Adria Richards, Sexual Assault and Victim-Blaming

Over at the Guardian, I’m writing about Adria Richards, and how victim-blaming for cyber harassment parallels victim-blaming in rape cases:

Of course it’s possible to disagree with Richards’ actions while still focusing on the real problem: misogyny online and in tech spaces. But it’s really not possible to pontificate at length on what Richards should have done without obscuring the fact that when women speak out, we’re met with rape threats.

Others, most notably Deanna Zandt in Forbes, have explained why the focus on what Richards could have done differently is the wrong question. It’s a question routinely lobbed at women who are sexually victimized: Why did you go home with him if you didn’t want to have sex? Why did you drink so much? Why did you wear that? Why did you stay at that party? Why were you walking down that street? Why didn’t you yell louder or fight back harder? Why did you fight back, knowing it would only make him angry?

If it sounds like I’m comparing the people who threaten Richards with rape to actual rapists, and the people who tacitly justify those threats with hand-wringing over what Richards could have done differently to rape apologists, it’s because I am. Despite attempts to characterize the internet as a space suspended outside of “real” life, cyberspace is real. It is a place where actual human beings connect, communicate, mobilize and work. And online harassment and misogyny very closely parallel harassment, misogyny and sexual violence in the “real” world.

There will always be something that a victim could have done differently. But there’s no universal path to avoiding sexual victimization or workplace harassment or run-of-the-mill misogyny. There is, however, a near-universal path to getting away with those things: Blame the victim. Focus on what she did, instead of the actions the perpetrators chose to take. Distract from the real problem by pretending the problem is her.

The problem here is misogyny, online and off. It’s a culture that has long conflated women in public with sexual availability, and punished public, presumably sexually available women with sexual violence. It’s a cohort of trusted intellectuals – the legal system, big-name writers – positioning themselves as fair and rational by critiquing a victim’s actions as much as violence and harassment. It’s not just raping “bad girls” and issuing rape threats to women online; it’s saying, “Yes, what those boys did was wrong, but let’s also look at the role that alcohol played in putting her in that position” and “Yes, rape threats are terrible, but she really shouldn’t have tweeted that picture.” It’s the impulse to remove gender and race analysis — arguing that men get death threats, too, or that Richards is simply “difficult” and not perhaps only perceived that way because she’s a black woman pushing back against the norms of a mostly white, mostly male industry.

You can read the whole piece here.

Comments on this thread are going to be fully moderated; please be patient if it takes a while to approve them. Comments are also limited to feminist/womanist commenters only. There are plenty of places online to discuss and debate the basics of this issue. I would like to elevate the discussion in this space to focus on the content of the Guardian piece: How online harassment parallels real-world sexual violence; the roles played by race and gender; and how communities can change to be less racist and misogynist.

Not up for discussion here: What Adria could have done differently. Adria’s personality and your opinion on it.

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32 comments for “Adria Richards, Sexual Assault and Victim-Blaming

  1. March 26, 2013 at 11:03 am

    There too many comments about this in too many blogs to say it hasn’t been mentioned anywherere, I haven’t seen this mentioned yet:

    This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is:

    Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

  2. TomSims
    March 26, 2013 at 11:27 am

    First of all, it’s unfortunate 3 people lost their jobs over this. I wish there was a better solution to what happened. I don’t and have never worked in hi tech, so have I no idea how these conventions are, but I have been to other work related conferences over the years. And for the most part I kept my mouth shut and just listened. If I talked to anyone there, it would things like how’s the family, something about the weather, or maybe even something work related. And these days with everyone having some kind of recording device, it’s even more important to keep your mouth zipped up. You certainly do not want any missteps of yours caught on camera.

    • Tim
      March 27, 2013 at 12:28 am

      And for the most part I kept my mouth shut and just listened.

      If you are sitting in a room full of people who are crowded in two feet apart or closer, and there is a conference program going on, and you are not the speaker, that is exactly what you are supposed to do.

      I don’t care what the content of the conversation is — how’s the family, what’s the weather like, work, dongle jokes, or if you just want to sit there and giggle incessantly and uncontrollably. That’s what the halls, snack tables, bars and restaurants are for. That’s just one of the reasons I come down completely on the side of Adria Richards.

    • March 28, 2013 at 11:50 pm

      Three people? No, two. One of the guys was spoken to by his company. The other, who had previous issues, was fired. He was not fired for his behaviour at the conference alone. And of course Ms Richards was fired because her company was blackmailed with terrorist threats.

      • TomSims
        March 29, 2013 at 5:52 pm

        OK two. I stand corrected. My only point was, it’s too bad anyone lost their job, given this economy. And if the 2 men involved had simply focused on their job and the reason they were there, none of this would have happened in the first place.

  3. March 26, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    So it seems to me that this was exactly what Carol Hanisch meant by “the personal is political.” She has written more recently that she never meant that term to be an invitation to scrutinize everyone’s personal choices, but rather as a rallying cry against the dismissal of political issues around gender as isolated personal problems. In that sense, Adria Richards’ problem is not a problem of her choice to post a photo or her employer’s decision to retaliate by firing her; it is a political issue of the context where many, many women who have complained about the culture in the field have been attacked and threatened and bullied. That’s not just personal, that’s political.

    Jill referenced a few of the best-known incidents, but I found this partial list tremendously useful in understanding the context

  4. Bagelsan
    March 26, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    I was trying to get a similar point across to my dad the other day; he wanted to speculate about a “level playing field” and how posting a photo of the two guys was equal to posting about Richards, and I shot him down with a quickness. There is no level playing field. A WOC posting a photo of two white men is entirely different than the reverse, and the consequences of the latter are far worse both in kind and in scope.

  5. Drahill
    March 26, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    I think the biggest issue is that both the online and off-life versions of victim blaming are twofold in purpose: to attack the actual victim, certainly, but also to create and send a message to women in general. Adria Richards is the victim of the online attacks, but they also send the message to other women who read about it “If you do what she did (or something else we don’t like), it will happen to you as well.” Victim blaming a rape victim sends the same message: “If you do like she did, we will attack you this way as well.” In that sense, the attacks are even more abhorrent because they are not only targeted at a specific women, but at women as a class to deter and frighten. The threats are designed to be public by nature so that they can serve as a reminder that women as a class can expect such treatment, not just the particular targets of the week.

    • March 26, 2013 at 8:45 pm

      I agree very much. David Futrelle assembled some comments over at manboobz with the usual misogynist parade of douchebags that make that point quite explicitly and with pride.


    • Jennifer
      March 27, 2013 at 11:29 am

      Does it also send a similar message to men who might speak out about these issues? I really wonder what would have happened if a man had done this. My gut feeling is that it is both directed at a woman speaking out–to send the message that women (particularly women of color) don’t matter, but that it’s also about the “right” some feel to act any way they please and not be called out for it by anyone. So, I think that a man who did what Adria did would have been dismissed, but not attacked as much. The status of the man would have mattered also–if it was Bill Gates, for instance, he probably would have felt comfortable just telling them to cut it out, and they probably would have. If Gates had decided to put it on twitter, his decision to do so would be less likely to be questioned as appropriate. If/when one of the guys was fired, it would probably be assumed by more people that this was the last straw in a string of events. There would be those, of course, who would complain about Gates and political correctness, but they wouldn’t be as threatening about it (or there would be repercussions if they were—like Ted Nugent and the president) and there wouldn’t be as many of them. In the end, it’s all about social power and who has it, and how upset people get when it seems like there is some disruption in that. Here, for instance, Adria spoke up and didn’t do anything very unusual–it’s my sense that people are recorded or photographed and put on the internet all the time without their consent and this is not often remarked on. All those shots of larger people that are used in media footage on obesity, for instance–I doubt very much that these are used with the consent of the people involved. When a reddit user posted a picture of Balpreet Kaur existing in public in a non-gender conforming way I doubt he was threatened in the same way (he was also not identified publicly), and the photo he posted of her was reused all over the media, and I didn’t get the sense that people checked with her before posting it. If what the Pycon dudes were doing was so defensible and Adria was really “overreacting,” then it shouldn’t matter that she posted it. Right? I mean, right on dudez, making funny jokes in public—thanks for entertaining us with your brilliant dongle jokes (no one’s ever made that “connection” before—har har, and “forking”—oh, how original) and here’s an opportunity to have your own comedy show, and how great that Adria showcased them so they could get their comedic credit. I’ve heard nothing to indicate that what she posted was not totally accurate in terms of reporting what was said and by whom, even if the speakers did not intend for their words to be interpreted the way she did. But it’s questionable whether what they were doing was defensible, so…what—we’re supposed to very hush-hush and address it “privately” to avoid embarrassing them in any way. Why? They’re talking in a public place in voices loud enough for others to hear. Because they’re white dudez, with famleez to support? F that.

      • Emolee
        March 27, 2013 at 12:19 pm

        All those shots of larger people that are used in media footage on obesity, for instance–I doubt very much that these are used with the consent of the people involved.

        This is because fat people are not human. Can’t you tell by their lack of heads? /sarcasm

        In actuality, I agree with your point. People put all kinds of shit up on the Internet and no one usually cares, and people definitely do not raise this kind of fuss. Why aren’t these assholes trying to get sites like “the people of Walmart” shut down? Oh, because their point is not actually about consent to post pics…

  6. gratuitous
    March 26, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    I agree with Drahill’s assessment, that the reaction by the larger community is clearly aimed not just at Adria Richards but at women generally: This abhorrent trollery will happen to you, too, if you don’t keep your mouth shut.

    I’ve wrestled with admonition in the original post not to discuss what Ms. Richards could have or should have done differently. This observation, then, not as advice: When an incident is opened up via the internet to the whole wide world, keep in mind that you’re inviting everyone into the conversation: concerned readers, sympathetic listeners, and the lowest scumbags and jerks on the planet. Everyone who responds will be true to their nature.

    • snorkellingfish
      March 26, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      That’s the problem, isn’t it? If a woman says something in public – and “in public” can be to a very limited group, not to the whole internet – we’re taught to fear this sort of retaliation. That observation that you suggest we keep in mind is exactly what they’re trying to convey to us: shut up or we’ll go after you. And the fucked up thing is that it’s so hard for us not to listen, be quiet, shut up and do exactly what they want.

      Those implied threats aimed at the women who haven’t spoken yet don’t have clear boundaries. People love to say that’s it’s about some specific action that they find unacceptable – in this case, publishing a photo on twitter – but there’s no clear line of what sort of conduct is “safe” from that bullshit. So we have to fear every comment we make, in case it’s the one that crosses their invisible line and invites threats into our lives.

      They don’t tell us the rules because there are no rules, and they want us to feel that the only way to be safe is to say nothing at all.

  7. BBBShrewHarpy
    March 26, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    I think the incident also provided a “this is my tribe” moment for all the women-haters to unleash their glee at Ms. Richards’ firing and generally revel in their women-hating fantasies. My instinct (but I really can’t back this up) is that this tribe-identification effect is as strong as the urge to push women who stand up back down again.

  8. C.
    March 26, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    1) My heart truly goes out to Adria.

    2) After reading all the comments at Slashdot, I am so, so happy I dropped my math and C.S. majors. I am so impressed by those who actually can stick with it.

    • Miriam
      March 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm

      It’s a problem of critical mass. If enough women become present, the culture will have to change to be less hostile to women. But until the culture changes to be less hostile, it’s hard for women to be present.

  9. Datdamwuf
    March 26, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    good article Jill, thanks! The parallel with rape victim blaming is so clear to me and obviously to many others, at least in the feminist community. It occurs to me that a study might be useful. I mean, the level of threats, the type of threats made in these kinds of circumstances depending upon the gender of the person who is in the spotlight. I don’t know how that could be done though. I’m betting some woman in dev could come up with a scraper that would be able to make a start on a data set. I think finding the women posting sexist issues might be easier than finding a compatible list of men posting issues that would make an appropriate data set.

    I think I’m rambling, I’ll stop now.

  10. I Stand With Adria
    March 27, 2013 at 12:27 am

    I am so sick and tired of the misogyny in the tech industry. I have experienced it firsthand, since I’m a woman in a particularly male-dominated tech niche.

    And reading stuff like this article on Now So, especially one written by a fellow woman, makes my blood boil. There is no excuse for the victim-bashing going on against Adria.

  11. Tom
    March 27, 2013 at 12:31 am

    Thanks for saying pretty much all of the just and sensible things there are to be said, Jill.

    It’s sad that anyone lost their job over the original incident, but I don’t know what a proportionate response from the employer of the two men who were cited by Richards would or should be.

    It’s scary that any woman “in tech” reading about what happened to Adria Richards will now think twice about relying on a conference’s code of conduct.

    It’s disappointing that PyCon has seen fit to change its Code of Conduct to include the words “public shaming can be counter-productive to building a strong community.” The timing is a clear expression of solidarity with those who think that Richards’ semi-doxxing of two men was wildly unjust, and want to make that the main issue under discussion.

    Many conference attendees will now choose not to speak up even in the case of far worse harassment.

    • Miriam
      March 27, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      Only one of the men was fired, and it is likely from PlayHaven’s careful wording that the one who was fired was fired for more than just that single incident. So it’s not necessarily sad that anyone was fired–it may be a good thing for all of the man’s co-workers that he’s finally been let go.

      There are two things that trouble me about how the incident has been reported in regards to societal victim blaming. As far as I’ve traced the origin of events, Adria’s tweet resulted in no direct ramifications to the two men other than a talking to from PyCon. She did not rally the Internet hordes to attack PlayHaven or call for the men to be fired. She did not identify them by name or company nor were their badges visible in the picture she took, and indeed to date, neither developer has been identified by real name. Whatever action Andy Yang took, he took for his own reasons rather than in response to any pressure from Adria or anyone else. So to label Adria’s action as the cause of the firing is flat out inaccurate. At most, she was the indirect cause of Yang re-evaluating an employee’s suitability to work for PlayHaven.

      Thing two is that the backlash against Adria seems to have started when the fired developer wrote a whining complaint to a site about losing his job as a result of the event. So Adria’s being criticized for escalating to the Internet, but the developer is not. If the issue was really about the developer being unjustly fired, the Internet hordes would have targeted PlayHaven to demand a better reason and the reinstatement of the developer.

      But it’s not. It’s about men feeling vulnerable to naming-and-shaming. Men (as a statistical generality) do not identify with the survivors of physical or verbal sexual harassment because they do not identify as potentially vulnerable. Although there are men who are sexually harassed (primarily but not exclusively by other men), it’s not part of their general conception of how the world works. But they do identify with men who have been doxxed or otherwise named-and-shamed because they do know that could be them in the future. I would further guess that much like with Steubenville, the men who are most concerned about it are concerned about it because they know they would deserve it. Like with Thomas MacCauley Miller’s post about how not to be accused of rape, it’s not hard to not be named-and-shamed for sexualized inappropriate behavior; just don’t do it. It’s not that the anti-Richards people are really afraid of some innocent comment getting misinterpreted; it’s that they know they do offensive behavior and they do not want to have to care.

      In a nutshell, that’s privilege: not having to monitor your behavior for its impact on another person. Even if people wouldn’t use those terms, I think everyone does fundamentally understand it.
      (note, most of this comment is not a direct response but it springboarded from the direct response about the potential non-sadness of the guy getting fired)

      • Tom
        March 28, 2013 at 10:55 am

        I think you’ve raised a few interesting points.

        Andy Yang had this to say about the firing at PlayHaven:

        PlayHaven had an employee who was identified as making inappropriate comments at PyCon, and as a company that is dedicated to gender equality and values honourable behaviour, we conducted a thorough investigation. The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go.

        There’s a strong indication there that the incident was the determining factor, even if there were other, undisclosed aspects. Quite agree I didn’t really know enough to say that it was “sad that someone had to be fired over [it]” …

        Essentially, none of the criticism of Richards is warranted. At worst, tweeting the photographs was ill-advised. Everything else she did was completely fine and in line with why conference codes of conduct exist.

        I think there are two parts to the violence of the response from the anonymous (presumed male) internet. Firstly, as you point out, a perception that their culture is under threat and that they as individuals stand to be called out and humiliated for similar behaviour.

        Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a very strong peer identification process built around victimising others online. I’ve read fairly plausible reports that the DDoS attack on SendGrid was orchestrated from 4chan.

      • Bagelsan
        March 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm

        The wording of that statement sounds like this was not the first incident of the guy being a sexist jackass or saying inappropriate things. Hardly surprising; if you’d say it at a professional conference, why wouldn’t you say it in the comfort of your own workspace?

      • TomSims
        March 29, 2013 at 6:14 pm

        “There’s a strong indication there that the incident was the determining factor, even if there were other, undisclosed aspects. Quite agree I didn’t really know enough to say that it was “sad that someone had to be fired over [it]”

        I agree that this incident may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back or it may have been the whole camel. We’ll never know for sure. But IMO corporate America does everything it can to build a positive image for their brand. And charges of sexual harassment are certainly not the kind of publicity you’re looking for. And any kind of bad behavior by any of its employees reflect very negatively on its brand.

        And I think Adria got thrown under the bus for no good reason. And the vile on line comments by a group of anonymous cowards towards her is despicable.

  12. Tim
    March 27, 2013 at 12:44 am

    Jill, excellent post at the Guardian. But I am wondering something about this:

    Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. 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.

    It’s hard to tell, from all the accounts out there, I’m confused, but does this accurately reflect the sequence/timing of events? Was the guy fired because of Adria’s original tweet, or after the whole thing blew up into rape and death threats and the DOS attacks on SendGrid, and so forth?

    I think it’s important for a couple of reasons. One is, if it was after, it just shows the misogyny to be that much worse; that is, it shows how the woman haters were primed to attack Richards just for speaking up, not for getting a guy fired. Another is that it may be the uproar from the misogynistic backlash that caused his company to feel he was too much of a liability and fire him. In that case, just as people are saying, “she got him fired,” they could as easily be saying, “all that hate and uproar from the woman haters got him fired.” But nobody is saying that.

    • matlun
      March 27, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      It’s hard to tell, from all the accounts out there, I’m confused, but does this accurately reflect the sequence/timing of events?

      Yes, he was fired before this truly blew up. That spawned outrage and the whole thing seems to have quickly spiraled out of all control. Later over at 4chan there was an organized campaign against Adria which seems to have been the source of the worst of the abuse as well as the DDOS against Sendgate etc.

      • Mike
        March 30, 2013 at 3:54 pm

        if the 4chan crowd really cared about this guy being unjustly fired (which I agree was an overreaction if it was just about this incident), wouldn’t they have targeted Playhaven with their DDOS and threats?

    • Willard
      March 27, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      Her tweet came in on March 17th. At the time she had 9k followers.

      Her blog post and announcement of the Playhaven guy’s firing came out on March 18th.

      On the 19th she added some more info to the post. Responses were becoming more and more widespread, and more abusive with time.

      DDoS attacks didn’t hit until later, and she was fired the 21st, (AFAIK the 21st was the really busy day for Anonymous).

      The ripple of retweets, etc. looks to rule out the that the developer was fired because of backlash, though Playhaven did provide additional information on the 21st that Alex Reid (the beardy guy looking at the camera) was not the party fired, which was the general assumption one got from the framing of the shot and Adria’s description. I think her twitter has leveled off now at ~12k followers, though she hasn’t tweeted since the 23rd.

      The whole firing thing shows up a lot in the rhetoric, but looking at this narrative, which has become almost trope-like at this point, the actual events within the whole are of zero consequence to the outcome. Say something critical in a space on the internet and depending on initial conditions your path is defined for you. Woman, in the tech sector, POC, are all multipliers to the backlash, though the first two are the primary drivers. While certainly an issue, race here is subordinate and generally only has an effect of the language used. Anything that happens along the way provides new ways of formulating the hate, but doesn’t actually impact the people behind it because there is no empathy involved anywhere in this that an outside emotional state will register with.

      Changing this is the hard part though. It happens in real life where any threat of change or criticism is met with an immediate need to crush, destroy, and kill the presenter of such heresy. The internet just makes this easier and more public due to the anonymity. It’s the Ring of Gyges to the worst of our snap decisions and knee-jerk responses. I was trying to think of something positive to say to wrap up, but from my own experiences with toxic communities irl/online I just feel like crying. Sorry for the ramble.

  13. amblingalong
    March 27, 2013 at 3:01 am

    Janet Stemwedel, an ethicist, had a great article on her blog; some of it is covering similar ground, but I thought it was worth sharing.

  14. HayLaydee
    March 27, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    I have been going back and forth about whether to continue pursuing a career in the industry and this thing with Adria clinched it for me. I do not enjoy programming enough to try to make a place for myself where I’m not just not wanted but where people are actively trying to get me to leave.

    • EG
      March 27, 2013 at 2:05 pm

      This makes me sad. Not for you; I think you are doing the right thing by prioritizing and taking care of your well-being, and I completely support the decision. It makes me sad for the rest of us who are being deprived of your talents and potential achievements–and those of all the other women chased out of these professions. We all lose out when talented people can’t make choices about how to use their talents freely.

  15. March 27, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    I wrote about this on my own site, and a commenter actually tried to claim that Adria was perpetuating rape culture by silencing the discussion of sexual topics. Yikes! It’s so bewildering not only how unaware people are of feminist concepts, but also how little effort they make to understand them (or perhaps how MUCH effort they make to distort them into something unrecognizable/nonsensical). Beyond the threats directed at Adria, I think that’s the biggest disappointment of this whole situation: it could have sparked much-needed honest discussion (which did happen, in a very few limited cases) and opened minds to new ideas and perspectives, but it mostly gave rise to more of the same old defensive nonsense (“free speech!” “men’s rights!” “take a joke!”). Ugh.

  16. Ryan
    April 29, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    [youtube link offered without synopsis deleted ~ Mods]

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