain and simple. We went back to our professional relationship, as if that conversation never took place, where she would simply submit her pitches and drafts via my professional email (as she didn’t yet feel comfortable with learning the WordPress platform, which all of our writers used), and I would read, review, edit, and send back with explanations as to what was good about the piece and what needed work and why.
Then of course, as any technology journalist or media professional knows, come December, your email inbox becomes absolutely flooded with pitches and calls for editorial interviews because of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. As a result, my inbox went from double digits to triple…it wasn’t fun. Regrettably, there were many pitches and on-going conversations that became buried in my inbox up and until probably the beginning of May (due to anticipated SXSW obligations, the COVID-19 outbreak worsening in Austin, and of course, the eventual cancellation of all events). The result of which was a delay in time it took me to respond to any email correspondence, which included pitches and a review of any draft(s) that may have been buried in my inbox..
In the last week of March (the 25th to be specific), however, I remember receiving an email from this individual, reaching out to me and apologizing for her “delay in response” and because of the COVID-19 outbreak and craziness, she had “made the decision to uproot and stay with her parents” out of state “for the foreseeable future until things [were] safe again.” She also referenced a “mental disaster, health wise” for her, sharing that she “[wasn’t] in the right place to write consistently.”
I responded to her letting her know we understood and looked forward to her upcoming pieces. I never heard back from her or had her name come up in a conversation until I was informed of the accusation, informing me that not only did I “sexually harass” her, but as a result of “her turning me down, I “retaliated” against her by not publishing her future pieces in the same timely manner as I had in the past which as I mentioned was the beginning of CES madness and then immediately SXSW preparation (pre-cancellation)..
An absolute lie in what could only be described as a baseless accusation designed to destroy someone’s reputation and good name for reasons I could not fathom and don’t have time to.
Greg Nelson: Wow. Can you explain what came of this accusation?
Rossow: When I was informed of the accusation, I was told an immediate “investigation” was done, which seemed like it lasted a few days to a week, to which I complied with. While I expected a professional investigation (despite my clear and utter confusion), unfortunately, what I learned is that this entailed many women writers being asked if they had ever been “sexually harassed” with my name specifically mentioned. It was no longer a private matter and in no way was this considered to be a professional investigation.
Greg Nelson: And what came of it?
Rossow: Nothing. There was no evidence to support either claim of hers, to which I fully expected. It was nothing more than two baseless accusations with no evidence backing up such a bold and dangerous claim. In this case, this individual chose to use the words “sexual harassment” and “retaliation, two legal claims that have very specific elements to prove, which here, never took place.
But answering your question, I have since been removed from my position at the outlet, due to the “inability for certain staff and editors” now being unable to work with me, again for which I cannot comprehend, as I did nothing wrong. My concern was how the investigation was handled, as my name and nature surrounding the allegations were shared with multiple people within the outlet, making it even more humiliating considering there was no truth behind what was being alleged.
You see, when I was initially informed of the accusation, I, on my own volition and choosing, immediately forwarded our entire email chain, which dated back to the very first interaction we had to the very last interaction (March 25, 2020) to the outlet. She and I only ever had one email thread, which consisted of every pitch, draft, review, and confirmation of publication. Every piece was published, and no piece was ever rejected or purposely delayed, unless that particular story had already been covered by another writer, to which a link to that story was presented to her. This was confirmed to be baseless by the owner of the outlet upon his investigation and review of the entire email chain.
Additionally, I, on my own volition, also chose to immediately send over screenshots of every text message ever sent on my part to the founder (that I still had stored on my phone–I had switched phone carriers from AT&T to Verizon sometime in January, so I lost a lot of text messages that normally would have still been in my window). Nothing came from it, as it was determined that there was no sexual harassment or harassment of any kind that would fall under the legal definition of either claim.
Greg Nelson: So, did you return to writing?
Rossow: Well, that’s just it. For some reason, when this was communicated back to the individual, she still, to my knowledge based on what I was told, ‘wanted my head’ and because of this, the outlet determined it would be best if we ‘put a pause on my role as an editor’.
Disagreeing with this, I complied and did what I was told–to ‘lie low for a few months’, which is what inspired me to perhaps tell my story about my sexual assault that occurred 17 years ago, now. I want the world to know, especially my world which is comprised of lawyers, judges, and media industry colleagues, to know that sexual assault can happen to anyone, which includes men–that the #MeToo movement, a powerful movement, is gender-neutral and should be treated as such. That is it. I just wanted to tell my story, for me. Nobody else.
Distinguishing #MeToo from the “Weaponized” #MeToo Movement That Aims to Destroy
Given what happened to Rossow, he felt that through his story, parents, teenagers, and industry professionals should understand that as powerful as the #MeToo movement is, it’s not something to take lightly.
“I’m hurt that a person could do this, because it takes away from those individuals, like myself who really are victimized by baseless allegations of sexual misconduct or unwelcome advances. But also, I am concerned about when people make false accusations, it makes people doubtful of legitimate accusations. The current atmosphere, at least as it pertains to men, is if you insinuate or call a woman a liar, even if you didn’t do what you’ve been accused of, you’re still guilty of calling this woman a liar, so there’s no way out. And if you do not stand up and share your story, you are guilty of whatever it is you’re being accused of. This “weaponization” only diminishes the power the #MeToo movement has and the justice it brings to those who have been forcibly silenced and living in fear.”
The young attorney continued to emphasize the sanctity of the #MeToo movement, where an individual coming forward should feel safe, secure, and comfortable. But what happened to him as soon as he shared his story to the public is one that came as a shock.
When Rossow shared his story to his column at Thrive Global, he was met with hundreds of messages of support, ranging from phone calls and text messages, to emails and Facebook messages, thanking him for his bravery and courage–but also briefly opening up to him about their decision to begin sharing their own experiences, to which they have survived.
While many were extremely supportive of my decision to share my story, there were some who felt it was “an excuse for my actions at [the outlet]”, and that by sharing my story I was “trivializing sexual assault with all of the hashtags and promotion” of my story on my social media accounts. What was even more distasteful and hurtful, was that one of the individuals who felt this was okay to say, shared publicly in a comment that she was a “rape victim” and my sharing of my story “brought up alot of trauma that [she] definitely didn’t want to think about [that day].”
I broke out into tears when I saw it, as I did not understand what I had done wrong. If we are talking about ‘trigger warnings’, the phrase ‘sexual assault’ was in my title of the article. If it were about using hashtags, of course I would use the hashtag #sexualassault, to share my story with the appropriate community online.
Those comments seemed to generate enormous amounts of support by family, friends, and fellow industry colleagues who could not understand why or how someone could write something like that.
I then received numerous texts from the individual making light of the fact that “my girlfriend came to my defense” on the post, as she too, is a survivor of rape and molestation. I just could not understand what was happening. Every ounce of my soul was horrified, crushed, and defeated.”
Over the years, Rossow’s passion for speaking out against anything that seeks to repress our legal rights and ability to defend ourselves has become visible throughout his community. His globally trademarked anti-cyberbullying movement, #CYBERBYTE is proof of that, which has caught the attention of Silicon Valley and Hollywood’s finest through outlets such as Entrepreneur, The Jewish, Journal, and The Texas Jewish Post.
“What I had just experienced first-hand in front of the entire Facebook and Instagram community was that, by coming forward, you risk being targeted or held accountable for ‘triggering’ another’s own experience and insecurities to which they have not yet found the strength to overcome themselves. Never should you ‘one-up’ another individual’s story or publicly ‘out’ someone just because you think you know something else. It is time you do better. It is time we all do better. Do not diminish another’s trauma because you feel that there is an ulterior motive. In today’s legal system, it is still innocent until proven guilty. Not the other way around.
#MeToo has merit, but some people, unfortunately, have “weaponized” the movement, making it difficult to discern between the legitimate, powerful #MeToo movement and what I call a “weaponized” movement that aims to recklessly and inaccurately exploit, bastardize, and humiliate another’s trauma under the guise of a legitimate movement that brings a sense of security, peace, and comfort to a victim. When we hear or read about cases involving the #MeToo movement, we almost always see a woman. Very rarely do we hear of it in the context of a “man”. And why is that? Is it because the world thinks it does not happen to us? Can’t happen to us? Or is it something else entirely, where men are afraid to speak out and have been forced into silence?”
“I didn’t share my story for the validation or acceptance, but for me and other survivors. And for that, I was removed from the outlet because I would not remove my article from Thrive Global and “cut the cancer” (referring to me) as I was told. This isn’t a game. It’s not a popularity contest to get ahead. This is someone’s livelihood and part of them you cannot take away. You have a voice. We all have a voice. Don’t abuse that because we already live in a time where every piece of news is questioned and people seem to think that the first thing they hear is automatically given the benefit of the doubt, without questioning it.”
“Was I ready to tell my story? No. Am I glad I did? Absolutely. Because it is time the world knows the truth about #MeToo. And that truth is that this is not a game. It does happen to men. And there are people out there who will do everything in their power to make all of us, collectively, out to be the aggressors. This is an injustice that has severe consequences and only seeks to diminish the power that the #MeToo movement has.”
For four years, Rossow has served as a committee member to the Ohio Attorney General’s CyberOhio Initiative, helping to push for state-wide legislation that protects not just children but everyone from online bullying.
Over the years, he has regularly written and contributed to respectable outlets such as Bloomberg Law, ABA For Law Students, Law360, The Jewish Journal, Forbes, HuffPost, Thrive Global, among others. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, Texas Jewish Post, and Forbes for his efforts in promoting a healthy digital environment for this generation’s youth.
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