Morgan Shandro/The Gauntlet

Virtual Violence

Hiding behind a screen doesn't make it any less real

Publication YearIssue Date 

When Anita Sarkeesian started a fundraiser on Kickstarter, an online platform for creative projects, to look at the way that women are portrayed in video games, the backlash was incredible. The negative reaction from the online community was overwhelmingly populated by comments about raping Sarkeesian.

Social media was just the tip of the iceberg. A massive online hate campaign tried to report all of Sarkeesian’s accounts — Kickstarter, Youtube, Twitter — as spam, fraudulent or terrorist-related. Hackers tried to remove her website, hack into her e-mail, and distribute her personal information, including her address and phone number. A gamer from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. created a game inviting players to “beat the bitch up” where clicking on the screen resulted in an increasingly battered version of Sarkeesian.

These comments, threats and activities targeted Sarkeesian because of her gender rather than because of her ideas. Put another way, all of these ‘games,’ tweets and actions made constant reference to her being a “bitch” who should be raped.

The question of how we portray women in video games is a relevant issue. But that’s not what these comments and actions dealt with. They attacked Sarkeesian personally — and specifically because she was female.

Maybe this sort of harassment seems distant or old. Maybe it seems like people don’t really mean this sort of stuff. But look at the role of the Internet in the recent Steubenville rape. The widely publicized tweets and messages about the rape were recorded and distributed by an enterprising blogger named Alexandria Goddard who was outraged that professional athletes are often exempt from retribution for their actions. The response to this blog post was online harassment of Goddard and her family, attempted dissemination of her personal information and accusations that she was a “fat sweat hog” and a “bitch.”

The videotaped rape of a 16-year-old girl is yet another example of online harassment of women. The Steubenville rape video itself is 12 minutes of a teenage boy joking and laughing hysterically, narrating the unconscious female victim’s sexual assault. He finds the whole event very amusing, and yet the girl faced a very different reality — one that was not so humorous. But that didn’t matter — her voice didn’t matter, her consent didn’t matter. What mattered was what the boys found entertaining and gratifying. This attitude is what happens when we normalize rape culture and rape jokes.

Online comments aimed at women who have suffered real world harassment are plentiful. Earlier this year, when two female debaters in the U.K., Rebecca Meredith and Marlena Valles, spoke out about gender-specific heckling, they too were subject to widespread criticism — and not necessarily because of their ideas. Much worse than a sexist column in The Spectator, which disputed the idea that women were fit to debate at all, is the fact that various forums online talked openly about the “rape potential” of these two women. 

Those who think this form of abuse is limited to fringe websites are incorrect. Reddit, one of the most popular forums on the Internet, refuses to give up the anonymity of its users, even when they post hundreds of sub-forums — called “sub-reddits” — with pictures of underage girls, rape fantasies and voyeuristic photos taken up the skirts of unsuspecting women. Shielding such users is a problem, but the bigger problem is that some people think that this form of abuse of women is perfectly acceptable for online forums.

People may think this is distant and disconnected from reality because it’s just online. But consider the real-world problematic impact of normalizing sexist jokes at the University of Calgary like the “She Wants the D” posters plastered all over campus as part of Amar Deshwar’s campaign for Students’ Union science representative. “She wants the D” is colloquial for “She wants the dick,” or, in other words, “She’s asking for it.” Deshwar intended the slogan to be a harmless play on words, not realizing that the phrase exists within a rape culture that causes much harm to women. 

By insinuating that a woman wants sex based on her actions or her clothing, we normalize false representations of consent. Flirtation, a short skirt and being drunk do not equal consent — in fact, one cannot fully consent to sex under the influence of alcohol. Even though several women spoke to Deshwar directly about how uncomfortable the posters made them, he kept them up. Even though his posters were vandalized to say things like “She wants respect,” and “She wants to feel safe on campus,” he offered no apology. In fact, he won the campaign. He put his own interests above the concerns of students, suffered no consequences and, in fact, was rewarded.

One man’s joke is another woman’s everyday concern. According to a report prepared by U of C SafeWalk co-ordinator Stephen Tousignant-Barnes, SafeWalk projects 596 users by the end of April. For the 2012–13 year, 85.5 per cent of SafeWalk users on campus are women. That’s an overwhelming statistic and speaks to the precautions women have to incorporate into their everyday lives to avoid sexual assault. Photos from the Women’s Resource Centre’s “Who Needs Feminism?” campaign feature many women speaking out about their safety concerns, including one woman who says she doesn’t wear her headphones after dark so she can be aware of her surroundings in case of predators. Harassment online and “in real life” are not two separate things, they are all part of the same culture that makes women feel unwelcome and unsafe.

Online harassment happens to many woman who express opinions on the Internet. Of course, disagreeing with someone’s opinion online is always fine. But threatening or discrediting women online for being women is inappropriate and harmful. When women are safe to express their opinions online and not targeted for being women, the real world becomes a safer place for everyone.