Women scientists, skeptics, gamers and geeks take on trolltown

by Paul Dechene | Illustration by Dakota McFadzean


Hey guys. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there sure do seem to be an awful lot of “ladies” turning up in our man-spaces lately. Girls reading “comic books”, playing “video games”, watching “horror movies”, talking about “science”. They’re invading Guy Nation and I’m not sure I like that. Next they’ll be drinking our whiskey and smoking our cigars.

Give them the vote and they want the world, amirite?

Here’s what I think we should do: Call them fakers, tell them to get back into the kitchen, talk about their boobs a lot and if that doesn’t drive them off, we can threaten to rape them.

* * *

No. I’m not serious. And you know, I had trouble typing those sentences even though I hope it’s obvious they’re meant as an ironic opening.

The thing is, there are guys out there who have no problem typing stuff like that all the time — and stuff much, much worse — and then pressing “SEND” so it goes out and inundates the inboxes and Twitter feeds of woman bloggers, gamers, artists, programmers, tech journalists, scientists and all the other women engaged in things considered “nerdy”.

That said, the harassment most women face on the Internet doesn’t get beyond a daily “Tits! Or GTFO!” or an accusation of being a dreaded Fake Geek Girl. But get too comfortable, talk about the treatment of women or object to the harassment, dare to whisper the word “feminism” and you’d better watch out. The wrath of a thousand flaming nerd suns will fall on your head.

It’s become so huge an issue that even mainstream media outlets like the Guardian, Slate and Wired took notice over this last year.

The story that brought geek culture’s troll problem to international attention was about Anita Sarkeesian and her Kickstarter.

Last summer, Sarkeesian, who runs the Feminist Frequency site, set out to raise money for a video series about depictions of women in video games through the fundraising website Kickstarter. Thousands of comments poured in accusing her of being a feminazi who’s sexist against men. The messages include lines like, “I hope you get cancer :)” “I’ll donate $50 if you make me a sandwich,” “The subversive Jewess strikes!” “You are a fucking hypocrite slut,” and “She needs a good dicking, good luck finding it though.”

And there was more. Hate sites were set up to complain about her project. She was sent crude drawings of her bound and raped — in one by the video game character Mario. Her Kickstarter page was hacked. Her Wikipedia page was vandalized with pornographic images. And a 25-year-old in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, made a video game about her called “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” where the player can virtually punch an image of her, causing gashes and welts to appear.

Ironically, all that online harassment only confirmed the need for her video series. And if the trolls were hoping to shut her up, they failed because the backlash against their backlash was enormous.

By the time her Kickstarter closed, she’d raised $158,922 in contributions, more than 22 times the $6,968 she was hoping for.

And with this much invested in her project, she’ll be able to expand the scope and make a professional documentary series. Looks like Sarkeesian will get the last word over her tormenters. And the last laugh.

Hers isn’t an isolated case, though. Many women face similar online bullying or worse all because they choose to participate in some supposedly male-dominated pastimes. Seems like everyone is telling the girl geek she should just shut up.

Fortunately, girl geekdom is getting louder.

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“I gave men some good advice on how to make conferences more welcoming to women and I was attacked with misogynist slurs for doing it.”

That’s Rebecca Watson describing how an off-hand comment in a Youtube video turned her into a target for the online, anti-feminist troll community.

Watson is the founder of Skepchick, a blog that focuses on science, skepticism and feminism; and she’s a co-host of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, a hugely popular science podcast.

In 2011, Watson posted a video to Youtube about her recent travels and in it she mentioned how she was awkwardly propositioned in an elevator late at night while attending an atheist conference in Dublin.

“Just a word to the wise here, guys, don’t do that,” she remarked, then briefly explained how cornering a stranger in an elevator to offer her a private coffee in your hotel room can come off as a little creepy. It’s a sound bit of advice.

But in typical internet fashion, that nugget of wisdom provoked a backlash of epic proportions. She was quickly branded anti-man, anti-sex and anti-fun; on blogs she was referred to as “Rebeccunt Twatson”; a site was set up to lobby the SGU to kick her off the show.

And, while that went on publicly on the Internet, her e-mail inbox overflowed with rape and death threats.

And all of that — the insults, the threats — was coming from skeptics, atheists and promoters of science, the very people that Watson had until then considered her confederates in a global nerd posse. In response, Watson started writing about what she’s experienced and posting samples of the harassment she’s faced. It’s a harrowing read.

I contacted Rebecca Watson by Skype and talked to her about her war with the misogyny trolls.

The vitriol you’ve been subjected to, it’s pretty out of control.

It’s remarkably over the top. It’s not something that I ever expected. I knew there was a problem with a bit of misogyny, a bit of sexism in the atheist and skeptic communities but I did not think it was that big of a problem until this. I used to think it was just something where men would treat women a little poorly because they weren’t thinking and because it had never been pointed out to them that they doing something wrong, and as soon as someone nicely pointed out they were doing something wrong they would immediately shape up and change their behaviours — because I assumed that everyone would want to make the community more welcoming to women.

I could not have been more wrong.

Is the abuse you’re getting now worse than what you faced from the alternative medicine crowd or the creationists?

I have received messages from those people, the other side, that have been really hateful and misogynistic. Particularly like chiropractor fans for some reason — really angry. Homeopaths. Any time I mentioned conspiracy theories like 9-11 or the cloudbusting conspiracy theories, chem trails  and things like that. Those would get the occasional rape reference or something like that. Never out-and-out death threats or anything. But they never really bothered me because they happened so infrequently that it was easy to deal with. I always felt as though I had a large community of backers to support me when things like that happened. So this was very different because it was a lot more.

Suddenly instead of getting a rape threat every two months, now I was getting a rape threat every two minutes. That can be difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis. And also because I no longer felt like I had a community of people who supported me — I didn’t have a community of people who supported me, or certainly not one as large as I thought it had been — I could no longer feel comfortable in skeptic and atheist spaces. Where I used to just assume we had the same values, now I realize that there are people in those spaces who would happily send me death threats and rape threats. So it really changed my interaction with the rest of the community.

I’ve heard people say the anonymity of the Internet makes this kind of bullying possible. But there are people who are making names for themselves by saying really hateful things about feminists. Some Youtubers have basically made it their stock-in-trade to bash the Skepchicks.

Yeah, I don’t know that it’s anonymity so much as it is having distance from your victim makes bullying a lot easier, because it’s easier to dehumanize them. And I see a lot of outwardly dehumanizing messages being sent my way. Literally, one I got on Youtube through their message system was, “You are not human. You are less than human. You deserve to be raped and killed.” So yeah, it’s dehumanizing in the most literal way possible. And I do think having the computer between you and your victim, it doesn’t necessarily encourage that, but being face to face with the person you’re talking to would actively discourage that sort of behaviour.

There are a lot of ways that I think that this whole argument is a product of the Internet, but that said, I don’t think they’re going to win. Even with the anonymity and the distance that the Internet provides, I think that ultimately people are starting to recognize this is a serious problem and there are going to start being real social consequences for people who bully and harass women.

And yet there are some women who’ve backed away from the Internet due to the kind of harassment they’ve faced. The trolls are causing actual damage to your cause.

There are definitely some women who have been bullied off the Internet. I don’t blame those women. It took me a long time to figure out how to emotionally deal with getting those messages constantly. And you don’t know how bad it is until it happens to you. It can be really difficult psychologically to deal with the nonstop barrage of hatred. So I certainly don’t blame those women who step out of the spotlight because of it. But for every woman that does that, I think that the rest of us get louder. And I think that there are more women who get angrier and start speaking up more. And I also think that every time that happens there are men who get angry as well, and who want to help and who do that by speaking out against other men who are being misogynists and who help by bolstering the women who are continuing to speak out. So I don’t think that we’re experiencing a net loss of voices. The fact that we’re experiencing any loss at all is a testament to how bad the bullying is. But that said, I think that overall our voices are growing louder and that’s a very good thing.

At the same time that this was all happening to you, similar stuff was happening all over nerd culture. It’s like the entire Internet is grappling with… well, women. What do you think about that?

I think all of these things are related. There’s a lot of overlap between active skeptics and atheists and general geek culture. The cosplayers. There’s so much overlap between these groups that it makes perfect sense that we’re seeing the same problems across all these various geek outlets.

That said, it’s not just geeks. I think that misogyny and sexism are rampant throughout our culture as a whole. And the geek culture is what’s happening online so that’s what we’re seeing going on online. I don’t think that geeks are any more or less misogynistic than anybody else in this culture. It’s just very visible because it’s happening online and because all of us women are speaking out against it at once and we’re joining together.

How long do you think you can keep this up? You’re under the gun constantly. I couldn’t do it if I were you.

I have no plans of giving up any time soon. I’m a very competitive person and so if I know somebody wants me to quit that just makes me want to be that much louder. They’re using the wrong tactics. If they want me to go away what they should do is stop harassing women. Then I’ll give up because there’s no more fight.