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The Threats Against Anita Sarkeesian Expose The Darkest Aspects Of Online Misogyny

10/15/2014 06:25 pm ET | Updated Dec 15, 2014
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I don't know how Anita Sarkeesian gets through the day. I really don't.

The violent threats sent to the Utah organizers of one of Sarkeesian's recent speaking engagements are just the latest iteration of a torrent of abuse that drove the Canadian-American writer and media critic from her home weeks ago. Death threats have preceded some of her previous public-speaking engagements. In some of those cases, Sarkeesian notified the authorities and went ahead with well-received talks. Not this week: She canceled an event at Utah State University due to safety concerns.

Death threats, bomb threats, terrifying abuse: All because, under the banner Feminist Frequency, she created a series of YouTube videos that offer rational, reasonable critiques of the ways in which female characters are used and misused in video games. As a fellow critic, I find her work thought-provoking and valuable.

But let's review what prompted the death threats: Sarkeesian used words and images to critique a media product. That's all.

Agree or disagree with Sarkeesian's critiques all you want -- it's a free country. Except it isn't for Sarkeesian, who can't go home and who's frequently been in touch with law enforcement as threats to her and other women have escalated over the past couple of months.

The flood of abuse directed at Sarkeesian began in 2012, when she announced a Kickstarter for her "Tropes vs. Women" video series. She got far more money than she asked for, but that was partly because of the shocking malevolence hurled at her for even coming up with the idea. She got funded, but she also had a hate mob after her.

The mob has grown, and it's gotten uglier.

Leigh Alexander, Jenn Frank, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu -- these are just a few of the writers, creators, developers and critics who have been harassed by a collection of individuals who operate under a hashtag I hate to even mention, because to invoke its name is to summon the worst of their ilk. Quinn and Wu, independent game developers, were also recently driven from their homes by individuals who published their addresses online. Since August, these women and many others have been threatened, harassed, bullied, doxxed and otherwise put through hell.

They are facing, as activist Melissa McEwan put it, terrorist misogyny.

For months, I've been unable to look away from the waves of hatred that they've had to put up with, and I've read dozens of impassioned pieces decrying the abuse that have accompanied the loose coalition known as "gamergate." Most people who work in games and play video games are quite rightly horrified by what is going on in their community, and are desperate to find ways to stop the vile behavior of some who lurk behind that banner.

There is a tiny shred of consolation in seeing so many thoughtful writers pen such eloquent, intelligent pieces about the context and the culture that has produced such behavior. After Sarkeesian canceled her talk, the community's frustrations boiled over into the #StopGamerGate2014 hashtag, which trended for hours on Oct. 14. I've come across a host of smart new people as a result of this awful state of affairs (which has occasionally led to some diverting satire).

But that's not much of a silver lining. Because any mildly positive developments are likely no comfort at all to the women being harassed by those holding torches and pitchforks.

Whatever its purported concerns about "journalistic ethics" -- and the movement's rhetoric has convinced me that its members have little understanding of either of those words -- "gamergate" is now a poisoned banner; it's a product with intensely negative brand awareness. The ferocity with which its defenders still cling to that hashtag, and their general lack of concern for actual ethical concerns enumerated by Alexander and others, tells you all you need to know about their real priorities. That some casual supporters can see what the movement stands for now in the real world and still do not denounce it tells me everything I need to know about their thought processes. (If you want to fall down a nightmarish rabbit hole, look for assertions that Sarkeesian and others have faked the death threats and everything else. Such allegations are not hard to find.)

If only these die-hards would stay inside their echo chambers, reassuring each other of the righteousness of their cause -- but they do not. They descend like a plague on anyone who disagrees with them, and they pass the buck when it comes to taking responsibility for the worst actions and most hateful speech promulgated under that banner. Like McEwan, I am sick of being told that "only a small but vocal minority" are to blame. If the large and frequently silent majority doesn't do its utmost to counter and prevent situations like this, that distinction is meaningless. And if these kinds of vitriolic attacks are truly the future of the culture wars, as a recent Deadspin piece theorizes, I fear for us all. And I'm afraid for what the next generation of boys and girls will find -- or heaven help us, are already facing -- should they end up in the murkier corners of the Internet.

I'm not suggesting there's a golden past to which we should return; as someone who first logged on to the Internet in the early '90s, I'm not that naive about human nature, online or off. I know a certain subset of Internet types has always waited in the wings, primed to create unsafe spaces, tear down unbelievers and prompt abusive and demeaning "dialogues." For decades, it's been clear that the most shrill and hateful voices can often drown out other users on forums, message boards and in comment sections, if we let them. In the last decade, much of the focus of online interaction has shifted away from comment areas to social media. Predictably enough, the angriest and most intolerant users are still trying to take over.

Why are we letting them?

It is tremendously disheartening to suspect that the treatment of women online is getting worse, not better. We've had decades of experience dealing with those who use the Internet with the intent to cause mental or physical distress or harm. We really haven't leveled up? As individuals, communities and corporate entities, do we still lack the will, despite seeing the fruits of apathy and averted eyes?

The question that's been haunting many observers for weeks is now right out in the open in the wake of the latest threats leveled at Sarkeesian: Is someone going to have to die for things to change?

The abusive incidents against women who speak out and speak up is so demoralizing that it's hard not to want to crawl into a Wi-Fi-free cave. Developer Adria Richards went through an awful cycle of abuse a year ago. Writer and developer Kathy Sierra's story is one of the most terrifying accounts I've ever read. The response of the titans of the tech community to what Sierra had to endure -- or rather, their shrugging non-response -- did not make me optimistic for the future. If leading figures in the industry don't care much about her treatment, what are the chances that the average Silicon Valley firm will take seriously the safety of female users and customers?

Of course, convenient apathy, defensive ignorance and abusive behavior aren't limited to the gaming and tech worlds. Toxic Internet trolls can be found clinging to the underside of any topic, and if you step out of line -- an entirely arbitrary line, of course -- they will be sure to let you know it. Try writing about rape and "Game of Thrones" if you want to see what I mean.

Whether such individuals are part of a coordinated effort or not, whether their actions spring from a desire to lash out or a deeply entrenched set of objectionable beliefs, the activities of abusive individuals frequently force women to pay what activist McEwan calls "the Misogyny Tax."

It's the price women pay when they encounter abuse and have to process it intellectually and emotionally. It's the price they pay when they have to stop what they're doing and report harassment or other intimidating behavior to a website or network. It's the time and the mental energy they lose when they ponder what to write and create -- and what not to write and create -- in order to avoid living a life that is not dominated by a dread of what could be lurking around the next corner.

The women who endure this abuse daily, hourly, for months, for years: I don't know how they get through it, because the tax being levied on them and their loved ones is so high. It's too goddamn high.

I can't speak for them, but I can offer my sympathy and solidarity. And I can emphasize this point: This abuse doesn't happen "online." It happens in the real world, to a person. It happens to a human being's heart and mind and body.

The other day I tweeted a screenshot of an email I got from someone who was angry about something I'd written about the TV show "Stalker."

In the first few moments after reading that email, my heart raced. Blood pounded in my ears. My mind blanked. I found it hard to focus on what I'd been doing a minute before. I wondered what other thoughts lurked in this person's mind. I wondered what people who can say things like that are capable of doing in the real world.

These questions do not stay "online." These doubts and fears take root in your head and your gut, and get between you and the goals you want to accomplish. These questions coalesce into a monster whose breath you can feel on your shoulder.

I did not tweet that screenshot to gain sympathy -- though dozens of people were kind to me after seeing it, and I truly appreciate that -- but to reaffirm a sad truth: This regularly happens to women on the Internet. This kind of stuff isn't rare. The response of many women to that tweet? "Yep, that's run of the mill."

I took that screenshot on the day I also reported an abusive account that had been tweeting at me. Two small taxes paid. And that's nothing compared to what some women go through. Friends, colleagues and women I don't know but admire from afar have endured worse. Much worse. Like many women, I often minimize and downplay what comes at me. When I get vile emails or tweets, often one my first thoughts is, "Well, I don't have it as bad as [insert the name of activist/writer/critic/author/ creator/artist here]."

I'm not a fantasist: I know large websites and social media networks will never be able to rid themselves of all abusive behavior, whether it arrives on a hashtag or not. But there are at least a dozen commonsense things Twitter could do to make this abuse far less pervasive. Many, many people have come up with lists of straightforward tools to reduce abuse, but the company has yet to do so in response to a toxicity that's right out in the open.

As thorough, excellent articles from Wired and The Atlantic have pointed out, making social media less hostile and abusive environment is an eminently reachable goal --- for companies and sites that care to expend the effort, that is.

Women aren't the only ones who have to deal with online jerks or who get hate mail, I understand that. Men with online profiles have unpleasant online interactions, too -- but how many of those interactions are disturbingly focused on their gender? How many of those messages attempt to argue how rape isn't really so bad? How much of this communication is intended to feel threatening? How much of it is intended to make them fear for their physical safety? Women who write online are targeted. The authorities and many companies don't do enough about it. And it has a cost.

I haven't spoken up before because, frankly, I was afraid. A decade ago, at a previous employer, security called to warn me not to walk to my car alone because of scary communications they'd received about me. That was the worst incident, but I periodically get emails -- and now tweets -- that gross me out or anger me or make me anxious. (One thing I'll never do again: Write about a sitting president.)

The tidal wave of abuse I've seen online lately has awakened the old fears, a palpable and recurrent anxiety that exists in the real world, not online. What if the mob comes after me? But bomb threats? Screeds about a "massacre"? Are you kidding?

I'm done being afraid. I'm angry.

I'm furious about the essays, games, books, videos, films, TV shows and art we won't get because some women are targeted for having ideas and sharing them with the world.

I want those things. And I'm angry because I know we're not getting them. Because women have been silenced -- are being silenced -- through fear. Sarkeesian has vowed to keep going, and she has my eternal admiration for that. But what about the women who have been quietly but quite effectively intimidated into silence? What about the contributions they'll never make?

So many brilliant, smart, provocative and innovative women are working in so many different creative realms right now. I probably won't like every single thing they produce, and neither will you. But we might love some of it. On some level the quality of that work (and your opinion of it) are entirely beside the point. No matter what, I want them to be able to create. I want women to have the mental resources to do work that matters to them. I want them to be able to work without fear of harm to their bodies or minds. I want women to be able to write and to speak and to make things and to shout sometimes.

We can all do better. We must do better. The Internet is a home we all share. I don't want to see one more woman driven from it.