Thunderf00t has published a video in which he includes me on a list of people who he claims have been “bullied or cajoled” into what he calls “a bullshit PC appeasement position” regarding feminism.
In my case he is referring to an article I wrote last August for Skepchick, without being either bullied or cajoled, as part of a series on speaking out against hate directed at women.
I’m republishing that article here, because it is still important to speak out against hate directed at women, regardless of your opinions about the internal politics of the atheist movement.
Speaking out against hate directed at women
First published August 2012
We should not tolerate, in any of our online or offline communities, any sexual harassment or abuse or threats of violence against women that we would not tolerate if they were directed against our family or close friends. On the Internet, many women face a pattern of online sexual harassment, including rape threats, in the technology, business, entertainment, atheist, skeptical, pop culture, gaming and many other online communities.
This can cause women to feel hurt and frightened, to hide their female identity online, or to retreat altogether from the Internet. And this can in turn affect other aspects of their lives. Our online identities and online networking are increasingly important to our social lives and careers. And our friends and employers may see this hate speech when searching online for information about us.
Professor Danielle Citron of University of Maryland school of law has written extensively on this issue. She says that cyber gender harassment can involve a perfect storm of threats conveying a desire for physical harm, doctored photographs, privacy invasions, lies, and technical sabotage. She reports that, from 2000 to 2010, more than seven in every ten victims reporting cyber harassment were women. And when men were harassed, it was often for being or seeming gay. She argues that legal changes were crucial in the battles against domestic violence and workplace harassment, and that we should reframe cyber gender harassment as a civil rights violation.
We must actively tackle this problem in each of our own communities. Doing this is one part of how the atheist and skeptical communities can start to become more inclusive, safe and supportive, and I’ve written elsewhere in more detail about how we can discuss this reasonably. We should also create a united front of online activists from different online communities, to properly research the impact of this abuse across all online communities, and to work together to find the best ways to eradicate it.
Most men have no idea of the relentless nature of this type of online abuse, and how devastating the cumulative impact can be. Because most men don’t get the same type of sexual abuse as women do, and because the Internet can seem to be an artificial environment, we can easily become desensitized to abuse that would outrage us if it was aimed at our sisters or friends or daughters or wives or mothers.
You may sincerely believe that people are exaggerating the scale and impact of this abuse, or that it is prudish or victorian to be concerned about it. Or you may see it as a trivial problem that goes away when you turn off your computer. If any of these thoughts cross your mind, you should consider some actual examples of what this abuse really looks like, and imagine experiencing this from the perspective of the victims.
Emotional trigger warning
Warning – there are lots of emotional triggers here, but many people are unaware of the extent of the problem so I think it is important to give examples. If you don’t want to read the examples, skip to the next section headed “This is a pattern of behaviour”.
In 2007, top technology writer Kathy Sierra got a series of online threats, including “I hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob”. When she blogged about them, the threats intensified, and she cancelled her speaking events and closed her blog.
In 2007, the online group Anonymous published the personal details online of a nineteen year old video blogger, along with doctored photos of her face on naked bodies, and the threat “We will rape her at full force in her vagina, mouth and ass.”
In 2008, when entrepreneur Alyssa Royse wrote a critical review of a Batman movie including branding ideas, she got a stream of abusive comments including “You are clearly retarded, I hope someone shoots and rapes you”.
In 2009, a Wyoming man posted a Craigslist advert in the name of his ex-girlfriend, saying that she had fantasies of being raped by “a real aggressive man with no concern for women”. Another man responded by breaking into her house and raping her.
In 2010, an eleven year old Florida girl was accused online of having had sex with a local musician. She made a profanity-laden video response, which triggered intense online bullying against her, and she had an emotional breakdown online.
In 2011, Rebecca Watson highlighted the online abuse that she gets as a blogger on Skepchick and as a podcaster on SGU, including “You deserve to be raped and tortured and killed. Swear I’d laugh if I could watch.”
In 2011, when a fifteen year old girl posted a picture on Reddit of herself holding a Carl Sagan book that her mother had given her for Christmas, adult men posted hundreds of crude comments about ways that they would like to have sex with her.
In 2012, the pattern continues. Since Anita Sarkeesian started a project to highlight how video games portray women, some gamers have threatened her with rape, violence and death, and have created an online game where you can beat her up.
Sherri Shepherd, co-host of The View, recently filed a police complaint against @DaCloneKiller who tweeted to her that “somebody should drag u in a back alley and rape you”. She will have to subpoena Twitter for @DaCloneKiller’s identity.
Then we had “Is it immoral to rape a Skepchick because they are so annoying?”, an unfunny joke aimed at a small group of identifiable women, that is even less funny against the background of this relentless stream of online abuse of women.
This is a pattern of behaviour
This is a pattern of behaviour, not a series of isolated incidents. It is gradually becoming less acceptable to sexually harass or threaten women in real life. But that message has not yet reached the Internet, where anonymity and hostile debate and absence of oversight make it easier for us to evade responsibility for our actions.
Some people insist that we can say what we want because the Internet has its own rules, while others argue that the right to free speech, even when hateful, must be protected. When New Statesman wrote an article about the Anita Sarkeesian case, a commenter named AllyF provided this counter to that argument:
“What you fail to understand is that the use of hate speech, threats and bullying to terrify and intimidate people into silence or away from certain topics is a far bigger threat to free speech than any legal sanction. Imagine this is not the internet but a public square. One woman stands on a soapbox and expresses an idea. She is instantly surrounded by an army of 5,000 angry people yelling the worst kind of abuse at her in an attempt to shut her up. Yes, there’s a free speech issue there. But not the one you think.”
There is also the wider context of sexism in general. If we as men faced this pattern of sick online abuse simply because of our gender, I suspect that we would urgently take action to tackle the problem. If we fail to take the same action when women face this problem, our inaction reinforces prejudice and discrimination against women generally. We may not mean to do that, and we may not even be aware of it, but the impact of our inaction remains the same.
Tackling sexism is a complex problem, with no magic answers. We should rigorously analyze the extent of sexism in our communities, both online and offline, and we should test and refine the best ways to eradicate it. But we must not deny that it exists, or reinforce it with prejudice and discrimination. Instead we should actively work to create inclusive, safe and supportive communities, in which we can live together as equals, regardless of our race, gender, sexuality or ability levels.
And we should work together on this so that, ultimately, we never again have a fifteen year old atheist girl excitedly posting online about her Christmas present of a Carl Sagan book, then reading crude comments about adult men wanting to have sex with her, and having to respond: “Dat feel when you’ll never be taken seriously in the atheist/ scientific/ political/ whatever community because you’re a girl. :c ”
Some sources for this post:
- Law’s expressive value in combating cyber gender harassment. Prof Danielle Keats Citron, Michigan Law Review, Dec 2009
- The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation. Edited by Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum, Harvard University Press, 2011
- Misogynistic cyber hate speech: testimony of Prof Danielle Keats Citron to UK parliament committee on cyber hate, Oct 2011
- Women bloggers call for a stop to ‘hateful’ trolling by misogynist men. Vanessa Thorpe and Richard Rogers, The Observer, Nov 2011
- This is what online harassment looks like. Helen Lewis, New Statesman, July 2012