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.

Photo: Getty
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A clinically-approved birth control app is changing the way we think about contraception

The particle physicist Elina Berglund has created an app that is 99 per cent effective. 

Women around the world using the contraceptive pill have long complained to their friends about its perceived side effects – weight gain, acne, mood swings to name a few. Some more recent studies have verified that anecdotal evidence – a Danish study from 2013 confirmed that there was a 40 per cent increased risk of depression for women who were on the pill, compared to those who weren’t.

Frustration around the inadequacy or ill-suitability of certain methods of contraception is rife. One woman, Elina Berglund, decided to do something about it.

Formerly a particle physicist at CERN (and a member of the team responsible for the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle), Berglund co-founded Natural Cycles, a contraceptive app, with her husband Raoul Scherwitzl. Approved as a contraceptive app earlier this year, it is downloadable on a smartphone and relies on a relationship between body temperature and fertility to tell women when they're fertile.

But contraception campaigners have viewed the concept with caution. Widespread use of the pill, condoms, and diaphragms comes after decades of campaigns against reliance on "natural methods" – not to mention the opposition of religious organisations like the Catholic church. 

At first glance, Natural Cycles might not seem all that different from the Vatican-approved "rhythm method", which is based on observing the exact stages of a woman's fertility cycle and avoiding sex during ovulation. This can be, according to the NHS, up to 99 per cent effective – but in reality it is closer to 75 per cent, because "people can make mistakes". 

Users of Natural Cycles take their temperature daily and input it into the app (which costs £6.99 a month). The app then compares the figure to its own dataset and uses an algorithm based on Berglund's days from CERN. It also asks for other data, such as the dates of user's periods and whether they are planning for a pregnancy or not, to create a personalised calendar.

If it’s safe to have unprotected sex, then the in-app calendar will show up as green. If not, the in-app calendar will show up as red. On those red days, users should find methods of contraception if they aren’t seeking pregnancy.  

Menstrual tracking apps are all the rage (there are around 1,000 of them on the current Apple app store). But recent studies have shown that those apps are often inaccurate and lack any scientific basis. 

Natural Cycles, by contrast, carried out three clinical trials, each time expanding the dataset to reduce errors. The most recent, written up in Contraception, involved 22,785 women across 37 different countries in settings that mimicked real life. The co-authors pointed out that in instances of perfect use, one out of 100 women become pregnant accidentally. However, in instances of typical use, seven out of 100 women had the same result.

When Natural Cycles first gained publicity, Berglund pointed out to the press that “now they (women) have a new, clinically verified and regulatory approved option to choose from”. Berglund and Scherwitzl are looking into getting Natural Cycles prescribed on the NHS, like the pill.

So is Natural Cycles the future of family planning? The first thing to make clear is that the app cannot actually function as physical contraception – on “red” days, the app advises users to use a condom if they’re having sex and don’t want to get pregnant. It cannot prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases either. 

Nor is the app really marketed to those who may benefit from the most information about their sexual health – 16 to 25-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour. 

A spokesperson for Marie Stopes, the reproductive health NGO, said: "Apps to track fertility are a high-tech version of what women have been doing for years with a diary and a thermometer.

"For anyone trying to get pregnant, they might well help. However, if you want to avoid pregnancy, it’s much better to choose a reliable, long-acting modern method of contraception like an IUD or implant. Traditional methods, including tracking fertility, carry a much higher risk of unintended pregnancy."

The app relies on an algorithm, meaning it is only as effective as the data that it receives from users. It is also not free, which may exclude its usage by certain sections of society. A blog written for NHS Choices emphasised that the data collected in all the trials was collected from women who were already signed up for the product, making it likely that they had an incentive to continue with this specific additional contraceptive, as opposed to looking elsewhere. Even so, a third of users who had signed up still dropped out, potentially because of the maintenance required to get results from it. 

All the same, Natural Cycles has 380,000 users and counting. It has received clinical approval to be marketed as a medical device, and it seems to be meeting a need – 70 per cent of Natural Cycle's users come from hormonal contraception, according to Berglund. In her account of Natural Cycles in the Evening Standard, Kate Wills highlighted that the Apple Watch had all sorts of health inputs, but no way to track periods.  All kinds of apps exist to make modern life easier – why has it taken so long for one that addresses a concern for so many women to make its way into the mainstream?

The history of contraception is littered with examples of women being ignored. Early birth control studies vastly underplayed the potentially debilitating side effects of hormone fluctuations on women’s mental health and physical appearance, often treating users as though they were hysterical. Add into the equation the stigma around accessing contraceptives safely and non-judgementally, and it’s easy to see why a relatively painless and private form of contraception might be appealing. 

Natural Cycles may well work for some women – those who are in stable relationships, hoping to get pregnant and fastidious enough to note their temperature every morning. But it doesn’t prevent diseases, requires a steady commitment and – here's the clincher – can't take measurements when you’re hungover as alcohol can affect your temperature. There's also a big difference between the "perfect" use of the app, and the likelihood of pregnancy when used in a "typical" fashion. So long as that's the case, old-fashioned contraception seems unlikely to be swept away by a digital revolution.