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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A night in my old room, with the sink, the Wisdens, and the prospect of “full genitality”

The mirror is still there, though, into which I would, as Nigel Molesworth put it, gaze at my strange unatural (sic) beauty, and ask what purpose it served.

In my old bedroom, again. This is, at least, a matter of choice. Monday evenings and Tuesday mornings are now spent in the family home so that I can keep my father company and give my mother a chance to go to her choir practice, on Mondays, and her art class, on Tuesdays. (I suddenly asked myself today: what if my mother were rubbish at these things? She’s not, though – especially not at the singing, as anyone who saw her on Broadway or NBC back in the day can attest. As for her art, I couldn’t paint to her standard even if I applied myself to nothing else for years.)

Anyway: I find myself, after a 12-year hiatus, once again intimately concerned about a close family member’s capacity to eat, sleep, and move without injury, only this time the concern is directed towards the previous generation rather than the next one. That’s the way it goes, and from the way events are moving, it looks as though I will have only the briefest of respites from such cares until the close family member whom I worry about falling over, or worse, will be me.

And as if this temporal confusion were not enough, I now find myself once again in the room where I spent the years 1972-85, from childhood to young adulthood, learning how to leave the room. I didn’t have an unhappy childhood, apart from the unhappiness I brought to it. Which was considerable, and not so much from a gloomy nature as from the early realisation that anyone who thought things in the outside world were just dandy really wasn’t paying attention. The chafing, constantly under-entitled condition of childhood itself didn’t make things any better.

The old room has been repurposed now as a kind of art studio: but the thick blue curtains are still there, there is a sofa-bed in place of my own old bed (on which my youngest son now sleeps, perhaps absorbing its melancholy, like radon seeping from the rocks, while he sleeps), but it is in the same place; the little sink in the corner, into which I would piss and occasionally puke, is still there, but the taps have jammed solid. The mirror is still there, though, into which I would, as Nigel Molesworth put it, gaze at my strange unatural (sic) beauty, and ask what purpose it served.

For the main thing that bothered me in that room, from 1975 on, was of achieving, in the Freudian phrase, full genitality – or getting laid. Once this question arose, it became impossible to dislodge, and when I say I spent every hour of every day worried that I would somehow die before I lost my cherry, I do not mean I thought about it once an hour. No: I thought about it through all of every hour, of every day. And night. Even my dreams had only one subject.

Of course, it wasn’t just the brute urges of the body. The heart, or the soul, if you wish, yearned, too; and the idea of finding someone who could satisfy both carnal and spiritual selves seemed so perfect that it also seemed unattainable. So, to distract myself, I would read; and once I was tall enough to peer over a bar without standing on tiptoe, I would go to the local pub and have a couple of pints of Guinness, which would be enough to get my 14-year-old body sozzled. (How on earth did I manage that? I was small for my age and shaving was as remote a prospect as sex, but somehow I had the kind of bearing which convinced barmen that it was OK to serve me. I wonder if it is somehow my fault that there are now signs everywhere saying you’re going to be asked for proof of age if you look under 25. Twenty-five!)

So, in 2015, as I retrace the familiar steps and retire to bed, I look for reading matter. Most of my books are dispersed (quite a few of them in boxes in the loft above, creating ominous cracks in the ceiling beneath), but there are a few survivors; a P G Wodehouse or two, a set of Wisdens, much loved, from 1974-85. I pull out the 1974 edition and read of the promising young Somerset players Ian Botham and I V A Richards and their proud captain, Brian Close. I had forgotten he’d captained Somerset. (This was a week before his death.)

I turn the light off. The curtains in my old room shut out the light; in the Hovel it never gets dark, the street never wholly quiet. East Finchley, at night, is as silent as the grave. And the lines from Marvell pop into my head before I fall asleep. You know the ones? “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide