Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old Canadian schoolgirl hanged herself, last week, after years of unrelenting abuse by peers and online predators, one of whom persuaded her to flash her breasts and then shared the picture around the world.
In a personal video posted on the internet weeks before her death, Amanda told her story of “struggling, bullying, suicide, self-harm”.
The sexual bullying of women and girls online is not a new phenomenon and Amanda’s story is not unusual. A quick search shows hundreds of similar videos of tormented young women across the world telling intimate tales of loneliness and abuse, often by bullies who use the internet to ogle and harass women and girls with impunity. What is unusual is that this week, a fightback began.
First, Gawker journalist Adrian Chen leaked the name and details of “Violentacrez”, a user of the popular website reddit, who had posted and encouraged others to post thousands of explicit pictures of unsuspecting women and girls on forums with names like “jailbait”, “creepshots” and “misogyny”. After “Violentacrez” was revealed as Michael Brutsch, a 49-year-old grandfather from Texas, and other users of the forum began to be “outed” in their turn, there was an uproar over – of all things – their right to privacy.
It’s a familiar hypocrisy. In a world of patriarchal surveillance, privacy seems to be considered the exclusive privilege of men. From the moment they hit puberty, girls learn that their bodies and developing sexual identities are not their own – they are public property, to be photographed and critiqued and controlled and abused. The sexual persecution of young girls is far older than the internet – it is so endemic as to be almost invisible. In this nominally liberated world, most women continue to grow up understanding that their sexuality is a source of shame and an invitation to violence.
Nor is this sort of fascinated loathing for the bodies of young women an attitude exclusive to amateur creeps on anonymous forums. Readers visiting the Daily Mail website to learn about the suicide of Amanda Todd could click right through to the infamous “sidebar of shame”, where celebrities, actresses and ordinary girls barely out of puberty are subject to the most intimate and vicious unwanted personal and sexual criticism for the amusement of millions of readers.
It has somehow become axiomatic that if a woman has the temerity to exist in the public space, particularly as a sexual being, then she is fair game. She deserves to be bullied. She has asked for it. The sexual harassment of women online is a way of punishing women for being in the public space just as surely as catcalls and the threat of sexual violence punish women when they walk the streets alone. The internet just makes this sort of bullying much, much easier and – up until now – practically consequence-free for men like Michael Brutsch who like to sit down after work and comment on crotch-shots of unwitting pre-teens, while telling themselves, as Brutsch wrote in a blog post this week, that it’s “only on the internet”. “It’s how I relaxed in the evening,” an unapologetic Brutsch told CNN. Well, if that’s what we’re calling it now.
Bullies and sexual abusers seem to be under the impression that when something is “only on the internet” that means it is in some way “not real”. On the contrary: we live in a world that is digital as well as corporeal. People in their twenties find it difficult to imagine a social universe in which one’s identity is not determined in part by the personal pictures and pieces of information that exist on the internet, and today’s teenagers have known nothing else.
Young Amanda Todd, in the heartbreaking video-diary she made shortly before she took her own life, certainly made no distinction between the “real world” and “online” bullying she experienced. In her case, one led directly to another, as explicit pictures obtained by an internet predator were shared amongst her schoolmates.
Amanda’s final video testimony is painfully aware of appearance and image: every screenshot shows a hand-drawn card with another detail of her abuse by peers and older online bullies, before the last stills, which show her arms covered with self-inflicted wounds, the last defensive strategy of the tormented child: look what you did. Weeks later, she took her own life. Now defenders of “free speech” online are complaining that the release, by hacking collective Anonymous, of the details of a man alleged to have blackmailed her expose a potential innocent to harassment.
"Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom to abuse"
Forgive me if my sympathy is limited – if I am unable to share concern that creeps and abusers who are “outed” for persecuting young girls online might be subject to harassment or lose their jobs. Nobody, after all, showed the same concern for the women and girls whose privacy those people saw fit violently to destroy. Not the creeps on reddit, nor the schoolgirls adding their voices to the chorus of hate in an attempt to score popularity points in a misogynist society. They, too, are responsible for hounding Amanda Todd to death.
There is as yet no evidence that any person, anywhere, has experienced physical persecution as a result of being “outed” as a misogynist bully. There is, however, ample evidence of women and girls suffering terrible violence because no equivalent respect was shown for their privacy. Defenders of Brutsch and other internet bullies protest that these men now live in fear. Good. Perhaps they’re starting to understand how that feels.
Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom to abuse – and posting “creepshots” or sharing explicit photographs without the subjects’ permission is abuse, whether or not the laws of various nations yet acknowledge it as such. What is happening now in response is the digital age’s equivalent of vigilante justice. Vigilante justice is brutal and unreliable and sometimes it misfires, and it’s what happens when every other sort of justice is lacking.
Of course, the problem is far bigger than a few isolated creeps. The problem is a culture that persecutes women and girls for being visible online and in the physical world. Until bullies everywhere, in schools, on the internet and in positions of power, get the message that sexual abuse and harassment of women and girls has real, tangible consequences for them as well as for their victims, vigilante e-justice will remain the only effective way for women and their supporters to hit back.
Laurie Penny was yesterday voted Twitter Public Personality 2012 in Editorial Intelligence’s Comment Awards