When feminist writer Clementine Ford outed one of her online abusers to his employer, it struck a chord with people who have endured similar sexist harassment and abuse: on their blogs, social media, and even dating websites. However, Ford also been criticised and been told she's doing more harm than good, most famously in the widely discussed opinion piece on independent news site New Matilda by Jack Kilbride titled “Why Courageous Clementine Ford Is Not The Answer”.
The thing is, women on the Internet have been struggling with various ways to challenge their sexist adversaries for years. In response, they have been abused, insulted, hacked, threatened, stalked, and intimidated for years. And years. And years.
Way back in 2011, Tigerbeatdown.com's Sady Doyle sparked the hashtag #MenCallMeThings, listing every gendered slur, infantilising insult, colourful description of rape, accusation of mental illness, threat of violence, and generally hateful shit that men have thrown at women – online and off. It trended almost immediately and was flooded by thousands of tweets.
Doyle (like Ford) struck a chord -- it resonated, it soared. People who had been tolerating sexist, transphobic and homophobic abuse in relative silence had a wealth of ready responses to Doyle's initial tweets.
It also got the same, tired responses: it's hypocritical, it's reverse sexism, you're too sensitive, online abuse is not as bad a real-life abuse. Some suggested to Doyle: “Kill Yourself.” There were even some classic, early-adopter #NotAllMen responses: “#mencallmethings is a sexist statement,” wrote one disgruntled Twitter. “We're individuals. And not all the same.”
Doyle wrote a round-up within three days, breaking down all the vitriol into their tried-and-true categories and issuing a challenge to the abusers: “They don't do this because women, and people who speak out against sexism online, are delicate, fragile flowers. They do this because we're tougher than they can imagine, tougher than they'll ever have to be, and tougher than they can personally handle.
“They need to shut us down, to scare us, because if we keep going we just might win. We just might end sexism. They'll do anything to stop us from getting that done.”
The well-chronicled trials of posting online while female were published in a study more than nine years ago: the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering found that “chat room participants with female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames”.
In the study, which created chat accounts with male and female names and logged them into chats to record interactions, “female usernames, on average, received 163 malicious private messages a day”.
This has never gone away, in fact it has only grown in size and zeal. Yet almost every time women achieve a degree of responsiveness from online audiences when highlighting these experiences, they are immediately told to “calm down, so we can discuss this like adults”. As if women haven't tried this.
Prominent Internet personality Felicia Day had a crack at a carefully worded conciliatory post as recently as October last year – on her growing fears around a rising misogynist culture in the video gaming community. It followed several months of increasingly vile and frightening harassment of women speaking and working in the games industry and media: the self-titled #Gamergate movement.
In her piece, Day explicitly says she avoided speaking up because she was terrified of the backlash, the inevitable abuse. In particular, she feared the possibility that she would be doxxed (have her personal information posted online) - a favourite tactic used to silence women.
“I am terrified to be doxxed for even typing the words 'Gamer Gate'. I have had stalkers and restraining orders issued in the past, I have had people show up on my doorstep when my personal information was HARD to get,” she wrote.
“I haven't been able to stomach the risk of being afraid to get out of my car in my own driveway because I've expressed an opinion that someone on the internet didn't agree with.”
In response, she was doxxed. Her home address and other personal details were posted in her own comments section by more than seven individuals, along with hundreds of hateful pro-GG nonsense. It was the world of online harassment and fear-induced silencing in a microcosm. These are the consequences, the doxxers seemed to be saying, if you speak out and we disagree with you. So shut up.
Not that gamers have long been a welcoming space for women. I love gaming. I game slightly more than is generally thought healthy. It's a passion, but I hate playing online multiplayer games because the expectation that my gender will open me to insults and abuse – or worse – is more than a little well-founded. Even lifelong hardcore gamer (and actor and comedian) Aisha Tyler agrees, and the comments on this article at The Mary Sue on her take on gamer culture shows many other women feeling the same.
Yet Gamergate's war on women has opened the void of perpetually gross online gamer spaces to in-real-life concrete violence against women. Feminist Frequency vlogger and game critic Anita Sarkeesian has taken to calling abuse the “background radiation to my life”. For daring to analyse sexist tropes in various video games, have a look at what “One Week of Harassment on Twitter” is like.
Yet it's not just online harassment anymore. It's not just comments, tweets, and negligently punctuated death threats. These systematic, routine, well-organised campaigns of abuse force women out of their homes on a regular basis – some go into actual hiding. They have the police on speed dial, so do their families. They receive messages with a photo of their home address with some form of promised threat. They are constantly in court applying for AVOs. Someone threatened to shoot up a university campus because a woman they violently disagreed with was going to speak there.
From online abuse to a real act of violence is a step most won't take, but in this climate of impunity, women have to take the possibility seriously. Violence against women is at crisis levels. But it's still viewed as normal, within acceptable boundaries insofar as there has not been a broad level of outcry beyond the feminist and anti-sexist people waging the struggle online.
For women of colour, the fear is multi-fold. (Gamergate can be super racist too. Just ask Veerender Jubbal, a Canadian Sikh blogger who had his image photoshopped to imply he was one of the Paris terror attackers. Gamergate affiliates changed his iPad to a Koran and put him in a bomb vest. 4Chan, the breeding ground of Gamergate, is now suspected to be the forum on which users coordinated an armed attack on a Black Lives Matter protest, where five people were injured.)
Women of colour face online harassment more than any other group (followed by white women and then men of colour), with all the added racist stereotypes heaped on top of the sexist ones. Those who have written about the online hate campaign of Gamergate have expressed the specific fear that their ethnicity will be an obvious target.
“This is the culture that Gamergate has created,” wrote Sahar Roodehchi, “one in which any kind of criticism is seen as censorship, calling forth backlash and creating fear.” AFROPUNK contributor CJ Dermody-Williams reflected: “If this [harassment campaign against Zoe Quinn] is how the gamers treat white women based on hearsay, what would be the response to a black, Latina, Asian, or Middle Eastern woman?”
The Internet has given feminist and progressive-thinking people – whether cis women, trans women, or gender non-conforming individuals – access to spaces where they can air and share their battles and grievances, views and critiques of this crazy complex society. But it also opens up the risk of exposure to men with the same tools and with the benefit of patriarchal social structures and privilege: the feeling that their opinion – whether factual or not – is automatically valid. More and more often, these opinions are becoming violent and abusive.
Sometimes, though, the opinions expressed are like those of Jack Kilbride's on New Matilda – well intentioned, not actually hostile. They stumble on this ugly reality and want to speak up about it. But pieces such as “Courageous Clementine”, which criticise Ford for the way she responds to misogynistic abuse, are so behind the curve it's out of orbit. It's been heard and tried a thousand times before. And it never works. It's been thrown out in favour of outright self-preservation.
Abuse is insidious and constant for women, but invisible to most men in their day-to-day life. Women have been standing up to this abuse – experiencing it, sharing it, fighting it – but it's an uphill battle. Women are saying enough to this violence, no longer turning the other cheek or engaging in civil debate with people who verbally and physically threaten them.
Really, how can we still be expected to continue to give space to the voices of online abuse, when those voices treat our lives like a joke? How do we engage in any kind of rational or fair debate when the opposition response is raging violence?
I'm not actually asking these questions in earnest. The answer is there already. The debate has not just started. It has been raging for years. Playing nice has never worked and will never work. It won't stamp out this culture. Tone policing may feel well-intentioned, but it's just another way to protect privilege.
Again, women needing to routinely report abuse to police, being hounded out of their homes, and sometimes needing AVOs as a result of online hate campaigns is not recent, it's not new, and it's showing no signs of letting up. This is where women are drawing a line and refusing to concede any more ground. This is why I relate to Ford and marvel at her ability to refuse to be silenced by these terrifying Facebook messages, tweets and emails.
It is violence against women. It is gendered oppression. Playing nice won't stop the spread and danger of this culture. Strengthening and rebuilding the power and influence of a women's movement, which changes the dynamic of gender inequality in society, will. Men who want to show solidarity and be a part of that struggle should think less about their opinions, and look for ways to put power in the hands of women of colour, trans women and cis women, to fight back in real and tangible ways.
Like all justice movements, those being persecuted must lead, and men who name themselves as feminist need to get behind the women waging the battles.