Hey, Twitter Trolls: Rape Threats Are Not an OK Way to Disagree with Someone
Earlier this week, actress Ashley Judd—a University of Kentucky alum and long-time supporter of the school's basketball team—tweeted the following about opponent Arkansas: "Playing dirty & can kiss my team's free throw making a-." The message itself was hardly atypical of a sports fan, especially during March Madness when the stakes are at a season high. Yet the responses to Judd's tweet were loaded with animosity, including tweets calling her a whore and a bitch, and others threatening rape. We need to ask: How did we get to a place where a post about a silly game elicits sexually violent comments? Obviously the messages are as ludicrous as they are offensive—a woman deserves to be raped because she likes a particular sports team? Really, Twitter trolls? But the out-of-touch nature of the messages doesn't take away from their power to fuel a hateful pile-on and intimidate their target.
The sad reality is, women have been the victims of sexual threats online for some time now, from gamersand politicians to journalists. As Amanda Hess wrote in an award-winning piece for Pacific Standardmagazine:
Here's just a sampling of the noxious online commentary directed at other women in recent years. To Alyssa Royse, a sex and relationships blogger, for saying that she hated The Dark Knight: "you are clearly retarded, i hope someone shoots then rapes you." To Kathy Sierra, a technology writer, for blogging about software, coding, and design: "i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob." To Lindy West, a writer at the women's website Jezebel, for critiquing a comedian's rape joke: "I just want to rape her with a traffic cone."
The fact that threatening rape has become a relatively common knee-jerk response to disagreeing with a stranger over sports, movies, or anything else, just shows how unsafe the online world can be for women. And while nineteen percent of online users have experienced sexual harassment, according to a Pew survey, only five percent of victims reported the abuse. And so most of the angry, aggressive social media users dishing out violent threats are going unpunished—wrongly creating the sense that their right to speech is more important than a woman's right to safety. Think about it: If someone were to walk up to a woman in public and yell in her face that he wanted to rape her, that person could be arrested for sexual harassment or worse. Why should a person doing the same thing from behind a keyboard not face similar charges?
Judd, a survivor of rape and incest, has said that she plans to bring the Twitter users who threatened her to justice. While it remains to be seen whether pressing charges will actually result in an arrest, Judd has a relatively significant power behind her in 251,000 Twitter followers with whom she can share updates on her case.
On Thursday, Judd published an essay titled "Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass" in response to the tweets directed at her. She wrote:
What happened to me is the devastating social norm experienced by millions of girls and women on the Internet. Online harassers use the slightest excuse (or no excuse at all) to dismember our personhood. My tweet was simply the convenient delivery system for a rage toward women that lurks perpetually. I know this experience is universal, though I'll describe specifically what happened to me.
She goes on to discuss the tweets, which she describes as "humiliating and violent," involving "vivid language" in which her "genitals, vaginal and anal, should be violated, shamed, exploited and dominated." The piece also includes embedded tweets from users who attacked Judd for standing up for herself, telling her to "DEAL with IT" and that "I can't take this whiny feminist crap."
Judd also bravely describes being raped in 1984, as well as an attempted oral rape by an adult man when she was just 15. She is open about her journey in dealing with these traumatic events, specifically through experiential therapy. She is also open about how easy it is to be pulled backward by online harassment:
"...my therapy was astonishing, as all such healing work is. I felt like I had the chance to finally speak, fight and grieve, and be consoled and comforted. But then, on literally the very next day, I received a disturbing tweet with a close-up photograph of my face behind text that read, "I can't wait to cum all over your face and in your mouth."
At the end of the essay, Judd calls on readers to stand with her against sexual harassment online. "I am handing it back over to those of you who are unafraid to speak out against abuse like I have faced, and those of you who are righteous allies and intervening bystanders. You're on it. Keep at it—on the Internet, at home, at work and in your hearts, where the courage to tackle this may fundamentally lie. We have much to discuss, and much action to take. Join me."