A terrible thing is happening this year. Women all across the internet are finding themselves the target of violence, simply for existing. Women are being harassed for talking about video games, women are being harassed for talking about the technology industry, women are being harassed for talking, women are being harassed.
A terrible thing is happening. Women are finding themselves the target of violence.
A terrible thing has always happened.
I remember being a 16 year old posting frequently on internet forums. One in particular focused on guitar equipment. I loved playing in a band, and I loved the technology of making guitar sounds. Many people on the forum were between 16 and 24, although it was frequented by quite a few “adults” in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. It was a wonderful opportunity to interact as an adult, with adults.
Every week members created a new thread where they posted hundreds of photos of women. Most of them were professional photographs taken at various night clubs as patrons entered. Some were magazine clippings or fashion modeling. I remember taking part, both in gazing and supplying the occasional photograph from the internet. We were far from the early days of the world wide web, this being around 2003, but this was also before social media matured and online identity was well understood by the general public.
This thread became controversial. A change from private to corporate ownership of this forum led to increased moderation, and the weekly post with photos of women was one of the targets.
I did not understand.
In the debates about the appropriateness of the content and its place within our online community, I took the side of those who wanted the post to remain alive. I was not its most ardent supporter, nor was I moved to some of the extremes in language and entitlement that typically surround these conversations. However, my views were clear and easy. These were public photographs, largely taken with permission (often for compensation). And, of course, none of the pictures were pornographic.
Appropriateness for me at 16 was defined by pornography. I did not understand.
My parents did not raise me to be misogynist. One of the most influential moments in my life came on a car ride to the dentist. I was also around 16 or 17. I think it was on my way to get my wisdom teeth removed. I had been dating the same girl for a while, and it was time for my father to give me the talk. All he said to me was, “Women deserve your respect.”
That was it.
We were in college, and my friends and I were all internet natives. We had used the web for over ten years. We grew up in AOL chatrooms and forums. The backwaters of the internet at this time shifted from Something Awful to 4Chan. This was the height of some of the most prolific and hilarious memes: lolcats, Xzibit, advice dogs (a favorite was bachelor frog, which seemed to understand our worst impulses expressed in only modest exaggeration).
There was also violence.
It was not uncommon to see names, phone numbers, and addresses that 4chan was supposed to harass because someone said so. Various subcultures seemed to be alternatively mocked and harassed endlessly in the very place that had first embraced, supported, and connected people under the guise of radical anonymity. The most famous of the “Rules of the Internet” was Rule 34 – if you can think of it, there is a porn of it– and its follow up, Rule 35 – if you can not find porn of it, you should make it. 4chan seemed determined to make this a reality. But really the most troublesome thing was the attitude toward women. Nothing was as unacceptable to 4chan as suggesting that women are anything but objects for male gaze. In a place sometimes filled with radically liberal (if more left-libertarian than left-progressive) politics that would spawn groups like Anonymous, nothing brought out as much criticism as suggesting our culture has a problem with women.
My response was largely to fade from this part of the internet. I had only reached the point of being uncomfortable with this behavior. It would take more time for me to understand. It still felt like this was a problem of ignorant people.
I am rarely jealous of intelligence. I am rarely jealous of wealth. I am rarely jealous of experiences. What I am most often jealous of is what seems to me to be a preternatural maturity of others, particularly around issues of ethics and human rights.
Fully grappling with privilege is not something that happens over a moment, it is a sensitivity to be developed over a lifetime. We are confronted with media that builds and reinforces a culture that is fundamentally intolerant and conservative. There are countless microaggressions that are modeled everywhere for our acceptance as normal. It has taken me a decade of maturation, hard conversations, and self-examination to only begin to grow from fully complicit and participating in objectification of women to what I would now consider to be the most basic level of human decency.
The internet has gone from enabling my own aggression toward women to exposing me to a level of misogyny and violence that deeply disturbs and disgusts me, shattering any notion that my past offenses were harmless or victimless. The ugly underside of our culture is constantly on display, making it all the more obvious how what felt like isolated events on the “ok” side of the line were actaully creating a space that supported and nurtured the worst compulsions of men.
I often think about my own journey when I see disgusting behavior on the internet. I wonder whether I am facing a deeply, ugly person or myself at 16. I try to parse the difference between naïvety, ignorance, and hate and to understand if they require a unique response.
Mostly, I struggle with what would happen if Jason Today spoke to Jason 16.
Jason 16 could not skip over a decade of growth simply for having met Jason Today. It took me conversations with various folks playing the role of Jason Today over and over again, year after year. I wish I believed there was another way to reach the Jason 16s out there. I wish I knew how to help them become preternaturally aware of their actions. All I know how to do is try to be compassionate to those who hate while firmly correcting, try to meet the heightened expectations I place on myself, try to apologize when I need to, and try to support those that seem more equipped to push the conversation forward.
Along this path, I never lept to agreement so much as paused. Each time I heard a convincing point, I paused and considered. Growth came in a series of all too brief pauses.
Pauses are often private and quiet, its discoveries never on direct display.
If pauses are the best anyone can expect, then working to change our culture of violence toward women will rarely feel like much more than shouting at the void.