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Re-post: “How could they not have known?!”

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from last year. This post originally appeared on February 16, 2011.

[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.

2 thoughts on “Re-post: “How could they not have known?!”

  1. DoctorJay

    The men who do this kind of thing don’t do it in public, not even in “man-only” spaces. There are spaces where it happens, but those are carefully selected for like-minded individuals.

    So the only way the rest of us can know about it is if the victims tell us. I wouldn’t care to call that fair, there’s nothing fair about it.

    However, it’s also the case that men are very, very poor at reporting abuse. Mostly the abuse they experience is from other men, though not exclusively. So in some weird way, there’s an opportunity for solidarity. I firmly believe that someone who would say abusive things to women would say them to a man as well, as long as they felt they could safely do it.

  2. oldfeminist

    One problem is that, if you share your experiences, you get a shock reaction, but compassion fatigue develops and suddenly “you’re making too big a deal about it.”

    Even with many people who are generally sympathetic and who believe you, they eventually want to ignore it again, because it never seems to go away.

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