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Gender Block: online harassment is a real concern

Hillary Di Menna

Late last January a man in Winnipeg tweeted that the bar he was at was displaying a sexist poster. The bar agreed, and thanked him for calling it out. This constructive back-and-forth did not, however, stop the onslaught of tweets calling the man, Ben Wickstrom, a “pussy” and other predictably homophobic slurs. Despite the online harassment, Wickstrom said on Twitter: “I’m pretty sure I got two percent of the abuse that any woman who speaks out receives.”

He is right. Wickstrom’s story was published January 20. This is the same date Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian started her week’s worth of Twitter harassment. Attacks against her included name calling regarding her race and gender, as well as death and rape threats. Sarkeesian is a target of GamerGate, which gained a lot of attention in late 2014 and is the new storyline for a popular crime drama. Other targets include:  Leigh Alexander, Jenn Frank, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and Stephanie Guthrie. Jobs were lost, home addresses were published, lives were threatened and a “Montreal Massacre-style attack” was promised—all because these women pointed out some factors of our misogynistic culture.

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Not-for-profit digital and media literacy organization Media Smarts lays out how the law addresses online cyberbullying, saying, “Harassment is a crime under the Criminal Code. Harassment is when something a person says or does makes someone fear for his or her safety, or for the safety of others. Even if the perpetrator did not intend to frighten someone, she or he can be charged with harassment if the target feels threatened. Criminal harassment is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.”

Knowing this isn’t entirely comforting though, as social media is still regarded as new and court processes can be drawn out and are known to for forcing victims of gendered violence to relive their abuse. Online abuse is too often written off as a joke or not “real” because it is online. When, in fact, the abuse faced by the aforementioned women and many others, is not only real but also often a sign of “real life” violence to come. Must we wait for it to materialize after the online warnings?

Four days after Sarkeesian’s collection ended, I received a lengthy letter calling me an uneducated, white trash Nazi pushing my agenda—these were the kinder words—because of my wacky feminist belief that rape is a real thing that happens. I laughed it off, but would be lying if I said it hasn’t lingered in my mind, reminding me that the fear of future violence is a valid one. It is also sad that I consider myself lucky that the harassment I have faced hasn’t involved violent threats.

However, if I ever do need to contact the police, I’ll also contact the abusers’ moms.

A former This intern, Hillary Di Menna is in her first year of the gender and women’s studies program at York University. She also maintains an online feminist resource directory, FIRE- Feminist Internet Resource Exchange.

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