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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In this week's magazine | The legacy of Europe's worst battle

A first look at this week's issue.

12-18 February issue
The legacy of Europe's worst battle

Cover story: The legend of Verdun
One hundred years on, Alistair Horne and David Reynolds on the ghosts of one of history’s deadliest battles – and the Franco-German alliance it forged.

The Politics Interview: The 1922 Committee chairman, Graham Brady, on why the PM must stay on post-Brexit.

Justin Webb: 2016 will be a horror show for the two big US political parties.

Helen Lewis glazes over while reading details of David Cameron’s EU negotiation package – and feels sorry for Chris Grayling and the Outers.

The NS Interview: Jason Cowley meets Peregrine Worsthorne.

Lynne Truss on her editing days and dealing with wayward writers.

In praise of the tie: Philip Norman on why a former badge of respectability is getting it in the neck at the BBC.

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: Why Tories want their mayoral contender, Zac Goldsmith, to book speaking lessons.


Cover story: The legend of Verdun

One hundred years on, Alistair Horne, the historian and author of The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, recalls a battle whose ghosts refuse to be exorcised. Although 2014 was the focus of British centennial memorials to the loss and sacrifice of the First World War, 1916, as Horne notes, was “a bloodier year still, the most costly one of the whole war – for both sides”:

It was the year of the Somme, and of Verdun. Between the Battle of the Marne in 1914 and General Erich Ludendorff’s last-gasp offensive in 1918, the Germans attacked only once to break the murderous stalemate called the Western Front: at Verdun on 21 February 1916. Sometimes likened to Stalingrad in 1942, Verdun usually doesn’t appear on British and US screens, because it was almost exclusively a “French v Germans” affair. And yet, perhaps above all the other First World War battlegrounds, the ghosts here refuse to die. They have been preserved largely by the character of the battle, which retains an evil reputation as the longest in any war, and the most intense in its horrors.

Horne recalls 22 September 1984 and the commemoration ceremony at which the then German chancellor, Helmut Kohl (whose father fought near Verdun in the First World War), and President François Mitterrand of France (who was taken prisoner by the Germans near Verdun in 1940) stood at Douaumont, holding hands for several minutes:

Since then, the killing fields of Verdun have become a healing place for Europe’s self-inflicted wounds of the past. To symbolise this, the small memorial chapel formerly known as Saint-Nicolas de Fleury, erected on the fragments of the old church in one of the battlefield’s lost villages, has been renamed “Notre-Dame de l’Europe”. Even the song of birds can be heard once more.


David Reynolds, presenter of the forthcoming BBC Radio 4 series Verdun: the Sacred Wound, explains how memories of the battle helped inspire a modern era of Franco-German co-operation at the heart of Europe:

In January 1963 [Charles] de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.


The Politics Interview – Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay.”

As chairman of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers and an essential barometer of Tory opinion. So what does this ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects for the EU referendum – and for afterwards? The NS’s political editor, George Eaton, caught him in Westminster before PMQs to find out.

Eaton asked Brady, who intends to campaign for British withdrawal from the EU, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expects to join him:

“It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

Many Tory MPs on both sides believe that David Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister if Britain were to vote to leave the EU – but Brady disagrees:

“No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that Brady referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

On the subject of Cameron’s successor, Brady rejects recent calls for a widening of the members’ ballot to include more than two candidates in the next Conservative leadership contest. But he predicts that one of the two will be an “Outer”:

“I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.”


Justin Webb: The GOP and the Democrats are both suffering from a reality gap.

The former North America editor for the BBC, Justin Webb, explains why 2016 will be a “horror show” for the big US parties, both of which are suffering from an ever-growing gap between rhetoric and reality:

Here’s where the Republican race gets tricky. The vague hope of the so-called moderates is that you put a vacuous establishment figure on the ticket (Marco Rubio fits this bill perfectly) and Billy-Bob’s your uncle. They will mutter some home truths – perhaps during a coughing fit, so that few people notice – and folks will calm down.

It won’t work. A GOP moderate could easily win the 2016 election but the task of rescuing the party for the longer term is much stiffer. Too much of the focus is on the sideshow of various constituencies the GOP needs to please (Hispanics, etc) and not enough on what the core of the modern Republican Party should be. Must creationism still be embraced for the Iowa caucuses? Is compromise with foes still anathema or, as it once was, a central part of US political life?

Surely, they also need to acknowledge that if there is an appeal to be made to Americans about keeping minimum wages low, reducing the national debt through spending cuts, even restricting abortion further, then heck: make the damned appeal! But on the basis of facts. Tell people what they might lose and what they might win. Be right-wing if that is what works – realistic analysts aren’t calling for the GOP to embrace West Wing soppiness. But be rigorous. And generous. Smile a bit.

The complicating factor in all of this is that the Democratic Party, which by rights should be licking its lips and preparing for another presidency, is in just as big a mess. In those decades of Republican confusion, the Democrats have charted a course every bit as unsatisfying to their emerging base.

The problem is much bigger than the Clintons’ relationship with Goldman Sachs. Hillary Clinton talks about her record of service but how has she changed the culture of America? Look at gay marriage, which has gone from deeply unacceptable to utterly unremarkable in many American states in the blink of an eye. A triumph for liberal-left values. But frankly the TV show Modern Family did more to help that cause than any senior Democrats, Barack Obama included. Even on gun control, Obama and Clinton have followed, not led.


Helen Lewis on “handwavium” and Subclause Syndrome in David Cameron’s EU renegotiation package.

In her column this week, the NS deputy editor, Helen Lewis, prepares herself for a fine-print read-through of David Cameron’s EU renegotiations:

After 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

[. . .]

Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Having read the draft renegotiation package, Lewis finds herself developing an unlikely sympathy for the Leader of the House of Commons:

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.


The NS Interview: Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on the lost magic of England, “superior people” and a long life at the heart of the establishment.

On discovering that the great Conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne is still a loyal New Statesman subscriber, the NS editor, Jason Cowley, sets off to meet the 92-year-old at the house he shares with his wife, Lucinda Lambton, in Buckinghamshire:

Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls.

[. . .]

A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities.

[. . .]

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation.

Worsthorne recalls a run-in with the journalist Andrew Neil, who became a target of the former’s remorseless ridicule:

. . . Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

The veteran journalist also remembers his ruthless sacking from the editorship of the Sunday Telegraph in 1989 – over breakfast at Claridge’s. Although he describes the paper’s columnist Charles Moore as an “interesting fellow”, Worsthorne has little time for the Telegraph today: “Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

On the questions of Scottish independence and Brexit, Worsthorne is vehemently against both:

“What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

Worsthorne admired Margaret Thatcher despite clashing with her over her government’s treatment of the miners during their strike in 1984-85:

“I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”


Philip Norman: In praise of the tie.

Although he has refused to wear one for most of his adult life, the author Philip Norman notes with a sense of sadness that the tie, which once had “a totemic significance” in Britain, is now getting it in the neck. The BBC is one of the worst offenders, he suggests:

The BBC, so long a bastion of sartorial correctness, positively encourages senior broadcasters to dress down as well as dumb down. I’m not talking about foreign correspondents such as John Simpson or Jeremy Bowen, who can hardly be expected to fuss around with ties in war zones; I mean studio-based political and economic pundits, for whom the essential qualification should be a little gravitas.

Not so for Evan Davis, who is apt to face his interviewees with a plunging décolletage, as if he can’t wait to be shot of international affairs and get down the disco. Nor for the terrible, yelping, gargling Robert Peston, who, in his last days as the Beeb’s economics editor – so great a superstar had he become – took to appearing not only tieless but jacketless.


Kevin Maguire: Commons Confidential.

This week, the NS’s chief snout at Westminster, Kevin Maguire, hears rumours of elocution lessons for the London mayoral contender Zac Goldsmith:

Tory colleagues are advising Zac Goldsmith, I hear, to invest a slice of his inherited £300m fortune in speaking lessons to help him stop sounding so disinterested. Laid-Back Zac appears to lull himself to sleep on public platforms and on TV. My informant whispered that cheeky Tory MPs have been cooking up a slogan – “Goldsmith: head and shoulders above Labour” – ahead of the tall, rich kid’s tussle with the pocket battleship Sadiq Khan to become the mayor of London.



Xan Rice on the unstoppable drift of top-flight, big-money
football to China.

Laurie Penny: There’s a new front in the battle to control women’s bodies: defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”.

Peter Wilby ponders the problem of speaking for England and celebrates the rise of Leicester City.

Maigret’s moral world: John Gray on Georges Simenon.

Will Self’s Real Meals: The forward march of Patisserie Valerie and Luke Johnson’s relentless campaign for Feedingsraum.

Michael Prodger on Bruegel without colour at the Courtauld and
the craft of the grisaille.

Rachel Cooke welcomes the triumphant return of
the BBC’s Happy Valley.


For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396