This is more than just harassment (trigger warning: rape)

Rarely have I read any article that so enrages me as this:

From the hater’s POV, you (the Koolaid server) do not “deserve” that attention. You are “stealing” an audience. From their angry, frustrated point of view, the idea that others listen to you is insanity. From their emotion-fueled view you don’t have readers you have cult followers. That just can’t be allowed.

You must be stopped. And if they cannot stop you, they can at least ruin your quality of life. A standard goal, in troll culture, I soon learned, is to cause “personal ruin”. They aren’t all trolls, though. Some of those who seek to stop and/or ruin you are misguided/misinformed but well-intended. They actually believe in a cause, and they believe you (or rather the Koolaid you’re serving) threatens that cause.

I am angry at the injustice being suffered by this woman and by others like her. Read it all. It’s words we need to hear. We are failing, and failing badly.

But I think the writer got one thing wrong. She believes that this behavior is motivated by some kind of jealousy over how much attention women get online, and believes that the goal is to silence women. I don’t think that’s it at all. Oh this might be true for some of the trolls, but those guys are a mere nuisance, and their behavior cannot account for the kind of abuse inflicted on Kathy Sierra and others like her. The real problem here is a much smaller group of “trolls” whose goal is to get away with the virtual, online equivalent of rape. These are not geeks defending some kind of boys-only turf. These are perverts acting out rape fantasies with real victims and real harm. Women who make significant contributions are targets, not because the trolls resent the attention they get, but because the online rapist gets a bigger kick out of attacking an influential and well-known woman than attacking a more anonymous female. The goal is not to defend anything. It’s to attack and destroy the woman. For “kicks.”

Go back and re-read Kathy’s account. Compare it to what happens during and after a rape. The rapist’s goal is not just to get off—he could do that with a box of tissues and some lube. But that’s not what he’s after. His goal is to get off on humiliating and demeaning some significant woman, hurting her wherever she is the most sensitive. Read the account again. What’s the goal of the “trolls”? Humiliation. Harassment. Stalking. Terrorizing. Even after she went offline.

These are rape fantasies, brought to life and acted out online. This is everything about rape that makes it evil, except the physical penetration. It is a sexually-motivated attack on a woman, intended to inflict suffering and degradation for the gratification of the perpetrator. The attacks themselves may not be overtly physical (although even that’s not guaranteed), but the motivation, the intent, and a large part of the consequences, are those of sexual assault. This is not just sexism, and it’s not just trite make-me-a-sandwich male privilege asserting itself. This is hurting and degrading women purely for the sexual pleasure of hurting and degrading women.

That’s why none of the standard anti-troll tactics are effective against it—not ignoring the trolls, not going silent, not trying to defend yourself or to answer all the accusations against you. You don’t defend yourself against rape by ignoring the rapist or by shutting up or by denying the degrading things he says and does. The only thing that works is to outlaw the assault, apprehend the perpetrators, and them to justice, cutting them off from being able to engage in further assaults.

And that’s what we need to do. We need to do this now. Online sexual assaults are malignant and devastatingly harmful, both to the women who suffer these attacks (through no fault of their own!) and, to a much lesser extent, to those of us who are being deprived of the contributions these women could be making if it were safe. Tolerance of these assaults, and worse yet encouragement, is destructive and antisocial. The perpetrators of online “virtual rape” are dangerous perverts, and we need to treat them as such, and restore justice to their victims. The legislature needs to pass laws against it, and online services need to pro-actively work with law enforcement to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. And then they need to go to jail and put on no-Internet-allowed probation for a very long time.

This has been going on for far too long, and it needs to stop. Now.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    That was one seriously disturbing article.

    Here’s my question. I have a 13-year-old daughter who looooves to play video games. Most of the time when she goes online, she either talks with her friends, or else she is playing underneath my name on her account. I’ve spoken to her about misogyny on the internet, but I don’t think she’s experienced it yet. And of course, being a parent, I want to protect her.

    She’s currently thinking about a career in tech. I’ve been encouraging her, because hey, everyone says we need more women in STEM, right?

    But reading articles like this makes me a lot more unsure whether that’s a good idea. If she was the kind of tough, take-no-prisoners woman like many of the ones I admire online, I’d feel ok. But she isn’t. So should I keep on encouraging her to take programming courses, or should I stand back and hope she finds something else to do that won’t expose her to the kind of filth that you and the op talk about?

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I would have her read that whole article and let her make up her own mind. She deserves an accurate picture of what the Internet is like for women right now. And she also deserves a safer Internet, so I would work towards that as well.

  2. Jackie says

    My daughter sounds alot like yours, only older. She and another student have been asked to create a couple webpages for their high school because they are the best in their class. She’s well aware of what she’s up against should she keep taking tech classes. In fact, when she was invited to take her web design class she was told that it wasn’t just that her project for another class had been excellent. It was in part because her teacher (a woman) thought she could “handle the boys”. That should not be a requirement for girls to be encouraged to enter STEM classes, but it is. You shouldn’t have to eat nails and spit bullets to get an education, but that’s the reality for all the minority kids in schools all over.

    My advice as a lady type person? Be there for her. Encourage her. Believe her. Tell her everything, the good and the grim. Tell her the things the harassers say are not true or her fault. Tell her she is not alone. Teach her that harassment is not a joke or flirting and she does not have to shut up and take it. Then, support her if she decides it’s too much to take and eventually bows out. Because our daughters might give up their dreams for their own safety and mental health. That’s what all this abuse is designed to do and it often works. When it does, they need our support more than ever because that sort of loss hurts deep down and for a long time.

  3. Jackie says

    Also, Bruce

    Keep encouraging her because there is no way for her to avoid enough of life to be safe from this sort of cruelty. There is nowhere for her to hide. Existing while female is going to be like this for her. Many men will see her as an interloper or a target throughout her life. Nothing she can do will stop that from happening. This fight is necessary now and there will be some results our kids’ generation can enjoy, but don’t expect miracles. She’s going to end up dealing with stuff like this and she’s going to get discouraged enough on her own.

  4. ludicrous says

    I don’t know any hackers but I understand there are a lot of good guys among them. Would it be possible for some hackers to form a group to legally expose these guys? To provide their names and addresses so their neighbors, friends, family, co workers etc. know what they are doing. That could even actually prevent some rapes and murders.

  5. mildlymagnificent says

    Remember she’s 13 now. So you’re looking at her graduating and getting a job – when? – in 10+ years’ time when she’s 23 or older.

    I might be optimistic here, but I’d be looking forward to there being more congenial work environments available then. Maybe not all of them anywhere and everywhere, but enough more of them that she should be able to find somewhere that’s more accepting and more accommodating than there are now. I’d be very disappointed if most, maybe not all if we’re being realistic, of the larger companies hadn’t got their acts together by then.

    I’d think that rather than the whole industry being so dreadful, a thorough internet search would show up whether a company was or wasn’t a good fit for a young woman. Finding a women workers online information resource about which companies/ personnel should be avoided should also be available when she’s looking to make sensible decisions about job opportunities. Rather than encouraging her by urging her to take the world by storm regardless of the possible dangers, encourage her by showing her that she can do what she wants _and_ that she can use all the tools available to avoid the worst pitfalls.

  6. Brony says

    I agree with the ideas presented here.

    When I look at the behavior that Serious Pony is describing I see large-scale domination behavior carried out through repeated violations. It’s all designed to suppress behavior that the abusers don’t want to see become common among women, speaking out and shining a light on awful behavior. Somehow this stuff has to be signal boosted even more no matter who it bothers.

    The individuals who get this stuff started are fearful at what they do coming to light so they manipulate the people around them into what seems reasonable to compare to a gang-rape. One the deed is done the other participants still have to convince themselves they are good people somehow so all the BS rationalizations kick in. I was not sure at first but I agree that this should be illegal. I’m not sure about what it should look like functionally, but there should be consequences to actively spreading lies, contributing to harassment, and the dehumanization of other people in a social conflict. Even if someone is ignorant of what they are doing. The suffering has to stop.

  7. Al Dente says

    Unfortunately, Deacon, I have to agree with your analysis. The harassment is a form of rape. It’s about exerting power on an unwilling victim. It’s just as real as any other kind of sexual assault. Getting the authorities to deal with it is the hard part, considering their reluctance to properly deal with meatspace rape.

  8. says

    I don’t know any hackers but I understand there are a lot of good guys among them. Would it be possible for some hackers to form a group to legally expose these guys?

    The hacker community is largely self-selected from sociopaths. At the very least, from people who are morally flexible enough to often let their desires overrule society’s laws. There are a number of people in the computer security field who have spoken out against the danger of rubbing elbows too closely with the grey/black hat hackers, but the edgy appeal and boys club mentality has ruled the day over and over again. Couple that with the tech media’s tendency to giggle about “bad boys” while dismissing their victims, and it’s a real problem. The media fairly staunchly refuses to get a clue – citing, of course, freeze peach – but has been slowly learning its lesson after a few of the media’s hacker darlings turned out to be fairly sociopathic individuals who were playing the reporters for all they could get (I am thinking here specifically of Adrian Lamo and to a lesser degree Julian Assange*) That has served to at least raise the media’s skepticism level a bit.

    There has been some speaking out against sexism at computer hacking conferences but generally it’s dismissed by the boy’s club as authoritarian (because, you know, asking people to be treated fairly is fascistic) intrusion against freeze peach. Attempts to denounce elements of the hacking community for making the problem worse instead of better, unfortunately, goes against commercial interests, the vested interests of hackers and media, and the national security state — so computer security is a swamp and likely to remain so. As one example, there was a woman presenter at a security conference in Europe who was sexually assaulted by another presenter. The incident played out similarly to the sexual assaults at atheist/skeptical conferences, though the woman, Georgia Wiedman, successfully defended herself and inflicted some damage on her assailant. After that was the usual wagon-circling, victim-blaming, and carefully postured concern about anti-harassment reducing guys’ chances of getting laid at conferences. 🙁
    (For more, see: )

    Every environment in which male privileged is entrenched will be toxic for women that want to break into them. Every single one. 🙁

    (*proff may have managed to do some good in spite of himself but he’s been on my radar screen for a lot longer than wikileaks and I wouldn’t trust him with my car keys, my wallet, or turn my back on him for more than the time it took to turn back around)

  9. says

    When I look at the behavior that Serious Pony is describing I see large-scale domination behavior carried out through repeated violations

    Agreed. I got so mad when I read it that I was thinking inappropriate thoughts about teaching some of the more prominent trolls what fear feels like. Pour encourager les autres.

  10. Scr... Archivist says

    Brony @6.

    The individuals who get this stuff started are fearful at what they do coming to light so they manipulate the people around them into what seems reasonable to compare to a gang-rape.

    You may be onto something there.

    Last month a kid in Connecticut was arrested for participating in a swatting ring. He claims that he got involved with them after they doxed him. (At this point, I don’t really believe him.)

    At least swatting is already illegal, and police are willing to investigate it. I noticed that Sierra mentioned the tactic in her recent post. Like her I am glad that no one has been killed yet, but I fear that eventually someone will be.

  11. badgersdaughter says

    Brucegee, when I was a teenager, I also wanted to pursue a career in STEM, specifically mechanical engineering. My engineer father told me, coldly, “You’re not enough of a bitch to be an engineer”. He meant exactly what you mean when you say that your daughter isn’t a tough, take-no-prisoners kind of person. I continued to want to be an engineer, and he kept throwing practical and emotional obstacles in my way literally until the day he died. I grew up thinking I could never be one.

    25 years later, I know exactly who the harasser was who kept me from succeeding in STEM. It was HIM. Don’t be your daughter’s first workplace harasser.

    Also, what are you doing, tearing her personality and dreams down? You’re her goddamn father. Build the child up.

  12. Pteryxx says

    brucegee – Also keep in mind that there’s much more to being a woman (or girl) in STEM than *just* harassment. Look to the Ada Initiative for resources, good news, and tech communities that your daughter might want to get involved in. If you’re talking about the harassment and obstacles, look to this Bingo storify for, not just the background, but women speaking up and networking while calling out the BS. Those are people to follow, pointing to projects and groups to get involved with. Here’s the GHC Bingo winner:


    So many cool ladies from @nyuniversity @TechatNYU @WomenWhoCode @ScriptEdOrg at #GHC14 😀

    (Twitter link)

    Because the best way to be prepared for harassment – not a solution, but to mitigate the damage – is to have a social network of friends and mentors who understand and can give advice and support when bad things start to happen.

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