Last week, thanks in large part to the efforts of Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, the US House of Representatives formally supported measures to "intensify investigation and prosecution of severe online threats against women" and to "increase investigations and prosecutions of these crimes." I wrote then about Clark's call for action, and the consistent and explicit threats that women are regularly subjected to online — and that I have directly experienced myself. Soon after, I was unsurprised to find my Twitter feed promptly inundated with exactly the kinds of responses that make a person understand how online culture fosters such a pervasive animosity towards women. I got complaints about freedom of speech, accusations of whining and lying, and that classic retort — If it's so bad, why not leave? So allow me to say it, yet again. You have every right to an opinion, including a negative one. You don't have a right to harass. You don't have a right to threaten to rape and murder. It's still against the law, even as the courts with the nuances of protected speech and and legitimate intimidation. So don't support it.
On Wednesday, Clark spoke before Congress about the online attacks against women, inviting her colleagues to "Imagine while you are in your office, people threaten to sexually assault you, and they know where you live, when you are home, and who your family members are. Maybe they even show you the weapon they'll use in the future to harm you." She noted that "women are targeted with the most severe types of online threats and harassment at a rate 27 times higher than that of men," and spoke of the "huge financial and professional impacts" for women living under this constant deluge of abuse. And she called on the Department of Justice to "enforce the laws that are already on the books and take these investigations and prosecutions seriously."
On Thursday, Salon spoke with Clark about her quest, and how she's hoping to change what we talk about when we talk about women on the Internet.
Are you surprised at the way the issue is currently handled?
It's astonishing. I don't know what it is. If it happened in our offices, if someone was leaning over your cubicle a couple of hundred times a day and saying, "Hi Katherine, I'm watching your house. I know that your kids are home, and here's what I'm going to do," we wouldn't accept it. We would never tolerate this, certainly not in our Congressional offices. If people were coming in the door and making violent threats, we wouldn't say, "This is just some statement they're making about politics." This is not about public discourse. But somehow because it's online, it becomes, "Women aren't tough enough."
And when you say what women have experienced, you get this barrage of, "Do you know what they do? They are the worst perpetrators!" Incredible. The whole Gamergate was surprising and horrifying, the pervasiveness of it. [Clark became actively involved in the issue in part because of accusations of targeted harassment against her Massachusetts constituent, game developer Brianna Wu. In March she told Jezebel that the "disappointing" FBI response "echoed what we would see 20 years ago around domestic violence."]
How big do you think the problem is?
For women who are in high tech, blogging, academia, and especially expressing any kind of feminist opinion, it is truly shocking. I think that what has been a very unpleasant discovery is how pervasive this is, how it spans across women's professional lives. You know that these messages aren't really about you; the majority of these people do not know you. But it is a ferocious tax on people's feelings of safety in their own homes and spaces.
As we are trying to attract young women into STEM, and saying, "We want you and your brain power," what kind of message are we sending them? We will have a very hard time with this kind of onslaught of threats.
Do you feel that any headway is being made? Do you feel change is possible?
For everyone who says this isn't a real problem, we have had so many people reach out and say, "Thank you for addressing this." We have a responsibility to ensure that the Internet is open to all voices, and ensure that people can navigate it safely — and that is not saying without criticism or tough language. It's about safety.
I find a lot of people argue that this is an attempt to shut down free speech, or women being unable to handle criticism.
The overwhelming majority of comments I receive online are from critics. They may put their criticism graphically, and that's not what concerns me. I'm talking about violent threats of sexual assault, of death and dismemberment. Let's talk about the fact that these people feel confident enough that they can put out what are criminal threats and send them to you. That, I'm concerned about. That, we all should be concerned about.