Online Harassment Is an "In Real Life" Problem

Geek Culture
Image by Jules Sherred

With so much press recently, both in Canada and the United States, about how online bullying has led to suicide, often the discussions tend to be framed in terms of online versus “in real life.” This is also the case in many other discussions that happen when someone decides to publicly come forward because they’ve received threats of rape or death or harm, and the list continues.

As someone who is constantly under attack because of my online profile, I have a lot to say on this matter, but it is only in very rare circumstances do I ever talk about it in public. The reasons for my lack of public disclosure may become clearer as I share my own personal experiences. Sharing these experiences either makes me extremely brave, or extremely stupid, depending on who you ask.

If you take only one thing away from this, I hope that it’s recognizing the fact that online bullying and harassment is a “in real life” problem, with “real life” ramifications, including loss of income and people removing themselves from the target of the harassment’s life.

One of the reasons I have stayed quiet for so long about this issue is that, very often, I see people refer to this ever increasing issue as a “woman’s problem,” or a “teen bullying problem,” or a “feminist issue.” I’m here to tell you that it isn’t. It’s a “people problem.”

Warning: The following does contain some language that some will find offensive. However, I feel it is necessary for the sake of honesty.

Some may automatically assume that because I was born a female, that I receive threats because of how the world perceives my gender. I have never once been threatened with rape. I have never once been told by someone online to shut up because they think I’m a woman. However, I have been called a pedophile and a tranny.

Recently, when a group of internet trolls decided to really stick it me because of something I dared to write about, I was called a “homosexual pedo tranny,” plus this group conspired to create evidence that I force my children to participate in the creation of porn, and threats that that they will turn this fabricated evidence over to child protection authorities and the local police. Some may be surprised to learn that “tranny” isn’t only reserved as a slur for trans women. Twitter accounts were created to flood my mentions with a very special pedo hashtag dedicated to me. Fake Facebook accounts were created to also attack publications for which I write. My address was discovered and posted online, with someone saying, “Kill it and post pictures,” after someone else said they lived just down the street from me. They threatened to vandalize my property. They attacked my friends. They tried to find out information about my children so they could attack them, too. They even posted a link to a local school’s website, because they thought that is where my children attended school. They also tried to hack my social media accounts so that they could tweet on my behalf, and used my throw-away e-mail address to sign me up for a bunch of porn and spam. There was a series of DDoS attacks.

There isn’t a day that I do not receive some form of threat. At least every six months, someone decides to do a DDoS attack on my servers. I’ve even had someone from a well-known online community of anarchic hackers take down all of my websites and replace them with their calling card. I’m now approaching four years of daily threats and like-clockwork DDoS attacks.

The reasons for these attacks are various. One reason is because I’m a trans man. Another reason is because people assume I’m an atheist. Another reason is because people assume I’m sympathetic to Muslims. Another reason is because I dare to speak out against anti-vaccine proponents. These are just a few reasons.

I’m feel I have a certain amount of privilege living in Canada. Most of the time, I can shrug off these daily threats. Twice, I’ve had to call the R.C.M.P (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) because I felt the threat to my safety and my children’s safety was immediate. The R.C.M.P took these threats as credible. The first time, eventually the person making the threats was arrested and went to jail. Most recently, they opened a new file and are investigating as much as resources allow. However, because of the nature of the threats I receive, and how slowly the Criminal Code has been to adapt to the changes in technology, there is only so much they can do. But, at least the R.C.M.P have an open investigation for if the attackers actually make good on the physical threats of harm, death, and vandalism, and the threats to try to have my children removed from my care.

But, it isn’t only the threat to my children’s physical safety and my physical safety that make this an “in real life” problem. It also damages my ability to make money. Every time my server goes down because of an attack, I lose income streams, not only because my own websites are down, but also the websites of clients. I am thankful that I have very understanding editors, who stand behind me when they, too, get attacked, instead of asking that I no longer contribute to their publication, as it also puts their enterprise at risk.

I think I have remained publicly quiet about this for too long. But, I’ve had my reasons. The reason is a by-product of identifying as a man. Women are not the only people who receive physical threats. Men, who have any type of online profile, also receive frequent threats. But, as men, we are taught to deal with it quietly and in the background. Basically, we are taught that we must “man up.” The other reason is that I am always very worried about the blowback I’ll receive from some people who use the label “feminist” in reference to themselves. I’ve had it happen. I’ve been told that I’m a male rights advocate who is trying to take the spotlight away from this extremely real problem facing women bloggers. I’ve been told, “Yeah, it sucks to be intersectional. But you chose this lifestyle.” I’ve been called a misogynist. I’ve had people tell me, “Well, you should hear what I get told every day in real life,” because it is their perception that being told I’m a pedophile and being called a tranny via an online medium does not count as “in real life.” There is also a lot of “these are just words on a screen” personal mentality.

Every day, I’m given messages that I need to shut up and sit in the corner, for so many different reasons, none of which have to do with being born in a female body.

In some ways, these people are correct. I don’t know what it’s like for women who receive threats of rape. I don’t know what it feels like to worry about my safety when walking alone at night. I don’t know what it feels like to have anxiety because I’m alone in an enclosed space with a man. I don’t know what it is like to be harassed at a con, or wolf-whistled when walking down the street, or all of the other real issues women face during the day. These have never been my experiences. As a result, often I feel that I’m not qualified to discuss these issues. Also, I really do not want to distract from the real issues that women face, especially women in the United States, as feminist issues in the United States are very different than feminist issues in Canada.

But, I do think it is time we change the channel. I think it’s time that we recognize that this is a very real issue, not only for women, teens, gays and lesbians, and trans women, but also for men, trans men, skeptics, atheists, and really just anyone who dares to stand up against any sort of wrongdoing and injustice. This is a very serious people-problem that isn’t contained within the boundaries of the online world; it reaches out to the real world. While I’m not going to commit suicide as a result of my daily threats, I do face other extreme dangers that are just as valid.

Of course, there are things you can do to protect yourself. Advocating for certain self-protections is not victim-blaming.

Some of the things I do to protect myself and my family is that I never mention my children’s names online. I keep my phone number unlisted. I’m very selective about what information I share with the public. I don’t have a profile on Facebook, which with Graph Search makes stalking and hacking your account very easy, even if you post everything privately. I change my passwords every three months. I keep my domain registration information private-though because of an error with my domain registrar, recently they become public and that is how my recent attackers got my home address. My registrar has since fixed this. I keep my children as much removed from my social media accounts as possible. And, very importantly, I’m not afraid to call the R.C.M.P. when things get serious.

Some of these things, especially not using Facebook, is not something everyone can do. For some people, it may be too late to keep their children’s names unassociated with their public life. But, if you do use Facebook, don’t have your real e-mail posted. If you use Facebook, don’t have your phone number listed, even if it’s private for friends only. Ask yourself, “What steps do I take to protect my child from online predators? Why am I not taking these steps for myself? What more can I do?” People who want to do you harm have a lot of time on their hands, and they will take extreme measures to really mess with your life. They know they can get away with it, too.

While I doubt I’ll see the day where I don’t live in some sort of fear, simply because I dare to exist, I do hope that I see a day where I can talk about these things freely and people recognize that I’m not trying to distract from the many other real issues facing people in this online age. There is room for us all.

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