Trigger warning: I talk about harassment and abuse aimed at women online.
Recently, a number of articles have pointed to one of the hard parts of being a woman online; there are a number of people who will say terrible, abusive things to you solely because you are a woman and have an opinion. I recently was interviewed by G*M*S Magazine before the latest round of articles about this phenomena. One of the questions asked was how to get more women into RPG blogging and podcasting and I raised this issue. Please give it a listen when it comes out. For now, this paragraph from another article (written from the male perspective) sums up the situation for me:
I’m a guy who also gets a fair number of abusive emails — I even have a hobby of posting some of them now and then on the web — but there’s a qualitative difference to what I see. I get death threats regularly, but they’re usually of the form “you should get [violent fate] for [hating god, violating crackers, being liberal]“; I don’t get threats of the form, “[Man], I need to [crude sexual assault] you”. As a man, I can get threats for speaking against some cherished dogma, which I can sort of halfway understand, but I don’t get the threats for just being of my sex and speaking out, period. -- Pharyngula
This distinction is usually lost in discussions of the topic. Often the threats come not because the woman says something that threatens the status quo, but because her mere presence, the fact that she has a voice at all, threatens some people. For instance, take this incident of a boy threatening to rape Kat Armstrong's daughter merely because she appeared in a video with her mom.
The video offers further proof of the worry women face by just being active online. The reason her daughter is in the video is because Kat, then community manager at Lockergnome, was loathe to do a video by herself. I empathize with her. During my first GenCon, Trevor Kidd was kind enough to run a few D&D bloggers, including me, through a game of the then-unreleased Castle Ravenloft. At the end, he asked to take a video with our thoughts on the game. I declined because I was so scared that the video would go on YouTube and I would have to deal with the comments. I completely froze up and then apologized profusely. I self-censored myself due to an intense fear of what would be said.
You're just looking for it
Sometimes I get accused of looking for these stories. The problem is, I don't have to look for them. They appear, several times per month, in newspapers and friend's feeds. The people who hurl these abuses often search out women and make themselves known. Take these DMs I received after I asked why someone had a problem with me and then why he followed me if he disliked me so much:
Well, I feel you are just a pretentious bitch. I don't like your feminismistic views and well, I just never liked you.
For the same reason i follow dazedsaveends. Sometimes you guys say shit that makes me angry, and someone has to read it and respond.
If all your followers just kissed your ass all day, it wouldn't be much fun.
How many of these would you have to receive before you questioned if it was all worth it? 5? 10? 20? 100? And then remember that a woman may receive multiples of these when she posts, often more than her male counterparts. Are we really surprised then that women leave the public sphere so often?
The number of women who have come forward, across topics and genres, is also important to note. This isn't just an issue in the geek community but yet it affects the community just the same. If we want to get more women to participate, we need to know this happens and form ways to combat it. Here are some of my suggestions:
- When women, or well anyone, complain about these behaviors, please stop telling them that if they want to blog or podcast, they'll just have to learn how to deal with it. Abuse should not be the price we pay for simply expressing ourselves. If it is, then don't be surprised if people self-censor themselves.
- Learn the facts of rape, sexual assault, and crime in general so you can see the bigger picture. Stop perpetuating old myths that you need to dress modestly in order to lessen your chances of being raped. You aren't doing anything other than making yourself feel better and you make women even more paranoid and hyper-conscious of what they do. It's near impossible to write or be in public, when a woman has to analyze every outfit, every word choice, for fear that this will be the time she somehow invites unwanted attention. Plus the price of admission to the public sphere should not be the hiding of one's sex or gender, just like we should never ask someone to change his skin tone.
- Speak up. If you see someone bashing someone due to their sex or gender, say something. This is not white knighting. This is caring about your community and taking ownership over what happens in your presence. If you feel uncomfortable speaking up, at least find a way to let the victim know that you support him or her.
This doesn't mean that men don't face some of the same issues; that threats of violence or rape aren't used against men or that, in some areas, just being a man isn't seen as a threat to the status quo. For instance, I know a number of men who feel the same way when they enter zones of traditional female power such as child care websites. This, too, is wrong but outside the scope of this discussion.
- Harassment aimed at "Skud" in the Open Source Software community
- Geek Feminism Wiki's timeline of sexist incidents in the geek community
- Tweets of women's experiences with sexism using the #mencallmethings hashtag.
- Reports of a man who made a number of women uncomfortable at World Fantasy Con. Looks like they now are working on a anti-harassment policy for future events