Reminder: The Internet Is No Excuse for Rape Threats

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It is a sad reality that in today’s world, if you are writing something on the Internet, particularly if you are female, you are very likely to get rape threats from the world at large. The Pandora’s Box of perceived anonymity on the Internet has opened up something broken and ugly in the world, and often throwing around the word “rape” at people who are perceived as less-than is one way to gain control.

And you know what? There’s no excuse for it, and it needs to stop. Stop making rape threats. Stop normalizing the abusive use of a word that has the weight and meaning of a personal violation. People throw around abusive language in response to something like criticizing comic books, talking about #misandry on Tumblr, or making a documentary on body image. It’s absurd, it’s destructive, and it leaves only fear and sorrow and gendered intimidation in its wake.

In a recent post on Jacobin, “Bro Bash,” the writer Amber A’Lee Frost linked to a tweet from journalist Sarah Kendizor, which used the term “bro,” blithely talking about the rape threats that she’s received as a journalist. Kendizor took umbrage to the article’s use of her tweet, protested, and in response, two Jacobin editors reread the piece and removed the link, adding an apology that read:

This piece originally contained a hyperlink that has since been removed. The sentence, “And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats,” linked to a journalist’s tweet about rape threats levied against her. Out of concern that linking to a conversation about personal threats might only encourage more, we removed the link shortly after publication and offer our apologies to the journalist.

It probably shouldn’t have been a thing. Twitter is public. Jacobin were, arguably, within their rights to use that tweet, and after Kendizor made her frustrations clear, they took it down. It could’ve been cut-and-dry, except these days, people have public forums to vent their frustrations. Another Jacobin editor, Megan Erickson, who tweeted in reply to Kendizor’s assertion that Erickson was “mocking her rape threats,” responded with “this is dishonest, childish bullshit.” A Salon editor weighed in. A Twitter defense rallied around Kendizor.

Kendizor wrote a blog post that concluded: “What do I want? I want people to stop sending me rape threats. I want to do my work. I want to stop being treated like a thing — or, shall I say, like a woman.” Should a writer ever have to write those sentences?

Look, this fight isn’t one where someone is clearly right and someone is clearly wrong. It’s a muddle between competing ethics, egged on by Twitter and fueled by the fact that “rape threats” are scary, horrible, and should be eradicated from the earth. Kendizor is well aware that she made the mistake in the first place by writing something on Twitter, a public forum. Jacobin took her tweet down, even if they did it in a snarky fashion that tipped over into cruelty. As writer Nancy Leong notes, it’s ultimately a privacy issue and an ethical issue. And the fight is taking away from “Bro Bash,” which is a provocative piece that’s worth reading.

But it does feel emblematic of a growing problem, and that’s the fact that the word “rape” is, in some ways, losing its specificity and seriousness — at least on the Internet — where it is all too common as a form of attack rhetoric, which is absolutely bizarre. However, it simultaneously keeps its power, as a “rape threat” is a scary thing for anybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re a political writer who leans to the left or the right. A rape threat is a cruel tactic, a blunt weapon most often used by men, against women. It’s meant to hurt and violate.

There’s something powerful in the ability to discuss rape on the Internet, in a “safe space” removed from the physical world, to find some common ground if you’re not anywhere near a Take Back The Night rally or a supportive community. But there’s another side to the freedom of the Internet, and that side is willing to use the word rape as a weapon, willy-nilly. To make rape into a threat. If journalists receive rape threats simply for writing while female (much of the time), of course emotions are going to run high around these violations. It had to feel awful for Kendizor to see her Twitter joke, trying to have power over something gross and scary, instrumentalized for somebody else’s rhetorical argument.

The only time I’ve ever come close to coming to blows with someone in real life is, well, in an airport security line, where a woman ahead of me responded to a face I made (trust me, it’s just my face) in response to her frustrating, slow obnoxiousness with: “I see you laughing at me. I hope you get raped some night.” She had just been checked by TSA, she had felt like she was violated, she was ready to take it out on the person rolling their eyes in line behind her (as I get anxious in the airport). It was not a good meeting of energies, to say the least. I was dumbfounded and in shock, but five minutes later, I was crying in anger and ready to rumble, and my husband had to talk me down off the ledge. Which worked out, considering I was in a Florida airport (i.e., hell) and I wanted to be able to leave, which is a fine argument for pacifism.

Here’s the thing: despite the economy’s concerted and persistent effort to take away the value of words, they have power. Words can wound. The fact that the Internet allows us to communicate through a screen of semi-anonymity can bland that out — after all, who knows? You may be sending a rape threat to a dog with a blog who wrote a screed that pissed you off, not an actual person or human being who finds your words deeply disturbing, but obviously, that’s not generally the case.

Publications and journalists who are learning to deal with Internet ethics in real time, can deal with people discussing things such as rape or rape threats with the appropriate sensitivity, which is a quality that’s easily lost when people are worried about survival. Journalists are in particularly exposed positions these days, as they are basically required to have a public presence and persona in order to “build their brand” and “get more jobs” so they can “make enough money to live.” Perhaps it’s an optimistic or even naïve way to look at it, and it sucks that’s the case, but it would just be nice if, perhaps, writing on the Internet didn’t make you vulnerable to somebody writing, in response, “You should be raped.” Would you ever say that to somebody’s face?