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How Outing Online Harassers on Social Media Protects Women

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Some names in this piece have been redacted.

The post was a startling contrast to the effluvia of screencaps and music reviews I was scrolling through on Tumblr. “ATTENTION LADIES OF WASHINGTON DC/OKCUPID: STAY AWAY FROM USER ACASTSHADOW (REAL NAME: [REDACTED]),” it read, underneath a screencap of an OkCupid profile header. The post had pictures, and a Twitter handle, and read in full: “I went on one (1) date with this creep in the spring of 2013… It was a bad date, we didn’t have any chemistry, and I texted him to tell him I’d had a nice time, but I didn’t want a second date. Since then, for well over a year, he’s been sending me threatening text messages, tweeting degrading and creepy things about me, and continuing to message me on OkCupid. He’s tweeted about slitting my new boyfriend’s throat, and texted me calling me ‘good girl.’ After one particularly scary message, I filed a report with my neighborhood police precinct about this guy, so there’s a precedent in case he ever shows up at my apartment.

DO NOT MEET UP WITH HIM. DO NOT MESSAGE HIM BACK. His real name is [REDACTED]. His twitter name is [REDACTED] (eta: deleted); avoid him at all costs. He’s scary, and he’s a predator. KEEP YOURSELF SAFE, LADIES!”

When I found it yesterday, it had been up for about 24 hours and already had almost 15,000 notes. As of this writing, it’s just cracked 20,000 notes.

Naming and shaming Internet creeps is the latest development in a centuries-long tradition among women of using gossip as a form of solidarity and even a political weapon. It’s still true today – I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a woman say about a man, “He’s a little bit creepy,” or, even worse, “I wouldn’t want to be alone in a room with him.” To the uninitiated, it might sound like lazy character assassination, but phrases like that serve as keywords for women meaning stay away.

Sometimes these suggestions are based on fact, sometimes on intuition, but they’re a valuable form of information for women. A recent, more public example is the naming of accused rapists at Columbia University. Unsatisfied by the school’s handling of sexual assaults, students plastered fliers naming accused sexual assault perpetrators all over Columbia’s campus. While certain members of the press wrung their hands over how these poor accused rapists would ever find jobs, I admire the daring of the Columbia students responsible. If high-tailing it out of a room after meeting someone whose name they know from the list keeps one student from being raped, then it’s all worth it.

I reached out to the writer of the original Tumblr post, Lucy Maddox, who currently lives in New York. (Full disclosure: I know her from an Internet community we were both members of years ago, though I didn’t make the connection the first time I saw the post.) Her experience with her stalker is a disturbing example of the ease with which a near-stranger can use the internet to harass a woman who dares to not date him. In an email, Lucy expanded on what happened, telling me, “we had no chemistry at all, and I just didn’t want a second date with him. When he texted me a few days later to ask when he could see me again, I told him I’d had a nice time, but didn’t see any potential between us.” Rather than leaving it at that, his pursuit intensified, texting her for months “demanding I give him another chance, asking how I could be so heartless, ranting about what a connection he’d felt to me. After the first few days, I stopped responding, but he continued, undeterred… At this point, seeing how clingy and adamant he was, I blocked him everywhere I could and I thought I’d dodged a bullet.”

“Every time he sent me a long, rambling text at midnight, I thought that surely this was the last time he’d contact me. But instead, his texts and tweets started getting scary. He told me that I was a bitch, and repeatedly asked me ‘what made you the way you are?’ I felt things were starting to get out of hand. The breaking point for me came one night when he texted me ‘if you’re not going to be entertaining, then what good are you?’”

When Lucy threatened to involve police, her harrasser rapidly backtracked, immediately changing his tone and “apologizing if he’d misread the situation.” He’d thought his “incessant attention” would change Lucy’s mind, when all it did was make her feel in danger.

He promised not to contact her, but still stalked her social media accounts, visiting her Tumblr up to 15 times a day, every day. When Lucy started seeing someone new, he tweeted about wanting to slit his throat. “A year had passed since our one date,” Lucy writes. “I was sometimes amazed that [he] maintained that level of obsession over a woman he’d only met for five hours.”

Last weekend, Lucy’s one-time date made a new OkCupid account to reach Lucy, as she’d blocked his old one. She immediately reported him to OkCupid, but says, “I found myself getting angrier and angrier. What gave him this sense of entitlement to harass me like this? What was to stop him from doing it to other women?”

Having seen other women call out abusers online, Lucy outed this man on Tumblr, asking women in the area to reblog the post and spread awareness. “The response was overwhelming,” she says. The post was reblogged thousands of times, and within 24 hours, her tormentor had deleted all of his social media accounts.

“There is a culture of silence around harassment and abuse that enables men like [him] to continue intimidating and scaring people; they expect that they won’t be called out, and that their victims will feel too isolated or embarrassed to do anything about it,” Lucy told me. “American culture, as a whole, looks down on people who handle private affairs in the public arena. I say fuck that. If someone is threatening you or harassing you, you don’t have to sit in silence. You do not have an obligation to protect the identity of someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries and autonomy. Be honest, and speak loudly. Tell people what’s happening to you, and you’ll be surprised how many people have been through the same thing. And you might be saving someone else from predatory attention.”

The recent shootings in Santa Barbara have thrown into sharp relief for many women how deeply unsafe they feel around men every day. Letting Internet harassers chip away at our sense of security – and I can scarcely name a women I know who hasn’t experienced this ­­– contributes to the culture of silence and misogyny that these men benefit from. As Lucy says, who are these men to make us feel unsafe? Do we not have a right to peace and security, to be able to sit in our homes without worrying about a knock on the door? To open our email without finding a death threat? The effects of such harassment can be long lasting: I had an ex-boyfriend who harassed me on multiple sites for about a month. I haven’t heard from him in over a year, but every time I see I have a message on Tumblr, my stomach twists in fear. Even now.

Women have little recourse against Internet stalkers, as Lucy’s attempts to shake off her stalker prove. But publicly shaming them is one way.  I can’t help but think of Margaret Atwood’s famous remark that “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” These men harass and intimidate us, and in many cases, a little dose of public humiliation makes them suddenly disappear. Too often, police and college campuses turn a blind eye to online harassment, citing it as unimportant or too difficult to prosecute. And so if the system isn’t working, maybe the the answer is to create a new system.

Still, if you’re dealing with a harasser or thinking of outing them, your own safety is the most important thing. “If you can’t predict how they’ll react, and you think that they might do something in retaliation, keep yourself safe,” Lucy suggests. “Don’t be scared, but be cautious. Go to the police and see what your options are. Let your friends and family know what you’re dealing with. Find support wherever you can.”

But, she says, if you’ve tired of coping alone, “Shine a light on your situation however you can, and ignore people who say you should have stayed quiet. The culture of harassment depends upon silence for survival. Let’s all start speaking up.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.