The war on female speech can claim another victory of sorts.
Feminist writer Jessica Valenti — the longtime target of an organized campaign of harassment and slander by Men’s Rights activists and others — has been driven off of social media by death and rape threats posted on Instagram, aimed not at her but at her five-year-old daughter.
Valenti, a Guardian columnist and the author of six books on feminism and sexuality, explained her decision in a series of tweets yesterday:
At this point, does anyone other than the harassers and their apologists doubt that what we’re seeing is a free speech issue — and, beyond that, a civil rights issue?
Every woman writer knows that the moment she puts her words online she could face literally years of abuse — insults and threats and often outrageous slander — if something she says manages to offend some thin-skinned dude who doesn’t like to see any of his opinions challenged by a woman.
This is even more of a danger if the women in question writes about feminism as anything other than a “cancer,” or offers her thoughts on topics that many men seem to think their gender owns the rights to — from videogames to the Ghostbusters franchise.
If women can’t express their thoughts online without facing the very real threat that their lives and reputations will be ruined by years-long campaigns of abuse and slander that social media companies and law enforcement authorities by and large refuse to do anything about, this is a threat to the free speech of women everywhere.
It isn’t simply a matter of a few “trolls.” The abuse is often organized, sometimes quite openly. The vicious harassment of Valenti began a number of years ago after a video of hers mocking Men’s Rights “activists” caught the attention of the misogynistic hate site A Voice for Men — a site whose “social media director,” Canadian antifeminist Andrea Hardie (aka Janet Bloomfield, aka JudgyBitch), stoked the flames by making up inflammatory “quotes” and attributing them to Valenti, knowing full well that many of her followers would believe even the most outrageous lies about the American writer. (Similar smear tactics have been used against feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian by her enemies, including Hardie herself.)
Valenti is hardly the only woman that AVFM has targeted for organized campaigns of hate — not by a long shot — but AVFMers are so obsessed with Valenti that at a recent AVFM “men’s retreat” the attendees, led by the obviously drunken site founder Paul Elam, shouted out creepy sexual commentary about her and fellow feminist writer Amanda Marcotte; the reason we know this is that Elam, evidently quite proud of his behavior, put video of the bizarre incident online.
The harassment that Valenti and other feminist writers have gotten isn’t just intended to intimidate them into silence. It’s also meant as a warning to other women that if they speak up they could be on the receiving end of a similarly vicious hate campaign.
The harassers are often quite open about this intention. Jack Barnes, a Twitter “activist” who’s contributed numerous articles to AVFM over the years, has repeatedly made it clear that the point of his “activism,” such as it is, is to intimidate all feminists into shutting up.
The Men's Rights Movement is about harassing women, hating women, hurting women and only harms mens real issues. pic.twitter.com/L3agciVA3j
— #TakeDownMRAs (@TakedownMRAs) January 28, 2015
Sometimes, as I’ve pointed out before, Barnes forgets to put “harassment” in scare quotes.
These campaigns of harassment do indeed have a chilling effect. I know female writers who refrain from writing about feminism and other such “sensitive” subjects because of the abuse they know they would get if they did. Feminist writer Leigh Alexander has stopped writing about video games because of the abuse she endured at the hands of GamerGaters and their fellow travelers, many of whom openly rejoiced at the news.
Sarkeesian, meanwhile, has made clear that she’ll be moving on from video games after she finishes the rest of her videos in the Tropes Against Women in Video Games series. “For me, the work of Feminist Frequency has become synonymous with constant daily harassment, death threats, bomb threats, intense public scrutiny and profound violations of privacy that have spilled over into the lives of my friends and family,” she wrote in a Kickstarter update.
The enormous amount of stress caused by the harassment, along with how the project unfolded, took a huge toll on my physical and emotional health. I have been dealing with depressive tendencies for the better part of my life but with my physical health declining and the added pressure of this project, my depression became quite intense. Looking back from a place of greater clarity and balance, I don’t know how I managed to survive from day to day, let alone how I continued to step into the public eye online, in newspapers and magazines, and even on national television. Many of my personal relationships were strained or collapsing, and getting out of bed every day felt like climbing up a mountain. There was no end.
And all of this because she shared her thoughts about video games with the world.
Obviously, not all the victims of this sort of harassment are women. Indeed, I’ve been targeted for abuse and slander by some of the same people who’ve harassed Valenti. Nor are men the only harassers — AVFM’s Andrea Hardie is one of the site’s most vicious attack dogs.
But the people who have been on the receiving end of the most surrealistically over-the-top campaigns of abuse — Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Chanty Binx, and many others — have been women, with black women enduring some of the worst abuse. And their harassers, for the most part, seem to be male.
That’s what makes this not only a free speech issue but a civil rights issue. Women bear a disproportionate share of abuse online — amongst Guardian writers, eight of the ten who get the most abuse online are women, with Valenti taking the top spot — and women generally have more of a reason to fear the threats they get online.
But women have little recourse when it comes to actually doing anything about this abuse. Police — with only a few notable exceptions — don’t take online abuse seriously. Social media companies are glacially slow when it comes to shutting down obvious abusers, and arguably even worse about dealing with ban evaders.
I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me pretty clear that women are being denied equal protection of the laws.
That said, it is a bit of an oversimplification to talk about this in terms of the male-female gender binary, as Soraya Chemaly has noted. LGBT folks and others “who defy rigid gender and sexuality rules” are far more likely to be harassed and threatened online (and off) than their cis counterparts. They are also, quite clearly, being denied equal protection.
Threats against women online aren’t just crimes; in many cases they are hate crimes. Unless those who abuse and threaten women online face serious legal consequences for their actions, more women, like Valenti, are going to be forced offline.