Long live the troll-slayer: a tribute to Shauna Hunt and others like her

This week cyber misogyny once again made headlines with the on-air harassment of CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt. Hunt was interviewing a pair of soccer fans when a man came up to her and yelled into her microphone “f*** her right in the pu***.” Apparently “FHRITP,” as it’s known, became a viral internet phenomenon after comedian John Cain made the comment in a series of staged broadcasts for a fake news agency.

Having had enough of this harassment, Hunt confronted the heckler and his friends who defended their conduct as “f***ing amazing” and “f***ing hilarious.” Hunt posted the video on Twitter and asked her followers to retweet. It went viral. One of these men has since been fired from his job at Hydro One for his involvement in the incident.

Also this week, the hashtag #MyTroll has been trending after the online harassment-reporting platform HeartMob asked Twitter users to share their stories. The results are staggering.

In light of these events, I thought I too would share my experience with cyber misogyny.

I’m relatively new to the blogging world. I started my blog last fall after years of consideration. Why did it take me years to start writing? One word: comments. Sure, I was a lawyer. Sure, I had been to court, taught courses, spoken publically and faced questions and critique from many intelligent people, some of whom did not agree with me. But none of that was nearly as scary as opening myself up to the internet.

I’ve been blogging for several months now and all things considered I have been fairly lucky. I have yet to be threatened with murder or rape like blogger Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency. I have yet to receive a bomb threat like classics professor Mary Beard. And I have yet to have a traumatic childhood memory triggered by a misogynistic tweet like actress Ashley Judd.

I have, however, been called duplicitous, ugly, whiny, a f***ing hack and a precious little snowflake. I have been told (many times) that no one gives a sh** about what I have to say and that I should shut up and move on with my life. This one is my favourite. It was in the comments section of a Province article where I was advocating for women to have the choice between wearing shorts and a skirt for field hockey:  

Joe-Rachel Portelance: 9 out of 10 times these days it’s a woman whining and complaining about some rule or right etc…… So ya I do understand that a lot of the news only really centers on women complaining about one thing or another. Nor our fault they got the short end of the evolutionary stick. If the Province keeps it up they might drive away some of its male readers due to getting sick of women’s complaints. Especially those damn inquiries into the murdered women… sorry cupcakes a lot more men get murdered than women…you do not see the men whining for inquiry after inquiry hence my statement of feminine BS.

What have I done to deserve these attacks? I dared to open my mouth and discuss issues that impact women today. You know, roughly 50% of the population? These comments reveal that trolls do not care about engaging in a debate. Their only objective is to scare women into silence.

According to Mary Beard, this response should come as no surprise. As she points out, men have been silencing outspoken women since the days of the ancients. “It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it –it’s the fact that you are saying it.”

Fortunately for me, my short blogging career has also introduced me to a related phenomenon, and that is troll-slaying. Troll-slaying is the practice of calling out internet cyber misogynists and holding them accountable for their actions. I love troll-slayers. Without these brave men and women who risk exposing themselves to hate and ridicule by defending women under attack, reading the comments section of blog posts and news articles would be simply unbearable. Here are three more troll-slayers I’d like to celebrate.

  • Mary Beard

This classics professor at the University of Cambridge has been a vocal critic of cyber misogyny after she herself became a target. Beard has been sent rape threats, bomb threats and once had an image of herself as genitalia circulated on the internet.

So far Beard has been fairly successful in shutting her trolls down.  She has discovered that, quite often, she receives not only an apology but also an explanation from her trolls when she publishes their remarks widely.  For instance, Beard received an apology from a twenty-year-old university student who tweeted “You filthy old slut.  I bet your vagina is disgusting” after one of her followers offered to inform the student’s mother of his online behaviour.

Despite the nasty things the trolls say about her, Beard manages to remain compassionate.  She has been known to correspond with her trolls and help them out.  Beard is even writing a letter of reference for the university student troll.  “He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” she said. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”      

  • Charlotte Laws

Charlotte Laws’ daughter Kayla found herself on a website called IsAnyoneUp.com– an online repository of revenge porn– after her email had been hacked. Not only did the website owner Hunter Moore publish sexual photos of his victims, he also encouraged fans of the website to seek out and post as much identifying information about the person in the photo. Moore, who earned the notorious title of Most Hated Man on the Internet, was proud of the fact that his website ruined lives.

Laws immediately came to her daughter’s defence, and for two years dedicated herself to getting the photo taken down and having Moore arrested for violating copyright law and hacking activities. Moore became the expert in this murky area of law while tracking down and interviewing other victims, researching cases and pushing to get the FBI involved. After two years, Moore was arrested and charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information and aggravated identity theft. His website was shut down and he entered a guilty plea in February.       

  • Detective Lloyd Briscoe

PicsArtNo, I’m not talking about the detective from Law & Order. This was the troll-slaying persona adopted by my little sister around the time of my field hockey skirt/shorts media blitz. While I was fielding calls from reporters and radio show hosts, my sister was keeping tabs on the comments sections and calling out anyone and everyone who left a nasty message. Here are a couple examples of her work:

Lloyd: Let each player choose what they want to wear! I can’t believe this is even a discussion! What century are we in? Because it is tradition? You know what else is tradition? Women not being able to go to school or being allowed to have jobs? Not using birth control? Fathers choosing their daughters husbands. Come on people!

Lloyd: @NoMoreBull “Now they want the world to change to suit them”. Yes, that is how we make positive changes in the world. To question old, out dated, sexist traditions that can make people, for whatever reason feel uncomfortable.

Thank you to my sister and all the other brave troll-slayers out there. May your courage and conviction inspire us all to take a stand against cyber misogyny.

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Cyber misogyny: the new frontier for hate

On August 3, 2013, 14-year-old Hannah Smith hanged herself in her bedroom. In the weeks leading up to her death, Hannah was subjected to cruel taunts and insults about her weight and a family death on Ask.fm, a question and answer social networking site that allows anonymous participation. According to Hannah’s father, she went to Ask.fm to look for advice on the skin condition eczema. Instead, she got bullies on Ask.fm urging her to drink bleach and cut herself.

Last week, I started a series about the different ways sexism is impacting girls and women today and how feminism can be utilized to help them. This is the second post in that series. This post is about cyber misogyny.

In many ways, cyber misogyny is an old issue taken to new extremes. Sexual harassment, domestic violence, hate speech, stalking and threats have long been problems for women. However, in real space, where people’s identities are known, it is easier to identify and punish abusers. The Internet offers expanded opportunities to perpetuate harassment and abuse. At the same time, it allows abusers to avoid social and legal consequences for their actions by hiding behind anonymity. In its report “#CyberMisogyny: Using and strengthening Canadian legal responses to gendered hate and harassment online” West Coast LEAF calls the Internet “the new frontier for hate.”

The term cyber misogyny encompasses a wide range of conduct. In this post, I will discuss the five types of online violence discussed in West Coast LEAf’s report.

  • Revenge porn

Revenge porn can loosely be described as the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Revenge porn is often associated with the termination of an intimate relationship and is disturbingly common. According to the US-based Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, one in ten ex-partners has threatened to expose a risqué photo of their ex. Sixty per cent of them follow through. Ninety per cent of victims are women.

It is not only teenagers who are affected by revenge porn. This year, well known celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and Kirsten Dunst had intimate photos stolen and released publically. In Canada, the Associate Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba had nude photos taken by her husband posted online without her consent.

Revenge porn is so prevalent numerous websites exist for the sole purpose of ruining people’s lives by posting embarrassing photos or forwarding them to family members, friends and business contacts. Because of websites like these and the hundreds of thousands of daily viewers, women have lost jobs, economic opportunities and personal relationships.

Studies by Cyber Civil Rights show that 47 per cent of revenge porn victims contemplate suicide. Ninety-three per cent suffer significant emotional distress.

  • Sexting

Sexting is the sending of sexy, nude or partially nude photos via cell phone. Recent studies show that sexting has become a fairly common practice among young people as part of their sexual exploration. In a study involving students in grades 4-11 across Canada, researchers found that eight per cent of students in grades 7-11 with access to a cell phone have sent a sext. Twenty-four per cent have received a sext. The numbers rise as students get older.

While youth seem to feel ok about sending sexual images of themselves to others, when those images are forwarded without their consent, the results can be devastating. Just under one quarter of teens who said they had sent a sext of themselves reported that the person who received the sext forwarded it to someone else.  Several teen suicides have been linked to the forwarding of nude photos and the resulting harassment and abuse.

  • Online sexual exploitation of children and youth

Online child sexual exploitation includes child pornography, luring, child prostitution, child sex tourism and child trafficking. The number of child sexual exploitation reports received by Cybertip.ca, a national tipline for reporting online sexual exploitation of youth, has increased from 179 reports in 2002/2003 to 7,913 reports in 2009/2010.

The vast majority (90.2 per cent) of reports between September 2002 and June 2010 pertained to child pornography.

  • Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking includes monitoring email communications, sending abusive messages, sending viruses, using the victim’s online identity to send false messages to others and using online sites to collect a victim’s personal information and whereabouts.

Technology, including social networking sites and global positioning systems, facilitate stalking behaviour by making it easier for perpetrators to keep tabs on the activities and location of their targets.

These technologies also make it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to escape their abuser. Electronic communications now play a role in nine out of ten domestic violence situations.

Statistics from the U.S. Justice Department suggest that 850,000 American adults, mostly women, are targets of cyberstalking each year. A study of youth conducted by MTV found that more than half surveyed had experienced abuse through social and digital media. Seventy-six per cent felt that digital abuse was a serious problem for people their age.

  • Hate speech

Messages promoting hate and glorifying violence against women proliferate on the Internet. Unfortunately, thanks to a recent amendment to the federal Human Rights Act, gender-based hate speech is no longer prohibited under Canadian federal law.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for outspoken feminists to be threatened with rape and murder for their online presence. In 2007, well-known blogger and software developer Kathy Sierra shut down her blog and cancelled public appearances after she was subjected to threats of rape and strangulation and her personal information, including her address and social security number, were leaked. This year, feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian cancelled an appearance at Utah State University after an email threatened the deadliest school shooting in American history.

In 2006, a study showed that individuals writing under female names received twenty-five times more sexually threatening and malicious comments than those writing under male names.

Unfortunately, cyber misogyny in its many forms is too often trivialized by the public. Many consider online bullying an inconvenience that should simply be ignored. Others respond that “boys will be boys,” especially on the Internet. This leaves women with a stark choice: tolerate the abuse or opt out of life online.

So what can we do, as feminists, to protect women and girls from the serious repercussions of cyber misogyny? According to West Coast LEAF, the varied nature of cyber misogyny means that there is no quick fix, and a wide range of strategies will be required. Three such strategies are information gathering, law reform and public education.

  • Information gathering

In order to create effective solutions, we need to fully understand the problem. West Coast LEAF recommends the government create a new office housed within the federal Ministry on the Status of Women to conduct research, facilitate dialogue and make recommendations to government about appropriate legal responses to cyber misogyny.

  • Law reform

A major contributor to the prevalence of cyber misogyny is that on the Internet, lawlessness reigns. Holding harassers and hatemongers legally accountable for their actions is one way to educate the public and send a strong message that these behaviours will not be tolerated.

On December 9, 2014, Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, became law. This legislation makes it a criminal offence to knowingly publish, distribute, transmit, sell, make available or advertise intimate images. The Bill also provides courts the authority to order the seizure of intimate images and to order the custodian of the computer system on which the image is made available to delete the material. Only time will tell, but one major impediment to the effectiveness of this legislation is that it only applies to Canadian servers.

Unfortunately, in addition to these important cyberbullying provisions, the Bill also includes broad law enforcement provisions which have raised significant privacy concerns and are likely unconstitutional.

While the cyberbullying provisions of Bill C-13 are a step in the right direction, they are not enough. As we’ve seen in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault, criminal law is often not an effective means of addressing violence against women. Criminal convictions are rare and often come at a significant personal cost to the victim. As such, we should be exploring other legal options that are more victim-friendly.

As an example, provincial governments could enact legislation creating a “cyberbullying” tort which would allow victims to sue for cyberbullying. This way, victims could receive monetary compensation for the harms experienced.

Provincial governments could also follow Nova Scotia’s lead and amend Education Acts to create a legislated duty on principals, vice-principals and teachers to take disciplinary action in cases of harassment and abuse, whether it occurs on or off school property, when such behaviour has a negative impact on students’ ability to feel safe and learn at school.

The federal government should also reinstate the hate speech provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act repealed in June.

  • Education

Another way to promote a culture of respect, acceptance and ethical behaviour in schools is to make sure that human rights and non-discrimination are an essential part of the school curricula throughout a child’s education. Education about good “digital citizenship” is also crucial.

Jessica Logan, an Ohio high school senior, ended her life after her ex-boyfriend forwarded a nude photo of her to everyone at her school. For months Jessica was cruelly harassed by the other girls at her school who called her a slut and a whore. Her mother found her hanging in her closet on July 3, 2008.

Jessica Logan, Hannah Smith, Hope Witsell, Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, and others ended their lives because of the effects of cyber misogyny. It is time we took this issue seriously. In case you needed another reason why we still need feminism, this is it.

-Kaity

The Jilted Ex-Girlfriend: The resurrection of rape myths in Canada

It is almost Halloween and to celebrate the occasion I had planned to write a post about Halloween costumes gone wrong. But then something much scarier happened that demanded my attention. Tens of thousands of people across Canada, some of whom my friends and family, took up the cause of an alleged abuser of women. You all know who I’m taking about. Jian Ghomeshi, the popular CBC radio host of ‘Q’ whose employment was recently terminated amid allegations about his sex life.

Ghomeshi’s fans have voiced their support for him and their anger at CBC management for terminating his employment. They have proclaimed his innocence. They have attacked his accusers. And they have demand retribution for his firing. And with these passionate cries, they have given new life to age old rape myths.

We all know the story. Man dates woman. Man breaks up with woman. Woman is upset. She decides to seek revenge by fabricating allegations of sexual assault to ruin man’s life. Man is branded as rapist and loses job, public respect, friends etc. even though he is innocent.

Sound familiar?

“I’ve been fired from the CBC because of the risk of my private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer….

Despite a strong connection between us it became clear to me that our on-and-off dating was unlikely to grow into a larger relationship and I ended things in the beginning of this year. She was upset by this and sent me messages indicating her disappointment that I would not commit to more, and her anger that I was seeing others.

After this, in the early spring there began a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization against me that would lead to months of anxiety….

She found some sympathetic ears by painting herself as a victim and turned this into a campaign.”

Since this post appeared on Ghomeshi’s Facebook page Sunday evening, it has been liked by 109,082 people and shared by 41,328 people. There is even a petition at Change.org to show support for the radio host.

As a woman, I find this familiar narrative disturbing. But much more frightening to me is how quickly it has been accepted by the public without question or critical inquiry. I would hazard a guess that not many of the tens of thousands of people who have liked and shared Ghomeshi’s post have actually met him. And I would be willing to bet that not one of them knows what actually happened between Ghomeshi and his accusers.

But here is what we do know.

At this point, four women have come forward to allege sexual violence perpetrated by Ghomeshi. The allegations are serious. Three women say that Ghomeshi physically attacked them on dates without consent.  They allege he struck them with a closed fist or open hand; bit them; choked them until they almost passed out; covered their nose and mouth so that they had difficulty breathing; and verbally abused them during and after sex.1

The fourth woman was Ghomeshi’s co-worker at the CBC. She says that Ghomeshi groped her from behind while at work and told her “I want to hate f— you.” The woman says she reported this behavior to a union representative but no real action was taken and she left the broadcaster shortly thereafter.1

Thanks to years of research, we also know quite a lot about sexual assault. Here are some highlights.

#1 Sexual assault is terrifyingly common

Statistics show that one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. In British Columbia, that number is almost double at 47%.2

In 2009, there were 677,000 self-reported sexual assaults in Canada.

#2 Sexual assault is very rarely reported

Studies indicate that only 6-8% of sexual assaults are reported to police.3 The numbers for “date rape” are even worse, only 1-2% of these assaults are reported to police.4 Acquaintance sexual assault is the most underreported crime in Canada.

#3 Women do not routinely fabricate allegations of sexual assault

It is a common rape myth that women lie about being sexually assaulted to get revenge, for their own benefit, or because they feel guilty afterwards about having sex. The reality is that women rarely make false reports about sexual assault. False accusations of rape happen no more often than false reports of other types of crimes: about 2-4%. This means that 96-98% of sexual assault reports are true.2

#4 Women do not report sexual assault because of how we as a society treat victims

Women choose not to report sexual assault for many reasons including re-victimization by the police and courts, low conviction rates, fear of the rapist, feelings of shame and guilt and fear of public harassment.2

More than half of the 1,609 women who responded to a poll carried out by the parenting website Mumsnet said they would not report a sexual assault because the legal system, media and society at large are unsympathetic to rape victims.5

None of the four women who have alleged violence by Ghomeshi have filed police complaints or agreed to go on the record. The reasons given include the fear that they would be sued or would be the object of internet retaliation.

Can we blame them? Last year, a woman wrote about a bad date with a Canadian radio host some believe to be Ghomeshi. In the days following the post, the woman received hundreds of abusive messages and threats. An online video that has been viewed over 397,000 times called her a “scumbag of the internet.”1

#5 Rapists are often someone we know

Sexual assault is not most often committed by strangers. In over 80% of sexual assaults, the perpetrator is someone known to the victim. In 38% of cases, the perpetrator is the woman’s husband, common-law partner or boyfriend.6

Studies of rapists show that they are not mentally ill or sexually starved, they are ordinary men. They come from every economic, ethnic, racial, age and social group. Similarly, women who are sexually assaulted are from every economic, ethnic, racial, age and social group.2

Sometimes, rapists are famous personalities loved by the public. Take the late BBC host Jimmy Savile as an example. It wasn’t until almost a year after his death that his victims were able to come forward. But when they did, the numbers were staggering. Savile has now been accused of sexually abusing 450 victims ranging from prepubescent girls and boys to adults.8 Or consider Australia’s Rolf Harris. It took more than 30 years before his victims were able to come forward.7 In June 2014 he was convicted of 12 counts of indecent assault between 1969 and 1986 on four victims who, at the time, were between the ages of 8 and 19.9

To be absolutely clear, I am not saying Ghomeshi is guilty of the sexual violence he is accused of. I don’t know that. What I am saying is neither do we know that he is not guilty. I’m saying we the public should not allow ourselves to re-victimize a potential victim of sexual assault. We need to think critically and not jump to conclusions based on a familiar narrative that has no basis in fact.

The narrative of the jilted ex-girlfriend harms victims of violence who are abused all over again, this time by tens of thousands of people all over the world. And it harms all women, because every time a potential victim is viciously attacked on the internet the message to the rest of us, the one in four of us who will experience sexual assault, is to keep quiet.

The narrative is false. The truth is he can ruin her life, far worse than she can ruin his.

-Kaity

Sources

  1. CBC fires Ghomeshi over sex allegations: Kevin Donovan and Jesse Brown http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/10/26/cbc_fires_jian_ghomeshi_over_sex_allegations.html
  2. Rape Myths: VAVAW http://www.wavaw.ca/mythbusting/rape-myths/
  3. Statistics: VAVAW http://www.wavaw.ca/mythbusting/statistics/
  4. Sexual Assault Statistics in Canada http://www.sexassault.ca/statistics.htm
  5. 80% of women don’t report rape or sexual assault, survey claims: Martin Beckford http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9134799/Sexual-assault-survey-80-of-women-dont-report-rape-or-sexual-assault-survey-claims.html
  6. Sexual Assault Statistics: SACHA http://sacha.ca/fact-sheets/statistics
  7. Liking ‘Q’ isn’t a good enough reason to side with Jian: Justine Beach http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/justin-beach/jian-ghomeshi-fired-cbc_b_6051938.html?utm_hp_ref=tw
  8. Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Savile_sexual_abuse_scandal
  9. Rolf Harris: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolf_Harris#Charges