Rape threats and other sexualized vitriol online feel extremely personal. These are messages that often go into explicit detail about which parts of our bodies will be violated with which instruments. They give the impression that the senders know us, that they are aware of our particular weak spots and of what to say to hurt or frighten us the most.
Yet take hundreds of individual rape threats and line them up side by side, and they don’t look personal at all. They look like they were generated by a machine. Who we are or what we are supposed to have done wrong turn out to be mostly irrelevant.
To illustrate this aspect of the gendered cyberhate problem, my colleague, Nicole A Vincent, and I built a Random Rape Threat Generator (we refer to it fondly as the RRTG) as a companion site for my new book, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History.
My book tracks the evolution of what I call “Rapeglish” from a sub-cultural dialect in the fringes of the early internet, to its current, mainstream status as the go-to response for men who dislike what a woman says, does, or looks like online.
Misogyny Online also contains a text version of the RRTG, which has been constructed from hundreds of actual examples of gendered cyberhate I have collected over 18 years of research.
The online generator demonstrates the formulaic nature of Rapeglish by slicing up and shuffling around an archive of sexualized vitriol and rape threats received by real-life women.
It shows that parts of these messages are interchangeable—as is the hateful gibberish that results. This reflects my research that found the rhetoric of Rapeglish is extraordinarily similar no matter the year it is sent, the channel via which it travels, and the woman it targets.
Given that the internet is already saturated with “gag on my rod” tweets, skeptics might wonder why a feminist scholar would want to add yet more misogynist messages to the mix. (The extended remix of the RRTG has the ability to produce more than 80 billion unique rape threats and abusive texts—more than 23 individual messages for every woman on earth.)
There is, however, methodological rigor behind this apparent madness. A central aim of the RRTG, for example, is to provide a publicly accessible archive of real-life gendered cyberhate for use by stakeholders including researchers, teachers, students, activists, policy-makers, and platform managers.
A sort of director’s cut of the generator is also offered to highlight the stark disconnect between a women’s putative crimes online (for example, identifying as female in a multiplayer online game) and what is said in response (for example, “You and all your female relatives are about to be raped to death”).
While speaking publicly is not for everyone, silence does tend to protect perpetrators, obscure larger social problems, and serve as a petri dish for the cultivation of shame.
In a nutshell, my hope is that—along with my book and my other gendered cyberhate research—the RRTG will contribute to feminist activism around misogyny online in the following six ways:
- It demonstrates the mechanistic and impersonal nature of the abuse.
Opening an email reading “You should have a good arse fuck lasting two hours every day” can really hit home. (I certainly fidgeted uncomfortably on my office chair the day I received this particular missive.) Yet the RRTG reveals that this is the misogyny equivalent of a Campbell’s Soup can. It reveals that the ridiculously repetitive abuse women are receiving online is not as much about us as individuals as it is about gender, oppression, inequity, and attempted silencing.
- It speaks the unspeakable.
The sexually explicit content of Rapeglish makes much of this material metaphorically unspeakable. Yet the hard fact is that people who have never received or read any gendered cyberhate are unlikely to fully appreciate its true violence (and vile-ness) unless they are prepared to look at some examples in all their unexpurgated (non) glory. These, after all, are not messages reading “You’re an idiot” or “Shut up, bitch.” They are: “First we will mutilate your genitals with scissors.” And: “Fuck you and go wither, cancerous bitch.” And: “I hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” And: “I AM HERE AGAIN TO TELL YOU I WILL RAPE YOU TOMORROW AT 6PM.” And on and on ad infinitum.
I propose that the powers-that-be stop suggesting that gendered cyberhate targets take some time out from the internet, and start suggesting that men take a little break from disagreeing with women online by threatening wall-to-wall anal invasion.
- It helps break the toxic silence.
Sexual violence and abuse are often surrounded by an insidious and oppressive silence. While speaking publicly is not for everyone, silence does tend to protect perpetrators, obscure larger social problems, and serve as a petri dish for the cultivation of shame. Thus the RRTG joins the broad (and extremely fraught) feminist project of speaking out about gendered violence in all its forms.
- It reminds targets they are not alone.
Rape threats and other sexualized cyberhate often arrive on women’s personal devices when they are in private spaces. Many report feeling isolated, vulnerable, afraid, and even ashamed. The RRTG is designed to help remind individual women that they are not the only ones getting “Taste your shit off my dick” tweets. This won’t make the problem go away, but it might provide a sense of community, support, and perspective.
- It focuses on perpetrators.
The prevailing non-wisdom about how to solve the gendered cyberhate problem is to suggest women change where they go, what they do, and what they say in the public cybersphere. It is essential, however, to move the conversation away from the people being attacked and toward those doing the attacking. To this end, I propose that the powers-that-be stop suggesting that gendered cyberhate targets take some time out from the internet, and start suggesting that men take a little break from disagreeing with women online by threatening wall-to-wall anal invasion.
- The Rape Threat Generator uses technology to show that none of this is actually a technology problem.
While the ease and relative anonymity of electronic communication have undoubtedly contributed to the rise of Rapeglish, the RRTG’s input data—especially its adjective and noun data sets—show that the gendered language being used to abuse and threaten women online is part of a much older tradition: Derogating us for having either a deficient or surplus of sexuality … Dismissing our opinions because we’re too ugly, too stupid, too hysterical, or too deranged … Prescribing coerced sex as all-purpose correctives …
The internet may well be amplifying these sentiments, but it did not invent them. As such, the RRTG is designed to serve as a reminder that the ultimate responsibility for the “All feminists should be gang raped” messages does not lie with policy-makers, platform managers, or police, but with the individual men who send them and the patriarchal culture to which they belong.
Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact email@example.com. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.