Huffpost Technology
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Soraya Chemaly Headshot

Online Threats Against Women Aren't Trivial and Don't Happen in a Vacuum

Posted: Updated:

Adria Richards tweeted a photo earlier this week and is now the target of rape and death threats. She joins an infinitely long line of women whom groups of men seek to control through the threat of violence. The usual narratives about this phenomenon curry the ridiculous fiction that this harassment is trivial and inconsequential and that women need to grow a thicker skin. The usual narrative, useful for abusers and thugs and those not subject to harm at the hands of others, deliberately ignores the context in which this harassment takes place: the "real" world where violence and the threat of violence against women is constant and unrelenting.

Worldwide, according to Gallup, "72% of men and 62% of women say they feel safe walking alone in their communities at night." In the U.S.., those numbers are 89 percent and 62 percent respectively. Online harassment is an easy way to extend and maintain this gap in the developed world, where women are equal enough. I mean, if women start feeling safe, well, then what will some men do with themselves? Physical security is a basic prerequisite to women's empowerment, parity, equality and liberation. Make no mistake, bullying women in these ways online only amplifies messages we're getting everywhere else. As with street harassment, online harassment is the gendered contestation of public space. And, like street harassment, the people harassing have an entitlement to power and violence.

Earlier this week developer Adria Richards tweeted a photo of two men sitting behind her joking about forking and "big dongles" at a tech conference. You know, in a shared public space. The man's employer wasn't too keen about it either and fired him. Then Anonymous, Reddit, and 4Chan got involved in his defense and... she was fired after her company's servers were attacked.  And then, like clockwork, the online harassment, including death and rape threats from total strangers began, thereby proving her point about who feels comfortable doing what in public space. Now, just to be clear, she didn't just get messages saying, "Shut up and go away!" She received messages like this, documented in The Daily Dot: "a photo (blurred but still NSFW) of a bloody, beheaded woman, bound and stripped, with the caption 'when Im done.' Next to it was a home address and phone number, ostensibly Richards's."

As I've written before, threats like this are not harmless expressions of free speech. They're akin to hate speech and are maliciously intended to intimidate and silence. Messages like this don't make women feel safe. And that's the point, isn't it -- to make sure our gendered safety gap stays constant.

Threats like these are "legitimate" from the perspective of most people who get them, regardless of how others -- platforms like Facebook or Reddit where threats like this often turn up and are not considered "credible" or people who send them and think they're funny -- feel. Ask Kathy Sierra, which may be difficult since she is no longer writing.

The ability to act in these ways, with active and aggressive support and with virtual impunity, is a perk. In other words, Shira Tarrant's to be precise, a privilege:  

Masculine privilege is the idea that society awards certain unearned perks and advantages on men simply because they are male. Sometimes this privilege is really obvious, like the fact that Congress remains overwhelmingly male. But masculine privilege also flies under the radar. Institutional practices and ideological beliefs about masculine superiority seem so normal or natural that we've learned not to notice when a man's opinion is taken more seriously than a woman's.

Tarrant is a scholar of gender and masculinity and you might want check the new book she's edited, Men Speak Out. It has some terrific writers, men, saying similar things. Because, you know, they've thought about this a lot and can write in full sentences dense with interesting ideas instead of heavy-handed, graphic threats.

This happens every day. Often, these incidents come down to a group of men targeting a woman because they perceive a potential threat to men's "free speech" and that this threat trumps a woman's rights -- to free speech and to actual, physical safety.

Take Rebecca Meredith. Two weeks ago, as she wrote about in an article in the Mail Online, she participated in a formal university debate. Some students, most, if not all, of whom happened to be men, heckled her.  Fine, everyone gets heckled.  But then, when she and her female debating partner confronted the hecklers for the sexist tone of their "critiques," the responses included, "Get that woman out of my union," "What does a woman know anyway," and "Frigid bitch." Whatever. The educated, elite young men, their academic peers, went on to make crass comments regarding their breasts and other aspects of their physical appearances. Detailed sexual commentary was part of the "feedback" they received.  They, like Richards, felt "uncomfortable" with the tone and content, especially in a professional context. "Naturally," as this event migrated online, some other men publicly decided to parse Meredith's "rape potential," while others piled on to describe their "rape-her" preferences. Within a matter of clicks this is what the women found:

An internet site for British Forces members, where young men posted [Meredith's] picture before going on to discuss how they would rape me -- in disturbingly graphic detail.

They wrote that [Meredith] was a "debating f**k doll" and "it would take grappling hooks and crowbars to get me off her."

One threatened he would silence [Meredith] using "a knife against her neck and my bony fingers scrabbling around inside her underwear."

In another post on the same forum, a picture of a larger woman carrie[d] the headline, "Would you rape this?"

One man respond[ed]: "Only if I had the right kit."

On another forum, one member chillingly ask[ed] advice on how to "properly rape a woman" without leaving any evidence.

He add[ed] he would "probably kill her" if he did leave any trace on her body, musing that the "world doesn't need so many women, so I'm probably helping out."

One member suggests that the user "checks out" another thread on how to dispose of a body.

The massive amount of social sanction and support provided online for violent, ugly, trolling mobs making physical threats like these about women they don't even know isn't outside of mainstream culture. Just as tweets, videos and follow-up death threats to post-verdict, Steubenville's Jane Doe show, these habits and comfort levels come straight from it.  And, like Steubenville, the regular occurrences of incidences like these simply reveal the misogynist next door.

As Amanda Marcotte explained in recent Raw Story piece, Online Misogynists Are Not Fringe Characters.   She analyzed comments made on a upskirt picture posted in Facebook (taken without a woman's consent), you know, openly by men who are well-respected members of mainstream communities. You should read her analysis.

Rape and similar chatter says a lot about what men think women's roles in society.  Which brings us to the heart of the matter: women have long been controlled through violence and some people derive benefits from that fact that they are loathe to give up. Bullies and abusers who thrive in our culture where many insist violence against girls and women -- real or implied -- isn't a big deal, that we're exaggerating and should stop complaining.  Who does this approach serve? Bullies and abusers. The violent and gender-specific aspects of the online harassment and threats are qualitatively and quantitatively different from other common forms of trolling and abuse because they take place in a world where violence and rape are pervasive, real and epidemic. Other forms of trolling and abuse aren't buttressed in anywhere the same degree in the "real" world by real actual physical harm and assault.

I cannot speak for the women above, but I have spoken to many others for whom graphic rape threats cause nightmares and anxiety, result in self-censorship or withdrawal.  These aren't "perceived" feelings or actions. They're real and harmful.  Those who don't understand the impact and consequences of these kinds of assaults misunderstand the intent and nature of what  threats are, namely, the desire to provoke anxiety in a reasonable person and stop them from doing something you don't like. This anxiety and women's reasonable responses to harassment, online and off, are routinely ignored and laughed at.  Women are constrained every day all over the world. It is their rights to speak, walk, act that are ignored and denied in vastly disproportionate ways. To make any claims to gender-symmetrical rights restraints is laughable.  We actually don't need to be reminded of our "rape potential," we've grown up having to learn to assess it ourselves.  God forbid you happen to be a woman who confronts THAT issue, as Zerlina Maxwell did a few weeks ago.  In the days following her suggestion that guns won't prevent rape, she was the target of racist, violent threats, including, it goes without saying, rape threats.  Even a heavily armed woman can't shoot those. The CONTEXT in which the trolling and threats take place is what that "free speech!"-ers willfully ignore and actively trivialize. When women hear "silly" threats they are acculturated to take them seriously for tangible reasons.

These women, on the receiving end of these online assaults, even those who laugh out loud at threats and trolls, are experiencing real harm, not the potential loss of rights.  All you have to do is consider the post-Steubenville framing of the verdict to understand our cultural predisposition to shift the narrative of "victimhood" from those who experience harm to those who inflict it.  Take a narrative around Richards' tweet: Richards "GOT HIM FIRED." No, actually, HE got himself fired.  It was not her intent for him to lose his job, only to shift norms to make the environment, one where there is already a notable problem with sexism and gender imbalance, less hostile to women like her. His employers must have found his words incompatible with his job and the image they wanted to project of their company.  His losing his job was the consequence of his saying the words he said.

"'This is what I call the dangerous fragility of men -- exaggerating harms to men while minimizing harms to women," explains Mary Anne Franks, Associate Professor at the University of Miami School of Law. "When men call women pointing out threats and harassment as complaining about 'name-calling,' they mischaracterize and trivialize women's experience.'

Sexist commentary -- the jokes, the asides, the slights, the tweets -- is hostile, but it's just the very surface of what we're dealing with. This isn't about being "offended," it's about feeling marginalized as a result of hate and disdain.   Women like Richards and so many others reach a saturation point where staying quiet about it is no longer possible.

What online thugs and their defenders are actually saying is, "How dare you mess with my privileges? Stop challenging norms that I benefit from or invading public spaces where I've historically dominated without this kind of restraint."  What elite has ever given up its privileges willingly and without a fight? It's such an inconvenience.

If "we" want women to "lighten up," or we want stop telling women to be afraid, then "we" have to stop threatening them with rape and raping them.

Resources

Apparently, I wil have to keep publishing these paragraphs:

Online campaigns like Everyday Sexism's #ShoutingBack, Sady Doyle's #MenCallMeThings, Caroline Criado Perez's #silentnomore and Miss Representation's #NotBuyingIt are important for raising awareness and altering norms. This is what Richards was doing when she tweeted and the reason why she has lost her job and is being threatened with rape and death.

Take Back the Tech's "CyberStalking and How to Prevent It" is a great resource. Take Back the Tech also runs a mapping project that documents harassment, stalking, threats and abuse. If you have concerns about your privacy and security, check out TOR. Another excellent resource is GenderIT.org. And, considering that what we're talking about is basically just a digital "street" -- it's important to note that April 7-13 is International Anti-Street Harassment Week -- and the issues are exactly the same.

From Our Partners