Dear Online Commenters, Regarding Sexism & Misogyny (and Gaming)


This post may be mostly about what's happening in gaming culture, but it concerns online conduct in general.  Some background: online video blogger, Anita Sarkeesian, started a campaign to fund a series looking at women in gaming. Alyssa Rosenberg from ThinkProgress describes what happened next:

Her YouTube account, in which she explains the project, was flooded with comments equating her to the KKK, calling her a “fucking hypocrite slut,” comparing the project to an act of war, and flagging the video as promoting hatred or violence. Her Wikipedia page was vandalized, her picture replaced with pornographic images, and people tried to [shut down] the Kickstarter proposal Sarkeesian was using to raise money to support the project.

Of course Ms Sarkeesian – who you can punch in the face, if you want – is only one of the many women attacked online. She has been brave enough to display all the hate she has received; most people like her usually remain silent because telling only makes it worse.

In support of Ms Sarkeesian and all women facing sexist attitudes, I want to offer some pointers to my fellow males (and the minority of females). I do not speak for anyone other than myself; these are merely my arguments and suggestions using the best reasoning I can offer. I do not call it definitive or perfect. I apologise for the dogmatic nature of the language but brevity usually means sounding like this.

So, to my fellow males…

1. Learn to listen

Don't tell women how they should've responded to threats, intimidation, and flirtations. Don't tell them the environment, gaming culture, and so on, really isn't as bad as many are making it out to be. Because it is: but we're not the targets of rape-threats, we're not the targets of creepy pervs demanding we remove our clothes (“tits or gtfo”). Most of us are the silent bystanders and that must change (see Point #3: "Be Vocal"). We shouldn't be basing our judgments on ignorance and our lack of being targets of hate.

Let's make this clear: Even one incident is one too many and demands attention. That it happens so often, even if it's only women feeling unnecessarily threatened, is and should be unacceptable (see Point #3: "That's just how it is, bro"). 

Instead we should be making the environment such that women never need to respond. It should be that such events never happen. Just as if you hate what soldiers do, you shouldn't  hate individual army men and women, but be trying to make their jobs obsolete.

Secondly, obviously all the raised attention sexism and misogyny is getting can make it seem like the incidents are occurring more than they actually do. Perhaps it does "seem" or "feel" like everyone is talking as though it happens all the time - but that's completely irrelevant to what we should be doing to try minimize, as much as possible, such horrible events from occurring at all (Events such as Sarkeesian's and all the comments she received, or this one, or this one.)

2. If you don’t care, don’t comment

If you don't like all the attention sexism in gaming and ‘nerd culture’ is getting, I recommend you don't comment. You make matters worse by saying "I think everyone should just calm down". Then, you're derailing the point.

We're trying to figure this out; we're concerned. If you aren't interested, fine: the best thing you can do, then, is to remove yourself from the conversation. Otherwise, you're a stranger wading into a heated conversation between colleagues telling them "This bores me! Let's talk about something else!" No one likes that person. Don't be that person. Go somewhere else and have a good time, but leave us to talk. No one is forcing you to be here.

3. If you do care, be vocal and intolerant of intolerance

Obviously we, as a species, tend to remember worse incidents, bitter stupidity, rather than the benign, friendly ones. Obviously a few idiot men undermine the whole environment for normal or gentlemanly ones. How many women are willing to reveal their sex during multiplayer games now, because when they do, they get hit on, threatened and so on? How many are even willing to comment publicly, online, in writing about their experience? How many will see what happened with such a benign goal as Ms Sarkeesian’s and decide they want no part of a ‘culture’ that can’t even tolerate the discussion, because a woman is involved?

This should not be happening and we must be vocal about our hatred of it.

3.1 If we’re not vocal, there’s a great danger our silence will be perceived as cover and safety and endorsement of sexism or misogyny.

3.2. Perpetuators of such intolerance or loud-mouthed misogynists will claim a free speech violation, because they don't understand free speech.

No one is stopping them from writing incomprehensible blogposts or making loud noises in their forums. But - just as with any place, anywhere - there are guidelines and rules of conduct in gaming, nerd culture, etc., we should be defending and upholding. Consider: we don't go naked to work (unless you're a pornstar or stripper and even then, not everyone in the studio), we don't defecate in the middle of our office floor, we don't break windows for fun, and so on. We’re acting selfishly since we’re ignoring our actions negatively impact the lives of others.

Yes, in many of these instances, there are legal prohibitions but most sane people simply don't need to be told not to use their desk as toilets. Furthermore, I struggle to find a reasonable argument that you are being “censored” or “restricted” because someone stops you from doing these things (in that case, it’s probably similar to claiming police are “censoring” thieves.)

We should be intolerant of sexism, racism and all kinds of unjustified hatred (you can hate many people, like child rapists and so on, so there is such as a thing as “justified hatred” in my view).

3.3. This doesn't mean we gamers should be silent in our frustrations, that gamers can't curse, that we're being prudes in our online conduct.

This, more generally, is obviously a difficult area, but we can at least set - as our baseline - not tolerating sexist or racist remarks. If someone stops you from defecating into your office desk, writing obscenity on the walls of the street, we're not stopping you from doing that elsewhere. It's simply is not appropriate here nor does anyone else want it there.

To repeat, it's the selfish nature of acting this way that is also troubling: not recognizing that your conduct affects others, not recognizing them as persons with interests and concerns. There are others involved. We shouldn’t be selfish and arrogant, thinking everyone is merely there to serve as tools for our entertainment, instead of fellow passengers on this particular ride.

A compromise might be that you can create specific places online where people will deliberately be rude, antagonistic, open, 4channish. I have no problem with that, myself (as long as the users aren't boring in their personal attacks and only make sexist remarks. If you're going to be insulting, don't be boring, since then it makes it obvious you are being specific in your hatred and have a bone to pick.) Furthermore, everyone will know this is an area where people can go if that's what they're looking for. It shouldn't, however, be the default scenario when someone joins conversations, logs on to play a game, requests to make a video series about women in games, etc. (See Point #4: "That's just how it is, bro")

4. "That's Just How it Is, Bro!"

I've encountered this exact line from people many times, when arguing about this. Two points (and ignoring that I'm clearly not your 'bro'):

4.1. We're not arguing about how the world is - though that is something that needs careful deliberation. I've noticed though that in the same breath, after people claim we're overblowing the extent of sexism, they will also say "that's just how it is, man!". Well, which is it? Overblown or an accurate portrayal? It can't be both, since the former claims embellishment, while the latter indicates reality.

4.2. It's still irrelevant since we want to change "how it is, bro!" We do not want an environment which the better sex thinks is filled with immature, hormonal teenage misogynists. Sure, I think that perhaps most men are not like this and indeed are civil and respectful. Civil men are like all the chefs that put correct ingredients into a pot; but all you need is one guy to piss in it to make it distasteful for everyone. Sure, most of us didn't piss in it, but I'm still not willing to present it as inviting for people - regardless of sex - to wade in.

4.3. Finally, imagine someone telling Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela that they should just accept the racist laws and environment of their countries: "That's just how it is, bro!" -- do you think anyone is helped with that attitude? Do you think a person bleeding out should be told, “that's just how it is, bro!” No, we fix things, we bandage wounds, we clean up our act, we try constantly to make things better. I’m not claiming we’re in the same league as the Mandelas and Kings of the world: I’m arguing merely that no one should accept the assertion that we must tolerate how things are.

Claiming "that just how it is" is merely a cover for apathy and therefore tolerance for an environment that should change (see Point #3.1.).


It's difficult writing on this, being male and not subject to the abuse my female friends have experienced for being female and a gamer. I am regularly attacked personally online, because of my views on infant euthanasia/infanticide, incest, and other subjects. But I expect it, since these are topics people feel deeply about and it does actually affect life and death decisions. I understand it.

I hate that it happens and occasionally, after months of a constant barrage of people telling me to kill myself and claiming my parents are horrible, I might need to meditate or buy another stress-ball. But this should not be the norm for us ordinary gamers just trying to have fun online. I'm not claiming I'm stronger than anyone - indeed, I'm just as affected by online hatred as anyone, but it still shouldn't happen in an otherwise ordinary, non-threatening space like games or online discussion.

It should not be the norm for a woman involved in gaming or 'nerd' culture to face rape threats because she's concerned about sexism and the portrayal of women in games. She could be completely wrong, but we can criticize her evidence, her data, and her arguments, not her or her sex. You're only proving her point, there, Sherlock, assuming she thinks females are portrayed and treated badly in games and gaming culture.

It seems to me that many people don't know how to respond to criticisms of things they love or cherish dearly: from the view that life is sacred to mere gaming (gamers, in particular, since they're constantly faced with criticisms that it's “childish” to still play with make-believe men who shoot lightning). So when you tell them that they're responding in an immature fashion, that they shouldn't be saying those things, they'll claim they're being “censored”: what they're trying to do, poorly, is defend the thing they love. They’re probably defending in the only way they know how. They are probably not bad people, just poor at communication and naïve about how criticisms and disagreements work.

Hateful gamers don't realize that by attacking people like Ms Sarkeesian and her personal life, they are also not building up a proper, solid defense of what they’re defending! Indeed, they're destroying it faster than critics ever could. If the only way to defend your belief that something is important is through attacking or silencing opponents, how strong or good do you think your belief can be for outsiders? It’s like defending fragile glass by smashing it against a thief: sure, they now can’t take it from you, but no one will want to.


Important link: - Collects incidents of sexism and misogyny from online interactions. This tumblr should NOT exist but I'm glad it does. That is the overarching goal.

You can help support Ms Sarkeesian's work by donating here.

Image Credit: CREATISTA/Shutterstock

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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