This past weekend, I attended the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo*, going to a whole bunch of panels and meeting some really amazing people. I left feeling happy about my hobbies, creative, hopeful and overwhelmingly like I was part of a really great community of nerds who look out for each other. I heard stories of creepshot guys getting called out for taking gross pictures of cosplayers, I heard about a woman confronting a jerk who said a cosplayer was "too fat" for her costume, I listened to women and people of color talk about the changing tides in comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and video games. In short, I was inspired.
But there were two guys that I encountered on Friday night that almost had the power to ruin the weekend for me. I was attending an evening panel about fostering inclusive and diverse geek communities. There were six panelists: three women of color (at least one of whom is queer), two white women and a white guy. The moderator was a black man. I outline this not to pat their backs or anything, but to demonstrate that this group is more than well qualified to discuss the subject. Four of the five women shared personal stories of the threats they are subject to as women on the internet, and the white man recounted listening to a protege and colleague cry as she read to him the rape threats that he hadn't realized constituted so much of her "hate mail" because it looked so very different from his own.
It was a moving panel. I really appreciated hearing so many perspectives that reinforced my own anecdotal understanding of what being a woman means in these spaces. But the two young men who stood up and spoke at the end of the Q&A time nearly got my fist in their mouths; I judiciously decided that getting arrested when I had so much other stuff to do that weekend wasn't the best plan.
One young man ended a rather long "question" with:
I'm attracted to trans people, and I'm upset the LGBT community doesn't talk about or include people like me.
I'm fairly certain that most people will understand why this is so ludicrous, so I'll just leave it here. (Hint: if you're not a member of the community, you don't get a seat at the table. Be a good ally, don't demand a cookie or attention just because you're LGBTQ-adjacent.)
But that gem was immediately followed up by another young man starting off his "question":
I'm really pissed off no one has mentioned the fact that men get raped, too.
He went on to speak about how race plays an important part in sexual expression and sexualized violence (absolutely true) but then doubled down on the "men, too" point, saying that it's important to talk about when men threaten to rape each other.
Here's the thing, gents: none of this conversation is about you. It's true that men are sexually assaulted, it's true that male sexual assault is under reported for a variety of reasons, and it's true that the legal definition of rape** is problematic for male survivors.
But sexual violence as a threat is a very gendered thing. Women report that harassment online often includes a threat of sexual violence; it seems that the more well known she is, the more likely a woman will suffer at the hands of at least one rape threat serious enough to contact the authorities. C2E2 is focused on nerdy spaces, especially comic books, an industry where casual sexism is so rampant that there's a shorthand for it that's leaked into other mediums. In just the past few weeks, a former editor at DC has been reporting about the rape threats she got for daring to criticize some art and asking questions about how industry professionals treat women.*** Even beyond this little microcosm, more examples abound of spaces where the default hate mail/insult/silencing tactic that women face is a rape threat. Jezebel's own Lindy West pointed out how women are treated in comedy, sci-fi and fantasy authors face similar treatment,**** not to mention those who work or comment on videogames and journalists; even women with far less notoriety are threatened with rape or revenge porn for having the temerity to...exist, I guess.
The common thread here? Women get rape threats. Men in these positions may get hate mail. They may even get threats of physical violence. By and large though, they do not get threats of sexual violence, be it physical or to their reputation. That's reserved for women, because it's intended to be a particular kind of silencing. It's meant to say that as a woman, your opinion and thoughts are so unimportant that the only value you hold is as an outlet for sex and sexual violence. And when a man calls another man a pussy, or tells him to grow a pair, or threatens to rape him, do you really think that's all coming out of a contextless place? No. The man doing the threatening is attempting to demean the other by comparing him to a woman. Using pejorative terms for gay men to insult one another pushes this linguistic tactic even further; call your bro an f-word associates him not only with homosexuality, but also femininity, both of which are unacceptable. Look at the list of Wikipedia articles tagged as sexuality- and gender-related slurs: out of 28 links, 23 are associated with women or gay (read: feminine or feminized) men.
There's a dearth of data and research about online harassment of adults. As is to be expected, much of the academic and actionable work has been done around cyberbullying of young people, particularly students. The US Department of Justice doesn't even have a classification on their statistics site for cyberbullying, cyberstalking or online harassment. But we can look at meatspace violence statistics, it doesn't paint a pretty picture. Women are nearly three times as likely as men to be stalked, but 87% of all stalkers are male; 81% women stalked by a current or former partner are assaulted by that person, and 31% are sexually assaulted by them. Even taking into account the problematic nature of the DoJ's definition of rape, women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than men, and nearly all female survivors were assaulted by men. Women are even more likely to be the targets of simple or aggravated assault, and their attacker is more likely to be someone they know. In the past decade, LGBTQ people ave been the third most frequent target of hate violence; I would wager that, if women were a protected class in hate crime legislation, they might fall to fourth place. Research also indicates that almost half off all LGBTQ people have been the victim of a hate crime before they even reach adulthood, and that sexual violence is one of the most common tools used to "punish" them. Sex and sexual violence are being used as weapons in these cases, to put someone in their place, to threaten and correct some devient behavior, be it a woman having an opinion or a man being gay. And this is just what people are willing to do to each other face to face. Imagine what these threats look like hiding in the anonymous power of the internet.
But I don't think we need all those statistics, not really. We live in a world where a teenage girl can be stalked, harassed and extorted into exposing herself online, subsequently committing suicide when the bullying and physical assaults became too much. It's likely going to be easier to prosecute the grown men that did this for child pornography than with the harassment and revenge porn tactics that they employed. And the really terrible part? She's not the only one. We live in a world where women a threatened with rape online, and the effects are leaching into the rest of their lives.
So, nice young men who I nearly punched on Friday, I kindly request that you sit down and close your mouths. You came to class, then ignored the teachers, talked over their lessons and made it pretty clear that you had no interest in what they had to say. You were far too invested in your own stories and experiences, and how everyone in the room could make your lives the center of the universe.
This is not to say that your lives and concerns do not matter and are not important. But as Karlyn Meyer said when you were done pontificating, the conversation being had was a very specific one about what happens when women dare to have opinions (and creative outlets) on the internet. If you want to have a conversation about the sexual assault of men (which we do a terrible job of acknowledging, even while making institutional strides towards combating rape culture), let's have that conversation. It's a conversation very much worth having.
But you don't get to tell us that we're having the wrong conversation, and that the only one worth having is about you.
*Yes, I met Mick Foley. Yes, he saw the post. Yes, he and RAINN both tweeted about it. Yes, I cried a little and chatted with him for almost ten minutes. Yes, he got a little teary and yes, he's one of my new favorite human beings. His helper/handler person (whose name I have forgotten because I'm terrible) said the nicest things and asked to take a picture with me. Between this and Doug Jones hugging me a few weeks ago, the rest of 2014 is going to be hard pressed to live up to the standard April has set.
**The legal definition varies state-by-state, but the concentration on penetration is an issue.
***Longer post coming on this topic, trust me.
****Jim C. Hines, a great author that I enjoy personally, admits to having received one (1) rape threat over the course of his decades-long career.