Power Plays and Rape Threats: The Internet is Unsafe for Women Who Speak Out

While SendGrid developer evangelist Adria Richards attended PyCon 2013 two men seated behind her ma...

 photo adria-richards.jpg
While SendGrid developer evangelist Adria Richards attended PyCon 2013 two men seated behind her made a crass sexual joke which violated the code of conduct for conference attendees. Bothered, Richards snapped their picture and tweeted it at the conference staff, asking that someone speak to the men about their conduct.

One of the men was subsequently fired over the incident — a consequence Richards says she never intended. After that, the Internet exploded. Anonymous attacked the SendGrid website, essentially shutting it down. Richards received many disgusting, racially charged insults via social media. She received rape and death threats. Someone tweeted her a disturbing image of the bloody decapitated corpse of a woman with the caption "When I'm done." The image included her home address.

Much thoughtful analysis has already been written about the situation and whether Richards' reaction was warranted. However, whether you agree with Richard’s actions or not, the amount of gendered hate directed at her is simply inexcusable. Unfortunately, it seems that women who write or speak out online are sometimes the recipient of these kinds of disgusting attacks. These attacks go beyond harmless internet "trolling," and they need to end.

After Democratic strategist Zerlina Maxwell told Sean Hannity that she thought sexual violence against women could be stopped by teaching men not to rape, she received a flood of disgusting and racially charged comments telling her she deserved to be gang raped.

Maxwell, who is a rape survivor, refused to allow these threats to stop her from educating the world about rape prevention, saying, "I’m certainly taking steps to protect my emotional health, but I will not be quiet. Because I refuse to be bullied into silence."

Two weeks ago, I penned this piece about gender inequality in the media. In the piece, I included a mention of media critic Anita Sarkeesian. After she started a video series critiquing gender identity in video games, Sarkeesian said she received a series of threats. Sarkeesian notes:

"I found myself the target of a massive online hate campaign. All my social media sites were flooded with threats of rape, violence, sexual assault, death — and you’ll notice that these threats and comments were all specifically targeting my gender ... They attempted to knock my website offline, hack into my email and other accounts. They attempted to collect and distribute my personal information including my home address and phone number ... There were images made, pornographic images made in my likeness being raped by video game characters and sent to me again and again. There was even a game made where players were invited to beat the bitch up in which upon clicking on the screen, an image of me would become increasingly battered and bruised."

After my piece was published, I was surprised to find it received a lot of responses. While many people enjoyed the piece, or at least thought it raised questions worth asking, several seemed troubled by the study and my summary of it.

When I first started out as a blogger, I anticipated readers sometimes disagreeing with me. I mentally prepared myself for comments or tweets telling me my ideas were unfounded or that my writing was bad. These were all things I expected when publishing writing online.

My women in the media piece was a kind of milestone; it marked the first time I received a racially charged insult based on something I wrote, an outcome I was totally unprepared for.

Whether we agree or disagree with what these women have to say, these kinds of comments are never okay. No one should have to worry that they’ll receive racially charged insults, rape threats, or death threats because of what they write online. We should be able to disagree with each other respectfully without crossing the line.

Today, Adria Richards is in hiding. Once an avid user of social media, she hasn't tweeted or blogged since the incident began. For the time being, her voice has effectively been silenced.

Bridget Todd teaches courses at Howard University. She blogs about race and politics. Her writing has appeared on the Huffington Post, Jezebel, DCentric, and Racialicious. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetMarie

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