Trigger Warning: This Article Contains Content Regarding Rape Culture
Zerlina Maxwell is a bad ass who just succeeded in getting Twitter to back down on a controversial and ill-advised decision regarding the site’s ‘block’ functionality.
I spoke with her for her reaction but before that, some background:
Zerlina made waves last year following a segment on The Hannity Show where Sean Hannity attempted to argue that owning handguns would help women protect themselves against things like “evil” and rape. A survivor herself who’s leveraged her experiences to empower other women, she pointed to statistics of rape in the military, and the fact that two-thirds of women are raped by someone they know, to insist that rape prevention starts by first telling men not to rape.
The reaction online was swift and intense.
Maxwell was bombarded with death threats and threats of rape on Twitter and Facebook for stating the obvious.
Rape culture is pervasive and the argument that victims are somehow responsible for their attacks and the actions of the individuals who would think to attack them is one that we need to eliminate from the conversation because it’s neither real nor accurate.
In her passionate advocacy against rape culture, Zerlina spends a lot of time on Twitter patiently engaging with the ill-informed and open-minded but outright blocking the dangerous and offensive.
Her experiences with the latter gave her the legitimacy to speak up on behalf of women everywhere who have been subjected to online harassment yesterday evening when Twitter announced that they would do away with the site’s ‘block’ functionality.
Maxwell took to Change.org and launched a petition to explain why the decision was “a nightmare”:
Previously, if you were being harassed or simply trolled by spam accounts, you could click the “Block” button which would forbid that user from ever following you and also remove them from your mentions and timeline. Now, even if you block someone who is harassing you, that person becomes invisible to you but they are free to follow you and RT you into their timeline.
This is a huge and very serious problem for people, like me, who have received repeated rape and death threats on Twitter on a fairly consistent basis. I utilize the Block button almost every day and while that is not a perfect solution – because users can simply log out to view your timeline even if you have blocked them – it at least forbid harassers from following you and at worst retweeting you into their feed which can simply allow their followers to also harass you.
Thanks to the magic of the Internet her concerns were heard.
Twitter quickly released a statement announcing that they had reversed the decision:
Earlier today, we made a change to the way the “block” function of Twitter works. We have decided to revert the change after receiving feedback from many users – we never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe. Any blocks you had previously instituted are still in effect.
I checked in with Zerlina to get her reaction to the reversal and she replied:
“happy that twitter went back to the old blocking policy but they still need to address the problem on trolling and harassment which has now reached epidemic levels on their site. Women in particular are subjected to an online form of gender based violence on a daily basis. You shouldn’t have to be triggered or hurt emotionally every single time you log in to twitter. Twitter really needs to address this issue and make their reporting policy more robust.
Along those lines she’s far from celebrating just yet and has some ideas on how Twitter could truly meet their commitment to creating a safe space for their users:
They need a “muting” function, the regular old blocking function, report for spam for accounts that are set up purely to harass people online, and they need to launch a new and improved reporting policy that has real teeth. When someone threatens to kill you on the street, that’s against the law. Why should people be able to get away with the same thing online simply because they can remain anonymous?
Twitter’s reversal is certainly a victory– but there’s still a distinction between lip-service and a true and genuine commitment to creating a safe community that we have to make sure that they honor.
The anonymity of the Internet emboldens the worst in some people and makes the notion of threatening someone’s life, or threatening someone with rape, something that happens casually, comfortably and it’s directed at thousands of women every single day.
As much as it’s the responsibility of the companies who help facilitate our online conversations to create policies that protect us as users– it’s also up to the actual community to look out for each other when ugly seeps through.
Trolls react differently to women. It stops being about the substance of the conversation and becomes a race to say the most sexist, hurtful thing ever. In the wake of Zerlina’s Hannity appearance (wherein she merely stated her opinion) she was repeatedly threatened with gang rape on Twitter.
That’s not okay.
It’s great that Twitter has reinstated the ability to “block” that kind of ugly but it’s also about damn time that we sincerely get to work on outright eliminating that kind of ugly. How we go about doing this is a conversation that everyone should participate in because it should matter to you, whoever you are, that an innocent women — a rape survivor who’s perpetually revisiting one of the ugliest things that could ever happen to someone to try to prevent it from happening to other people — is having that brave action greeted with threats of more rape on a perpetual and consistent basis.
It should matter to everyone because it’s intolerable.
When you simplify what Zerlina’s been through it’s also incomprehensible. My brain struggles to make sense of it and yet I know that it’s a real thing that’s happening to her and other women all the time.
Rape culture deserves no place in our culture– and since our culture is defined by the conversations and creations of the people within it, it need not have a place in our culture.
So yes, Zerlina Maxwell is a bad ass.
I’ve known her for years and it’s been a great joy to see the rest of the world wise up to just how much of a bad ass she actually is.
Yet all that said, I’d love to see the rest of us make her life a little easier. I’d love 2014 to be a year where Zerlina and women like her at the forefront of fighting rape culture don’t have to work so hard because everybody’s doing it.
I don’t know what that looks like in terms of Twitter’s policy or in terms of what hashtags we use or what Tumblrs we visit or what nonprofits we support.
I just know that it’s about damn time things start to change.