By Gayle Sequeira:
Whether it’s Emma Watson, of whom online attackers threatened to release naked pictures following her iconic HeForShe speech at the UN or cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian whose Tropes v/s Women series was received with a barrage of death threats and threats of sexual violence, one thing is becoming rapidly clear – being a feminist can get you stalked, harassed and even murdered.
Does identifying oneself as a feminist automatically sign one up to live in a constant state of fear and anxiety? Have hatred and abuse via social media become the natural responses to one’s declaration that he or she is emphatically feminist?
At the University of Mary Washington, Virginia, a student group called the Feminist United Club was the target of vitriolic abuse for months, culminating in the horrific murder of a group member, Grace Mann. While the motive behind Mann’s murder at this point is still unclear, it is impossible not to view the crime in the context of what has become an increasingly hostile environment for women on such campuses.
Beginning in November 2014, the group was subjected to a torrent of online abuse, much of which is unprintable here, after club President Paige McKinsey wrote an op-ed for the school newspaper, seeking to “expose the insidious misogyny and hatred very much alive at UMW,” and citing reasons why she believed that it was not a ‘feminist-friendly’ campus.
One of the reasons highlighted was a chant performed by the campus’ men’s rugby team, which featured demeaning themes such as “violence against women, including murder and battery, sexual violence against women, including assault, necrophilia and rape”. Bringing this chant to the attention of the administration led to the suspension of the team, at which point the derogatory slurs and rape threats against the group escalated exponentially.
Both times, the social media used to communicate this abuse was the app Yik Yak, characterized by its complete anonymity. It enables users to create and view anonymous ‘yaks‘ which are limited to a 10-mile radius so viewers read posts most relevant to them, posts that are most likely by someone they know who lives or works in the same area.
In this atmosphere of mounting dread, when the club asked university administration to look into the matter, they were provided with ineffectual solutions and the First Amendment Right to free speech was cited as a reason for the administration’s non-interference. Despite the app being hosted on the school’s servers itself, the students were asked to contact Yik Yak directly to prevent further cyber bullying.
Mann, an active Feminist United Club member was then found strangled on April 17th. Her roommate, Steven Vander Briel, a former member of the aforementioned rugby team was arrested and charged with first degree murder the very same day.
In the wake of Mann’s death, students, along with the Feminist Majority Foundation have filed a Title IX complaint against school administrators who failed to protect them from this “sexually hostile school environment.”
“Despite being put on notice that the students feared for their safety and were unable to concentrate on their school work or otherwise enjoy the benefits of the university’s educational programs, the administration took no action to protect them,” reads the complaint.
It’s clear that apps such as Yik Yak facilitate this culture of abuse and violence – by providing a cover of anonymity to veil one’s misogyny, the app provides a telling look at the innermost prejudices of students, prejudices expressed freely, without the fear of repercussion. Circumventing the words banned by this app is as easy as misspelling them.
The callousness of the administration cannot be discounted either – though the Title IX complaint does not hold the university responsible for Mann’s death, the fact remains that, “Instead of taking action, the University hid behind their lawyers and allowed these young women to be terrorized in their own community,” said Gaylynn Burroughs, director of policy and research at the Feminist Majority Foundation.
As more details about the gruesome case unfold, an online post has already surfaced, claiming Mann’s death was unavoidable, the result of the reluctance of feminists to “learn that misandry is not a joke.” At this point, Margaret Atwood’s chilling rejoinder seems to ring true, Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.