When women like Adria Richards speak out against sexism and misogyny, they’re met with rape threats and/or fired
The Adria Richards story isn’t a new one: Woman publicly says something about sexism. The internet hoards descend. Woman is on the receiving end of rape and death threats. Woman disappears for a while, sometimes forever. Commentators who believe themselves to be “reasonable” pontificate on everything woman could have done differently to avoid such a fate, and suggest that women who object to sexism or sexualized workplaces just need to have a sense of humor. Or be less difficult. Or ask politely for change. Or don’t get so hysterical. Or be less sensitive because the internet is a mean place, and rape threats are just words.
Adria Richards. Kathy Sierra. Anita Sarkeesian. Zerlina Maxwell. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The details of the latest incarnation of this story involve Adria Richards, a developer evangelist for the company SendGrid. Adria went to the PyCon conference last weekend, and during a talk overheard two men sitting behind her making dumb sexual jokes about dongles and forking. She turned around and took their picture, then posted it on Twitter along with a basic summary of what they said. PyCon conference organizers intervened and said the situation was “dealt with”.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. One of the jokesters was fired from his job. The other, who worked at the same company, was not. Angry about this apparent travesty, internet harassers came out in full force. Richards’ own site and that of her employer, SendGrid, were subject to denial-of-service attacks. Richards was personally bombarded with rape and murder threats. Someone sent her a photo of a naked, decapitated bound woman’s body with the caption “When I’m done.” A concerted effort began on 4chan to get Richards fired. Instead of standing up for an employee in the face of rape and death threats, SendGrid caved. It fired Richards because, in short, she was a trouble-maker.
Of course it’s possible to disagree with Richards’ actions while still focusing on the real problem: misogyny online and in tech spaces. But it’s really not possible to pontificate at length on what Richards should have done without obscuring the fact that when women speak out, we’re met with rape threats.
Others, most notably Deanna Zandt in Forbes, have explained why the focus on what Richards could have done differently is the wrong question. It’s a question routinely lobbed at women who are sexually victimized: Why did you go home with him if you didn’t want to have sex? Why did you drink so much? Why did you wear that? Why did you stay at that party? Why were you walking down that street? Why didn’t you yell louder or fight back harder? Why did you fight back, knowing it would only make him angry?
If it sounds like I’m comparing the people who threaten Richards with rape to actual rapists, and the people who tacitly justify those threats with hand-wringing over what Richards could have done differently to rape apologists, it’s because I am. Despite attempts to characterize the internet as a space suspended outside of “real” life, cyberspace is real. It is a place where actual human beings connect, communicate, mobilize and work. And online harassment and misogyny very closely parallel harassment, misogyny and sexual violence in the “real” world.
Long before the internet, the law in England and early America offered little recognition of women as sovereign beings. Rape was a crime only when it was perpetrated against an unmarried virgin; even then, it was a crime against her father, whose property was presumed damaged. Under coverture laws, married women were legally absorbed into their husbands, and had no individual legal rights to own property, file lawsuits or say no to sex. “Proper” women were in the home. “Public” women were prostitutes, whose sexual availability was presumed to be virtually unlimited, and whose unchastity meant they had no legal right to be free of sexual assault. Slaves, as property, were routinely and legally raped by their owners. Even after slavery ended, black women raped by white men almost never saw justice.
As women gained greater social status and secured a wider array of legal and economic rights, the laws changed, though rarely quickly or thoroughly enough. Rape turned into a crime against an individual woman, but evidence of her past sexual relationships, clothing or unrelated behavior was repeated allowed into evidence. Rape statutes required that a victim respond to an assault with the utmost force, and often required corroborating evidence or eyewitness accounts to secure a conviction. In practice, accused rapists often walked if a jury could be convinced that the victim didn’t fight back hard enough or didn’t seem like a nice, chaste girl.
In the much discussed Steubenville, Ohio case, defense attorneys for two young men charged with assaulting an unconscious teenage girl argued that she consented because she was so drunk that she couldn’t have said no. Her assailants, too, were such nice boys – they received fawning media coverage before, during and after the trial. The local football coach, who allegedly knew about the rape and tried to cover it up, still has a job. Whether the case would have even been brought to trial without the dogged efforts of a blogger (who, for her service, was rewarded with a lawsuit) and eventual New York Times coverage is an open question.
There will always be something that a victim could have done differently. But there’s no universal path to avoiding sexual victimization or workplace harassment or run-of-the-mill misogyny. There is, however, a near-universal path to getting away with those things: Blame the victim. Focus on what she did, instead of the actions the perpetrators chose to take. Distract from the real problem by pretending the problem is her.
The problem here is misogyny, online and off. It’s a culture that has long conflated women in public with sexual availability, and punished public, presumably sexually available women with sexual violence. It’s a cohort of trusted intellectuals – the legal system, big-name writers – positioning themselves as fair and rational by critiquing a victim’s actions as much as violence and harassment. It’s not just raping “bad girls” and issuing rape threats to women online; it’s saying, “Yes, what those boys did was wrong, but let’s also look at the role that alcohol played in putting her in that position” and “Yes, rape threats are terrible, but she really shouldn’t have tweeted that picture.” It’s the impulse to remove gender and race analysis — arguing that men get death threats, too, or that Richards is simply “difficult” and not perhaps only perceived that way because she’s a black woman pushing back against the norms of a mostly white, mostly male industry.
It’s always possible to explain way an unpleasant situation. There’s always something that could have been done differently. But perhaps it’s time to stop hunting around for how victims could have more effectively prevented their own victimization. Instead, let’s look at the established patterns of sexualized threats online – there have certainly been enough of them. Internet misogyny isn’t its own separate thing, existing independent of real-world misogyny. The two mirror each other, and the norms and assumptions that enable rapists are the same ones that enable rape threats online.
We shouldn’t accept rape and death threats as a woman’s price of admission to the internet. We shouldn’t accept rape and death threats as a consequence of not playing by the always-shifting rules of the online boys’ club. We shouldn’t accept rape and death threats as punishment for making trouble, not asking politely or somehow behaving outside of the bounds of geek social culture. We certainly shouldn’t punish women on the receiving end of those threats, as SendGrid did when it fired Richards.
Change only comes when we stand with those who are wronged – even the loud ones, the imperfect ones and the trouble-makers.
Money | guardian.co.uk
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