It's time for the internet to grow up and take responsibility for how it treats women.
The internet has been acting badly this week, like a partially potty-trained toddler taking a squat in his mother’s purse, just to remind her that his full civilization is still a ways off. Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, a longtime target of abuse for her analysis of sexist imagery in video games, was driven from her home by death and rape threats, the most extreme version of the harassment she endures daily. Before the digital ink was dry on all the expected feminist think pieces about that, news broke that an anonymous 4chan user had stolen private photographs belonging to female celebrities, and made them available for the titillation of the masses.
While I was still enjoying the last day of a long weekend, my friends and colleagues began knocking out the expected feminist think pieces about that. At The Atlantic, Jessica Valenti wrote about the appeal of these pictures, which is the same as the appeal of rape to a rapist: “There’s a reason why the public tends to revel in hacked or stolen nude pictures. It’s because they were taken without consent. Because the women in them (and it’s almost always women who are humiliated this way) did not want those shots to be shared.” At The Guardian, Roxane Gay wrote about the messages all women receive when female celebrities’ privacy is violated so egregiously: “Don’t get too high and mighty, ladies. Don’t step out of line. Don’t do anything to upset or disappoint men who feel entitled to your time, bodies, affection or attention. Your bared body can always be used as a weapon against you.”
Celebrity historian Anne Helen Petersen put the latest stolen photos in context—it happened to Marilyn Monroe, too—and noted, “The only way to prevent a market for these type of photos is to stop treating them, and the ‘secrets’ they reveal, as revelatory or scandalous.” Jessica Roy argues that “it’s not just the hacker who’s guilty here. It’s also the fault of administrators and vocal male users of platforms like 4chan and Twitter that cling to misinterpreted notions of the First Amendment to excuse the systematic harassment of women online, who blatantly favor the protection of misogynist hate speech over the well-being of women.” Hear, hear!
After reading through all of these strong, well-written arguments, my main thought is, I am so fucking tired of having to be the internet’s mommy. Not me, in particular, but all of us—Jessica(s), Roxane, Anne, Anita, and many others on the feminist beat. I’m tired of seeing intelligent women—and some lovely men—waste so much time repeating themselves because their audience still can’t accept basic concepts like “Women are human.” A friend recently posted on Facebook about her young daughter’s refusal to acknowledge that her middle name is “Isabel,” because the girl feels very strongly that “I AM NOT A BELL.” Being on the pro-woman side of conversations about privacy and representation online feels a lot like being the mom in that one: You’re stuck with only logic, reason, and reality on your side, while your opponent is powered by faulty premises and self-righteous fury.
Somehow, no matter how many times celebrity nudes appear online, the culture always needs to be reminded that it’s a crime, not a “scandal,” and the photos were stolen and published without the subject’s consent, not “leaked.” (Except in cases where they actually were leaked deliberately by the subjects, which is entirely different.) Every time, feminists have to re-explain that saying, “They shouldn’t have taken nudie pictures, then,” is a deeply unhelpful, victim-blaming response. Just ten days ago, we were discussing for the billionth time why women drinking and interacting with men is not the same as failing to “lock up” one’s property. Now, when we’re talking about actual property that was reasonably secured against theft, does anyone concede that maybe, just maybe, it’s not women’s fault when other people violate them sexually? Of course not! Now the problem is having “property”—i.e., a female body imbued with human sexuality—at all.
Meanwhile, the turds who traffic in stolen porn, just like the ones who get off on harassing opinionated women, largely remain anonymous and unaccountable as we discuss the victims by name, in many cases adding to the volume of their harassment.
It’s time for the internet—well, the entire culture, really, but let’s start small—to grow the fuck up about women. Tim Colwill, editor-in-chief of gaming website games.on.net, recently offered an example of what this might look like, with a post called “Announcement: Readers who feel threatened by equality no longer welcome.”
“If you really think feminism, or women, are destroying games,” he writes, “or that LGBT people and LGBT relationships have no place in games, or that games in any way belong to you or are ‘under attack’ from political correctness or ‘social justice warriors’: please leave this website. I don’t want your clicks, I don’t want your hits, I don’t want your traffic. Leave now and please don’t come back.”
This is the first step: Serious people refusing to engage with anyone who argues on the level of a whiny child, and editors refusing to prioritize the page views that come with such arguments. As Colwill put it, for these excessively vocal, woman-hating brats, “Literally the worst possible thing that can happen here is equality. That’s the worst outcome, that’s the nightmare scenario.” If they were actually children, we’d be obliged to fret over their moral development and continue providing lessons in sharing and caring. But the “14-year-old in a basement” stereotype notwithstanding, the enemies of equality are not actually kids, and pro-woman writers sure as hell aren’t their mommies. The grown-up internet needs to unequivocally shun these clowns, so the rest of us are free to have some new conversations.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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