There was a time when people had one answer to online harassment: “Don’t read the comments.” This week, it’s become painfully clear how harassment women endure online is not something we can fix by just ignoring it. Instead, in this era, online harassment can become a life and death issue.
Yesterday, feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a talk she planned to give at Utah State University after an anonymous person threatened to massacre her and the crowd. The threat came in an anonymous email, “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.” In a line reminiscent of Elliot Rodgers’ manifesto, the person claimed that “feminists have ruined my life” and then signed the note as Marc Lepine—the gunman who claimed he was “fighting feminism” when he murdered 14 women in Montreal in 1989. As she made clear on Twitter, Sarkeesian did not cancel the talk because of the threat—she has received many violent threats over the past two years—but because the school and local police could not adequately guarantee her safety. Utah law allows people to carry concealed weapons in all places—apparently even into a lecture hall where someone has threatened a massacre.
Reading this news makes me want to exit society. I want to head for the hills with a lifetime supply of burritos and cut off all contact with humanity. As Chanel Dubofsky points out on Role/Reboot, what we’re feeling now is sexism fatigue: the shock that the world can be this shitty combined with the sour knowledge that violent threats against an outspoken woman are not a surprise at all.
It’s absurd that Sarkeesian is facing any type of danger for criticizing video games. It’s absurd that those threats have been so numerous. It’s absurd that a state's gun laws make it unsafe for someone to deliver a lecture on a college campus. All of this backlash demonstrates the significance of pop culture: pointing out sexism in male-dominated fandoms stirs up an astoundingly virulent response. It also shows that the culture of trolling online is largely about power—trolls who devote their apparently ample personal time to threatening Sarkeesian’s every move are seeking power over her and other women. Sarkessian’s experience pulls together many ugly strings of rape culture—trolling, male violence, sexism in pop culture—and the resulting picture of our society is horrifying.
But while I’ve felt like curling up in a ball these past few months, Sarkeesian has been hoofing it. I’ve personally seen her speak twice in the past month, and both times were extremely articulate and insightful talks in front of warm, supportive crowds. At Seattle’s Geek Girl Con last weekend, nerdy folks packed her Saturday morning panel, meeting many of her comments with vociferous applause. A few weeks earlier at Portland art-and-technology festival XOXO, her pointed speech about harassment tactics targeting women won the weekend’s only standing ovation.
There are two things I’ve learned from this. One is that for every addled Utah men’s-rights activist with a passion for disrupting feminist speeches with terrorism, there are many, many people who are up excited about cheering feminism on. Geek culture is currently getting a very bad rap from men who get off on threatening women, but thousands of other people are determined to not let exclusion and male domination define the culture they hold dear. The other thing I’ve taken to heart is that if Sarkeesian isn’t giving up, we’re not allowed to either. Since she started the Tropes vs. Women series for Bitch in 2011, Sarkeesian has an onslaught of hate and, of course, lots and lots of support from people who have learned and grown thanks to her work. Through it all, she has remained committed to doing the work, churning out videos and speeches that have made a major impact on our culture. She does excellent, powerful work that demands to change. That’s why certain men are afraid of her.
It’s an overwhelming world out there. How are we supposed to challenge violent men? And gun-rights laws? And anonymous Internet fuckery? We don’t have to know all the solutions, but the one thing we definitely can’t do is turn a blind eye. As much as it’s tempting to ignore the scary realities that don’t immediately affect me, we won’t move forward by ignoring reality. Instead, I need to up my game. We all do. Clearly, lives depend on it.
Related Reading: Trolls Don't Just Want to Be Rude—They Want Power Over Us.
Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. She attends a lot of talks, apparently.