UPDATE: Anita Sarkeesian has written a statement regarding this article for Toronto Standard. Read it here. Stephanie Guthrie received multiple death threats following the publication of this article. Police are now involved and the offending users have been reported to Twitter for account violations.
Women in TO Politics organizer Stephanie Guthrie isn’t known for keeping quiet. When gamer Bendilin Spurr launched the violent and sickening “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” game, Guthrie took to the Internet: “So I found the Twitter account of that fuck listed as creator of the ‘punch a woman in the face’ game. Should I sic the internet on him?”
The Internet said ‘yes,’ but not without its own share of misogyny. One user called Guthrie “a cunt.” Trolls tried to scare her. She continues to receive death threats.
But Guthrie wouldn’t be deterred. She called out the Sault Star newspaper, which has since picked up the story (kind of), warned potential employers not to hire Spurr, and sparked enough conversation to further increase her ranking as a prominent local tweeter on politics and feminism.
“My primary motivation for confronting Bendilin Spurr on Twitter was to hold him accountable as a person for his actions behind an Internet avatar,” she says. “I felt frustrated knowing that he leads a whole ‘real life’ where it might be unknown that he spends his spare time on the Internet doing things like making a video game about punching a woman in the face for having an opinion. What happens on the Internet has consequences off the Internet.”
It all started when feminist pop culture critic Sarkeesian launched and won a Kickstarter campaign to generate funds for a video series that explores and deconstructs common tropes and stereotypes of female game characters. Yes, campaign– she hasn’t even shared these opinions yet. Sarkeesian aimed to reach $6,000, but within days reached $158,922 in pledges. Spurr accused her of using her gender to scam people out of money and reacted by creating a game where players punched her in the face, causing lesions and horrifying bruises.
The game has since been removed, but the description remains:
“Anita Sarkeesian has not only scammed thousands of people out of over $160,000, but also uses the excuse that she is a woman to get away with whatever she damn well pleases. Any form of constructive criticism, even from fellow women, is either ignored or labeled to be sexist against her.
She claims to want gender equality in video games, but in reality, she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path.”
Guthrie’s role as a character in the plotline prompted Twitter and Internet madness. She compiled a Storify piece that breaks the conversation down nicely, including both Spurr’s less-than-thought-out responses (he said the game wasn’t an attack against women, but rather an attack against selfishness) and his own confession that he’s not very talented to begin with. Supporters of Sarkeesian and Guthrie responded with links, including one to his Steam Profile where he says no girls are good at games, no woman has ever written a good novel, and that females are just pathetic emotional creatures with no talent that need to lose weight.
It would be so much easier to disregard this if it happened somewhere else, but it didn’t. Spearheaded by a 25-year-old man (I considered putting that word in quotation marks) from Ontario, the campaign is an upsetting and local example of misogyny. It represents not just a misunderstanding of feminism, but also a misunderstanding of what it’s like to be a woman in general. It’s a public example of the humiliation women face everyday.
The 2011 Statistics Canada report reveals unnerving insights into violence against women. Younger Canadians aged 25 to 34 years old were three times more likely than older Canadians to report being physically or sexually assaulted by their spouse. In general, only six out of every 100 rapes are reported to police, according to sexassault.ca. One fifth of these rapes involve some sort of weapon.
Perhaps scariest of all, one in four North American women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime.
The blatant transferal to the online realm and gaming industry does not go unnoticed, but it’s not taken nearly as seriously as it should be. Spurr’s ‘game’ is an example of cyber-crime and online harassment, according to section 263 of the Criminal Code. It is actually considered cyber stalking, as the definition includes: “creating Web sites that contain threatening or harassing messages or that contain provocative or pornographic photographs, most of which have been altered.”
At this time, Toronto Standard’s request to speak with Sarkeesian has not been answered. There are no legal proceedings in place.
“As a person who recently launched an organization focused on the promotion of women’s voices, it’s difficult not to feel some trepidation about your own work and what it can open you up to,” Guthrie says. “When you consider that the overall desired impact of the campaign against Sarkeesian seems to be to silence her, it’s so problematic to feel fear about what can happen when you use your voice. I’m surely not the only observer of this controversy who feels this way. But that’s why I, and we, have to steer through the fear and continue our work as best we can.”
Fear is a key dimension here and one many other reports are ignoring. Do you think this is the first time someone has gone out of their way to intimidate, scare, and threaten a woman because she dares to have an opinion or, worse, an idea for something? Absolutely not. Women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety than men, and I have no doubt in my mind that gender issues and insecurity play into it. If I told you the number of times I felt legitimately scared or threatened by a man, it would be scary.
Guthrie has encouraged these conversations through her Women in TO Politics panel discussions, many of which have focused on being a woman online… and the dangers of being a woman online. She hosted two panel discussions in May and both dove deep into these issues, especially on Twitter.
“Panelist Alicia Pang discussed the perils of being a woman on the Internet. When you identify as a woman online, you’re often subject to a kind of trolling that men, or those who keep their gender a mystery, don’t face. Women get death threats, rape threats. And no matter what the discussion might have initially been about, if a woman is on one side of the argument, it tends to devolve into a discussion about gender,” Guthrie says.
“The aftermath of the whole Bendilin thing has really proven this: obviously I’ve been trolled by this guy’s supporters, women who were active in the discussion have also been trolled. But my male friend, @alekt, who was VERY active in the discussion, hasn’t gotten a single message or tweet about it. I find that very telling.”
Spurr’s Twitter account has since been suspended, likely because it violates Twitter’s rules against violence and threats.
Twitter is a good place to start, but if we fail to realize and do something about online violence against women, these attacks will only continue.
Sheena Lyonnais is Toronto Standard’s Tech and Business Editor. You can follow her on Twitter at @SheenaLyonnais.