Welcome to part ten of my series on speaking out against hate directed at women.
Today, I bring you the words of Michael Nugent. Michael is a writer from Dublin, Ireland, and chair of the advocacy group Atheist Ireland.
Michael speaks specifically about cyber harassment and how the majority of people who are harassed are women and that we as a community need to actively attack the problem. He helps us to remember why I started this series in the first place -that it is not just isolated experiences it is a pattern of behavior that we are seeing and it needs to be addressed.
Michael’s comments after the jump.
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
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
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.”
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
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
“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,
Thank you Michael for speaking with us and for helping us to encourage a safer environment online. Michael also mentioned to me that Atheist Ireland is organising an international Women in Secularism Conference in Dublin next year, and that they are working with CFI on the project. That is great news!
More to come.