This is what online harassment looks like

Obscene images, hate sites and a game where people are invited to beat you up have been inflicted on Anita Sarkeesian.

When I first wrote about the sexist abuse of women online, collating the experiences of nearly a dozen writers, the response was largely positive. Many hadn't been aware there was a problem; they were shocked. Others had assumed that they were the only ones whose every word on the web was greeted with a torrent of abusive, threatening comments.

But a few reactions stood out, among them that of Brendan O'Neill, the Telegraph blogs section's resident contrarian. He wrote that feminist campaigners pointing this out was a "hilarious echo of the 19th-century notion that women need protecting from vulgar and foul speech". We were, he said, "a tiny number of peculiarly sensitive female bloggers" trying to close down freedom of speech.

The best response to that argument, incidentally, comes from Ally Fogg, who wrote recently:

What you fail to understand is that the use of hate speech, threats and bullying to terrify and intimidate people into silence or away from certain topics is a far bigger threat to free speech than any legal sanction.

Imagine this is not the internet but a public square. One woman stands on a soapbox and expresses an idea. She is instantly surrounded by an army of 5,000 angry people yelling the worst kind of abuse at her in an attempt to shut her up. Yes, there's a free speech issue there. But not the one you think.

I couldn't have put it better myself. As the months have gone on, and more "trolls" (or "online bullies", if you're a semantic stickler) have been exposed, the perception that what we're talking about when we talk about online harrassment is "a few mean comments" or an insult or two has grown.

On 12 June, I wrote about American blogger Anita Sarkeesian, who launched a Kickstarter programme to raise $6,000 to research "tropes vs women in videogames". Donating was - and I really can't stress this enough - completely voluntary. There are Kickstarters for all kinds of things: for example,  a "dance narrative featuring some of NYC's most compelling performers that celebrates the pursuit of love and the joys of imperfection" doesn't sound like my kind of thing, but God Bless Them, they are 89% funded towards their $12,000 goal. 

But a big swath of the internet wasn't prepared to live and let live in Sarkeesian's case, and began spamming her YouTube video comments with a pot-pourri of misogynist, racist and generally vile abuse. Each one individually was grim; together they constituted harassment. (You can read the full story in my blog here).

Since then, Anita Sarkeesian has been subjected to a good deal more harassment. Let's run through the list for anyone who still thinks this issue is about a few mean words.

Image-based harassment


This is the kind of stuff people have been sending to Sarkeesian's inbox, repeatedly, and posting on the internet in an attempt to game her Google Image search results. There have also been drawings of her in sexually degrading situations:

Both these sets of images are taken from Sarkeesian's blog post documenting the harassment (and are reproduced with her permission). They have been posted on the web generally, and also sent specifically to her Facebook page, Twitter account and YouTube channel. The second set show, in her words:

The first image depicts a woman drawn to resemble me who is tied up with a wii controller shoved in her mouth while being raped by Mario from behind. The second image is another drawing (clearly sketched to resemble me) featuring a chained nude figure on her knees with 5 penises ejaculating on her face with the words “fuck toy” written on her torso.

Hate sites

These take a couple of forms: either the creation of specific sites dedicated to trashing you (and again, to come up in Google searches of your name) or posting your details on established forums where haters like to hang out. In Sarkeesian's case, that has involved posting her phone number and address. It's hard to see that as anything other than an attempt to intimidate her: "We know where you live".

The interactive "Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian" game

This one is so incredible I had trouble believing it existed. 

It's an interactive game, inviting players to "beat up Anita Sarkeesian".

As you click the screen, bruises and welts appear on her face.

I find this fairly disturbing - the idea that somewhere out there is a man - a 25-year-old from Sault Ste Marie, a city in Ontario, Canada, who was offended enough by Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project that he made this.

In the description accompanying the games, he adds:

Anita Sarkeesian has not only scammed thousands of people out of over $160,000, but also uses the excuse that she is a woman to get away with whatever she damn well pleases. Any form of constructive criticism, even from fellow women, is either ignored or labelled to be sexist against her.

She claims to want gender equality in video games, but in reality, she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path.

Some of the commenters on the game have expressed disgust, but not all of them. One wrote:

You are so right, sir. It's the execution which lets this game down.

Wikipedia Vandalism

I wrote about this in the initial post, so I'll be brief here: Sarkeesian's Wikipedia page was repeatedly hacked with crude messages and porn images, until it was locked. This went hand in hand with...


Hacking is gaining entrance to someone's private data or website, while DDOSing - using "denial of service" attacks - involves sending a website's server so many requests to load the page that it crashes.

That's what happened to Sarkeesian's site as her story got shared around the world. This image was posted as a way of bragging about taking it down:


Personal Life

Sarkeesian is rare in sharing so much of the harassment that she has been subjected to -- and it's a brave choice for her to make. Every time I write about this subject, I get a few emails from women who've been through the same thing (and I'm sure there are men, too). They tell me much the same story: this happened to them, but they don't want to talk publicly about it, because they don't want to goad the bullies further. 

If you were Anita Sarkeesian, how would you feel right now? She's somebody with a big online presence through her website, YouTube channel and social media use. All of that has been targeted by people who - and I can't say this enough - didn't like her asking for money to make feminist videos. 

I think Sarkeesian has been incredibly courageous in sharing what's happened to her. Those obscene pictures are intended to shame her, to reduce her to her genitals, and to intimidate her. 

I'm sure there's plenty here which breaks the law - both in the UK and the US. But the solution here probably isn't a legal one: it's for everyone involved to have some basic human decency. This isn't just a few rude words, and it isn't OK. 

An online game invites players to "beat up Anita Sarkeesian".

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Easing gender recognition rules is about more than convenience – it's a step towards bodily autonomy

Amendments to the legal process are a small victory on the way to a much bigger goal.

Growing up and coming out as a young trans person in the shadow of the Gender Recognition Act, I was constantly met with stories of medical professionals refusing to validate or support my friends and partners.

Swathes of trans people were forced into claiming a stake in maleness or femaleness, that didn’t reflect their non-binary identity. For years, I felt that any attempt to medically transition, or to take steps to be recognised in the eyes of the law, would be met with ridicule or disdain.

As a non-binary person, I heard and still hear countless stories of trans people like me forced to lie about their identity, existing in their own spaces as complicated and beautiful creatures, only to pigeon-hole themselves into rigid forms of gender.

The wider implications of the act and its rigid fixation on gender normativity where damaging. Trans men I knew were routinely told that experimenting with make-up, or feminine presentation, were grounds to be denied a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). Similarly, any sign of masculinity in a trans woman would be used as proof that her desire to legally change gender was little more than a fetishistic romp. 

It's for these reasons that I greet the news that the act is to be reformed with cautious, but excited optimism. The amendments, which will make it easier for people to change gender on their birth certificate and be recognised as a man, woman or non-binary person, should be celebrated as an important and fundamental step in the long-fought struggle for transgender liberation.

The removal of gender dysphoria as a diagnostic criteria, and the re-assessment of the need to “live as one's chosen gender” for arbitrary periods of time, herald a new understanding of our lives in the eyes of the law, and the beginning of what hopefully will be a gradual move away from the pathological and essentialist view of trans identity the legislation currently takes.

Maria Miller's announcement, taken at face value, is a commitment to the attempted rebranding of the Conservative Party's relationship with the LGBTQ community, a tribute to what Theresa May envisages as a move away from the image of the “nasty party”.

Yet it is from within the Tory party that the harshest condemnation of the amendments has come. Mary Douglas, of the Grassroots Conservatives, has compared calling a trans person by their chosen gender to agreeing with an anorexic's delusion of fatness. Her comments would be laughably risible if they were not so offensive. To equate the constant self-destructive dangers of anorexia with the positive realisation of one's gender is patently absurd. Agreeing with an anorexic's belief in their weight is deadly – agreeing with a trans person's chosen gender is often life-saving.

As long as a valid GRC remains a pivotal step in accessing NHS gender services, we must fight tooth and nail against the Douglases of this the world, who ironically would rather see a drastic decline in the mental health of trans people than any steps to relieve the constant pressure and stress of living under transphobia.

In a far more literal sense, the easing of access to a GRC can prove pivotal to the survival of some of our most marginalised community members. There is an ongoing and severe problem with the placement of transgender women in male prisons, which was put under the spotlight by the tragic suicide of Vicki Thompson.

Her death brought to the forefront a crisis barely spoken about outside trans circles. If a trans woman in prison lacks the relevant GRC, they are assigned to a male facility. While the wider issue of trans prisoners itself could fill another whole article, it is cruel, worrying and dangerous that something as arbitrary as a GRC determines the placement of prisoners.

Frequently, stories come out of trans women in prisons subject to harrowing sexual, physical and emotional violence. That this can be prevented by the simple possession of a GRC must surely show not only how important it is to fight for them to become accessible, but also how fundamentally broken our approach to trans issues is.

Removing hurdles put in the way of trans people by the current system is much more than simple convenience. It is part of the continued struggle for bodily autonomy, for liberation, and for a world where we are free to exist as our authentic selves. I am not naive enough to believe that these reforms alone will secure this. I have my own criticisms, and yet again find myself excluded by our government’s lack of non-binary gender markers.

But for the trans man turned away from hormones for lipstick, the trans woman denied electrolysis for wearing trousers, the Vicki Thompsons of the world forced into violent and dangerous situations, we must understand, this is a small victory. And it is a step on the road to a far bigger one.

Marilyn Misandry is a trans activist and performance artist from Manchester. Her work focuses on existing as a radical trans person