What to say about sexism in an online community?
June 5, 2020 11:35 PM   Subscribe

I frequent a forum for fans of a particular male-dominated, niche hobby. I don't know this hobby very well and joined the community to learn more about it. Almost all of the active users are young (under 40), straight, white men. I believe there are fewer than 10 active women in the community. The moderation team is all male, except for one woman. There's a constant, low-level hum of sexism, and I'm sick of it. I was approached by a head mod after an argument about it, and I don't know what to say or do. Help?

It's not a terrible place. The moderators seem quick to squash overtly racist or anti-Semitic activity. Extremely overt misogyny is not tolerated. Routinely toxic users are banned. However, there are quite a lot of sexist microaggressions, and I've had to take a couple of breaks just because I find it difficult to tolerate after awhile. It's hard to address because a) some of the classic touchstones/essential works associated with the hobby can very misogynist, and b) the community and mods consider themselves to be progressive, and therefore they seem to feel that it's not possible for them to behave in a sexist manner. There have been times when I, or another woman, have brought up being uncomfortable with something and it was dismissed or ignored.

Things came to a head tonight when another woman (we'll call her Amelia) on the boards stated that she encountered sexism in the community. She was ignored - Amelia is often treated as a joke by others because of her communication style. She then said that she thought it was weird that there was only one woman on the mod team, and was immediately slapped down by a head mod who said something like, "why would that even be an issue." I jumped in to back her up, because WTF. The conversation was quickly derailed and overtaken by a bunch of other men joking about nonsense.

The same head mod privately messaged me later, to ask me what the mod team could do to make the boards more comfortable for everyone. I just.... I do not want to get into this with him or the rest of the mod team, but I sort of feel responsible because I want the other women to feel comfortable, and for more women to join the community and to actually stay and participate.

The things that bother me are all small-seeming and easily countered with other explanations. Like, the constant jokes about women's anatomy are just people being immature. Or: I get talked over and ignored a lot. My opinions are not respected. You could say that's because I'm not aggressive, or that the others are just excited about the topic, or that I'm too sensitive. There is one man who has been hostile/challenging/dominating towards me, but he talks a lot about how he's a feminist and is big into hijacking conversations around progressive matters to brag about how woke he is. They all seem to eat it up, so I can't see them believing my interpretations of his behaviour, especially because he's so well-liked.

I also have not been able to make friends with any of the men there. I don't want a bosom buddy, just casual friends to message about the hobby and share links and memes with. You know, normal friend stuff. I've been there for a year and I only have one real friend there I can chat with, and that's Amelia. How do you even address that or talk about it? Maybe I'm just a boring dimwit and that's why no one wants to chat with me.

What should I do? Or say? It's not like I have a roadmap in my head of how to conquer young men's casual sexism online. But I'm also pretty scared of blow back because of past experiences in other communities (to the point that I got so nauseated from anxiety after talking to the head mod that I had to go lie down for a bit). I'm contemplating just leaving, but I love the hobby and learning about it, and I enjoy the group activities. I'm also so so so so tired of being forced out of male-dominated hobbies and spaces.
posted by Stoof to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
First, this sucks. You are not crazy to want to leave. You also are not responsible for doing all of the emotional labor to fix this situation. This jumps out at me:

b) the community and mods consider themselves to be progressive, and therefore they seem to feel that it's not possible for them to behave in a sexist manner.

These two things do not comport in my mind. One of the major progressive lessons in to me is understanding privilege and the idea that one has biases one is not even aware of until one does the introspective work of examining them. This is not easy, and it never ends, but not knowing this to be true means you haven't really gotten through progressivism 101.

Are there alternatives out there for engaging with this hobby without having to coddle this particular group of people? Coddling them seems like a thankless task. Given that at least the head mod has opened the door to admitting that some kind of adjustment may be necessary, and you are inclined to leave, what I would be tempted to do would be to roll a big old "you're not as enlightened as you think you are" grenade through the door and then just close it. Do not worry about the fallout. Sometimes the biggest favor you can do for both yourself and an insular community with issues is to say the truth and then walk away because it's not your job to clean up their house.
posted by axiom at 11:58 PM on June 5, 2020 [10 favorites]


This resonates with me so much.

I am including what I might have written in a similar situation.

"The first step towards making this a space not outright hostile towards women would be to acknowledge that it's not a coincidence that there are only 10 active women members and only 1 out of X moderators is a woman. It would be to be open to the idea that the inherent way this community operates reinforces this phenomenon.

Are you really ready to listen, and not look for ways to dismiss my concerns even against the (very human, and common to us all) instinct to avoid hearing things that may make you feel bad about some things that you, and others, might be doing?

If so, I can share some things with you, and I encourage you to also reach out to other women, and maybe also to women who have left this community in the past.

If you want to argue with me about how anything I might bring up is not a real problem/ can be explained away, then this conversation won't make any sense.

Let me know what you think."
posted by M. at 12:56 AM on June 6, 2020 [32 favorites]


Do you get value from being part of this community? Is it useful or fun, or has this problem with prejudice made it too unpleasant for you?
In your shoes, I would do one of two things. 1) leave and try to find a better place to support this hobby 2) stay and low key be myself, expressing my opinion as needed in conversation with individual people, disengaging as soon as it's clear they are not listening.
You can't change this place, and it's not your responsibility to do that work for them. Rather find a community of people who can support you and benefit from your support.
posted by Zumbador at 12:58 AM on June 6, 2020 [3 favorites]


Knowing what the hobby is might help folks help you find less fuckwit-dominated online spaces to explore it in.
posted by flabdablet at 1:01 AM on June 6, 2020 [10 favorites]


Best answer: The place sounds highly toxic. Your complaints aren't minor, and the problem is them, not you.

In any area of privilege, there's someone in the dominant group who says, very loudly, that diversity doesn't matter. This head mod is that guy. He's wrong, and he himself is the proof: his immediate reaction to criticism about sexist behavior is to shut down the complainer. He can't act fairly and he can't move out of the way to let someone else (like a new female mod) do so.

Maybe there's an teaching opportunity, because he realized something was wrong and asked you about it. This is where M's script will be useful. You don't have to reassure him. Quite the opposite. You're not on trial, he is. If he actually does listen, that's a first step. If he doesn't, take care of yourself, preferably by finding a better group.
posted by zompist at 2:08 AM on June 6, 2020 [5 favorites]


Like, the constant jokes about women's anatomy are just people being immature

People being immature is not an excuse, and letting them continue unchecked is the kind of thing that drives women away from the community. The behavior is a problem, but so is the lack of action by the powers that be.

"Jokes about women’s anatomy" has the benefit of being a specific, actionable item that is well defined. I would start there and see what you get. Baby steps.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:38 AM on June 6, 2020 [10 favorites]


It sounds like you’re friendly with Amelia and that she’s in a similar frame of mind—maybe discuss it with her? Coming up with shared action items may feel less scary. Also, looping the other woman moderator might be helpful (if she seems like a likely ally), in case there are changes she’s been lobbying for that you could reinforce.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:31 AM on June 6, 2020


Response by poster: Do you get value from being part of this community? Is it useful or fun, or has this problem with prejudice made it too unpleasant for you?

Right now I do/was. I am very isolated because of the pandemic. These boards are very active with lots going on and lots of positive social interactions. For example, there's a book club that meets regularly, and little parties around other activities. It fills my need for socialization and it distracts me - as does the hobby. Unfortunately the other communities around this hobby are very toxic. It has always been extremely difficult for me to find welcoming groups of people online who enjoy the same hobbies as I do. Young male culture is pervasive, and I and other women have to tolerate a lot of sexism in order to participate. This place isn't great, but it's much better than most online male-dominated communities. Not that that's saying much, given how low the bar is.

Also, looping the other woman moderator might be helpful (if she seems like a likely ally), in case there are changes she’s been lobbying for that you could reinforce.


I like the one female mod, but she does not participate (that I've seen) when topics around feminism and sexism arise. And I would have spoken to her or another mod earlier except my "test runs" with mods have gone pretty poorly. (In fact, mods participate in it. A recent joke from a mod: "Man it's hotter than Joan of Arc's cooter in 1431 outside." I don't know about you all, but I'm really not cool with jokes from men about the state of a woman's genitals during her horrible death.)

The only actions I've seen taken since last night are a few moderators saying, "If anyone ever feels uncomfortable, feel free to talk to me about it." Which doesn't sit right with me at all. I guess because again it puts the responsibility on the people being treated poorly, and the mods get to feel like they're doing something.

I'll stop now. Don't want to threadsit.
posted by Stoof at 6:53 AM on June 6, 2020 [1 favorite]


Best answer: There have been discussions on metafilter at various points. Is Metafilter a Boyzone? The Emotional Labor Thread on MeFi may not be specific to your online community, but is required reading for people who want to understand sexism. And similar conversations about Gamergate. Not because you are making accusations that it's happening in that community, but because these events and discussions shine light on embedded sexism online and everywhere.

I used to comment sometimes on my local paper's articles as theora55. When they changed comment systems, I started to use a generic name, and I plan to do the same at reddit, though I haven't been active lately. Pretty sure I'll get less flack.

the community and mods consider themselves to be progressive, and therefore they seem to feel that it's not possible for them to behave in a sexist manner. I have experienced this, certainly among my peers, who are middle-aged and older. I worked in a group doing organizing on progressive issues. In a meeting, I suggested something. Silence. My (male) boss, said Theora just suggested Thing. My co-workers, also male, all said Hey Bud, that's a pretty good idea, literally not hearing the part where it was my idea. Sexism is deeply ingrained even among people who believe they don't express it. I'm sorry this is happening to you; it creates a burden, probably a form of emotional labor, certainly a gender tax.
posted by theora55 at 7:27 AM on June 6, 2020 [5 favorites]


I also have not been able to make friends with any of the men there. I don't want a bosom buddy, just casual friends to message about the hobby and share links and memes with.

I'm in a somewhat-niche online community that's mostly cis men, and some of them are real tools. I'm not especially social, but somehow I've been able to find some friendly acquaintances among those men. This is not a comment on me at all: it's because the community is sufficiently diverse to allow me to do that.

The place you're talking about sounds homogeneous in a way that's usually toxic. You can try to go against this in the ways suggested above, but I don't know whether it truly is worth your time.

Are you (or have you ever been) in tech by any chance? If so, I can suggest a great online community of non-men with diverse interests, some of which may match yours. PM me if interested.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 7:40 AM on June 6, 2020


The things that bother me are all small-seeming and easily countered with other explanations. Like, the constant jokes about women's anatomy are just people being immature.

In some ways a minor part of the issue but I don't think it's a small thing! Maybe lead with telling them this needs to change.

My impression is that tolerance for this has gone *way* down in the last years. Obviously lots of places where this is welcomed still exist, but a lot of communities (even 90% male) that have any men willing to act like adults at all have decided that the community shouldn't act like they're in a locker room. If they actually want to make people comfortable this is a minimum first step, and if they don't understand that there is no way in hell they'll be open to considering some of the more subtle ways their sexism is impacting things.

If you're really lucky a few of the worst offenders will be upset enough about needing to filter themselves they'll eventually find some place else to poison.
posted by mark k at 7:45 AM on June 6, 2020 [3 favorites]


Best answer: I think part of it is finding a way for the mods (the male mods, all the mods) to both SEE the thing and also acknowledge that it need to be different. Way back in the stone ages on MetaFilter, when I was the only female mod,we had a stupid problem where any time there was a thread about a women (a gamer, a scientist, an athlete, ANYTHING) there would be men who would show up to say "I'd hit it" Often this was in a self-aware way, the same way people might make an ironic joke about what a rape victim was wearing (not funny, but sometimes people use humor to deal with difficult issues, it's STILL NOT OKAY). So my approach was basically to point out the thing, to highlight the thing and then to continue to point out the thing and its absolute plodding pervasiveness in a way that was funny but also serious.

So this stunt was, on MetaFilter, to offer to change my username to "cooter" (I don't remember why this word) if MetaFilter as a whole could go one month without saying "I'd hit it" (ironic or not, I don't give a shit). And it was a YEAR of people not doing that, even knowing about this jokey offer. And that was eye-opening for our not-sexist-but-also-not-that-feminist mod team who started being a little more heavy on the delete key for this and other kinds of minor sexism (discussions of women turning into discussions of their physical attributes, men chiming in on women's topics as if their male opinion was expected and appreciated, men's endless fascination with arguing with other men about rape, etc)

So in your situation I'd think about having a simple ask or two to get started. Because if the mod team isn't going to do anything, you cant single-handedly change this. But maybe an ask like not wanting people to get bogged down in discussions of women's physicality if it's off-topic, or not using the word "bitch" or I don't even know. But just ask, and if you get agreement, use flagging tools if there are any ANY times this happens and then circle back in a month or six and basically share what you've learned.

Also on MetaFilter, this sort of thing works because there's a MetaTalk and people can discuss things around site policy and the rules are slightly different. So another ask could be a thread to discuss sexism on the site that is heavily moderated by the mod team to keep people from shouting over women. I know it's tough and one possible outcome of doing this work is that you find out that the mod team isn't committed to this and then you have some choices to make. Good luck, it's work worth at least trying to do.
posted by jessamyn at 8:56 AM on June 6, 2020 [22 favorites]


The things that bother me are all small-seeming and easily countered with other explanations. Like, the constant jokes about women's anatomy are just people being immature

what the fuck

this isn't small and doesn't seem small and I wonder why you are trying to think up outlandish explanations to excuse these aggressive harassers instead of making them do it for themselves.

She was ignored - Amelia is often treated as a joke by others


How awful of them. I cut out the bit where you assigned the blame for it to her. Please don't do that. Bullies always do this: we treat you as a joke because of your communication style; we grope you because of your looks; we insult your body because it's female, so on and so forth. If you can't beat these guys down--and don't assume you can't-- you can at least hold yourself above them. that is always better than getting used to it and believing their reasoning and starting to be complicit.

I sort of feel responsible because I want the other women to feel comfortable, and for more women to join the community and to actually stay and participate.

You are not responsible for that, or in that way. You are not responsible for all the men in this group treating the few women with contempt and aggression. You are only responsible for minimizing what they do, for accepting or inventing excuses for it, and for imagining ways you could be shouted down without even making them take the small trouble of doing it.

If you want to recruit other women into the community, do it with the intention of staging a hostile takeover, warn them in advance, and plan for it together. Do not invite other women in to take the same sort of abuse you and Amelia are subject to. Nobody who hasn't been enduring it for a long time would stick around for it.

There is one man who has been hostile/challenging/dominating towards me, but he talks a lot about how he's a feminist and is big into hijacking conversations around progressive matters to brag about how woke he is. They all seem to eat it up, so I can't see them believing my interpretations of his behaviour, especially because he's so well-liked.

I mean consider the remote but real possibility that everybody actually hates him but assumes the same thing you do. he sounds just incredibly awful. women consistently objecting to a man can go a long way towards undermining his feminist claims.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:56 AM on June 6, 2020 [6 favorites]


"Man it's hotter than Joan of Arc's cooter in 1431 outside."

Wow. Wow wow wow. Ok, then. It's that kind of place.

I'll second mark k here - this is "locker room" talk that is increasingly unacceptable in any kind of public situation. I mean, I'm a 50-year-old cis straight male who works in a heavily male industry and has some heavily male hobbies, and I don't think I know anybody who would say anything like that ("cooter", to be specific, JFC) - and I've encountered some pretty sexist dudes - without first looking around to make sure nobody who might object is in ear shot and they'd probably half-whisper it.

Which suggests one way you might begin to get some traction on this - "You kiss your mother with that mouth?"

As in, "Hey mods, would you say this to your mother? Your wife? Your daughter? Your sister? Would you be OK with someone saying this in front of them? TO them? How about reading this by accident on your laptop as they walk by?"

"Oh yeah, and would you say this at your fucking JOB?"

My bet is that the answer, of course, will be, "NO."

And that's your point. Guys wanna say this shit hanging with their buds in the privacy of their own garage or man-cave, well, whatever, you can't stop them and don't want to try.

THIS IS NOT THAT PLACE.

This a public place (or at least semi-public, unless they've done some stuff to make sure you can't even find the forums on Google), and there are people who want to participate, who are participating, who are going to find this offensive.

"Have some manners in public" is a pretty low bar.

I get that this may be far from ideal - on some level you're buying into the patriarchal idea that women are delicate flowers that need to be protected and the double standard of "it's OK to say these things but only in a male-only group" - but I feel like there's a good possibility that the forum posters are pretty thoroughly immersed in the mind-set of "Don't be crude to/in front of women." Which means you might be able to use that as leverage to get the mod team to buy into the idea that the really egregious stuff needs to get cut off harder and sooner, because the idea of "Would you say that to your wife or mother or daughter?" is totally normal to them.

TL:DR - "what the mod team could do to make the boards more comfortable for everyone." "Well, you can start with recognizing that this is not a boys-only locker room where anything goes, and start enforcing some really basic standards of "How to behave in public.""
posted by soundguy99 at 9:48 AM on June 6, 2020 [9 favorites]


I relate to you since I'm a part of a small niche gaming discord for this one game and it's super tiring to deal w/constant sexism and creepy comments. I found it easier to block people but even then it's like it's yet one another terrible comment this week and then next week another one shows up.

In the past, someone did reach out to me about the same problems within a different group but I found that it wasn't helpful to suggest anything due to the huge amount of pushback from current members. I came to the conclusion it's not my responsibly that there's so few women in the community and I can't fix it . Although it was odd to be completely alone for a few days I found that it was much nicer to be alone than surrounded by terrible people all day.

I found that even if I left the group I could still like the same hobbies as games but I didn't have to spend extra energy just to tolerate certain people. I know it sounds difficult but even then I found that as long as I kept searching I would find better places or even just spend time alone. Like this one place is not the only place that I'll ever find similar interests and it's been my Exp that I'm happier w/a different place too. GL.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 11:40 AM on June 6, 2020 [1 favorite]


I feel it's too easy for people to say leave and find another group, especially if they haven't been involved in very niche, male-dominated hobbies before.

Having been in that situation before, the thing that made a difference for me was finding an online community that was better than the others (which it sounds like you have, despite the problems), using a gender neutral user name (sounds like it's too late for that step) and being open to private communication. I was so thankful when a longstanding member messaged me to welcome me and offer a bit of support for something I posted. This was ages ago when the Internet was a much less familiar place and I wasn't too sure about communicating with weird Internet strangers, but I replied back and gradually, we were able to strike up a friendship that became really important to me.

After that it became easier because I had one ally who was well respected, and through that relationship, I was able to build others. Quite often, it involved private messages. Now these weren't big screaming diatribes, but more often they were just quick notes of support or appreciation or greetings. It also helped that I was lucky enough to develop relationships with some of the moderators who became sympathetic to some of my concerns. I often couched these concerns in similar ways as suggested above: we want to grow interest in this hobby, it's not a hobby that is limited to adult males, and we even have a handful of members who are below the age in majority in their particular countries (this is an international online community which makes things harder in some ways because not everybody has the same social expectations).

I should say, it took me ages and ages to let people know that I was, in fact, not one of the guys. Most people on the forum still don't know. The ones that do are ones that got to know me through private communication.

Over the years, the forum changed and evolved and people departed, including some of my friends and moderators. Advances that we made to being more inclusive started to backslide, and my tactics started to change. I like the MeFi "flag it and move on" policy, and I adopted that to drive away a particularly nasty misogynist and troll. I won't say I was the only reason he got turfed, as other people stood up to him too, but I'm pretty sure I played a major role.

So if this forum is important to you, and it sounds like it is, do your best to create the friends and allies you need. I realize it shouldn't be completely on you to shoulder the burden of making alliances and cleaning up the place but sometimes you have to put in a bit of effort to get the ball rolling.
posted by sardonyx at 12:17 PM on June 6, 2020


I collected up the ones I could trust and now we have a group chat on discord. We all rarely go into the various main servers where we met, and I have a small group where we chat about the hobby, but also everything else, send pet pictures, ask for advice, and generally feel supported and happy. It's me and five cis dudes (three are queer in some way, different countries, mostly working class but tertiary educated, white, four of us have PTSD) and while we had a lot of awkwardness early on with someone who I thought was going to be a good person to be around ended up picking fights with everyone else and looking to me to play Mommies AND favourites, which is not the labour I set up to do, and was a function of them being very aggressive about the hobby (and media) in a weird way, while not respecting anyone's boundaries or triggers. After a blow up they flounced and I let them (last message was a passive aggressive dig at me). Since then the chat has blossomed and gets a lot of messages every day and most of them are being massive nerds about our shared hobby, media analysis, pets, or emotional support. I'm very glad I created the space months and months ago because it has been great over the iso period.

Effectively, I don't do major communities for my hobbies anymore as anything other than news updates. There is too much variation in ability to deal with me as a woman, as a queer, as who I am, and it isn't worth it to me. I mute most of the channels in every discord server I'm in, and poach people we like being around.

In essence, communities are free for alls and rarely actually good and supportive over a certain number of people. They are clearinghouses, not personal networks. And unless the mods make the effort, it will always be unfriendly to marginalised people.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:45 PM on June 6, 2020 [1 favorite]


And it was a YEAR of people not doing that, even knowing about this jokey offer.

If I recall correctly, one of those jokey "I'd hit it" comments was mine, and the motivation for it was that the Cooter Clock was super close to running out and I was saddened by the thought that jessamyn would either have to change her username or be seen to go back on a promise.

If the thing had been presented as a straight-up request - as in, "please stop doing this thing, it consistently gives offence" rather than "if you can all stop doing this thing for a straight month, I will demean myself for your amusement" I wouldn't have done it.

Pushing community behavioural change is weird and complicated. Some people really need the carrot and the stick; others not so much, and steering a path that gets the desired reactions all the time from everybody is pretty much impossible. But I agree with soundguy99 that a straightforward calling-out seems like a good place to start.
posted by flabdablet at 10:27 AM on June 7, 2020


Response by poster: Update:

The mods made a hidden channel for female board members to talk about sexism in the community and make suggestions (of course we had to do all the work and make ourselves vulnerable...). At first a few of them were in there interrupting us and even challenging us on what we said, but eventually the lone female mod made them leave. Nothing really came of it. They drafted a limp addendum to the rules BEFORE consulting with the female board members and banned the use of the c-word. They then removed the secret channel after a few days and none of the information and experiences shared there were made public or really acted on (I thought they'd at least summarize our concerns). They said they were going to talk to one of the worst offenders - a woman who frequently bullies Amelia, objectifies and sexualizes other women, and uses misogynist terms for female genitals - but I don't believe it ever happened. I also didn't see any evidence of any of the mods really taking the issues seriously.

So I left. After I spoke up I didn't feel comfortable anymore. I also learned about a secret board that only "cool" members of the original board were invited to. Amelia and I came to believe that on the secret board, or at least within that clique, mods were leaking what we had said to them as there was a marked change in how some of those people treated us.

Also after I left, two newcomers - both women in the "cool" crowd who do not challenge the status quo and who declined to participate in the hidden discussion channel - were modded.

Good riddance.
posted by Stoof at 10:17 AM on June 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


Wow, so sorry to hear they turned out to be jerks.
Good riddance indeed! Hope you find better online spaces to cultivate your interests.
posted by M. at 12:51 AM on June 28, 2020 [1 favorite]


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