Speaking Up

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 08 November 2011

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?

Broad Issue

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.

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Fantastic post. This happens all the time. We don't always talk about it because often you end up having to explain why someone can't talk to you that way.

You have to explain that your safety is valuable and something worth caring about.

You have to defend why anyone should care about it over something else, as if we can only care about one thing at once.

You have to explain why being a woman with an opinion doesn't mean you should be willing to put up with it, or that you somehow can't be shocked, angered, scared or saddened by these comments.

Bonus points: I know who those DMs are from. Because I've had similar DMs from the same person. This is someone who has openly said he follows me (and, I believe, you) simply because harassing us for talking about these things is his duty.

This kind of crap (the harrassment, not your post about it!!) makes my blood boil. People need to grow the hell up already.

The thing that makes me second saddest about this (saddest prime is the fact that someone was raised to think talking to other people like that is okay) is the lost opportunity. Internet anonymity gives me the opportunity to discuss ideas with a minimum of personal bias. I often know nothing about the commentator or poster beyond the screen name. So I can evaluate a statement, post or comment purely on its merits and respond in kind.

But like bullies do everywhere, they have screwed up a chance to have a discussion focused almost solely on the topic and not the participants. Attacking the person is a tactic that shows the weakness of the debater's argument or opinion. When you add in the violent sexual nature of most of these attacks, these boy-apes (sorry, the term "man" cannot be applied to them; real men don't talk to anyone that way), they reveal themselves for the vicious cowards they are.

And man or woman, my hobby has no room for cowards.

T. it makes me sad to hear you self censored your self! What we need is more you on the internet not less! When you self censor the terrorists win, and that's what these fools who send you shit are, internet terrorists. They make you afraid, then you stop doing the awesome stuff you should and then they win.

Keep being awesome and eff the haters!

I just caught the total redundancy in the first line of my comment! How awesome am I?!?

You know, there are differences depending on the rules edition and in Organized Play we see... just kidding. In all seriousness, thanks for bringing up this topic. We are all fallible, imperfect, wonderful, and beautiful in various ways. When gamers discuss topics like depression, insecurity, discrimination, and the like it helps create a common understanding. It raises awareness for those that don't usually see the issues and creates acceptance and community for those that are sadly impacted by them.

Thanks for being a part of the gaming community and giving your voice to the hobby, despite what it sometimes costs you emotionally. Perhaps I am naive, but I see things as having greatly improved at the gaming table over the past 15 years. The RPG portion of the Internet will likely undergo an improvement, if slow, as more places refuse to allow discrimination and hatred for peers and as everyone becomes more accustomed to the benefits of having talented women as prominent members of our hobby.

Having active participation by both genders makes our hobby stronger. I owe a tremendous amount of my gaming hobby to my mother. She encouraged me to join our school's D&D club in the sixth grade and later found another group for me in high school. She is an avid reader of just about everything and like my father, was an English teacher. She loves to write poetry and fiction and to share what she experiences in the world with others through writing. She also has an amazing gift to see the best in all people and to effortlessly forgive everyone's shortcomings. Her values and creativity were a great complement to my father's emphasis on dedication to one's work, attention to detail, and encouragement to be more outgoing. It took both of their perspectives for me to find the balance I enjoy. Neither of their characteristics are solely male or female, but active involvement by both genders helps our hobby by bringing in wider perspectives, ideals, and approaches.

Ugh, I can actually guess who DM'ed that crap.

Personally, I want the meme "no girls in the internet" dragged behind sauna and put it out of its misery.

I'm sick and tired of being told that I can't be a female because I like nerd things X, Y, and Z.

This strange attitude combined with the shit women actually get when they dare to have an opinion about something in public is puzzling. Why the hell would I tell people that yes, I am a woman, and I like Linux, sci-fi and RPGs, when people gleefully tell those women that they need to be [insert an obscene list of sexual violence here] good and hard and possibly by the commenter himself.

I'm just glad that this year this issue is finally getting the attention it deserves.

I'd lose my mind if my wife had to put up with nonsense (the only polite word I can think of) like that. It happens anywhere that people inclined to act like this can do so with little to no fear of repercussions, and it's vile.

I suppose the question to be asked is "How do we deal with it?"

Since it's intolerable, no one should be asked to simply ignore this kind of treatment and carry on with their day, so that's out.

There are no means of auto-censoring these comments*, and even if there were it's just throwing a blanket over the problem, not solving it. Nothing good there.

That seems to leave education/socialization and community policing.

The former requires that people be raised with a value system that enforces equality along with other social mores. We don't have any control over how people other than our own children are raised. It is possible though -within the gaming/geek community- to ostracize people that behave like this. I, for one, would not have anyone at my table if they did this. It's a small step, but it's a step.

However, the latter (policing) can be used to some degree, although it would still be difficult. People who violate social mores are often ostracized, and with good reason. Although we can't kick someone off the internet (oh, what wonderful, terrible things I would do with that power...) we can decide to downvote vile YouTube comments and report similar comments on other sites for moderation. People using offensive, but non-threatening language can be moderated into oblivion and they'll either get banned, stop, or create a new account and keep going. Eventually they'll either give up or get an IP ban.

Taking it a step further, sending threats over the internet is a Federal crime in the US** and can be reported as such. This should only be used in the case of the worst offenders, as trolls and "haters" who aren't being threatening aren't committing a crime, they're just being jerks. Threats of bodily harm are not, nor have they ever been protected speech. It's criminal behavior and must be treated as such.

For the record: No, I'm not worried about 'ruining some poor boy's life' because of those messages. If I wouldn't worry about the criminal charges leveled against some kids that would spray paint hateful comments on a house of worship, then I certainly won't care about the fate of these people. Especially considering that they do this simply because the target keeps their reproductive organs on the inside.

*Yes, chatfilter-style systems exist, but they just invite people to circumvent them, so I deem them useless for this purpose.

** http://www.ibls.com/internet_law_news_portal_view.aspx?id=2064&s=latestnews

I know that my anger when my wife gets these comments pales in comparison to what she feels, but it still spins me into a whole WORLD of pissed off. It makes me want to walk around Cons half a step behind her wearing my darkest suit, just in case. It's just ... frigging ... wrong. I mean, I know how hard she works on this stuff, and how seriously she takes it, and how much it means to her to give back to a community that she feels has given her so much. And it makes me stabby to see trolls attack her just because she has a different perspective on a freaking GAME than they do. A GAME! It's a GAME! THAT made someone say those things? REALLY?

Whew. There, I'm done.

We need more people to speak out about this kind of thing; you are a hero for doing so. Bravo. I'm going to go post links to this blog post on Facebook and Twitter now, because people need to read it.

wow I knew that trolls were harsh but I was not aware it was this bad those comments you received are completely out of line. from a fan I hope you don't let it get to you I enjoy hearing you on the tome show and reading your blog.

As always, I am stunned at how poorly socialized and downright hateful (some of) my fellow men can be. I was raised primarily by women; maybe that has something to do with my personal attitudes...

By the way, your "trigger warning" made me go look up that term and its usage. What an excellent idea! Not sure how I missed it on the Internet up until now.

Thank you.

Thanks for talking to us about this Sarah. I have a daughter that I want to raise Geekish. I'm going to do whatever I can to make it a more positive life for her.

Very good post. There's never any excuse for sexism, racism or homophobia or sending people abusive messages. Next time, I'd retweet the idiots so everyone can see how fuckwitted they are and then block them.

And keep on doing your thing.


Thanks for using your platform to bring this to more people's attention. Men don't have a monopoly on ideas and nobody should be threatened, especially in a hobby which depends critically on social interaction. Everyone should be welcome at the table.

This is depressing that it is still happening, one would hope they we had evolved to be better than that. But things will not change unless people take a stand, and thank you for doing so. We will stand with you.

@Sean, I think that bears repeating.

We will stand with you.

Nobody should feel afraid to be online, least of all to talk about a game. I'm just frustrated because I can't wave my Tolerance Wand and have the trolls change stance from Standoff to Acceptance. Or at least Peaceful Tolerance.

"Gaming Community, Tear Down This Wall!"

Men and women should be equally subject to roughly the same amount and kind of abuse from internet trolls, I agree. Hopefully they can be persuaded.

Bullying in all of its form is derived from a sense of fear and/or feeling of powerlessness. Internet bullying is different only in that those who wouldn't be able to do it face to face now find that they have a modicum of power in as much as you no longer have visual cues to determine their intent. Death and rape threats have existed as long as fame has been a factor. I agree with you that they should not exist. I am sorry that you have had to deal with this. It is the tragedy that those who can not win their arguments via logic often resort to this tactic. Fear is a driving force in making decisions. The Romans used against the Christians and the KKK against civil rights activists. Women have faced much in their pursuit to leave a homemaker role and step onto equal footing with males. With each step forward the resistance becomes a little less. Their is hope that someday people will look back and shake their heads in shame at how us first forgers into the wilds behaved. Until then we must persevere and not bow to fear to drive our choices. I sincerely hope that the beastly behavior of a few does not drive you into other projects like so many others have been.


Hey girl!! Can I just say you're awesome? Thank you for not apologizing for your opinion. It's real and valid and you are completely entitled to have one and blog about it no matter who tries to shut you down. Go you for being brave and blogging about what you love.

Hi Sarah, as a male I have been subjected to this by playing female characters in MMO's. It was a real eye opener into the trouble faced daily by women on the internet.
I was harassed, abused and even kicked out of group events solely on the perceived fact that I was a woman.
At 1st I tried correcting them by pointing out I was actually an over 40's male, but I soon stopped doing that, because I thought "what the hell does it matter what sex I am?"
Talking to several of my online female friends only showed me how prevalent this type of abuse was.
Easy for me to say as a male, but never give up. There are many of us male's who fight to stop this rubbish.


Outstanding post.

Some places seem to breed hate and stupidity online. YouTube is certainly one of them. I use the http://clea.nr/ browser extension just to hide the comments, and it makes it a much more pleasant place to be.

The thing is that I know hiding them isn't a solution; that's sweeping the problem under the carpet. What makes certain places "acceptable" to post defamatory remarks (about either sex, though women bear the brunt to this, in my experience) whilst others don't? A defamatory remark on Twitter, for example, gets gunned down pretty quickly, and politeness (generally speaking - there's alway idiots everywhere) is the norm. I think some of that needs to be laid at YouTube and Google's door for allowing such behaviour to become so widespread in the comments themselves. There is a line between moderation and censorship but YouTube do neither, and absolve themselves of any responsibility for what they tacitly allow.

In my role-playing games I (and all of my regular gamers) routinely play female characters, especially when superhero gaming. A PC's sex, as with their personality, race or creed, is one more facet of the character and role-playing gives us an opportunity to explore playing someone who is not us. And that, ultimately, is what role-playing is all about. It's an opportunity to wear someone else's shoes.

Hopefully it should make us more tolerant people as a result. That's the theory, anyhow.

Just wanted to chime in and wish you all the very best of luck, you have supporters here. The gaming community and our wee subculture is far poorer when creative and forward-thinking people are being driven away.

Also kind of sad that 'I am not a boy and want to play games' counts as forward-thinking.

Thanks everyone! I've been reading everyone's comments but life has me a bit busy to respond at the moment.I appreciate all the encouragement. I realize this is a hard and complicated issue. Thanks so much!

geek girls are awesome, and asshats are asshats.

What a lovely post. Thanks!

I often feel like I should apologize for the actions of men on the internet. On behalf of my gender, please know that the work that you're doing is good, and the entire roleplaying game community is better for your contributions.

There seem to be far too few women voicing their opinions in this community (and given a lot of the terrible bile that spews forth from many sexist/chauvinistic/idiot commenters, it's understandable why), yet they are some of our community's best, brightest, and most valuable people.

Please, keep up the good work with Sarah Darkmagic. Know that for every one, ten, or a hundred men slandering the site, there's one woman reading it and considering starting up an RPG blog of her own.

Please do it for that one woman.

Thanks! And there's no need to apologize on behalf of your gender. There are lots of awesome men and women in gaming and the people who do the sexist things don't represent the average man any more than a woman who does horrible things represents me. And fear not, I'm not going to go anywhere. I'm still having too much fun.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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