When Worlds Collide
The Anita Sarkeesian case, the troll clause in the Defamation Bill, Not in the Kitchen Anymore: These are moments when Feminism and Digital Rights interact with each other. Milena Popova explains how these two causes can then collide -and how and why the challenges that are created must be met.
As a woman and feminist working in technology and interested in digital rights, I occasionally find that the different worlds I am part of collide quite spectacularly. Case in point: the growing controversy over how women are treated in certain online spaces, notably gaming and blogging, but also in everyday social interactions online. Let’s take a quick tour of the female experience of online spaces.
Chat users with female-sounding usernames get 25 times more malicious messages than those with gender-neutral or male-sounding names. That’s on average 163 times a day that some random stranger will ask you if you’re feeling horny, if you want to strip in front of your webcam, or suggest that their dick and your pussy will make a great pair. Incidentally, while the anonymity of the internet probably exacerbates the issue, this is not a phenomenon confined to online space. In meatspace, we call it street harassment, and it’s just as problematic.
Online gaming is a particularly nasty corner of the internet if you happen to have the wrong reproductive organs. There are now several blogs devoted to the female online gaming experience. The categories of posts on Fat, Ugly or Slutty speak for themselves: crudely creative, death threats, fat, lewd proposals, pen15 club, sandwich making 101, slutty, ugly, and x-rated are some of the more descriptive ones. From telling women gamers they should “get back in the kitchen” to “am gonna slit your throat you fucking slut”, it’s all in there.
A special sort of hell is also reserved for women who dare to express an opinion online. From Laurie Penny, to Cath Elliot, Dawn Foster, and Natalie Dzerins, anybody who is anybody with a vagina on the internet has been told, often graphically, that they deserve to be raped or killed (and raped, before and after). This kind of thing is so common that a female blogger’s first “fat and ugly” comment is practically a badge of honour - a sign that they’ve truly made it.
The most recent example of the kind of vicious harassment women bloggers are subjected to was Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter funding drive for a series of videos on sexist tropes in video games. The backlash included [trigger warning for the following three links] thousands of misogynist comments on Anita’s YouTube video, vandalism of her Wikipedia page, and image-based harassment including portrayals of rape and a game where players could “beat up Anita Sarkeesian
Physically speaking, these kinds of comments are mostly harmless. It is highly unlikely that one of these sad individuals will step away from the keyboard, find you in meatspace and do you physical harm. They do, however, create a threatening environment; they make you wonder if one day somebody will come after you; they are designed to intimidate and scare, to make women put up, shut up, and “get back in the kitchen”. Some of us grow a thicker skin as a result. Some give up blogging, gaming and other activities they enjoy to get away from it all. Even high-profile professional women like programmer and games developer Kathy Sierra are not immune to the intimidating effects of the prolific, vicious harassment they are subjected to.
It is therefore hardly surprising that some feminists are welcoming provisions in the Defamation Bill which have been reported to provide tools to make identifying and prosecuting trolls easier. Misreporting aside, as a digital rights campaigner any proposal to make it easier to track people back from online space into meatspace tends to make my hair stand on end. Unless strong safeguards are built into such legislation, it is wide open to abuse. We may only use it to track down people who threaten women today, but who’s to say that the BNP government of tomorrow won’t use it to track down Green party supporters based on posts they’ve made in online forums?
I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that such a collision of two issues I deeply care about is actually a good thing. People like me, who have skin in the game on both sides of a particular issue, have a unique and vital role to play in finding a workable, sustainable solution as opposed to a kneejerk reaction. In the copyright wars we need to recruit musicians and other creative artists who see the potential of the internet to show that the internet isn’t “killing music” - it is just making a particular business model of music distribution obsolete. In issues around free speech, censorship, and online privacy we also need to acknowledge where there are genuine problems and recruit people who, for instance, have a strong personal interest in making online spaces safer for women but also in ensuring speech remains free and uncensored. A good first step would be to recognise that online harassment of women is a free speech issue too, as many women are silenced by this kind of experience, and to call out unacceptable behaviour when we see it. This can then allows us to build a dialogue and start figuring out - together - what works and doesn’t work, and where the right balance lies when it comes to free speech and safe spaces on the internet.
 Having said that, publishing women’s personal details, including address and telephone number, is also a commonly used form of online harassment which adds significantly to the level of threat experienced by the women it is targeted at.
 This is what I call the Stross Test, based on a short story by science fiction writer Charles Stross called “Minutes of the Labour Party Conference, 2016”. In the story a BNP government uses anti-terrorism legislation passed by Labour in 2006 to establish and uphold a fascist state by labelling all opposition, including the Labour Party, as terrorists. I strongly feel that the Stross Test of “Would you trust the BNP with this law?” should be applied to any legislation passed by Parliament.
Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She is also a member of ORG's board and continues to write for the ORGzine in a personal capacity. She tweets as @elmyra
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