Forking, Dongles and Cyber Misogyny

Last summer, Avital Norman Nathman wrote about feminist video blogger Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter proposal for a web series, Tropes vs. Women, and briefly mentioned the alarming backlash aimed at Sarkeesian for venturing to dissect sexist trends in video games. After receiving vicious YouTube comments, including “I hope you get cancer” and just about every misogynistic slur in the book, it’s no wonder that Sarkeesian opted to bar viewers from adding their potentially malicious two cents about her first webisode. Disabling YouTube comments sounds like an easy solution to cyberbullying, but even that act of self-defense prompted further harassment.

It isn’t breaking news that Internet readers can be a tough crowd to please, but this truth holds particular weight for female cybernauts. If Sarkeesian can incur cyber death and rape threats for merely requesting donations on the Internet, what might happen to a woman who makes a highly publicized mistake on it? Adria Richards’s recent Twitter fiasco answers that question.

Less than a month ago, Richards, a computer programmer, overheard a joke she found distastefully sexual at a PyCon programming convention and decided to tweet about it and include a photo. Richards’ account of the events leading up to her explosive tweet can be found on her personal blog, where she describes her experience of increased discomfort caused by two men’s “sexual forking” and “dongle” jokes. In the ensuing uproar, Richards lost her job.

Unfortunately, criticism of Richards was not been contained to civil discussion. Rather, disapproval of Richards and her tweets escalated to–yep, you guessed it–threats of murder and rape. Kris Holt of the Daily Dot reports one threat in particular:

[F]ew reactions were more disturbing than this one, sent to [Richards] Wednesday evening: a photo of a bloody, beheaded woman, bound and stripped, with the caption “when Im done.” Next to it was a home address and phone number, ostensibly Richards’s.


Since the incident first stained cyberspace, arguments have broken out about who is in the wrong—Richards, the jokesters or PyCon—and it’s safe to say that all sides have spent a substantial amount of energy building their respective cases. However, amid the chaos of placing blame, we can’t overlook a clear villain: cyber misogyny.

The Internet is a vast and sometimes dangerous place, and it probably isn’t bad advice to be mindful of online attackers. At the same time, stories like Sarkeesian’s and Richards’ expose the sheer magnitude of hatred for women that is out there, bubbling up from countless keyboards, waiting for an excuse to strike and promising harm to the target of the moment.

Cyber misogyny is an ongoing issue on which we need to focus feminist attention. Suggestions for combating cyber misogyny can be found in Ben Atherton-Zemon‘s post on the topic, and Shira Tarrant‘s follow-up.

Photo of Adria Richards courtesy of Flickr user allaboutgeorge under Creative Commons 2.0