Monday, April 30, 2007

An Internet Without Sexual Violence

"This is not where justice is found."
Speeches from the steps of the Durham County Courthouse
Creating a World without Sexual Violence: National Day of Truthtelling
-pic from emma(lee) goldman-

I'm still bouncing back from this weekend's trip to Durham, North Carolina for the National Day of Truthtelling. A dozen of us traveled all the way from New York City to join this incredibly necessary mobilization to continue breaking the silence on sexual violence. It was one of those deeply touching, exhausting journeys.

Our NYC crew was a beautiful bunch if I may say so myself, and we complemented each other quite a bit as well (except while driving...we turned what should've been a 9 hour drive into a 14 hour odyssey!). Once we got there the rest was...warm evening gathering, bombastic sound system leading the march, heartbreakingly wonderful poem, train tracks dividing white from black, young dancers tearing it up, workshops "For Colored Girls Who..." and Men Against Rape Culture (MARC), challenging discussions building relationships between MARC and the Generation Five (G5) Men's Collaborative, group dinner, after party:jim crow jackson experiment/mosadi music/a little dancing in the streets, more MARC/G5 convo building towards the US Social Forum, group brunch, and the ride an nyc caravanista this morning on WBAI's Wakeup Call.

There's already been some great stuff written about the I'm gonna add this little piece below to the discussion. It's something my Mom passed on to me. Much thanks to Kai, Shirlette and Bryan for bringing the southern hospitality...big ups to Ubuntu!, Men Against Rape Culture, and all the groups who pulled the Day together. Also, with respect to the story below, props to BrownFemiPower and all the compañeras holdin' it down on-line in spite of the haters.

One last thing...finally found it on-line, wanna share this poem with EVERYONE: wishful thinking by Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

How the Web Became a Sexists' Paradise
By Jessica Valenti, editor of
(Originally published on April 6, 2007 by The Guardian UK)

"Everyone receives abuse online but the sheer hatred thrown at women
bloggers has left some in fear for their lives."

Last week, Kathy Sierra, a well-known software programmer and Java
expert, announced that she had cancelled her speaking engagements and
was "afraid to leave my yard" after being threatened with suffocation,
rape and hanging. The threats didn't come from a stalker or a jilted
lover and they weren't responses to a controversial book or speech.
Sierra's harassers were largely anonymous, and all the threats had been
made online.

Sierra had been receiving increasingly abusive comments on her website,
Creating Passionate Users, over the previous year, but had not expected
them to turn so violent - her attackers not only verbally assaulting her
("fuck off you boring slut . . . I hope someone slits your throat") but
also posting photomontages of her on other sites: one with a noose next
to her head and another depicting her screaming with a thong covering
her face. Since she wrote about the abuse on her website, the harassment has increased. "People are posting all my private data online everywhere - social-security number, and home address - retaliation for speaking out."

While no one could deny that men experience abuse online, the sheer
vitriol directed at women has become impossible to ignore. Extreme
instances of stalking, death threats and hate speech are now prevalent,
as well as all the everyday harassment that women have traditionally
faced in the outside world - cat-calls, for instance, or being "rated"
on our looks. It's all very far from the utopian ideals that greeted the
dawn of the web - the idea of it as a new, egalitarian public space,
where men and women from all races, and of all sexualities, could mix
without prejudice.

On some online forums anonymity combined with misogyny can make for an almost gang-rape like mentality. One recent blog thread, attacking two
women bloggers, contained comments like, "I would fuck them both in the
ass,"; "Without us you would be raped, beaten and killed for nothing,";
and "Don't worry, you or your friends are too ugly to be put on the
black market."

Jill Filipovic, a 23-year-old law student who also writes on the popular
blog, Feministe, recently had some photographs of her uploaded and
subjected to abusive comments on an online forum for students in New
York. "The people who were posting comments about me were speculating as to how many abortions I've had, and they talked about 'hate-fucking' me," says Filipovic. "I don't think a man would get that; the harassment of women is far more sexualized - men may be told that they're idiots, but they aren't called 'whores'."

Most disturbing is how accepted this is. When women are harassed on the
street, it is considered inappropriate. Online, though, sexual
harassment is not only tolerated - it's often lauded. Blog threads or
forums where women are attacked attract hundreds of comments, and their traffic rates rocket.

Is this what people are really like? Sexist and violent? Misogynist and
racist? Alice Marwick, a postgraduate student in New York studying
culture and communication, says: "There's the disturbing possibility
that people are creating online environments purely to express the type
of racist, homophobic, or sexist speech that is no longer acceptable in
public society, at work, or even at home."

Last year I had my own run-in with online sexism when I was invited to a
lunch meeting with Bill Clinton, along with a handful of other bloggers.
After the meeting, a group photo of the attendees with Clinton was
posted on several websites, and it wasn't long before comments about my
appearance ("Who's the intern?; "I do like Gray Shirt's three-quarter
pose.") started popping up.

One website, run by law professor and occasional New York Times
columnist Ann Althouse, devoted an entire article to how I was "posing"
so as to "make [my] breasts as obvious as possible". The post, titled
"Let's take a closer look at those breasts," ended up with over 500
comments. Most were about my body, my perceived whorishness, and how I couldn't possibly be a good feminist because I had the gall to show up
to a meeting with my breasts in tow. One commenter even created a
limerick about me giving oral sex. Althouse herself said that I should
have "worn a beret . . . a blue dress would have been good too". All
this on the basis of a photograph of me in a crew-neck sweater from Gap.

I won't even get into the hundreds of other blogs and websites that
linked to the "controversy." It was, without doubt, the most humiliating
experience of my life - all because I dared be photographed with a
political figure.

But a picture does seem to be considered enough reason to go on a
harassment rampage. Some argue that the increased visibility afforded
people by the internet - who doesn't have a blog, MySpace page, or
Flickr account these days? - means that harassment should be expected,
even acceptable. When feminist and liberal bloggers slammed Althouse for her attack on me, she argued that having been in a photo where I was
"posing" made me fair game. When Filipovic complained about her
harassment, the site responded: "For a woman who has made 4,000 pictures of herself publicly available on Flickr, and who is a self-proclaimed feminist author of a widely-disseminated blog, she has gotten pretty shy about overexposure."

Ah, the "she was asking for it" defence."I think there's a tendency to
put the blame on the victims of stalking, harassment or even sexual
violence when the victim is a woman - and especially when she's a woman
who has made herself public," says Filipovic. "Public space has
traditionally been reserved for men, and women are supposed to be

Sierra thinks that online threats, even if they are coming from a small
group of people, have tremendous potential to scare women from fully
participating online. "How many rape/fantasy threats does it take to
make women want to lay low? Not many," she says.

But even women who don't put their pictures or real names online are
subject to virtual harassment. A recent study showed that when the
gender of an online username appears female, they are 25 times more
likely to experience harassment. The study, conducted by the University
of Maryland, found that female user-names averaged 163 threatening
and/or sexually explicit messages a day.

"The promise of the early internet," says Marwick, "was that it would
liberate us from our bodies, and all the oppressions associated with
prejudice. We'd communicate soul-to-soul, and get to know each other as
people, rather than judging each other based on gender or race." In
reality, what ended up happening was that, online, the default identity
became male and white - unless told otherwise, you would assume you were talking to a white man. "So people who brought up their ethnicity, or people who complained about sexism in online communications, were seen as 'playing the race/gender card' or trying to stir up trouble," says Marwick.

And while online harassment doesn't necessarily create the same
immediate safety concerns as street harassment, the consequences are
arguably more severe. If someone calls you a "slut" on the street, it
stings - but you can move on. If someone calls you a "slut" online,
there's a public record as long as the site exists.

Let me tell you, it's not easy to build a career as a feminist writer
when you have people coming up to you in pubs asking if you're the
"Clinton boob girl" or if one of the first items that comes up in a
Google search of your name is "boobgate". And for young women applying
for jobs, the reality is terrifying. Imagine a potential employer
searching for information and coming across a thread about what a
"whore" you are.

Thankfully, women are fighting back. Sparked by the violent harassment
of Sierra, one blogger started a "stop cyberbullying" campaign. This was
picked up by hundreds of other bloggers and an international women's
technology organization, Take Back the Tech, a global network of women
who encourage people to "take back online spaces" by writing, video
blogging, or podcasting about online harassment.

It won't mean the end of misogyny on the web, but it is a start. Such
campaigns show that women are ready to demand freedom from harassment and fear in our new public spaces. In the same way that we should be able to walk down the street without fear of being raped, women shouldn't have to stay quiet online - or pretend to be men - to be free of threats and harassment. It is time to take back the sites.

1 comment:

lex said...

Thanks so much for the link RJ! I just wanted to let you and everyone else know that the poem "Wishful Thinking" is now available at
in booklet form. Anyone who makes a donation to the Day of Truthtelling Coalition can get one!