Four years ago, out of morbid curiosity, I clicked on the homepage of a stranger who had been saying aggressive, repulsive things to me on Twitter, and found my way to his personal YouTube channel. I was relatively new to blogging on a national platform, and struggling to get my bearings in the thick of my first large-scale hate mob – hundreds of people flooding my social media feeds with cruel, frightening messages – in retaliation for what, exactly, I can’t even remember. I’d written something that some men didn’t like, and they felt the need, en masse, to shut me up. As a fat feminist, it happens to me all the time.
To my surprise, this man used his full name and didn’t hide his face (most of my harassers stay meticulously anonymous). Even more unusually, his videos betrayed genuine vulnerability. He was the platonic form of an internet troll: bald, goateed, bespectacled and doughy, fighting a stammer, broadcasting from a dreary, dark room. And he was sad. “I’m making this vlog because I am not happy with the direction my life is going,” he mumbled, in a soft, high-pitched voice. “I don’t like my career, if you can call it that, I’m unhappy with the way that I look, I am not satisfied with myself as a man, and not just as a man but as a human being.”
Oh, I realised for the first time. Internet trolls have bad lives. Happy people don’t do this.
That video is not up any more, but the guy is still around. He’s a devotee of “pick-up artist” Roosh V, whom you may have heard about recently , and a vocal contributor to Roosh’s website Return of Kings.
Roosh gained brief international infamy this week when he attempted to organise meetings for Return of Kings readers in more than 100 cities worldwide and was met with ridicule and disgust. People launched petitions to have Roosh’s visas rejected and to have Return of Kings classified as a hate group; mayors across Canada tweeted that Roosh was not welcome in their cities; a women’s boxing club in Toronto announced plans to crash the event and “show women that being powerful is an option”. The online vigilante group Anonymous circulated Roosh’s address and phone number, and the Daily Mail published photos of him in the doorway of a house in the Washington DC area , where the supposed globetrotting lothario apparently lives with his mother. Saying that he and his followers felt unsafe, Roosh cancelled the meetings and made his web forum private.
Roosh and company encountered such uniform hostility because their views are ostentatiously vile. They worship a model of gender politics so retrograde that Roosh explicitly recommends his followers move to developing countries as impoverished women are easier to manipulate into submission. Women, he believes, should be thin, quiet, unambitious and docile; men should be masculine, dominant, and heterosexual. Return of Kings headlines have included “5 Reasons to Date a Girl with an Eating Disorder” and “The Intellectual Inferiority of Women”; they once organised a “Fat Shaming Week”, an onslaught of coordinated harassment intended to abuse women into losing weight.
In bragging about his sexual exploits, Roosh has admitted to multiple instances of having sex with women who were reluctant to, or could not, consent (he has since claimed these quotes were taken out of context and denied any allegations of rape); and, in perhaps his most notorious piece, he advocated the legalisation of rape on private property. In the midst of this week’s backlash he tried to claim that last piece was Swiftian satire, but at the time of publication Roosh issued a crystal clarification to readers of his forum: “It’s fine to disagree with my proposal, but I am stating it because I really believe it would decrease rape, just like how forcing you to lock your car door would decrease car theft. But as you know, anything that makes a woman take responsibility for her actions will be attacked.”
What’s far more alarming to me, though, are the supposedly mundane “seduction techniques” he teaches his young male fans. All pick-up artistry – “game,” they call it – assumes women’s boundaries are permeable, that stalking equals romance and “no” means “try harder”. When you see how rabidly these men rail against the idea of affirmative consent – of obtaining an enthusiastic “yes” rather than the absence of a no – you realise that a lack of consent is part of the appeal. Wearing down women’s resistance has become eroticised – and, worse, normalised. It’s no wonder people don’t want Roosh and his followers in their cities.
To see Roosh and his acolytes pilloried on an international scale has been a strange experience for me. I don’t write about them (because I’m busy, they haven’t earned my time, and they have mistaken attention for legitimacy, a delusion I have no interest in feeding), a hard and fast rule I’m breaking for the first time here. But they write about me. If you Google “Lindy West” and “Roosh”, the first eight results are from Roosh’s various websites: “Lindy West Brags About Getting an Abortion”, “Lindy West Leaving Jezebel, Still a Whale”, “Fat Feminist Lindy West Goes Berserk Because She No Longer Fits in Airplane Seats”, “The 9 Ugliest Feminists in America” (I’m #1!), and on and on and on. For years, Roosh and his bootlickers have been feverishly monitoring my life, mining it for vulnerabilities that they can exploit. They have stolen my wedding photos. They’ve vandalised my Wikipedia page. They’ve posted pictures of my children and my husband’s ex-wife. They’ve written long, sexually graphic poems about me. They’re obsessed with a completely innocuous YouTube video I made four years ago (because I eat food in it), and still leave comments: “Fatty fucking fat ass get raped you stupid fat landwhale.” And I’m far from their only target.
So it was disorienting, last week, to see the person who orchestrated all of that hate issue this plea for mercy on Twitter: “Anonymous doxxed my family’s address. Whatever I’ve done in life, they don’t deserve to be harassed or harmed.”
I know that feeling so well: just please let me get through this intact. Please let my family remain unharmed. Please don’t make me move. Please let me live.
I know that feeling largely because of Roosh. I’m an anti-harassment advocate largely because of Roosh. And he’s right. His family doesn’t deserve it. Unlike Roosh, I actually oppose doxxing and death threats, even against people I dislike. So it’s difficult for me to enjoy watching anyone, even someone who’s tormented me with a pathological intensity for years, go through a hell I’ve devoted so much of my professional life to fighting.
And, ethical concerns aside, Roosh facing some karmic retribution for the havoc he’s wreaked on women’s lives doesn’t bring me much satisfaction, because it really doesn’t accomplish much. He was already a buffoon caterwauling on the fringe. That the whole world knows it now doesn’t change that fact. What matters is that we recognize that Roosh and his repellant worldview don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re an extreme crystallization of attitudes with real roots in our real lives.
I don’t want horrible men to be doxxed and threatened online – I want them to be better. I want women to be able to fight for gender equality (or even just relay our lived experiences) without facing years of libel, stalking, emotional labor, howling rage, and relentless degradation. I want feminists to be able to do our work. I want my daughters to be safe. I want men to understand that women’s sexual boundaries are not a gray area, and women’s time and attention are not public commodities. I want men who feel frustrated and invisible, all those sad men in dark rooms, to find fulfillment in communities that don’t leverage female dehumanization for male validation. I want all of the men gleefully ripping Roosh to shreds on Twitter right now to react with equal dismay and decisiveness when they see their drunk friends bulldozing past women’s signals and outright “no”s, or read a news story that implies a rape victim was asking for it, or hear an elected official dismissing rape culture as feminist hysteria. I want actual change, not whack-a-mole with a grandiose troll.
Right now, on Twitter, Roosh is crowing about his record website traffic, as though becoming an international laughingstock is some sort of victory for his movement. But it isn’t. Not even the most insecure, cootie-phobic teenage boy could look at him right now and see something aspirational, and that’s a good thing. This may be the beginning of the end. I am sick of being aware of Roosh. I am sick of him inserting himself into the periphery of my life. If this mass outcry shrinks his desire for notoriety a bit, I’ll be glad, but we’ll still have a lot of work to do.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2016