Sexual Violence and a Woman on the Internet

“I hope you get gang raped by a bunch of pirates. Eat d**k and die.”

Just one of countless messages I received threatening physical or sexual violence.

TW: Sexual Violence. On February 5, 2021 I published an article with the Washington Post’s Made by History perspectives column. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were about to face off with the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. As a scholar and historian of piracy, I found an opportunity to connect my historical research with a current events moment. The piece was simple. First, I would provide historical context for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ name and logo. Second, I would examine the role of pirates like José Gaspar in the Tampa Bay Area. And third, I would offer my thoughts on the connection between the two.

A view of the pirate ship Jose Gasparilla ahead of Super Bowl LV (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Little did I know that immediately after the article was published, I would be deluged with an onslaught of horrific and graphic threats of physical and sexual violence. As I wrote in a blog post for The Panorama, I had never experienced anything like it, and being self-taught in the realm of social media, I had no mechanisms through which to manage the mob attacking me. And I’m not alone. Amnesty International published an exposé called Toxic Twitter: Women’s Experiences of Violence and Abuse on Twitter. They argue that although “people of all genders can experience violence and abuse online, the abuse experienced by women is often sexist or misogynistic in nature, and online threats of violence against women are often sexualized and include specific references to women’s bodies.” Further, they state that the goal of this sexual violence is to “create a hostile online environment for women with the goal of shaming, intimidating, degrading, belittling or silencing women.”

Sometimes it’s basic name calling: sl*t, b*tch, c*nt, wh*re, etc. Sometimes it takes the form of harassing based on one or more aspects of a woman’s identity (e.g., racism, transphobia, etc.,). Other times women have to fear privacy violations such as doxing – i.e. uploading private identifying information publicly with the aim to cause alarm or distress, and the sharing of sexual or intimate images of a woman without her consent. These actions can be fused together in targeted harassment called a pile-on.

Wikipedia defines sexual violence as “any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act by violence or coercion, acts to traffic a person or acts directed against a person’s sexuality, regardless of the relationship to the victim.” According to a poll from Amnesty International, of the women polled who had experienced abuse or harassment on social media platforms – 29% of women in the USA said they had experienced threats of physical or sexual violence, with 27% experiencing such threats in the UK. Around half of women polled who experienced abuse or harassment said that the abuse included sexist or misogynistic comments (53% in the USA and 47% in the UK). 

These threats of violence against women online includes “both direct and indirect threats that can be physical or sexual in nature.Threats of violence against women online includes both direct and indirect threats that can be physical or sexual in nature.” Laura Bates, a UK women’s rights activist, recounts her experiences, revealing such threatening messages as “YOU BETTER WATCH YOUR BACK…IM GONNA RAPE YOUR ASS AT 8PM AND PUT THE VIDEO ALL OVER THE INTERNET…LOLOLOL” and “Anyone involved in a feminist movement today needs to have a penis put in their mouth and shoved up their ass.”

Numerous people who messaged me after my article told me to kill myself, to die, that they wanted to rape me and shut me up, etc. Amnesty International’s research has found that all forms of abuse against women can have a harmful impact on women’s rights online. And, according to Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly in their piece in The Atlantic, “under the banner of free speech, companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been host to rape videos and revenge porn—which makes female users feel anything but free.”

For example, Thorlaug Agustsdottir wrote an outraged post regarding an image she had seen on Facebook: a young woman naked chained to pipes or an oven in what looked like a concrete basement, all bruised and bloody. Soon, Agustsdottir was inundated with hateful messages. “Women are like grass, they need to be beaten/cut regularly.” Another wrote: “You just need to be raped.” Thorlaug reported the image and comments to Facebook and requested that the site remove them. But Facebook screeners found that the image did not violate their community standards, instead labeling the content as “Controversial Humor.” 

The most recent example of such threats of sexual violence made its rounds on History Twitter through the #Twitterstorian network. A user, known for hurling violent and sexual abuse at just about anyone, who had been suspended multiple times previously, shared a private email exchange between himself and his (woman) advisor without providing the full context of the situation. It was clear that this was done in an attempt to garner sympathy, paint the advisor as an ableist villain, and ruin her academic reputation. When another user pointed out that he shouldn’t have shared the private conversation he responded that he hoped she would “literally suck my d*ck and choke to death on it you fetid shitworm.” As other users called him out for his use of sexual violence, he dug in and defended his comments. Some of his followers came to his defense, telling the (mostly) women who were upset that they should “calm down,” that it “wasn’t serious,” and that his words weren’t a threat.

This is gaslighting in its purest form. So what are we to do about this infectious and persistent problem? How do we combat sexual violence on social media, especially that targeted against women? I don’t have all the answers. But the first thing those who are in positions of power/privilege can do is to call it out whenever we see it. The second thing we can do is support the victims of this targeted harassment. And third, we can continue to try to hold the social media moguls accountable for removing such targeted harassment from their sites.

If you’ve been a victim of threats of sexual violence and need to talk, you can find me on Twitter: @L_Historienne.

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