Vaginal Discourse

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[Trigger warning for rape, stalking, and other violence]

You might have heard that a cisgender attendee of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival posted pictures of trans women who attended this year’s festival, along with various personal tidbits that she was able to dig up. She also floated the idea of starting a website devoted to outing trans women at MichFest, along with suggesting that festival goers post pictures of trans women in order to be able to harass them.

I am so not going to wade into Ye Olde Michigan Wars any more than I already have. I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said.

What I am going to do is talk about the use of the Internet to threaten people. In this case, hosts the blog in question. WordPress makes all users agree to terms of service, including agreeing that:

“the content [of your blog will]… not contain threats or incite violence towards individuals or entities, and [shall] not violate the privacy or publicity rights of any third party”

The blog in question is clearly outing people as trans, thus violating the privacy rights of third parties. The blog also refers to trans women as “predatory males”, and calls for them to be escorted off the festival grounds. This is clearly a threat, and in the context of the post I’d say is fair to interpret as inciting violence.

WordPress has refused to remove the offending blog, despite its being in violation of the terms of service. As far as I know (feel free to fill in the details for a writer who’s busy hunting for textbooks), WordPress effectively requires someone to get a court order before they’ll remove content from a hosted blog. I see this as, um, problematic.

Permit me to talk about cyber-enabled violence, notably violence against women, and to spell out why’s inaction horrifies me.

If you’re a woman and you’ve said things on the Internet, or alternatively, if you’ve paid attention to women who says things on the Internet, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of how widespread cyber-enabled violence is. People threaten to rape women who fight against rape. People threaten queer people with violence (including rape). People threaten fat women with violence (including rape). People threaten atheists, people of color, liberals/progressives/actual socialists with violence (including rape). Basically, if you say certain things on the Internet, someone (or more to the point some people) are going to threaten you with violence.

There’s a key difference between “somebody” and “you”. The anonymity that the Internet potentially affords users is both a tool and a weapon. Abusers are typically able to stay anonymous, while committing the violent act of destroying other peoples’ privacy. Abusers link identities to legal names, making it easier for other abusers (and employers) to find victims. Abusers post addresses. What are people at the receiving end of this abuse to do, if Internet providers and law enforcement don’t take this violence seriously?

1) Blog About the Violence. Of course, even if I don’t provide a link, I can’t publicly refer to a blog that reveals private information without pointing people towards the very information I’m trying to protect. I might as well put up the following petition:

Dear Web Host,
It has come to my attention that has published personal details about a woman named Nellie Taft, suggesting that people harm her, should they see her outside her home at 1060 W. Addison Ave, Chicago, Illinois. Please deactivate the offending blog, as per your terms of service.

That’s not a very effective strategy. Moreover, it relies on the hosting site doing the right thing and removing the offending blog, which is what it should have done after someone reported it.

2) Go To Court. Yeah, that’ll end well, in about three to five years. Meanwhile, the information will be online for more than enough time for any number of people to see it. Plus, there’ll likely be one or more references to the court proceedings in the public record, which hardly seems like an effect remedy to a breach of privacy. Maybe the media will pick up on the story:

Boystown resident Nellie Taft was in court this morning, insisting that the unnamed owner of violated her right to privacy by publishing photos, her home address, along with an account of how she’s a trans woman and the member of an anarchist organization.

An anonymous blogger claims that people have the right to know that schoolteacher Nellie Taft is an anarchist and trans woman. What do you think?

That doesn’t strike me as effective either. Besides, who’s got money for legal fees?

Abusers who perpetrate cyber-enabled violence are well aware of this dynamic. That’s precisely why it’s imperative that web providers take their terms of service seriously. Society generally recognizes identity theft as a crime, and law enforcement authorities work with (occasionally) cooperative corporations to prevent it and minimize the damage. There’s no good reason that society can’t handle aggressive violations of personal autonomy similarly.

10| September 2011

Wondering if you saw Anna Anthropy’s wonderfully horribly satirical game about this:

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