On December 5, 23-year-old Canadian adult film star August Ames (born Mercedes Grabowski) hanged herself in a public park after a day of being viciously attacked on Twitter. While Ames had battled depression and did not mention the online bullying in her suicide note, it likely played a role: Ames’s final tweet, hours before her death, said “fuck y’all.”
This tragedy has once again shone a spotlight on the problem of internet abuse — but with a twist. The harassers were not far-right extremists or misogynist trolls; they were progressives who believed they were “calling out” a bigot.
whichever (lady) performer is replacing me tomorrow for @EroticaXNews , you’re shooting with a guy who has shot gay porn, just to let cha know. BS is all I can say🤷🏽♀️ Do agents really not care about who they’re representing? #ladirect I do my homework for my body🤓✏️🔍— August Ames (@AugustAmesxxx) December 3, 2017
Despite explaining that her concern was HIV exposure, Ames, who was bisexual, was promptly branded a homophobe — even though, according to Daily Beast writer and former adult performer Aurora Snow, the opinion she expressed “had until very recently been standard among industry performers.”
The reaction was brutal: Ames was called vile names and told to kill herself. Gay male porn star Jaxton Wheeler tweeted, “The world is awaiting your apology or for you to swallow a cyanide pill.”
Even after her suicide, Ames’s tormentors were unapologetic: “I sleep just fine, I stood up for the Gay and Bisexual community,” Wheeler assured his critics. Another actor who had mocked Ames’s distress suggested that she had been a hater getting a taste of her own medicine. “On Monday I called out a homophobic performer for her ignorance and uneducated bias,” he wrote. “She allegedly chose to end her own life when she was exposed to the same vitriol that gay people have been exposed to globally for decades.”
No one can say with certainty that the bullies drove Ames to take her own life. But the ugliness of her hate-mobbing, even in death, is beyond dispute.
Internet harassment has received much attention in the past several years, with a particular focus on the abuse of women — especially feminists — as well as racial minorities and LGBTQ people. More recently, people have begun to notice anti-Semitic harassment by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The concern is warranted, even if provocative speech often gets conflated with harassment. But this conversation usually ignores the social justice bullies, whose behavior can have devastating effects.
In 2015, artist Paige Paz, then 20, was hospitalized for an apparent suicide attempt after months of abuse by Tumblr bloggers over her “problematic” art featuring television cartoon characters. (Her crimes included making a fat character thinner and replacing an alien character’s afro-style hair with straight blond hair.) Paz’s detractors not only bashed her work but also continuously policed her online conversations for lapses from politically correct language.
Two years ago, YouTube personality and gaming critic John Bain (aka “TotalBiscuit”) talked emotionally about being bombarded with hate-tweets, including ones wishing for his death, while undergoing cancer treatment. Bain had disparaged the work of feminist videogame critic Anita Sarkeesian and was seen as too sympathetic to GamerGate, the videogame community’s anti-PC revolt that was itself widely blamed for anti-feminist harassment. Recently, after the British website of the videogame blog Kotaku ran an interview with Bain in a series on dealing with online abuse, the website and writer Laura Kate Dale were subjected to harassment and threats.
While Bain was an ideological adversary, some of the worst “progressive” cyber-abuse is directed at errant progressives. Take the “#StopClymer” mob that went after feminist and social justice blogger Charles Clymer (who later adopted a genderqueer identity and now goes by Charlotte) in 2014. Clymer’s alleged offenses ranged from “malesplanation” to “white supremacy” (due to arguing too aggressively with a black blogger) to sexual predation (such as complimenting a young woman on her writing and adding, “I’m not hitting on you”). When Clymer took a break from the internet due to an apparent post-traumatic stress disorder relapse, one #StopClymer participant proclaimed this “a cause for celebration.”
Compared to far-right harassers, social justice bullies are probably less prone to overtly threatening tactics. (Not always, of course: Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai, an Indian American, has been subjected to both racial slurs and threats because of his stance opposing net neutrality regulations.) But their self-righteous abuse may in some ways be more dangerous. If you’re a feminist blogger getting rape threats or a Jewish journalist getting gas-chamber memes, you will find overwhelming public support; you can also ignore the abuse if you’re thick-skinned enough (unless it escalates to credible threats). If you’re an accused bigot — let alone an accused sexual predator — people will be far more hesitant to defend you, and ignoring the accusations may not be an option if your reputation is at stake.
I speak from experience. Last year I was among the targets of anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter after criticizing the “alt-right” — at much lower levels than other Jewish journalists and pundits, such as Ben Shapiro or Bethany Mandel, but enough for me to occasionally turn off my Twitter notifications and to contact the police about a harassing voicemail. It was unpleasant but manageable, and I often found a dark humor in the eagerness of the “alt-right” to show its true colors.
In some ways, this episode was far less stressful than my brush with “social justice bullying” nearly 15 years ago, when I was active on fan forums for the cult TV hit “Xena: Warrior Princess.” The title character’s sexual ambiguity and lesbian icon status made the “Xena” fandom a battlefield for conflicts that often foreshadowed today’s social media wars over gender and sexuality. At one point, my outspoken preference for a heterosexual pairing on the show got me targeted as a homophobe. For months, a clique of zealots scoured every post made by me or my friends for coded bigotry — such as “arthouse film” in reference to the lesbian-themed film “The Hours” — and demanded a response. Even on a fairly small forum where conversation was snail-paced in comparison with Twitter, having to fend off constant accusations could feel overwhelming. (The attacks were not only poisoning a beloved hobby, but also had the potential to do professional damage, since I had written for a fan website under my real name.)
Today, social justice bullying has grown into an often-destructive outrage machine. To be sure, some right-wingers who deplore this are hypocrites with their own history of condoning or even encouraging harassment. (Both Breitbart and Milo Yiannopoulos’s new website vociferously blamed Ames’s harassers for her death.) But their hypocrisy is matched by that of progressives who deny or minimize the problem.
When Jon Ronson wrote about the Twitter shaming of Justine Sacco, who lost her job and spent months in hiding because of a misunderstood joke meant to mock racism, Emory University scholar Patrick Blanchfield chided him for making Sacco the “poster child” for online bullying. After all, Blanchfield argued, Sacco was a white woman attacked for racial insensitivity, and she eventually got another job — making her a far less worthy victim than feminist or black writers and activists pestered by reactionary trolls.
Meanwhile, vicious trolls who cloak themselves in progressivism can easily find forgiveness. In 2014, the science fiction/fantasy community was shaken by the revelation that an award-nominated young Thai writer, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, was a notorious online harasser with multiple identities. Her main persona was that of a “rageblogger” known as “Requires Hate,” who specialized in assailing other authors for alleged racist, homophobic or misogynist sins, often in shockingly sadistic language. (“Her hands should be cut off so she can never write another Asian character” was a mild example.) She intimidated reviewers, sabotaged book promotions, and terrorized online groups whose moderators kept quiet for fear of silencing the “marginalized.” She apparently drove one writer to attempt suicide and nearly caused another to stop writing.
An exposé of Sriduangkaew’s trolling by blogger Laura Mixon had such resonance in sci-fi/fantasy circles that it won a Hugo award. (Tellingly, Mixon had to justify this takedown by noting that “Required Hate” often targeted female, gay or minority victims.) Sriduangkaew posted a brief apology calling her behavior “inexcusable” while also downplaying it, then followed up with a litany of excuses.
Yet, to the dismay of those familiar with Sriduangkaew’s track record, her rehabilitation has been swift. Last February, Apex, a leading sci-fi/fantasy magazine, included her in an “intersectional roundtable.” It was removed after complaints, including claims of more recent harassment by Sriduangkaew; however, Apex is still publishing her novella “Winterglass” this month. While it has received mediocre reviews, none of them have mentioned the author’s noxious past.
In her semi-apology, Sriduangkaew said that she had thought she was “punching up.” It seems that much liberal culture still sees social justice bullying that way, as well-intentioned anger gone too far.
It’s time to see it simply as bullying.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.” Follow her on Twitter, @CathyYoung63