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.

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How the sports industry inspired us to become less active

Sport’s obsession with being “inspirational” doesn't help public-health interventions – it hinders them.

A year before the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, the nadir of English football’s fortunes, the original New Times debate mapped precisely the forces that would transform this venerable but declining working-class game into the global commercial spectacular that is the Premier League. The new communications technologies and their global reach would be shaped by private rather than public interests (privately owned clubs, not the Football Association) and by the market, not the state (Sky rather than the BBC).

That debate also recognised the relentless individualistic consumerism that has driven the continuing success of sport in Britain: we now have record levels of gym membership, buy more sports goods than before, and watch more sport on ever more devices. If newspapers and internet chat rooms are anything to go by, we read more and talk more about sport than we used to. The New Year honours lists suggest we accord it ever more social weight.

What the New Times thinkers failed to note, however, was that we would be consuming most of this sport sitting down and with distinctly bigger waistlines. In the years since the London 2012 Olympics, Britain – already perilously sedentary – has been exercising even less. In the late 1950s the average weight was 65 kilograms (10.2 stone) for men and 55 kilograms (8.7 stone) for women. Today those figures are 84 kilograms (13.2 stone) and 70 kilograms (11 stone), respectively, with nearly a quarter of adults classed as obese.

It has become clear that a central legacy of the deindustrialisation of the 1980s was an increasingly sedentary life, made worse by the collapse of public transport, the relentless motorisation of everyday life and the difficulty of cycling as a mode of transport. This was compounded by the entrenchment of the snacking and fast-food industries, which helped shift the nation’s already poor eating habits in the direction of sugar. The fortunes of the McDonald’s chain can stand proxy for the process. It took ten years, from 1974 to 1984, for the company to reach 100 outlets in the UK; over the next two decades it increased its presence twelvefold.

Under successive governments, school playing fields, public commons, parks and municipal leisure facilities, already dilapi­dated and many of them of Edwardian vintage, were either sold off or abandoned. Our own era has added to this litany; digital screens continue to multiply and unsupervised play has collapsed following concerns about children’s safety.

All this at a time when our elite athletes are prospering. Yes, England may not have won the football World Cup, but its rugby union team is the Six Nations champion. Its cricketers have won the Ashes. The Premier League is hailed as the world’s best and richest. Team GB has had an ever-increasing haul of Olympic laurels, and has showcased and celebrated women’s and disability sports as never before. How, in an era of such “inspirational” sporting success, can we in fact be exercising less?

We need to start from the idea that sport, even the Premier League, is just the rule-bound, competitive end of a much wider spectrum of physical culture and ways of playing. Sport has its special place in this culture – fun runs, Zumba classes and personal training sessions do not offer athletic brilliance, narrative complexity or collective ecstasy – but the world-views of commercial and elite sport should not be given special importance. Indeed, there is good reason, in their present form, to disregard them altogether.

In the world of elite sport, decision-making is meant to be “performance based”, so it is remarkable how immune it is to arguments that more star athletes do not translate into a healthier population. Perhaps it is true that future Olympians will be inspired by role models during their youth. For most children, however, the mundane reality is that parents, peers, schooling, wealth and access to infrastructure are the primary determinants of participation. One reason why levels of exercise have fallen is that household budgets don’t stretch to dance classes, swimming lessons and the like.

Where there is a clear and established path out of poverty through professional sport – football in most parts of the world, baseball in the Dominican Republic, athletics in Jamaica – the commercial spectacular continues to feed the grass roots with hope, if not resources. And given the make-up of its labour force, the English Premier League seems to be doing most of its best work outside of the country.

Sport’s obsession with being “inspirational” is a hindrance to public-health interventions, not a help. We need to be cajoling, entreating, even tricking people into activity. While some will want to go to the “next level” or “just do it ”, others might be quite happy to wander around their own level, or “just about do it”. We need to ask people to dance and invite them to play. It is clear enough from comparable countries such as Finland and Denmark that the precondition for an active and healthy nation is getting more people moving about by walking, cycling and, where conditions allow, skateboarding, skiing and skating. For a fraction of the cost of the HS2 rail link and, I suspect, with much greater social and economic benefits, we could make a significant start on this.

Our priorities need to shift in other ways, too. Children should continue to be an important concern, but the sports industry’s fetishisation of youth must be countered by an equal concern with getting the disabled and the elderly to be more active. Indeed, there may be bigger health gains to be made here for each pound spent. Given current trends, informal running, swimming and gym use will account overwhelmingly for our calorie-burning. But are we building and maintaining the infrastructure that makes this type of exercise possible, and offering prices that make it affordable?

It is worth returning to two initiatives of the last Labour government – the Playbuilder scheme and school sport partnerships – which were either scrapped or diluted by the coalition government in 2010. The first created a small central fund to support the creation of new playgrounds; the second established grass-roots networks that stitched together educational and sporting institutions of all kinds. Both could be revived, devolved and expanded significantly.

But why stop at playgrounds? Why just schools and sports? Add urban running zones, cycle networks and a new generation of lidos. Sports clubs and facilities should be plugged in to the health and social-care systems, and a new generation of innovative, grass-roots sports NGOs should be brought into the network.

None of this is to suggest that we should stop trying to shape and regulate the commercial sporting spectacular, or the governance of sport, or that we should even drastically reduce the funding for elite Olympians. This last costs considerably less than the annual wage bill of a smaller Premier League club. There is an important agenda of opening up, democratising and diversifying sports governance, as well as addressing sport’s intersecting crises of corruption, doping and crass commercialism.

However, what needs to end is this: the risible notion that globalised, commercial sporting spectaculars are models for running our institutions, or the route to an active and healthier society.

David Goldblatt is the author of “The Ball Is Round: a Global History of Football” and “The Game of Our Lives” (both Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times