“How could they not have known?!”

[Trigger Warning: this post discusses trolling behaviour. Many links contain screenshots of threats, insults, sexual harassment and general profanity.]

From the Frag Dolls blog:

Less than a month ago, FatUglyorSlutty.com was just a twinkle in our #fragdolls IRC. […] The concept seemed simple enough. They wanted to make an easy image+caption blog dedicated to publicizing (and laughing at) the hilarious/disturbing messages that many female gamers receive while playing online games. The attention their site has gotten in the past week (including a front page on reddit.com, a feature on Kotaku, numerous blogs mentions, and hefty comment threads) proves that they created something more. Gaming culture at large is taking note, expressing appropriate shock and dismay. But I, in turn, am shocked by their reactions. I am fundamentally surprised that this is news. I keep asking myself “How could they not have known?!”

I first hit that question many years ago as a teenager on IRC. One of my male friends logged in on his mother’s account, and was horrified to discover the messages that “Sheila” was getting from complete strangers and mentioned so on our channel. The women of the channel shrugged: it was always like that for us. The men were horrified to know that under the surface, we’d been quietly ignoring pick up lines and harassment and just not mentioning it all this time. It’s not like we were intentionally hiding it, it’s more that it happened so often that it wasn’t worth mentioning.

I’ve been asking people “how could you not know?” a lot lately, too. I was sharing some of the choice comments I’d gotten on a recent geek feminism post at work, and my coworkers were totally appalled even though we were laughing over how appalling it was. They were horrified to hear that I still get this stuff fairly frequently while gaming, when writing online, while maintaining mailing lists or writing code. I’ve long since learned that it’s much more fun to treat them as hilarious and share them around for mockery, so that’s what we did, but I didn’t expect it to be such an educational moment for them.

Courtney Stanton took this to a new level when she gave an ignite talk about visualizing her troll data. Some of her insights are quite interesting. For example, 67% of comments were replies to other comments, but only 17% of troll comments were replies to others. And many people here who bemoan our commenting policies might be interested in one of her conclusions:

And so I have found that simultaneously allowing dissent while denying trolls an audience has led to more engagement. I’ve had multiple commenters say that they are not commenting anymore and in 24 hours they are back and generating more comments for people to respond to.

So stopping trolls (but not dissent) leads to some great discussion, but removing the troll commentary means that people don’t realise what’s going on under the surface, be it in games or in online discourse or wikipedia.

Geek Feminism isn’t a stranger to the “How could they not have known?!” problem: consider the Timeline of Incidents on the wiki. Mary blogged about why we document and one non-trivial reason is that people just aren’t aware, and don’t want to recognize this as a common occurrence without evidence. (Note that I can think of one recent debacle that isn’t yet on that timeline, if anyone’s got an itch to do some wiki editing…)

I expect it’s hard for someone not in the thick of things to know what’s going on. My coworkers don’t get the same comments I do, my male gamer buddies don’t have people freaking out or getting, er, excited when they speak on voice chat, my pure white friends don’t get told to go back to their home country (it’s this one, thanks) and we tend edit all the intentionally hurtful stuff we can out of our public environments so as not to give the hurtful folk the satisfaction of public attention but at the same time we render the problem invisible to outsiders. And then when we do talk about it, we’re met at first with incredulity because, well, how could they have known?

Despite the fact that women are much more visible in many geeky communities, there still seems to be an undercurrent of hatred from a small but loud segment of population. I wish I could suggest a solution that doesn’t winding up with just a set of variations on the unicorn law where it’s always up to women in the communities to bring this stuff up (and face the backlash from people who didn’t know and don’t want to believe). Perhaps the better question here is what advice can we suggest for potential allies who’ve just gotten broadsided by this and really could not have known? How can allies be better prepared for problems when they occur, and more aware of the undercurrents before something happens?

I’ll leave these as “ask a geek feminist” style questions for our commenters.

28 thoughts on ““How could they not have known?!”

  1. Catherine

    About a year or so ago, I mentioned a minor incident of street harassment to my husband, and he laughed because it sounded so bizarre to him. (It was so commonplace to me that I can’t even remember what exactly it was now.) I said, “Don’t laugh; that happens all the time.” He said, “It does? How often does someone say something like that?” He was amazed when I told him it happens to me almost every day.

    I honestly don’t know what the answer is because this stuff is invisible even though it’s out there on public streets all the time. Becoming aware of it is definitely an exercise in consciousness-raising, but to expect someone who had no idea to now be aware of undercurrents is, I think, unrealistic. Maybe the best we can do is to try to create more and more space where woman-hating and -harassing is not okay, thereby making it more obvious when it does happen.

    1. antimony

      I remember the first time my now-husband, then-boyfriend went biking with me. He’d commiserated before on drivers just generally harassing cyclists, but he’d never seen the added layers of harassment one gets for being publicly feminine. Sure, he was out on the same streets, but we all filter our perceptions. Traveling in a group meant that the hollers were directed close enough to him for him to notice.

      So really, the best thing is to just show them. In context. Take them with you on the streets, into the games, whatever, and be ready for them to be startled and ready to deal with the questions they may have. Especially, take them to venues where they are already familiar with the discoursee — telling non-gamers about gaming harassment, in my experience, results in “yeah all gamers are assholes. *pause* except you, obviously, but you shouldn’t expect more from 12 year olds blah blah”. Take them somewhere where they’re familiar with whatever mode of discourse happens amongst men, and let them watch the difference.

      1. Catherine

        antimony, I think that the fact that we’re both talking about significant others may be important–because we’re talking about people we are in relationships with, have had many conversations and shared experiences with. I think that forming relationships is necessary for making allies. Because it’s not just one moment when a person realizes, “Wow! Women get harassed!” and then is ready to do something about it. It’s the ongoing process you describe of learning, “And it happens in this situation, and it happens in that situation…” and then on to, “And hey, this affects me!” and then on to a point of readiness of actually becoming countercultural.

        So…thinking in type here…how can we mentor potential allies? They need more than just a few words to the wise, and marrying worked for the first one, but I can’t keep doing that. One thing I keep thinking is that women have to be present and powerful. It’s not just seeing that some behaviors hurt women, but having it matter. When women are present in a situation, with power to wield, then treating them with respect matters. So it’s important that allies have some kind of relationship (in a broad sense) where they are exposed to the problems and can digest them, but I think it’s important that allies reinforce themselves with a network of feminist relationships. The network is what creates the idea that women are present and that there is an alternative to just thinking, “Oh, sucks to be you.”

        And, coming finally in a roundabout way to what an ally can do as a first step, I’ll offer the suggestion to look for the women in any situation. How many are present, proportionally? How much power do they have? What would happen to you if you insulted one of them? The answers to those questions can help you judge the undercurrent. (And if your answers keep telling you the undercurrents are dangerous, then congratulations, you’ve found “normal” situations.)

        1. Eivind

          Thank you ! That is such an excellent way of putting it. I think you’re absolutely right. We, as humans -do- tend to care more about the one friend who is hurt, than about the hundred starving children in FarAwayIstan, i.e. we can’t help but care more about the fate of people we’ve got a meaningful relationship to.

          I’ve always had several close female friends, so I can’t remember a time when I didn’t consider harassment of females an attack on “us”, but I recognice the same tendency in myself when it comes to muslim women.

          I never used to realy *care* all that much that their freedoms are extremely limited in many areas, not aslong as they where just “muslim women”, but then I got a handful of *friends*, people I actually cared about, that fit the description. And I’d say, the practical result is that I care about a hundred times more, I guess you could say, I’m an ally.

          I didn’t marry any of them – so I guess the good news is, meaningful relationships can create allies even without involving marriage. :D

  2. Meg

    If allies don’t know, they need to listen more. When I first saw this blog I assumed it was a boasting site for guys about how they’d harassed women; that’s how common this is.

    It’s not like it has not come up, but unless it happened to them most men wouldn’t even notice. They can be sitting there listening to one guy sexually harass another woman in chat and their brain filters it out as “not about me”. It’s like the selective attention video: it doesn’t matter how obvious it is, unless their noses are being rubbed it in, unless the problem is being pointed out while they hear or see it happening, they’ll never realize it’s an issue. If a woman complains about it she’s whining or exaggerating or being a victim. If someone is doing it in front of them, they ignore it.

    Anyone who is like that I don’t think is an ally yet. If you are not aware that women, non-straight people and people of color are routinely subjected to harassment in multi-player games, you should have been. If you see these things now that it’s in front of you and someone is pointing out what the problem is, start looking for them on your own. Read some bell hooks, or other introductions to feminism, hang out on Sociological Images for a while, read this blog, and then if you have some female friends ask if they’d be willing to share their personal stories. Listen non-judgmentally and non-defensively to anything they want to share and notice any impulses you have to downplay the seriousness of their complaints, or disbelieve/discount their experiences. Just listen, don’t comment; remember, you had no idea this was happening, so you are in no position to judge.

    Most of all, Don’t Do That Shit.

    1. Terri

      You’ve made some good suggestions on where to look and how to learn, but I want to note that I said potential allies: people who honestly didn’t know for whatever reason. I suspect there’s a great many people who don’t have female friends who play on xbox live and rarely if ever encounter a female player. Heck, at a party last year, I met a young man who commented that he had never seen an adult playing a Nintendo DS before… remember some of these people are ignorant because they are young or isolated, not necessarily because they are maliciously blind.

      So yes, we are also talking about people who aren’t yet allies, but maybe would like to be once they got over the shock of learning that there are problems.

    2. Daniel Martin

      Well, I’ll answer the question of “how could you not know?” for myself:

      I don’t game. I’ve never played anything on an xbox that I remember. The closest I’ve been to MMORPGs is a little bit of mudding when I was in college, and that was mostly screwing around with the programming language on LambdaMOO. Hearing someone get harassed on group voice chat requires being on group voice chat.

      What I do do is read blogs and their comments, and some heavily trafficked email lists but there the worst of the trolling all happens in backchannels I can’t see: private messages/emails, or comments that get stuck in moderation or zapped by mods before I see them.

      It isn’t like street harassment, which I just have to hold my head up and pull out my earphones to see. For the most part, there literally isn’t a chance for me to know what’s going on unless the recipients of these messages explicitly choose to publicize them.

      Sure, I’ve read some of the “next top troll” posts on Feministe, but that doesn’t convey the volume of the trolling and how pervasive and regular it is. It’s still very easy to view the various trolls as extreme, rare outliers.

      So that’s how the stuff on FatUglyOrSlutty can surprise me – it’s exposing channels of communication I never even have the ability to see otherwise.

  3. Joseph Reagle

    This blog is (and I hope will continue to be) a great venue for documenting sexist behavior so people will no longer be able to claim: “I didn’t know.”

  4. koko

    One thing I think we need to do as far as gaining allies is to educate and recruit our male friends with sense to help.
    It’s like you said. It’s a small but loud population.

    The majority of male gamers aren’t disrespectful. Get them on board. If these trolls and morons get ridiculed by their fellow males as well as the women they harass, it’ll probably have a more profound respect.

    “Real men are too busy fighting bears and kicking as to harass women.”

  5. Daniel Martin

    I wonder if it would be technically feasible to add a feature to blogs so that when comments are moderated away they actually get moderated into one or more trash heaps, and then make it possible to view the “Troll” or “spam” trash heap. (But not automatically – viewing the troll trash heap should require clicking through a “these comments not endorsed by the management” page, and maybe a CAPTCHA too)

    I wonder if such a feature would be advisable and/or useful, assuming it’s feasible.

    (I’m pretty sure it is feasible, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to learn WordPress plugins…)

    1. Terri

      I’ve seen it done in other places (e.g. those where commenters can rank comments) but frankly, I’m not sure encouraging blogs to host the disturbing rantings and violent threats that get sent our way is really that productive. It’s worth noting that some of the things we get sent actually qualify as illegal because they constitute death threats, hate speech, slander… really just not appropriate for public consumption nor something one would really want to host at all.

      1. Daniel Martin

        Do any of those other places collect all the trash together, or are you thinking of those “2 replies below your threshold” placeholders that appear in the middle of the stream?

        I get your point though that even those systems do already accomplish what I wanted, which is to make it possible for someone other than the moderators to be aware of the magnitude and viciousness of the trolls.

      2. wychwood

        One way to keep trolls out of the discourse without making them actually invisible is to resort to disemvoweling – that might be something that would make it harder for people to miss the trolling going on, without allowing them to dominate the discourse.

        1. G

          Joel Spolsky once suggested that the way to deal with comment trolls is to hide their messages from everyone EXCEPT the troll so the troll would see his comment being completely ignored. I don’t know how practical that is technically, though.

          And it doesn’t deal with the issue of comments that are illegal as well as obnoxious.

  6. Eivind

    I find it very weird that anyone could not have known. Because in the large majority of the games where you’re represented by an avatar, one of the first choices to make, is the sex of the character. And I don’t know *anyone* (male or female) who hasn’t sometimes played a character of the opposite sex.

    Thus one would think most gamers, male or female, have experience with playing a game as a female character.

    You can’t do that for any length of time without becoming aware of some of this stuff.

    1. Terri

      I don’t agree. I think cross-gender play does definitely help expose you to a wider range of reactions, but frankly many people (many of the worst people) will assume all players are male until they hear you on voice chat or have some other obvious tell that you’re really female. The harassment I’ve seen spikes dramatically when strangers can hear my voice.

      And cross-gender presentation is very dependent on game: Maybe people in guild wars will generally assume you’re presenting the way you want to be interpreted, but if your game of choice is Left for Dead, I’m guessing people don’t assume every Zoe is female.

      You can most definitely be a male gamer and play female characters without getting exposed to nearly the same level of harassment.

      1. Eivind

        I guess my age is hanging out here – because I’ve actually got more experience with online gaming in environments where voice ain’t -avilable- than in those environments where it is.

        People wouldn’t automatically assume female characters are played by females in a no-voice environment either, but they’d have no simple reason of really knowing. (unless you volunteer the information, and even then they don’t know if you’re telling the truth)

        Still, it makes sense that there’d be *more* of it when people “know” you’re female rather than when they only know that you play a female character. There’s still enough of it, though, that I find it not-very-believable when some folks feign ignorance.

        I don’t think you can possibly NOT notice that some people behave in a harassing and rude way towards female players, without making a hell of a lot of effort at NOT noticing.

        1. Terri

          Seeing an occasional snide comment is a pretty far cry from understanding the levels of harassment that happen. (And see elsewhere in the comments for examples of how people can just not know.)

          Anyhow, regardless of *why* people might be ignorant, I think it’s more interesting to concentrate on how to alleviate that problem than it is to berate them for missing the cues that may or may not have been available to them.

        2. Ben

          Like Elvind, I’ve had direct experience with gender expression online from several years past., when characters online were rendered with words instead of polygons. Even then it was widely assumed that girls appearing online were boys in the flesh. I knew that was often, not necessarily true, and my own curiosity sometimes would motivate me to play the best female I could. So I’ve known women would be treated differently.

          But Terri is right, that the ubiquity of voice chat has changed how gender is perceived online. We have less control over the particularity of our voice than our writing. Gender remains in many ways a construct, but I think many men are more interested in defending their masculinity than in appreciating the choices they make to create their own gender. “Best not to ask too many questions” or imply you might be gay. Unfortunately the manly man today cannot admit his insecurity – so calling out women may be an effective substitute.

          I think that men must work on the problem of men harassing women playing games. Projects like FatUglyorSlutty.com will be helpful, certainly, for more men to acknowledge the harm our ideas of masculinity can inspire.

      2. Matthew Brown

        I’m a male player who regularly plays female characters, but I realize that often I’m deliberately avoiding playing in a way that will attract idiot male attention. I pick races and appearances that are “unsexy”, avoid outfits that are too attention-attracting, and basically try pretty hard to not get it. And I still do.

  7. Zahraah

    I had to tell an officer of a guild I recently departed again – to wonder why they never had any female raiders that stayed, and to ask what kind of environment they promote. We don’t say much because it brings attention and we become the instigators of drama if we make things like how we are treated known. We are working hard at being legit – respected and sometimes it’s easier to bear it then be faced with a rep for drama, and that’s sad. Glad it’s been made more open

  8. JakiChan

    The sheer amount of racism, sexism, and (most upsetting to me personally) homophobia on XBox Live is the reason why I turned the chat off and don’t put on a headset anymore. While I suppose there might be times where teamwork would be valuable it’s not worth the harassment.

    1. Ben

      I don’t blame you, it would upset me too. So far I’ve only really used voice chat with EVE Online, and there I had the option to play with a group of mature adults. I don’t think surrendering your standards for conversation is really compatible with having a good time. Considering how wide the problem is, I think we need to put in place a gaming-global system to join games with people you have some knowledge of, either by “clans” or “friending”, because throwing people together quasi-randomly degenerates so quickly.

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