Well, What Did You Expect?: Troll Culture as Rape Culture

[content note: rape and death threats, abusive hate speech]

The first time I got a rape threat, it was right here on this blog. Someone anonymously left a comment suggesting I should experience “real rape,” because then I might not care so much drunk people regretting sex. I blocked the person immediately and recorded their IP.

Being a woman online means you get skilled at distinguishing different kinds of threats. Friends of mine have been sent pictures of their houses – forcing them to move – and still others have spent hours on the phone with police trying to get an order to figure out an anonymous person’s identity because of the threats they were left. If your threat was left on a social network like Twitter, heaven help you, because the administrators sure won’t.

There are a lot of mechanisms I’ve developed for my own protection as a woman operating online – one of which is the quick assessment between threats that people are using to get a reaction and threats that have the potential to be carried out. I do this kind of sorting almost unconsciously now – I dread the day when that picture of my house lands in my email inbox and I have to make a phone call to the police. (My apprehension of this is due in no small part to the fact that I currently live with my parents and if I am at risk, they are too.)

There have been any number of pieces written about the threats and harassment women receive online. This harassment, it must be noted, falls along lines of privilege. I, as a white woman, have received far fewer threats than the women of color I read, despite having approximately the same visibility. Trans* women, too, receive threats as part of their daily lives, with trans* women of color being impacted both by racism and transmisogyny. These women live under threat of their information – emails, addresses, phone numbers, dead names, etc – being posted online.

Over this past week, I’ve been watching the responses to Suey Park’s campaign against Stephen Colbert. On Thursday evening, he made a joke that depended on racist stereotypes of Asian-Americans in order to try and poke fun at Dan Snyder, who was defending the use of the Washington Team Whose Name is a Slur. Colbert’s “ching chong ding dong” joke was excerpted and posted online via an official account associated with the parent company of Colbert’s show – Comedy Central. It was posted without context, removing any argument that it was “satire.”*

Park is particularly skilled at networking within new media and making waves by using social networks to highlight problematic work and engender discussions about race and womanhood. Her hashtag #CancelColbert – in itself a form of satire – trended worldwide and became the focus of numerous articles, thinkpieces, and discussions. Colbert himself addressed the issue on his show on Monday night – posting Park’s picture for all of his viewers to see.

Park says, via Twitter, that she hasn’t left her house in four days because of the sheer volume of threats sent her way. And that was before Colbert put her face – without her consent – on national TV. Upon pointing this out on Twitter last night, I had about 15 people in my mentions all making the exact same argument: “If she didn’t want this result, she shouldn’t have put herself out there.”

I’ve blocked about 40 people since last night’s airing of the Colbert Report. Every one of them was making the same argument, over and over. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” “If she didn’t want this, she shouldn’t have stuck her neck out.” “What did you expect?” Colbert’s supposed plea for people to leave Suey Park alone only added gasoline to the fire. Much of his audience likely never would have known or sought out Park’s feed (and by association, mine, as I was RT’d by her). Colbert’s intention may have been good, but the result was bringing even more vitriol to Park’s world. In his position of power, he made a vulnerable woman even more vulnerable.

What’s more is that all the people defending Colbert seemed to be placing all the responsibility for the threats and vitriol on the person receiving it. This is an argument I hear time and again – if you don’t want threats on the internet, you shouldn’t stick your neck out, you should be quiet and respectable. Don’t raise your profile; don’t be loud. Don’t, under any circumstances, assert that you have a right to take up space and be visible. If you do, it’s your own fault if you get threats – I mean, after all, what were you expecting?

Internet troll culture is, itself, a manifestation of rape culture. The ways in which we talk about threats eliminate the agency of the person actually making the threat. There is a person (usually, in my experience, a white man but not always) at the other end of those threats, someone who thinks it’s okay to tell a woman that she’s a “dyke cocksucker who deserves to get raped.” Someone thought this was an okay thing to do – and every time we say, “What did you expect? It’s the internet,” we make it a little more comfortable for that dude. We make it a little bit more okay for him to get away with his behavior.

People who use threats and vitriol to silence are shredding our Internet life. And our habit of shrugging and saying, “Well, what’d you expect?” protects those who use violence to get their way. Such attitudes don’t stay on the internet. When they take threats to the local authorities, women often encounter a similar shrug of helplessness. “It’s the internet. Go outside and don’t worry about it. It probably won’t happen.”

But we all know the stories of women who had stalkers show up at their work or their home. We know, all too often, that just ignoring said threats can cause the person making them to escalate. And before you know it, you’re packing up your house and moving because someone found you and might be watching.

Threats are part and parcel of being a woman on the internet, but threats are only effective in a culture which shrugs them off and blames their victim. If we truly want to work for justice, we need to make threatening behavior as socially unacceptable as we claim it is. Even if we disagree with someone, we need to work to create an environment where they can speak safely, without threat of violence. Refusing to sit back and let people get away with horrendous, violent behavior, unfortunately, is radical in a world predicated on violently silencing dissent. We need to work to create better systems to report (not Twitter’s “report and then wait three months for them to maybe do something” system). We need to have police forces trained to deal with online threats and the resources to investigate them. We need to be safe people for the vulnerable in society and stop blaming victims for being thrust into the spotlight.

And we need to remove “well, what did you expect?” from our vocabulary.


*It was satire, but it was poorly done satire that managed to tread on other marginalized groups in the process of defending one. Please don’t tell me what satire is. I already know.