On the Internet, As In Real Life, the Onus Is On The Woman to Not Get Burned

In our world, the only right way for a woman to deal with uncomfortable, lewd behavior is to “shut up and ignore it.”
Publish date:
March 28, 2013
sexism, scandal, adria richards

To paraphrase Smashing Pumpkins, “The Internet is a vampire, set to troll.” It can get pretty ugly out there and it’s gotten very ugly for Adria Richards, who after tweeting about lewd language at a tech conference her employer was co-sponsoring, found herself out of a job. The ensuing publicity surrounding the case resulted in infinite Internet dialogues like this … and this:

From the UK Guardian:

One of the jokesters was fired from his job. The other, who worked at the same company, was not. Angry about this apparent travesty, internet harassers came out in full force. Richards’ own site and that of her employer, SendGrid, were subject to denial-of-service attacks. Richards was personally bombarded with rape and murder threats. Someone sent her a photo of a naked, decapitated bound woman’s body with the caption “When I’m done.” A concerted effort began on 4chan to get Richards fired. Instead of standing up for an employee in the face of rape and death threats, SendGrid caved. It fired Richards because, in short, she was a trouble-maker.

A lot of focus has been on whether or not Richards should have tweeted about the vulgarities she heard and put the offenders on blast. But this has the all too familiar ring of “she was asking for it.”

Why is it when a woman does anything, rightly or wrongly, regarding a man’s behavior she is immediately threatened with sexual assault and dehumanizing language? It’s not about whether Richards used the proper venue to air her grievances, it’s that in our world, the only right way for a woman to deal with uncomfortable, lewd behavior is to “shut up and ignore it.” Anything beyond “shut up and ignore it” makes the woman “fair game” for any and every kind of attack because she dared to say a man offended her.

I’ve seen it and experienced it first hand.

The first time I “came out” as Bipolar was involuntary. I was working as an entertainment reporter in Bakersfield, Calif. when a very opportunistic writer was pushing me to write a review of his book. I didn’t do book reviews, which I told him repeatedly, and due to such he decided to declare “war” against me and my newspaper.

He was initially more annoying than anything, until I wound up hospitalized for a mental breakdown shortly after my ex-husband contacted me. The writer decided to make my sudden disappearance from the paper about him, and blogged about it constantly.

Months later, on of all venues, on MySpace, I told several friends in a blog post that I suffered from depression and Bipolar Disorder to deal with rumors about my hospitalization. The writer, again, decided to make this about him, accusing my newspaper of “covering up” my mental breakdown (which was less of a “cover up” but more like “proper human resource practices”), and, quite proudly, wondered aloud if he had caused my mental breakdown.

This blog post lived for an obscenely long time online, following me to job interviews and on dates, constantly coming up because I, a non-book reviewer at the time, did not review a book.

I was eventually able to get the post taken down years later, but this harassment pales in comparison to what a close friend of mine went through when she outed a certain Congressman who was sending shirtless photos of himself to women on Craigslist.

Rather than focus on the fact that a married Congressman was behaving like a jerk, a lot of attention was focused on my friend. People thought her trademark humor and sarcasm about being on the receiving end of the photo was arrogance and malice. People questioned why she released the photo at all because she “ruined a man’s marriage.”

One would argue cheating could ruin a man’s marriage, but it wasn’t about the cheating for a lot of people online. It was about getting caught and how he got caught. He never even met my friend because he used his personal email address and when she popped it into Facebook, she found his personal page with family photos and the word “Congressman.”

Suddenly a date with him seemed a lot less interesting.

But it didn’t end there. Because of this “sex scandal” (despite there being no sex), my friend was harassed at work and home by the press. Supporters of the Congressman (or just cheating men), harassed her online. One even going so far to make a web site disparaging her, then spamming that web site to the press.

And the complete nadir of my career as a journalist came when I had to negotiate with TMZ’s ever dumber cousin, gossip site Radar Online for a photo exchange. They were going to run a story on my friend, but were going to use, by far, the least flattering picture in the world of her. So I negotiated for two hours to get “better photos” so if, at least, they were going to defame her, she could look nice while having her name dragged through the mud.

A lot of people felt my friend brought this on herself because “she shouldn’t have said anything” or the even sillier “Why was she on Craigslist!” But why was there this response in the first place? Why was she such a target? Why was the onus to not get stalked and threatened put on her and not on the man to perhaps not send shirtless photos of himself to strange women on Craigslist?

Women who don’t do as they’re told or remain silent in the face of hypocrisy or sexual harassment are told they get what the deserve.

After all, if I had just done what a man told me to do (review his book), I wouldn’t have had to deal with people knowing I’d been in a mental hospital well before I was ready to talk openly about it. If my friend had just said nothing, perhaps some other woman the Congressman sent pictures to would have been the one to be targeted. But none of this would have changed the fact that these men are not good people.

The easier route is the passive route, or at least that’s what society teaches women. I mean, did you even try to talk your rapist out of raping you? Did you even consider it? Says all of society, all the time. But passivity doesn’t stop harassment or rape or entitled male behavior, it only silently endorses it.

In my first Women’s History Month post, where I celebrated my friends who pushed back, I wrote about how even on a small scale, they had to deal with men who were more angry about a woman speaking up for herself or even retaliating when wronged, rather than the cheating and abuse they were enduring.

In “She’s Not Difficult, She’s My Friend,” I wrote:

The reason why I don’t push back, (among the fact that I am quite possibly a wuss, but I prefer to imagine myself as some kind of pragmatic), is because my conscious won’t allow it and women who push back get a “reputation” — An unfair, double-standard reputation of being “trouble.” Of being “difficult.” Of being “crazy,” when they’re only hitting back after being hit. It amazes me that the mark of sanity in a woman is found in her ability to take a punch, stay silent, then remove herself from the situation, rather than stand her ground and demand satisfaction.

Adria Richards, like my friend, and like me, now has a “reputation” because she didn’t play the game. But as horrible as it may seem now, this is survivable. Even after a media shitstorm and people doing opposition research on you, as happened with my friend, you can move on.

My friend did it mostly by refusing to go on air, only speaking to me, the Washington Post and on her own blog. I ended up being the “face” of the scandal, defending my friend on everything from Good Morning America to The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

Her life of being a mother and a writer went back to normal. I became an advocate for my fellow mental health sufferers and use my writing and visibility as a way to tell fellow Bipolar sufferers that it can get better and they can find stability and health if they stick with their treatments and find good doctors and support systems.

I don’t now how Richards is going to turn this lemon into bittersweet lemonade, but just as a woman is expected to be silent, she’s also expected to persevere and move on.

At least one of those things makes sense.

Reprinted with permission from Clutch.