Rape Culture, Meet Internet Culture: PAT-OKC and other online anti-rape initiatives

“So you’re tired of hearing about ‘rape culture’?” asks Lauren Nelson in this post chock full of examples of the ubiquity of sexual violence in our society. “I hear ya. I’m tired of talking about it.” She goes on to make the powerful point that conversations about rape culture are everywhere because rape culture is everywhere. If sexual assault were an easy problem to solve, we would just solve it and stop talking about it. But it’s not. So we keep talking and thinking and trying new tactics in hopes of finding something that works.

Lately, that conversation has come to the Internet in a big way. Of course, there have been conversations about rape online for as long as there have been online conversations. But, for all that it’s integrated into our lives and carried around in most of our pockets, the Internet is still a brand-new, nigh-indistinguishable-from-magic technology and we have no idea yet what we can actually do with it. Previous online attempts to address rape culture have done so by drawing on demonstrably-effective offline tactics. We see conversations about awareness-raising, education, giving the silenced a voice, protecting survivors from re-victimization and triggering situations, etc. that echo the efforts of hardworking feminist and sexual violence-prevention advocacy groups in the analog world. These tools for fighting sexualized violence have been developed over decades of trial and error. They still make a powerful impact when translated to a new medium. However, they’re not enough.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who famously “predict[ed] the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented” said, “Official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.” In other words, we’ve tended to treat television like radio with pictures, and the Internet like a television we can click on. At first. But what’s exciting about the Internet isn’t that it provides a platform for us to fight rape culture in the same ways we’re used to only bigger and faster and with more animated gifs. What’s important is that the Internet gives us opportunities to address sexual violence in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.

What I’ve noticed over the past year or so looks to me like a new generation of activists — increasingly savvy with the technology and social psychology of the Internet — beginning to experiment with what a suite of updated, integrated, anti-rape culture tools and tactics might look like.

Probably the most well-known recent pushback against rape culture is the Predditors story, in which some Reddit users discovered and published the identities of others who had been posting sexualized pictures of young women. The Predditors tumblr has since been shut down, but its contents are still available in a GoogleDoc here. Sexual abusers have also been outed via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Blogs provide a public square for arguments about rape culture to rage. Twitter users directly critique the media. I’ve heard rumors of a Tumblr hashtag used by survivors to post the names and addresses of their rapists. The FetLife Alleged Abusers Database Engine (recently rolled into the Predator Alert Tools suite as the “Predator Alert Tool for FetLife”) collects anonymous reports of consent violations in the BDSM community and then flags the FetLife profiles of alleged abusers. And I recently helped beta-test a new tool, The Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid, which highlights self-reported sexually violent opinions and behaviors by OkCupid users.

I don’t think any of these tools, or even all of them together, will put the nail in the coffin of rape culture. Like other kinds of abuse, rape culture adapts to new environments quickly. Activists need to stay on our games in order to keep exposing new forms of it as they appear. We need to keep experimenting, trying new things, and being creative with whatever resources we have available. What I find most powerful about these tools is the ways each seems tailored to the specific culture from which it emerged. Predditors addresses rape culture on Reddit by retaliating against its perpetrators using technological savvy, counter-rhetoric about free speech and privacy, and a “troll the trolls” sort of strategy all suited to Reddit’s particular cultural sensibility. FAADE, on the other hand, capitalizes on a mentality strongly espoused by FetLife users that the BDSM community is like a “small town” in which everyone is connected to everyone else by kinship ties. BDSMers often rely on personal references and a player’s public reputation to assess their safety, thus a database allowing FetLife profiles (the site of a player’s public reputation online) to be tagged with negative references from community members has a powerful impact on the sub-cultural consciousness. What would a similar tool look like for Twitter or Facebook?

The Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid (PAT-OKC) is particularly interesting because it interacts with a micro-culture that, unlike FetLife or Tumblr or even Reddit, doesn’t experience itself as a community. Certainly, there are some very involved OkCupid users who have personal relationships with each other, are invested in the success of the site, and have more of a group mentality about the user base. But I think, for most people, OkCupid is a place to meet and interact with strangers. Issues like community reputation are less salient. Instead, OkCupid culture revolves around sharing lots of personal information about oneself with strangers and filtering efficiently through personal information about free-floating others. This creates a very different set of rape culture issues than those addressed by “name and shame” strategies. PAT-OKC, rather than de-siloing information about potentially predatory users shared by others, begins by simply reporting what those users have told us about themselves. I’m curious to see where this will go…

In my next post on this, I’ll install PAT-OKC from scratch and walk through how it works, what questions it brings up for me, and any ideas it sparks.



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