Activist speaks out about mock twitter account, rape, death threats and police inaction
By Caitlin Roper
Earlier this year, Germaine Greer argued that women now are worse off than ever, citing the proliferation of pornography and the level of harassment and abuse directed toward women on social media as evidence. I tend to agree.
For a feminist campaigner like myself, threats of violence and rape have become part of the territory. I am used to being called a bitch or a slut (or worse) by unidentified men online for expressing an opinion. I’ve been singled out by Men’s Rights Activist group A Voice For Men after writing a piece on the media’s bias against women. I am no longer surprised when I receive unwelcome sexual comments from men online about my body or to let me to know they are masturbating to my image. I am no longer shocked when I receive rape threats while campaigning against sexual violence. And no, the irony is not lost on me.
So it came as no huge surprise when I received rape threats this week for publically sharing a petition against rapist Ched Evans. I received tweets calling me “rape bait”, “f*ck meat”, a “bitter whore”, “cum slut” who “likes it rough” and “spreads without thinking” and warning me to “start prepping my anus”. While these comments would never be accepted in the offline world, women are expected to just ‘deal with it’ online.
However, this time I decided to go to the police when I found a copy of my twitter profile offering sex to men on the Internet. It was so close to identical it even fooled me, and I initially thought my account had been hacked. My profile picture had been sent to an online community sharing images of women for masturbation purposes. My twitter bio had been updated to include graphic descriptions of sex acts I would perform for men, inviting men to follow me, “the biggest slut in Australia”. My website was changed from collectiveshout.org to a pornographic website. Various tweets were sent out in my name, asking men to “f*ck me” and claiming that I enjoyed being raped.
I was gripped with panic. There were so many thoughts running through my mind as I watched tweets going out in my name soliciting some men I knew, and others I didn’t.
I reluctantly went to the police station. As many women know, abuse and threats against women online are not regarded as a priority. My colleague Talitha Stone received international media attention when she was targeted with thousands of rape and death threats after criticizing Tyler the Creator’s songs. His lyrics include ‘rape a pregnant bitch and call it a three-way’. Tyler’s 1.7 million twitter followers went after her. One tweet to Talitha threatened to ‘cut her tits off’. A student from a Melbourne Catholic boys school shared her home address with the angry mob. He was out by one street.
Local police sent Talitha home with a stack of cyber-safety pamphlets.
Another colleague went to the police after one man described how he intended to mutilate her body and dissolve it in acid. The police officer suggested that the internet was “not a very nice place” and maybe she should stay off it.
Yet another colleague had to explain to police, who thought she should just go offline forever (despite the fact that the vast majority of her work was done there) that it was actually an offence in the Commonwealth Criminal Code to use a carriage service (e.g. the internet) to make a threat. The police seemed unaware of this fact.
These threats are criminal. They are designed to erode any sense of safety and security and to keep women in our preferred place. As Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency observed, Elliot Rodger used the Internet to make threats preceding his violent killing spree. How many other men, including unstable ones, feel supported if not justified in their hateful attitudes by an online culture of misogyny?
When I reported the man who was pimping me out online, the officer at my local police station suggested, “Maybe you should use a more plain picture.” As if my standard portrait shot was somehow ‘asking for it’? From my experience, how I look is irrelevant. I’ve been called both “fat, ugly and bitter” and “f**ckable”. Regardless of the headshots women use, men will target us if they feel so inclined.
Women and feminist campaigners in particular, are increasingly being targeted, abused and intimidated online. Caroline Criado Perez was pursued relentlessly for her campaign for more equal representation of women on bank notes. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency continues to be attacked for her educational videos highlighting the sexist and one-dimensional depiction of women in video games.
There is a pattern- women call for better treatment of women, they are vilified by men on social media who perceive this as a threat and feel the need to silence their voices. They believe if they can make us fearful enough, we will stop doing our work and stop challenging systems that privilege their rights and interests over ours. They are wrong. We just get back to work.
The man who targeted me has been identified. His name is Nader, he is 25 and lives in California. He has been linked to at least eight different twitter accounts he uses to abuse women, including survivors of sex trafficking. In fact, the first rape threats he sent me came from the fake account he had created of yet another feminist campaigner he had been targeting.
He is so brazen about his incitement to rape me, so sure he is untouchable he barely even tried to conceal his real identity. Unfortunately for him in the course of harassing countless women on twitter he left a trail leading to his name, image, phone number, email address, Facebook page and pictures of him exposing his erect penis he had previously circulated on one of his trolling accounts.
Copies of Nader’s threats and his personal information have been supplied to the LAPD, to Penn State (listed as his school on social media) and to Australian police, to be referred to a California branch of the FBI. I am also aware of complaints against him from women in Sweden and the UK. This has not stopped Nader.
To their credit, Twitter acted quickly to suspend the fake account once I had verified my identity with photo ID. However, the victory is only short lived. Once an abusive account is suspended, there is nothing to stop the user simply signing up for a new account- immediately. Why has Twitter failed to shut these abusive accounts down permanently? What is stopping them from flagging the email addresses of users who continue to use their service as a means to threaten women?
What is Twitter’s response to victims? Contact the police. What do the police say? Contact Twitter.
There is a common assumption among police, and perhaps the wider community, that if men are threatening women online the solution is for women to go offline.
“Why don’t you just close down your account?” asked the officer taking my statement. I explained how I used twitter in the course of my work for a non-profit organisation to share our campaigns with a broader audience. She pressed further, “But why do you need to use it?” as if it was somehow unreasonable for me to believe I had as much right as anyone to access social media without threats.
My experience with the police illustrates widespread cultural attitudes that place the responsibility to prevent crimes of violence with victims instead of perpetrators. Just as campaigns to reduce sexual violence have traditionally focused on women, advising them how to ‘not get raped’ rather than calling on men to treat women with respect, in an online scenario, the onus is again on women to bear the burden of responsibility for men’s abuse. What did we expect, thinking we could use social media and have an opinion? We kind of brought it on ourselves, didn’t we?
Whether it is rape, domestic violence, abuse or online threats, telling victims to modify their behaviour is a fruitless endeavor- the power to prevent men’s violence against women lies completely with (surprise!) men.
I have encountered too many men on twitter who dish out vile abuse and threaten rape, confident they are doing so with impunity, with a firm belief that they will never be held accountable for their crimes. That’s been true, so far.
The silver lining is that I have had the privilege of connecting with strong, incredible women online. These women are dedicated to challenging attitudes and institutions that promote and profit from sexism, exploitation and men’s violence against women, despite the emotional toll. (Believe me, there is a real emotional toll to doing this work.) These are the women who stand with me and other women time and again in the face of ugly threats and misogyny, bonded by our shared experiences of victimisation and our refusal to be silenced. Together we are unstoppable.
This is an extended version of an article which appeared in The Guardian last week.
Caitlin Roper is an activist and Campaigns Manager for grassroots campaigning movement Collective Shout: For a world free of sexploitation.