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Digital Culture: CreepyPMs and the Women Who Receive Them

More than 140,000 people subscribe to a subreddit dedicated to pointing out the insidious normalcy of the digital vitriol that’s directed at women online.
(Photo: Kachina Daze/Flickr)

(Photo: Kachina Daze/Flickr)

It’s no secret that women suffer for their gender on the Internet. As Amanda Hess detailed here last year, women are more likely to report online harassment and bullying even as the Internet becomes increasingly central in everyone’s social and professional lives.

This harassment often occurs on public platforms, like the lewd taunts and rape threats actress Ashley Judd recently reported in response to a basketball tweet, or the death and rape threats female video game aficionados received last year across Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, and the like that snowballed into Gamergate. Ostensibly defending “gaming culture,” the digital vitriol was really an attempt to preserve a misogynist, white, frat-bro norm in online spaces.

But plenty of women also get abusive missives through private messages, be they direct messages on Twitter, texts, or dating-site propositions. While public abuse is plenty threatening, explicit, misogynist notes to an audience of one can be terrifying. But one increasingly popular page on the message-board site Reddit seeks to point out the insidious normalcy of “creepyPMs” by encouraging women to post them.

"I never knew how to stick up for myself or how to verbalize my feelings, or I was too scared, and this place has given me some tools to cope with it."

Since starting in July 2012, the creepyPMs subreddit has grown to more than 141,000 subscribers. Top subreddits exceed eight million subscribers, but creepyPMs’ numbers still put it in the top 300 of more than 616,000 pages.

“I think that [women] needed a definitive place where they could say, ‘No, this isn't an isolated incident,’” says the subreddit’s head moderator, who goes by the username NoseFetish. “This is a very pervasive thing in our culture.” NoseFetish, who is in his mid-30s, is the subreddit’s third leader since its founding. He took it over in January 2013. Our interview has been condensed and edited.

How did the site begin?

Do you know Anita Sarkeesian? That whole [Gamergate] thing that's going on? I was becoming somewhat involved in comment sections commenting on it and how absurd the outrage over it was.

Someone had posted a link in one of the discussions I was in to this guy who posted a picture onto the subreddit /r/pics. He posted a posted a picture of a young woman dressed up as a Pokemon cosplay, and people were mistaking him as being the girl in the picture and were sending him a ton of messages. I thought it was a really good way to point out to most men the sexism that is on that site. Everything that I'd seen up until that point was always some way to diminish it or to say it was an isolated case or they were being oversensitive.

I posted onto one of the major default subreddits, called /r/bestof. It ended up hitting the front page and it got a lot of attention. Within the first few comments, someone had said, "Well, we should make a subreddit for all these messages that people get." So then the original creator created it, and because I was witnessing all these comments happen, I asked if I could join.

You took over as main moderator about five months after the subreddit’s creation. How much of your time does moderating take up?

When I first started, quite a bit. Now that I've added significant numbers [of moderators] on there, pretty much when I have downtime at work and for maybe an hour or two when I’m at home. So I'd say all in all, maybe about four or five hours, but that's intermittent through the night. I work the night shift and weekends, so I have a pretty huge chunk of downtime to do this stuff.

What kind of communication do you have with the other mods, and what kind of communication do you have with posters?

Quite often, if someone has a problem, they'll message us. If someone's looking for advice and they don't want to post it there, they'll message us. If someone notices someone being a huge douche, they'll probably message us and say, "Hey, you should pay attention to this."

Probably one of the most rewarding things [is] when we get moderator mail from a young woman who says, “I never knew how to stick up for myself or how to verbalize my feelings, or I was too scared, and this place has given me some tools to cope with it.” That makes me feel proud.

Because it's very negative material that's in there a lot of times. Sometimes even I need to take a break. I've never been a victim of rape or anything like that, but sometimes the content is so overwhelming that I can't deal with it.

So why do it? Why do you think it's so important to collect and showcase all of this?

When I first started on Reddit, it was a very, very different place from what it is today. There was a jailbait subreddit—basically a subreddit for dudes to post very scantily clad girls who were anywhere between 13 to 16 or 17. When you Googled Reddit, for the longest time, that was one of the top searches. So people that are naturally inclined to go looking for that stuff just kind of gravitated toward Reddit.

It was always a weird mixture of people who are into technology and people who are into Internet culture, but then you also have a very dark side to it: You have these people who have no responsibilities for things that they type or things that they say, or messages that they send. And mixed in with all of that, you have very young teenagers, anywhere between 13 and up in these teenager-focused specific subreddits that some of these guys actually do go to prey on, or ask for pictures or pretend that they're teens themselves to send messages to them.

How did you come to Reddit to begin with?

I've always been interested in technology and communication and how people interact with each other when there is a barrier, but almost like there's no barrier—how empathy kind of takes the back seat and their egos kind of drive everything.

Back when I was first getting into it, all the different Internet sites out there were kind of like, “Hey, Reddit is a good amalgamation of everything.” So I checked it out. I looked on 4chan a few times, and it wasn't really for me. But it was interesting to see how people communicated on there.

When I went to Reddit, I thought, “These guys should be more civil, or more mature. They're interested in technology. They're probably mostly programmers.” I wasn't prepared for the culture that was on Reddit when I first got on there.

It definitely shocked me to see all this stuff and to see it so popular. There would be, say, an 18-year-old girl [who] would post a cool picture with her teacher wearing a three-wolf shirt or something like that that was popular at the time. So she posts that picture. And then someone would take her username and put it into Google, and find her Facebook. Unfortunately, this girl had posted naked pictures of herself. They sent the pictures to her teacher, to her parents, to all her friends on Facebook. It was atrocious.

I think because of my interest in Buddhism and some of those kinds of religions, I try to feel empathy for the situation that a person can be in. When I think about what that must be like for that girl to go through that—that must be devastating. And this was pervasive. It wasn't just like one random guy was being an ass. This was cool, and everyone thought it was hilarious. It was like a thousand upvotes for the guy who found her naked pictures. And this still kind of persists to this day.

Why do you think it's important to collect and show these personal messages?

I decided that the majority of Reddit was a shithole that I didn't really want to interact with, so I went onto more women-centric subreddits like /r/twoxchromosomes, the different feminist subreddits out there. That's when I encountered these men’s rights activists.

Not only was the typical male culture of Reddit already dismissive of women's experiences or women saying things, trying to either put the blame back on women for what happened to them or to say that they're just being over-emotional, or too sensitive, or couldn't take a joke—you had these men's rights activists who said that every claim of rape was fake because she was either trying to steal the guy's semen, or get child support, or take the guy's money. Or she liked it, but then she regretted it after the fact. All these horrible things. These men's rights activists flooded into these women-centric places to argue their points.

I think that [women] needed a definitive place where they could say, “No, this isn't an isolated incident. It's not just one guy who I dated five years ago who sends me a dick picture. This is a very pervasive thing in our culture.”

At one point in time, I used to think that maybe this was always kind of around and it's just coming to the surface because we're communicating more about it. And that is true. But because of this advanced technology, it's exploded even more from what it was before.

How is the privacy of these messages different from more public trolling? The Reddit trolling that originally appalled you is all technically public. The stuff that you’re having people post is something that people would not have seen if they hadn't shared it there.

I think there are some people who try to still troll through sending personal messages. But I would have to say that the intent is wildly different. A person who's trolling is trying to just get a response out of a person—they don't necessarily want anything else—whereas the personal messages run anywhere from “the person was in a relationship with the person and then they broke up and the person's now stalking them,” to “a person at school who you've been trying to let down nicely won't take the hint and now has gone completely overboard and sends you messages,” to women just being on dating sites and trying to navigate that, and getting 40 responses that are sexual in nature and two that are somewhat decent.

I never really realized the full scope of it. I kind of understood—I have this one really attractive friend, and she probably gets 20 or 30, 40 messages a day. But the sheer amount that some of these people were getting—I think it puts a lot into perspective for most men who are on dating sites. Because a lot of guys will complain that they never get any answers back, or what's the point of typing out an actual original message that's suited to the person instead of a copy/pasted message, because the majority of women won't reply back in the first place.

I think with most communication there’s always a lack of empathy, because you're always focused on what you're looking at, what you're thinking happened. So if these guys can take a step back and look at these experiences the women are going through, they can have a little bit more empathy for them, not associate with the guys who are sending those 40 shitty messages in the first place, and kind of understand what they're going through so they don't take it personally that they're not getting responses.

Why do men do it? Why does your friend get 30 or 40 insane sex messages a day?

I think you need a comprehensive psychological study on this, because people have lots of ideas of why it is. A lot of these ideas have merits to them; a lot of it people blame it on porn and seeing women as objects instead of real-life people who have their own hopes and dreams and wants out of life. They're seen primarily as what they can provide to that man at that time.

I would like to say that a lot of it has to do with egos. Everyone wants attention in life. Everyone wants to be loved; everyone wants to give love. And we don't really know sometimes how to go about doing that, or sometimes we confuse the idea of love and attention with sex or intimacy. And I think because of how easy it is to attract your attention online, with porn and videos, images—just an endless stream of content—you have high expectations. You see something, you want it—online, you click on something, and you get it right away. Human relationships aren't that easy. So they go in with this agenda—"OK, this is what I want, I'm just putting it out there"—not really thinking what the other person may want or if they would be into that in the first place.

A lot of times when these guys get rejected or these women call them out and say, "Hey, why can't you just talk to me like a regular person?" a lot of these guys get really upset and end up calling names. When your ego is damaged like that, your first reaction is to lash out.

You never get introspective about it: Why would this woman reply back to me this way? Are my actions getting me the results that I want? Instead, you kind of externalize everything and just blame the outside world for all your troubles and suffering, very much like that Elliot Rodger kid.

The same kind of resentment and expectations and entitlement kind of carry through all these different mediums, and I think a lot of it too has to do with the way our society is—what we place value on, where our priorities are. If we tell young men growing up throughout their lives that they are powerful when they have women with them, or that when they are attracted to women they are lotharios—that they are height of manliness—if you have young men growing up throughout their lives believing this, thinking this, or watching movies that reinforce this, have peer groups that reinforce this, there's no room for critical analysis of their own lives or what's been this social indoctrination. It's definitely not absolving them of any blame, but if you don't work through that, I can easily see how you can get trapped in it.

What kind of feedback does this site, and its strong moderation rules, elicit? Is it mostly, "Thank you so much, I now have those tools to speak up for myself," or is it more, "Women deserve what they get—how can you run this abomination?"

It's a mixture of everything that you just said. It is bizarre that people are so worked up over it. They've come up with a term for it: We're called creepshaming. According to a lot of these people, and especially these men's rights activists—we're shaming healthy male sexuality.

The people who love the place—the people who love us—really love the place. And the people who hate us and hate the place really hate us. And there’s definitely a big group in the middle. But for a very long time, there was kind of a concerted focus on trying to make it so chaotic that we gave up.

The expectation that most people have when they go onto Reddit, it's kind of the typical young, white, male demographic who's into atheism and free speech and he should be able to say whatever he wants without any repercussions. And when they don't have that there, they get very upset at us.

One of the ironic things is these people who believe so strongly in free speech when it comes to their own words, when it goes to things that they don't agree with, they're very quick to not want that around—not want to see it or hear it.

When I took [creepyPMs] over, I added a flair beside my name that said “proud feminist."

They instantly assume that I'm a woman. I'd never been called gender-specific insults before, ever, in my life ... until I added that beside my name, and I've been called every name that you can think of.

That was one of the most bizarre things for me to experience and to know that women have experienced that in their own day-to-day life ... as soon as you outed yourself as a woman or there was some kind of vulnerability that was visible to them, they were quick to jump on it. The other strange thing is that as soon as I tell them that I’m actually a man, the insults quickly change into trying to emasculate me in some way.

Has there been any real-life action as a result of stuff posted?

I've probably reported 25 tips to the CyberTipline, which is kids under the age of 18 that are either being propositioned to send nude pictures or being sent nude pictures. There have probably been other mods who have as well. I treat that crime most seriously out of everything.

I realized early on that [the subreddit] could be used in a negative way if we allowed user names or any personal type of information. Say you and I are dating. We have a really bad break-up, and I decide to Photoshop something and put your name in there and just have you say horrible stuff. I already saw what Reddit was like when they kind of witch hunted young women who they got a tiny bit of information on. I knew that if I didn't have really stringent rules against personal information that it would be used in a negative way.

I get that a lot of times there's frustration from people, because a lot of times they want us to put a person's information out there, because they want to feel some kind of sense of justice where the guy is having to take responsibility. You can see that in posts where someone sends, say, a dick picture they were sent to the person's mom through Facebook.

People, especially on Reddit, they love vengeance. They love it when bullies get hit back. It's kind of weird, but it's almost like some kind of like “We're living in the future” and Demolition Man, where people are fighting, or Mad Max, where people are fighting in a pit, and all the crowd surrounding, they're cheering on—they don't care if people die; they just want to see someone killed. So I knew that I couldn't have all this information there.

It allows us to focus mostly on the types of situations that are happening, or the type of words, or the type of messages that are being sent rather than just one specific person, because there's a trend that's happening, and it's not just one or two things.

Every day There's at least 10 to 20 new posts, or sometimes even more on there, and I think it’s better for people to be aware of the things that are happening in there rather than getting vigilante justice.

I would also hope that if one of the creeps in the message should happen to come in there, that they would see how supportive everyone else is of the person posting it and maybe start questioning themselves. If just one person says, “You're being an ass,” that's just one person's opinion. But when you have a dozen or so people saying that that person's an ass, kind of going into detail, it's hard to laugh it off and say, “Oh, it's just one person.”

Digital Culture is a series of interviews about digital subcultures and communities.