Why Tech Companies Don’t Understand Online Abuse

[Content note: online harassment and threats]

I’ve been hearing from several people, such as @thetrudz and Oolon, that Twitter is now making tweets with links to other tweets show up in the mentions of the person whose tweet is linked to. I tested it myself and it didn’t happen, so I’m guessing the feature is being rolled out gradually.

I haven’t seen any announcement about this yet, but assuming it’s accurate and happening, I think this is a good opportunity to talk about what I see as a fundamental disconnect between how tech companies and their employees see things, and how people like me and my friends and fellow writers see things.

A lot of the Twitter/Facebook/etc ethos is all about sharing and openness. Sure, there are some privacy settings; you can make your Facebook posts friends-only or certain-lists-only, and you can make your tweets protected. But otherwise, Facebook and Twitter and their respective engineers and designers really don’t grok how crucial privacy is for a lot of people.

You saw this, too, when Twitter briefly changed its block functionality to allow blocked users to continue to follow and RT their blockers; the blockers just wouldn’t know that they did so. After a large backlash, Twitter reversed the change.

Likewise with the recent Storify controversy, where neither Twitter nor Storify’s upper management could understand why people were so upset about being sent notifications that their tweets were being Storified, and why they were so upset that someone who had been reported many times for harassment and abuse could continue to use Storify and to archive others’ tweets using it. Eventually the service finally blocked online stalker Elevatorgate’s ability to send notifications to the users whose tweets he would creepily Storify dozens of times per day, but they still did not deactivate his account, even though it should have been painfully obvious to anyone who engaged with the critiques even marginally that the Elevatorgate account was intended to intimidate women.

And now with this apparent change. Whoever at Twitter decided to rewrite the code so that links to tweets appear in the OP’s mentions probably thought, “Oh hey, here’s another way to help people participate in conversations!” Whereas many people who link to tweets rather than replying or retweeting are probably thinking, “I really need to talk about this thing that’s going on while flying under the radar of the scary/horrible person who said it.”

Here’s the thing: not everyone wants to see everything that’s being said about them. Not everyone wants anyone whose tweets or work they’re trying to discuss to necessarily have easy access to the posts, even if they understand that the posts are public and could theoretically be found by the person they’re about. That’s why many people consider it a Twitter faux pas to respond to someone’s criticism of someone by tagging that person into the conversation when they hadn’t previously been. I don’t always want every asshole comedian or conservative writer to have easy access to the things I say about them, even though I accept that there’s a certain risk that they’ll stumble upon the posts. It’s just like, don’t make it easier for them, kay?

This is a significant disconnect. I understand why these tech dudes don’t get it, since they’ve probably never had to wonder, “How do I warn my friends and followers about this abusive person while minimizing the risk of said person turning on me and threatening me with rape and death?” They have had to wonder, “How do I connect with more people on this platform and know when people are discussing my work?” Those are the sorts of concerns that feel most immediate to them. As I’ve written before, many men are not at all cognizant of the abuse that gets heaped on women and others unless they see it for themselves, and you’re not going to see some troll tweeting garbage at a woman on Twitter unless you go out looking for it.

When confronted with this disconnect, many tech executives and PR people get really defensive and start dragging out tired cliches about heat and kitchens. Setting aside for now the fact that an Internet without any of the people who are currently getting harassed and abused on it would be a really boring place, these guys don’t understand that it’s not actually that difficult to give people the tools they need to control what they see online and who sees their stuff online, and there are a lot of reasons people might want these tools even if they’re not subject to the sort of harassment and abuse that some of us are. Plenty of people have creepy, borderline-stalky exes. Plenty of people would like to prevent their parents or employers from seeing some or all of their posts. Plenty of people get annoying trolls–not necessarily the horrifyingly violent ones, but just the ones that make being online kind of a drag.

In general, openness and transparency can be very positive forces, for personal lives and for political movements both. We see evidence of this all the time. But at their best, openness and transparency empower people, and people who have lost the ability to control information about themselves and their lives can’t possibly be empowered.

Until these developers listen to the people using their platforms, these platforms will continue to make changes that drastically increase risk for marginalized people, and they will continue to refuse to make the changes that would decrease the risk instead.

“I regret my abortion.”

[Content note: abortion, partner abuse]

The use of “I regret my abortion” as an argument against legalized abortion is nothing new, but I’ve been seeing it a lot lately in pro-life protests, such as this one at the Texas Capitol. (Yes, that is a man you see there with the sign.)

There are many things that are infuriating about this tactic, such as its implication that your own emotions can be used to legislate everyone else’s reproductive rights and its blatant appeal to emotion rather than reason (“But I regret my abortion! Look how sad I am! Wouldn’t you want to keep others from being so sad?”).

An argument like this also makes it really easy for pro-choicers to look like insensitive assholes, because our position is, simplistically, that your feelings about your own abortion don’t really matter in this debate. They don’t.

Of course, I care about people’s emotions. If having an abortion is going to be something you regret deeply for the rest of your life, I agree that you, personally, should not have an abortion. If you have already had an abortion and you regret it as painfully as these protesters do, then I think you should see a counselor who can help you.

But I don’t think your regret has any relevance whatsoever in public policy, and I think the argument from regret is completely baseless. Here’s why.

1. Humans do plenty of utterly regrettable things that we nevertheless don’t legislate.

This is, of course, the really obvious point. People regret plenty of their sexual experiences, but we don’t make those illegal (well…some try). People put dumb things on the internet that they shouldn’t and that follow them around forever, but it’s not illegal to put dumb things that follow you around forever on the internet. I’m no Libertarian, but I do essentially believe that people should be free (within reason) to make this own dumb shitty choices and learn from them on their own.

There are plenty of regrettable things that we legally regulate, but not because people feel bad about them later–because they have negative consequences that extend beyond an individual person’s regret (see below).

There are also regulations that prevent businesses from keeping people from amending their poor decisions after the fact, but that’s also not the same thing.

2. In fact, conservatives make fun of liberals for this shit.

Well, for what they perceive to be this shit. Conservatives and Libertarians are always attacking things like soda bans and cigarette taxes by claiming that the Nanny State is trying to save us from ourselves. Of course, the rationale for policies like these isn’t “Yeah but but you’ll regret it later!!”; it’s the fact that soda and cigarettes and trans fats have tremendous public health consequences. I don’t know how I feel about these policies yet, but the point is that the pro-lifers are doing the exact same thing they perceive liberals to be doing (whether or not that is actually what liberals are doing).

3. The majority of women who have abortions do not regret them.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported this:

Two years postabortion, 301 (72%) of 418 women were satisfied with their decision; 306 (69%) of 441 said they would have the abortion again; 315 (72%) of 440 reported more benefit than harm from their abortion; and 308 (80%) of 386 were not depressed.

The researchers noted, “Most women do not experience psychological problems or regret their abortion 2 years postabortion, but some do. Those who do tend to be women with a prior history of depression.”

On the contrary, people who get abortions tend to report feeling happy or relieved. If pro-lifers could only develop some theory of mind and imagine how another person might feel, they would realize that ending a pregnancy that you didn’t want, that has health risks for you, or that is going to produce a child that you don’t have the resources of willingness to raise would be a relief.

Of course, the fact that most people who get abortions don’t regret them doesn’t mean that nobody does. (Indeed, that’s…how the word “most” works.) At that point, you get into the dicey question of what exactly the proportion of abortion patients who later regret it must be to justify banning abortion. Clearly it doesn’t need to be a majority by their reasoning. Or I’m being overly charitable and they don’t realize that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

4. When people do regret abortions, what actually causes that regret?

I don’t have data on this so I’m just speculating, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the stigma of abortion and of accidental pregnancy and of being a woman who does not want children (right now or ever) plays a role. The actual cost of abortion probably plays a role, too.

It could also be that you really want the baby, but realize that you’re not in a good place to raise a child right now. Someone in this situation could certainly regret their abortion a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong decision.

Tragically, people are sometimes pressured or coerced into getting abortions. This is more of an issue in places like China than it is in the United States, but it happens. I personally know of a few cases like this.

Forcing a partner to get an abortion is abuse. The problem here is not with the abortion itself; it’s with the fact that someone’s partner is abusing them. Abuse can, of course, go in many directions. Sometimes people’s partners prevent them from using birth control and thus force them to get pregnant; likewise, the problem here isn’t with pregnancy itself, but with the abuse that caused it.

Pro-lifers are aware of coerced abortions and use them as a pro-life argument. For instance, abortion restrictions often require having the patient sign a waiver stating that they were not coerced into getting the abortion. While this seems like a positive step to help ensure that abuse isn’t playing a part, it’s important to remember that the point of these laws is to restrict access to abortion and reduce the number of abortions, not to protect victims of abuse.

The fact that some people regret abortions and that some people are coerced into getting abortions is not an argument against abortion; it’s an argument against the factors that contribute to that regret, such as stigma, financial consequences, and abuse.

Here’s the thing. For some people, getting an abortion is a difficult, painful decision that will lead to regret and doubt no matter what they choose. It’s a big decision! Sometimes people get pregnant accidentally and find themselves sort of wanting to have the baby but they just can’t support a child and they need to finish school and there’s just no way.

But for other people–possibly the majority of people, it seems–an abortion is just a medical procedure like any other. It’s unpleasant and unavoidable and they’re just glad to get it over with, but it’s necessary, just like the vast majority of medical procedures you’re going to have in your life.

You can’t use the emotions of a minority of people to legislate the rights of everyone else, no matter how legitimate, strong, and real those emotions are.

Stop Hating On Female Condoms For No Real Reason

Every time I do this I feel like I’m a really lazy blogger who’s just going for the low-hanging fruit*, but I feel compelled to once again criticize a Jezebel article.

Tracie Egan Morrissey, whose writing is usually quite good, has written a post called “Stop Trying to Make Female Condoms Happen.” The post is what I can only call a screed against female condoms–a strange target for an online takedown.

Morrissey writes:

After never really catching on in the 30 years since its invention, the female condom has received a redesign with the hopes that women will change their minds about wanting to line their vaginas like a waste paper basket.

She then notes that female condoms absolve men of the responsibility for providing birth control, which they hardly ever have to do:

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that these methods afford us the ability to control our own bodies. But putting on a condom is like the only time that men are ever held accountable in their role of preventing pregnancy or the spread of STDs. They shouldn’t be exempt from that obligation. And it just seems like female condoms enables them to think that they are. Or worse: to not think about it at all.

On a different note, female condoms are just ew.

It’s a short post; that’s about all there is to it. In the process, Morrissey ignores a whole slew of relevant facts about female condoms:

  • Female condoms are made not out of latex but out of polyurethane or nitrile, which means that people who have latex allergies can use them.
  • Because they’re not made of latex, you can use them with oil-based lube in addition to water- and silicone-based lube.
  • Many male-bodied folks say that female condoms feel better than male condoms because it’s less restrictive and there’s more friction on the penis.
  • With female condoms you don’t have to worry about losing your erection or having to pull out immediately after you cum, and they’re also much less likely to come out than male condoms are to slide off.
  • Because female condoms also cover some area around the vaginal opening, STI transmission may be reduced.
  • Unlike male condoms, you can put them in hours before having sex if you don’t want to worry about it in the heat of the moment.
  • The outer ring of the female condom can stimulate the clitoris.
  • They can also be used for anal sex if you take the inner ring out.
  • Because they’re not stretched tight over a penis, female condoms are much less likely to break, and also, unlike with male condoms, there’s really no chance that the penis will be too big for the condom.
  • If you don’t have health insurance and don’t have sex very often, female condoms can cost less than hormonal birth control (although they do cost more than male condoms).
  • If your partner refuses to use a male condom, they may still be willing for you to use a female condom (a reality for victims of abuse that Morrissey completely denies in the comments section)

Do female condoms have disadvantages? Sure. They can be a bit tricky to put in until you’ve had some practice, and if you’re not paying attention the penis can slip in between the outside of the condom and the vaginal wall, which defeats the whole purpose. As I mentioned, they do cost more than male condoms, although you can sometimes get them for free at health centers. Like male condoms, they can cause chafing and you’ll need lube.

But all birth control methods have pros and cons, and it’s important to know about them in order to make an informed choice. Morrissey ignores both the pros and the actual cons of female condoms, instead dismissing them because “ew.” Which I don’t even understand, because they’re just the inverse of the male condom, so they’re not ickier than that.

The point she makes about male condoms being the only type of contraceptive that male-bodied people have responsibility for is a good one. It’s reasonable to expect that a male-bodied partner help with contraception, and it is really unfortunate and unfair that most of that responsibility falls on women. However, partners can still split the cost of birth control to make it more fair, and furthermore, because many people simply prefer female condoms, it’s not necessarily the case that women are being “forced” to take responsibility for it when they don’t want to.

However, the more salient point, which Morrissey also ignores, is that female condoms can be literally life-saving for victims of abuse and for sex workers, whose male partners may be unwilling to use male condoms but who may nevertheless accept the use of female condoms (and maybe they wouldn’t, but sometimes they do and that makes the effort to increase awareness and access to female condoms worthwhile). That’s why female condoms are being used to help prevent the spread of HIV, for instance.

Not every method of contraception will work for everyone. If Morrissey is so grossed out by female condoms, that’s perfectly fine! She doesn’t have to use them. But a blog about women’s issues should be promoting accurate, helpful information about birth control that will help people make these important decisions, not just knee-jerk reactions like “ew” that have no grounding.

This is especially the case with methods that are less popular and not very well understood even though they could potentially be very helpful to people. Morrissey’s post was actually a response to a news story saying that the female condom has been updated and improved so that they no longer make an awkward rustling sound, except that this actually happened in 2005 and the website Morrissey linked to seems to be a bit slow on the uptake. Even if you don’t like female condoms, isn’t it good that they’re being improved?

In any case, I for one am very glad that people are still “trying to make female condoms happen” for those who may really need them.

*There’s a good chance that this article was just clickbait, in which case it’s feasible that someone might disagree with my decision to write about it. However, it’s good to keep in mind that Jezebel is an extremely popular blog whereas mine is, let’s just say, indie, so whatever relatively meager number of hits I give them will be offset by the fact that a bunch of you have probably just learned a lot of useful facts about female condoms that you didn’t know before. Yay!

And look, at least Kate and I are really excited about female condoms!
[Read more...]

Writing A Better Love Story: On Pop Culture That Romanticizes Unhealthy Relationships

Imagine this story.

You meet someone you really like and fall for them immediately. They’re attracted to you too and the sex is great. But you want something more serious and they drag their feet. They’re emotionally detached, they forget to call, they make you do all the work of moving the new relationship along. It becomes tumultuous. You fight, you break up, you make up and get back together. They cheat. They lie. They promise to change every time but they never do.

And then, finally, the story reaches its climax–perhaps because you’ve finally walked out, or maybe because of some dreadful accident or because their best friend got married or something else that leads to a Big Realization. And they finally decide that it was you they wanted all along, and one of you proposes to the other, and you get married.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because that story weaves its way through too many novels, movies, and TV shows to count. It’s in Sex and the CityTwilight, 50 Shades of Grey, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Gossip Girl. 

These stories suggest that this relationship script is somehow supposed to be romantic. That that moment when they Finally Realize how wrong they’ve been makes it all worth it and that after that moment everything becomes healthy and happy. That a relationship built on detachment, betrayal, manipulation, or even abuse can survive and become some great love story.

There are two misconceptions that one can get from these kinds of stories. One concerns how to actually conduct your relationships, and the second concerns what we value in our relationships and what types of relationships we consider romantic.

The first misconception is that it makes sense to stay in a relationship with someone you love even though they are clearly unable to give you what you’re looking for. In pop culture, women are often portrayed as refusing physical intimacy and men are often portrayed as refusing emotional intimacy, although some stories flip this around (such as (500) Days of Summer). What’s to stop the other partner from just leaving and finding someone who’s able to be as intimate as they need?

Part of it is the false belief that you can make someone change by the sheer force of your love, and that you have enough patience to remain in a relationship that’s not satisfying to you until your partner changes.

Of course, sometimes people do change. They become more empathic, better listeners, less self-centered, more attentive, better at managing their time and money. But they generally don’t just flip-flop personality-wise. Going from a noncommittal, dishonest, and/or abusive jerk to a loving and affirming partner doesn’t just happen; it probably requires years of therapy. Yet in these stories, it does just happen.

And even if that ever happens in real life, would you really want to spend years in an unhealthy relationship in the hopes that it will?

The second misconception is that stories like this are Romantic. They are Love Stories. They’re the kinds of stories you would want to tell at your wedding and then to your children and grandchildren. They’re something to aspire to. They’re something to make movies and write books about.

Really, though? I’d never want to tell my future kids that I took crap from their other parent for years and years until they finally Came Around after some supposedly romantic moment and started loving me back. I would want to tell them that I knew my partner was a good person from the very beginning, and that while we’ve had our disagreements, we always managed to learn from each other and compromise.

Now, I get that that doesn’t make as flashy of a movie. Conflict does make stories interesting (although I still don’t see why the type of conflict that gets written about has to romanticize unhealthy relationships and abuse). It’s difficult to criticize cultural scripts like these without people suggesting that I’m somehow saying that these books and movies shouldn’t exist.

The point of feminist criticism, in my mind, isn’t to say what should and shouldn’t exist. It’s to remind people that these stories are written from a particular perspective, one that we don’t necessarily have to agree with or accept. People who make movies and write books are operating under their own assumptions of what the world is or what it should be. It’s up to us to present alternative views.

Media affects us in ways that are too nuanced for easy fixes. As it is with eating disorders, it’s not like anybody would read Twilight or watch Gossip Girl and immediately conclude, “Gee, it sure is hot when Edward/Chuck treats Bella/Blair like that. I’m glad my boyfriend’s the same way.”

But these scripts can change what we value in our relationships: is it mutual respect and open communication, or is it that hot, passionate, tumultuous “love” that’s being sold?

These scripts embed themselves in our minds and start to seem normal. It’s easy to start telling our own stories through those lenses. For instance, a survey done at Twilight screenings in Idaho showed that 68% of the teens seeing the movie thought that Edward’s treatment of Bella is a “sign of true love.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that watching and enjoying Twilight literally causes people to interpret Edward’s abusive behavior as evidence of a loving, healthy relationship. Perhaps people who already view relationships that way gravitate towards films like Twilight.

That’s why the solution isn’t to boycott them or vilify them unilaterally; it’s to use them to examine the assumptions we hold about love, relationships, and all sorts of other stuff. It’s also to write our own stories–ones that portray manipulation, lopsided relationships, and abuse as antithetical to the lives we want, rather than as stepping stones to the healthy love that supposedly follows.

When Tough Love Becomes Abusive

Okay, so, I realize I’m showing up rather late to the laptop-shooting party, but I didn’t want to let this bit of news pass by without writing about my reaction to it–not only to the incident itself, but to the various responses I’ve seen to it from the public.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this:

In short–for those who don’t want to waste their time–girl rants about her parents on Facebook. Daddy decides that the correct course of action is not to, say, sit down and have a chat with his daughter, revoke her computer privileges, have her deactivate/delete her Facebook, or otherwise utilize actual parenting skills. No. Instead, Daddy posts a video rant about his daughter on the Internet (sound like anyone else in the family?) in which he shoots her laptop with a gun.

Okay. A few things:

  1. This father’s actions are abusive. I’m sorry if you don’t like that. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit with your view of “traditional” parent-child relationships. According to modern definitions of domestic violence, destroying someone’s property in order to hurt or manipulate them constitutes abuse. (It’s in there, look it up.)
  2. And that’s only regarding the actual shooting of the laptop. As regards posting the video online, well, I hope it’s pretty obvious why I have a huge problem with parents exploiting their children for their fifteen seconds of fame. Especially when this involves violence.
  3. This girl does seem quite bratty and entitled. However, there is nothing a person can do–especially not if that person is a child–that justifies abusing them.
  4. That said, I’m not entirely sure that the girl’s Facebook rant was entirely unjustified. Immature and ill-advised, sure. But based on her father’s reaction, I wouldn’t say that her parents treat her fairly.

According to the ABC article I linked to, the police and Child Protective Services promptly paid the man a visit, but apparently they didn’t find anything wrong with the scenario. In fact, they told him, “Kudos, sir.”

There are plenty of tragic things about this incident. One is the fact that a girl is being abused. Another is the fact that her abuse is now captured for posterity on the internet. Another is that things are only going to get worse from here, both in terms of her relationship with her parents and in terms of her emotional health. Another is that her father seems to genuinely believe that he did the right thing by “teaching her a lesson.” And another is that the only “lesson” this girl has been taught is that guns are an appropriate way to express your anger at people.

One more issue, however, stands out as particularly sad, and that is the public reaction to the father’s video.

I am ashamed to say that I saw this video posted by my friends in my Facebook newsfeed with comments like “hilarious” and “what a hero.” I’m not proud to have friends who apparently condone domestic abuse as long as it’s amusing to them. If you watched this video and you laughed, I really urge you to reconsider your personal definition of humor, and I hope that you’ll take abuse out of that definition.

A hero is a parent who raises a difficult child with compassion. A hero is a parent with the strength to not take children’s bad behavior as a personal insult, but rather as a sign that more growth is needed.

This father is not a hero. He’s an abuser. Let’s call a spade a spade.