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/DDOSing

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.

Prince Harry. Photo: Getty
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Robert Webb: Prince Harry was right to speak about his mental health. No one should "man up"

The taboos surrounding mental health and talking therapy, particularly when it comes to men, remain very real to many of us.

You think you’ve got something radical to say and then two princes of the realm go and agree with you. Terrific. Thanks, lads. I’ve never claimed to have much street cred but this is the limit. I’ve written a funny book about the harmful restrictions of masculinity and now, apparently, it comes with implicit royal approval. What shall I do next? A play about the ticket prices at Ascot? An outrageous podcast claiming that, as Kingsley Amis wrote, “nice things are nicer than nasty ones”?

As you may know, Prince Harry recently popped his head above the parapet to say that he’d spent 20 years burying it in the sand. Trying to deal with the death of his mother by ignoring it hadn’t really worked out for him, he said. A day or so later his brother agreed. The Duke of Cambridge warned of the dangers of keeping a “stiff upper lip” and said that his exposure to suicide through his work as an air ambulance pilot had been grimly enlightening. William correctly noted that in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45.

The reaction has been broadly positive and I’m glad. The men and women who can usually be relied on to tell other people to “man up” or “grow a pair” have shown a surprising ability to shut the hell up. As I write, I’m keeping an eye on Katie Hopkins’s Twitter account, but even the original ghost at the masculinity circle-jerk has gone quiet. The power of royalty, eh? When the message comes from an actor, the defenders of old gender roles have some kind of fit. When it comes from a couple of princes who also happen to be trained soldiers, The Man is given reason to pause. Good.

But the taboos surrounding mental health and talking therapy, particularly when it comes to men, remain very real to many of us. Why men in particular? Because of the rules that we were taught as boys, as opposed to the ones taught to girls. It begins in childhood, which is why I’ve approached the subject through a childhood memoir.

Many of us dragged these rules through adolescence and into a half-formed adulthood. It’s the one about emotional repression that causes most trouble. “Stop crying, man up, shrug it off, bottle it up, stop crying, man up, shrug it off, bottle it up . . .” over and over again: not always explicitly, not always unkindly, but present in the million little cues and signals of disapproval that boys receive when it looks like they’re about to express fear, pain, guilt, anxiety or grief.

We all have to suck it up temporarily when we’re in pain. I’m just suggesting that, for men, this should be an exception, not a rule, and certainly not a badge of honour. I don’t mind telling you that I’ve got several dogs in this fight. Like Harry, I lost my mother when I was young. Not at 12 but at 17, and not in an accident but to a fast-moving cancer. Still, that hurt, to put it mildly. And I was baffled by well-meaning people telling me I should talk about it. “Talk about what?” I wondered. “Talking won’t change anything. The facts are the facts. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just get drunk, contemplate suicide regularly and treat my girlfriend like shit.”

It doesn’t need to be like this. Men can be fierce in defence of good principles without acting like psychopaths; men can be gentle without being thought of as quiche-wielding crybabies; men can argue with their partners stubbornly but respectfully; men can value work while equally valuing their home life and friendships; men can love women without lying to them; men can take responsibility for their own health without needing to be prompted; men can treat women as equals in the workplace without being seen as predatory; men can break out of the box of wonky stereotypes and false virtues; men can earn a genuine pride and self-respect; men can talk about their feelings. Men can be magnificent.

What we have to accept is that gender conditioning – being told how to act because of our sex – didn’t just happen to girls. It happened to boys, too, and it was another pack of lies. This system of thought is partly what gender critics refer to when they write about “the patriarchy”. It’s a term I avoid in the book because, y’know . . . I want people to read it. But it’s a set of mental and cultural habits which is out to restrict the full potential of men, women and those for whom these categories have always been a meaningless burden. I am a product of that environment, and resisting it – even noticing it – is easier said than done. I oppose it with a brain and personality formed by it. This might be why you don’t hear so much from male feminists: frankly, it’s a headfuck.

Any man can fall in love but if he wants to spend the rest of his life in partnership with one person and raise children, that’s going to take work. The feminist writer bell hooks unblushingly calls it “the work of love” and we should stop blushing, too. It’s a job for which, even in my mid-thirties, I found myself ill-equipped: the work of love, the work of companionship, the work of understanding, the work of humility and gentleness. These are skills that, in so many cases, we still teach boys to despise. We tell the gentle ones to get tough and the tough ones to get tougher. We do it in the absurd belief that we are preparing them for a difficult life. In fact, we hobble them. We leave them unprepared for adversity and almost entirely unprepared for love. They are our children. They deserve better. 

“How Not To Be a Boy” by Robert Webb will be published in August by Canongate and is available for pre-order

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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