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In her famous 1996 commencement address, writer Nora Ephron warned the new graduates of Wellesley college that they were entering a world that was hostile to women’s achievements and begged them to “take it personally.”
“Understand,” she said, “every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you.” We must all take such attacks personally, she argued: “Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you once belonged.”
On September 21, actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson stood up at the UN Headquarters in New York City and delivered a powerful speech condemning the harm that gender discrimination causes to both men and women, and inviting men to become active participants in the global struggle for equality. The next day, anonymous individuals set up a website targeting Watson with sexual threats, counting down the five days until, we were meant to presume, her private nude images would be made public. The threats against Watson are an attack on me — and I take them personally. We all need to.
Users on the 4chan message board took credit for creating the site, which featured the 4chan logo. However, it now appears that the threat site was created by a group calling themselves “Rantic marketing,” which is apparently a fake company run by an internet collective that has been behind several other false countdown sites in the past. Rantic said that it is trying to shut down #4chan.
Although some are calling this a “hoax,” that misses the point. Threats still cause harm and still have a chilling effect, whether the countdown was set up by Rantic or by 4chan users, and the harm from those threats persists even if no photos are released. The site reminded every woman that this is something that could be done to them by hackers, if the hackers so chose.
The site threatening Watson was greeted with glee on 4chan and Reddit, where commenters explicitly stated their hope that the threats would force her to abandon her feminist campaigning. “If only her nudes got leaked and she had the load on her face. Her feminism kick would be over,” a commenter wrote. “If this is true her recent feminism rally is going to be shutdown hard,” wrote another. “Feminism,” one 4chan user opined, “is a growing cancer.”
WATSON IS IN THE COMPANY OF MANY OTHER WOMEN, ALL OVER THE WORLD, WHO HAVE MADE THE DECISION TO PARTICIPATE IN PUBLIC LIFE AND SUFFERED THE CONSEQUENCES.
Watson is not the only one being told to “get back” by misogynists who wield sexual terror as a weapon. She is in the company of many other women, all over the world, who have made the decision to participate in public life and suffered the consequences. Writers on feminist issues, deluged with rape threats: get back. Activists from Syria, to Sudan, to the Congo, raped in prison: get back. South African lesbians, raped to “correct” their sexuality: get back.
Those threats and attacks are especially powerful, because they are aided by the pervasive, deeply-held idea that women have a responsibility to alter their behavior in order to avoid sexual violence. When CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was assaulted in Tahrir Square, a barrage of comments and tweets asserted that she should have known better than report from Egypt, which surely wasn’t safe for a woman. (Get back.) When online pundits heard that rapes of college women are horrifyingly pervasive, they warned female students to stop drinking. (Get back.) When aseries of rapes were reported in Haryana, India, local politicians urged that the solution was for girls to be married off as young teens. (Get back.) Even when the impulse is protective, the demand that women be the ones to change is, essentially, a demand that we shape our lives around the whims of sexual predators, not our own needs or ambitions, or the contributions we can make to the world.
And it gets even worse. How often have we seen a woman’s sexual history used not only to shame and discredit her, but as a justification for not protecting her from harm? We saw it in the response to the leaks of other stolen celebrity photos earlier this month, when, as Kelsey McKinney wrote for Vox, hashtags like #Ifmyphonewerehacked blamed victims for criminals’ violation of their privacy. We saw it when a Montana judge sentenced a male teacher to only 30 days in prison for raping his 14-year-old student, on the basis that their “relationship” suggested that she was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as the 49-year-old perpetrator.
HOW OFTEN HAVE WE SEEN A WOMAN’S SEXUAL HISTORY BE USED AS A JUSTIFICATION FOR NOT PROTECTING HER FROM HARM?
Those three problems — women being threatened, women being pressured to change their own behavior to avoid sexual assault, and women being told that they don’t deserve protection unless they stay pure and ladylike — are all individually terrible. But together, they add up to something even worse: a vicious cycle that pressures women out of public life. When we tell women that the threats and attacks they experience are their own fault, for failing to be sufficiently chaste or failing to take “responsible” precautions, we are telling them that they are on their own: that they cannot rely on society’s protection against those crimes. How many women hear that message and decide that they have no choice but to give up that activist campaign or to turn down that higher-profile job or to hold off on writing that article? How hard will it be for UN Women to recruit its next Goodwill Ambassador?
Emma Watson makes a wonderful UN Goodwill Ambassador. If the campaign she champions is successful, she will have done tremendous good in the world. There is nothing about her private, consensual sexual life that has any bearing on the value of her work, the validity of her feminist views, or her integrity as a person. Hopefully the fact that “Rantic” seems to be taking responsibility for the site means that Watson’s nude photos are not going be leaked on the internet in retaliation for her work. But if they are, that will not mean that she was irresponsible or reckless, it will mean that she is brave.
Regardless of whether any photos are released, the threats against Watson are already an attack on all of us. And we should all take it personally.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect the news that “Rantic” now appears to be taking responsibility for creating the Watson site.