Karen Straughan: Gender Politics on the Offensive: Part 4
Interview by GREG SCORZO –
Karen Straughan is famous for being a controversial gender politics Vlogger and Men’s Rights Advocate. Because of the nature of the stances she takes, many people are keen to dismiss her without even considering her arguments long enough to refute them. Because so much of her work induces both feminist and mainstream outrage, it’s often unnoticed that Karen is also an incredibly interesting gender theorist and historian.
This fact is partly what seperates Karen from many other gender activists, be they be feminist or anti-feminist. If Gender Studies departments were open to diverse and provocative views across the ideological spectrum, Karen would perhaps be a celebrity academic on par with Slavoj Zizek. Like Zizek, Karen is one of the more fascinating intellectuals of the 2010s. She is fascinating, in part, because you can gain incredible insights from both agreeing and disagreeing with her. But unlike officially institutionalised intellectuals, Karen does not come from academia. She does not work from an ivory tower. She’s a working waitress who does Vlogs from her kitchen. In this way, Karen’s Vlogs are to conventional academia what punk was to stadium rock. Love her or loath her, she says what many academics are afraid to say.
This interview was initially scheduled to be between 1 and 2 hours. We wound up talking for 7. Here are some of the highlights of what we said.
Gamergate, Free Speech, and Bullying
Greg Scorzo: Let’s talk about Gamergate. The reason I want to talk about this is because this is a classic example of a feminist narrative of a social phenomenon that is almost completely wiping out any dissent from it in the mainstream. Whenever you google “Gamergate”, you get this narrative. I want to read you a summary of what I think this narrative is and then you can explain where you think this narrative goes wrong.
Karen Straughan: (laughs) Sounds great.
Greg Scorzo: Gamergate started because of Zoe Quinn’s game called Depression Quest, a game desinged to teach empathy and simulate mental illness. An ex-boyfriend in a blog post accused Quinn of sleeping with video-game industry critics in order to garner good reviews. This was sexist as it presumed that women only get good reviews for designing games because they sleep their way to the top. This anti-Quinn sentiment created a movement among mysogynist and right wing gamers called gamergate which presents itself as being about ethics in journalism. The reality is Gamergate is expressing outrage over the fact that women are getting involved in gaming and some of them are starting to complain about the rampant sexism, mysogyny and bullying female gamers face because they are women. Another contributing factor to the emergence of Gamergate is right-wng outrage over the fact that many women, feminists, and progressives want video games to be more inclusive. Inclusivity here means that games should include characters that represent marginalised or oppressed groups (transgender people, blacks, women, ect).
The Gamergate movement started out sending Zoe Quinn rape threats, death threats, and released personal information about her home address online (doxxing). Meanwhile, a feminist video game critic called Anita Sarkeesian started posting detailed critiques of video game tropes highlighting how video games indulge in anti-female sexism and fail to be truly intersectional. Sarkeesian was then also trolled by Gamergate supporters in a flury of death threats and rape threats. She was even forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University aften a Gamergate supporter threatened a Montreal Massacre style attack on the campus as revenge for the evils of Feminism.
A hashtag called #NotYourShield was used by #GamerGate advocates to show the movement wasn’t misogynist and contained many women, people of colour, and transgender people. However, it was actually comprised of Gamergate advocates (and 4chan in particular) pretending to be women, people of colour, and transgender people.
According to game designer and feminist activist Breanna Wu, “the outcome of Gamergate is terrorism against women in the industry.”
What’s Wrong with This Narrative?
Karen Straughan: Everything. Gamergate was initially sparked by Zoe Quinn. Its because there was an incredulity over the fact that her game was green lit. Her ex-boyfriend didn’t just accuse her in his blog of sleeping with various members of the gaming press. He described a relationship that was extremely psychologically abusive on her part. She essentially blamed him for her cheating and gaslit him constantly. It wasn’t a healthy. Gamers read that and thought, “Ah. This is why her sucky game wound up on Stream Greenlight. It doesn’t deserve to be here so maybe her ex-boyfriend is correct in insinuating that maybe her sexual liasons with certain members of the gaming press were what got her the promotions she needed to get her sucky game onto Stream Greenlight.” I actually don’t think that’s accurate. I don’t think she slept her way to the top. I think she got where she is because of cronyism.
There’s a great deal of cronyism in any endeavour and the video game industry is no different. The gamer consumer base can see that in the gaming industry, there is a cabal of people who promote and support each other. One of the things that I think many Gamergaters are objecting to is the fact that you don’t really have a competitive market because of this. But more than that, I think Gamergaters are complaining about the pushing of a particular inclusivity agenda. This is the agenda which says, among other things, that there aren’t enough female gaming characters. One of the things that drives me crazy about this agenda is the double standards it engages in. Think about it. Does anyone demand that romance novels become more inclusive?
Greg Scorzo: It wouldn’t surprise me if people start demanding that soon.
Karen Straughan: There has been some demand that romance novels be inclusive to gays, bisexuals, polyamorous, and transgender people.
What’s important is that there are absolutely no calls for romance fiction to be more inclusive for straight men. This is because straight men don’t care about romance novels. Straight man are willing to allow women to have forms of entertainment that are just for them. Men don’t go in romance fiction and demand that things be changed so that its more appealing to them. This is what feminists are trying to do on behalf of women in gaming. They’re trying to go into an industry that caters to normally straight men and a minority of women. The industry gives its main demographics what they want to see. Feminists are protesting this, screaming, “It’s not inclusive enough! You HAVE TO create a product that will appeal to everybody!” I have never seen men go into any industry and say, “You have to change your product so that it appeals to us!
There seems to be this idea that if a form of entertainment is made specifically to appeal to straight men, it’s somehow wrong. People accept this even though they also accept forms of entertainment that are tailored to specifically appeal to straight women and gay people and all kinds of other demographics.
Greg Scorzo: Suppose someone said, “Romance novels are different from gaming in that you read romance novels by yourself. With games, you play them with other people. So if the people you’re playing them with are men and the games cater to men, that creates an environment where women are more likely to be intimidated or harrassed or bullied or condescended to. That’s the real problem. That’s why there needs to be more female inclusive stuff. In order to enjoy a game, a woman has to interact with men in an environment where the men aren’t likely to mistreat her.” How would you respond to that objection?
Karen Straughan: I would say that objection is complete bullshit. As a woman, no one is forcing you to play games online. You don’t have to play PVP. You really don’t. I used to game. I was a console gamer and a PC gamer before I was really on the internet. I never had to play with anybody. The bottom line is if I like gaming, I’m going to enjoy playing games. It’s not an injustice if I wind up hating the people I’m playing with online. It’s not an injustice if I’m playing a game but the game doesn’t totally cater to my desires. It doesn’t matter whether or not I can get all the weapons I want or have the character match my design specifications or make sure the people I’m playing with don’t say things that piss me off.
Greg Scorzo: I don’t think the complaint is that women don’t like the men they play with. It’s that those men harrass them or hurl abuse at them during the game.
Karen Straughan: Women don’t get more abuse than anyone else when they play PVP. They don’t get more harrassed than anyone else either. They actually get treated much more gently than the way men treat each other. In any male hiararchy that’s geared towards males, they don’t like it when women want the hierarchy itself to change. Women want it to change not because it dominates them but because its expected that they will be treated like all the other men. It’s the equal treatment of everyone under the hierarchy that women protest, especially in things like gaming.
Greg Scorzo: Is that because in the gaming environment, consensual bullying is going on and women aren’t used to consensual bullying?
Karen Straughan: Possibly, but that tends to bother some men as much as it bothers women. Some men who were raised by single feminist mothers became male feminists in a way where they internalise the denigration of masculinity. Even many men who aren’t raised by feminist mothers still only have women in their lives. Women are often softer and more understanding than most adult men. They set more boundaries but they don’t enforce them, whereas men set fewer boundaries and enforce them religiously. So you have a situation where a group of guys growing up aren’t exposed to masculine play. If a three year old boy tells another boy, “You throw like a girl”, his mother will step in and go, “You don’t say that!”
Normal male-male interaction is something many women just see as bullying. Some men who aren’t exposed to masculine adult role models will also interpret is as bullying. In reality, it’s not bullying. It’s testing. In evolutionary terms, that other three year old boy is going to be standing next to you holding a spear while a bunch of wildebeasts charge at you. If he fucks up and chickens out, you’re dead too. So he has to test you. That’s what we’ve inherited when we observe boys testing each other on the playground. Boys do this from a very early age until up 25. That’s normally the age when they stop doing stupid shit that can get them killed.
So from this, there’s a way that boys tend to be with other boys.
A lot of boys these days are raised with women being solely in charge of their relationships and dictating that their relationships work the way female relationships do. Then they go to school and get subjected to typical boy behaviour on behalf of other boys. It feels to them like horrible abusive bullying. Bullying sometimes does actually happen. But most typical boy behaviour isn’t bullying. It’s a way one boy is saying to another, “Rise to my challenge! Prove yourself! Don’t go off and cry! Stand up to me! Be a man!” That’s what boy behaviour is. When another boy is completely sheltered from that during his whole childhood and then suddenly gets exposed to it at school, it’s a complete culture shock. The boy is too sensitive.
Greg Scorzo: Well, it doesn’t feel like a test. It just feels like sadism.
Karen Straughan: It absolutely does. But if that overly sensitive boy had a Dad who would just explain to him to punch the other kid in the face, everything would be ok. That would make the other kid respect him.
Greg Scorzo: So do you think that when women go into a PVP and feel abused, they are just reacting negatively to the fact that men are testing them?
Karen Straughan: Maybe but I think the frequency with which that happens is totally exaggerated. Most of the time, most men go out of their way in the middle of a game NOT to do that. They go out of their way to be nicer and gentler. If they are going to be mean, they aim most of that meanness at other men.
Greg Scorzo: There is a zeitgeist at the moment where even women who aren’t feminists are saying, “There’s a real problem with misogyny and gaming.” People of all ideological stripes, male and female, think female gamers get uniquely treated like shit because of their gender. A lot of pretty ordinary women who don’t have an ideological axe to grind have had bad experiences with sexism in video games. Many of them have experiences of trying to get involved in a game and then male gamers will start making jokes about how they can’t play because they’re girls, insulting their tits, calling them ugly or fat and things like that. So the women think, “Fuck this!” and leave a game they might have otherwise enjoyed playing.
Karen Straughan: Oh, for fuck’s sake! Nasty comments like that are gonna make you give up and go home? When women react like that, it pisses me off. I get nasty comments on my tits all the time. I get nasty comments on my face, on my make up, on my hair, on how androgynous I look. The appropriate response to those comments is to think, “FUCK THEM” and not let them stop you from doing what you want to do. As a woman, all you have to do in the face of a nasty comment is say, “Thanks for your imput and FUCK OFF!” That’s all you have to say to get the respect of men who give you nasty comments.
The mistake that women make when they try to enter a male space is they don’t get that they’re going to be treated more harshly than they would be treated in a unisex space. Men treat men worse than women in all male spaces but women still won’t be treated the same way they are in a unisex space. So the women in that male space complain that they are being treated badly. In that one complaint, they fail a male test to earn respect.
Greg Scorzo: Maybe the difference between them and you is they feel like they have a right to not be subjected to that test.
Karen Straughan: I think anybody should be able to test me. Anybody should be able to challenge me. Anybody should be able to say whatever they want about me. There was a movie called “The Big Hit” made ages ago that starred Mark Walhberg. In that movie, he plays a hitman whose juggling multiple romantic relationships with his wife and a few mistresses. All these women just hated him. They were abusing him and kicking him in the balls. His buddy hit man says to him, “Why are you trying to please all these women?” He says, “I don’t know. I can’t live with the idea that somebody somewhere doesn’t like me.” That’s so pathetic. At the start of the movie, he was already an extremely pathetic character. But he went into the stratosphere when he said he couldn’t stand the possibility that some person somewhere, out of the billions of people on earth, didn’t like him.
That’s the same problem I think many women have. They won’t allow somebody to not like them. They think, “If I’m a woman and you don’t like me or what I have to say, you’re victimising me.” Whether you are male or famale, you will never be respected in a male dominated space if the moment they treat you remotely like they treat each other, you say, “I don’t like to be treated that way! Stop it! It’s unfair that you’re treating me that way! You’re hurting my feelings!”
Greg Scorzo: Do you think women have a right not to be trolled?
Karen Straughan: I think women absolutely don’t have that right. No one has that right. We live in a society where freedom of speech is supposedly enshrined in law. That means disagreement, name calling, and even trolling are fair game. If you are so thin skinned that you close off your comments because somebody called you a cunt or said mean things about you, don’t expect respect in return. People who get respect are the people who don’t crumble in the face of words. Look at Theodore Roosevelt. There’s a guy who got shot in the middle of a speech he was giving. He refused to get off the stage until the speech was done. Aneeta Sarkeesian is just complaining about the fact that people are saying mean things to her on the internet.
Greg Scorzo: Well, its not just that they’re saying mean things to her. They’re threatening to kill her and her fans.
Karen Straughan: That was one threat before a talk. She cancelled that talk. The talk itself would have gone on had she not cancelled it. Numerous levels of security and law enforcement informed her that the threat was not credible. It was routine. It was typical. There was a 99.99 chance that nothing would ever come of it. She decided that this was too big of a risk. Compare that with Theodore Roosevelt.
Greg Scorzo: Maybe that illustrates a big difference between you and mainstream society at the moment. Mainstream society seems to think people have a right to avoid verbal abuse and threats.
Karen Straughan: I don’t think society thinks people do have that right. Society thinks women have the right to avoid verbal abuse and threats. In fact, male journalists often make comments to the effect of, “If I’m not getting death treats, I’m not doing my job.” Women are more likely to be terrified by verbal abuse and threats. I’m sorry but that’s just emotion. That doesn’t indicate levels of risk. In fact, women are less at risk than men of anything horrible coming out of verbal abuse or a death threat. If you look at actual incidences of assasinations, attempted assasinations, and swottings, those things primarily target men. Women don’t receive any greater volume of threats and abuse than men do online. They one thing that they do surpass men in is offers for sex.
In an interview, Fred Brennan, the owner of 8chan was asked, “Why didn’t you denounce the doxxing of Briana Wu?” The answer he gave was, “Because it’s not illegal. Where someone lives is publicly available information. If a newspaper would not get prosecuted for doxxing, I won’t. I’m not terribly bothered by doxxing. I’ve been doxxed thirty times and nothing has ever happened to me.” The interviewer said, “But you can’t extend that to Brianna Wu because she was very afraid!” The fact that she’s afraid doesn’t mean something bad is more likely to happen. It just means she’s afraid.
Greg Scorzo: So do you think doxxing should remain legal?
Karen Straughan: Of course I do.
Greg Scorzo: You have a very strong free speech position that seems at odds with a cultural sensibility where everyone is encouraged to be more mindful of not being verbally abusive or threatening. Even many people who would be considered free speech advocates don’t go as far as you in opposing that.
Karen Straughan: Well, personally, I don’t engage in verbally abusive or threatening behaviour. I rarely even engage in name calling. I very much would want to encourage an ethic of polite but firm and unequivocal disagreement. The anti-gamergate people have doxxed several people. They’ve sent hyperdermic needles and all kinds of weird shit to people who support Gamergate. I’ve condemned the doxxing not because I think it should be illegal. I’ve condemned it because its coming from a group of people who condemn that behaviour themselves but are engaging in it. I’m condemning the hypocrisy.
I think people ultimately should be allowed to say what they want to say. That’s partly because some people are completely fucking batshit insane. If someone is like that, I want to know what they’re thinking and plannng. Especially if they are in a position of power. I don’t want them to be silenced so that they are pulling leavers while nobody knows what they’re actually up to. I want them to be free to express their opinion. Also, there needs to be a free marketplace of ideas so that there can be a weeding out of harmful ideas through discussion and debate. When you look at Nazi Germany and the fact that it only took 10% of the German population to support the Nazi regime once things got really fucked up, you can see all it takes to keep a regime like that in power. 10% of agreement is what you need along with the complete inability of the 90% to speak their minds without penalty.
So I’m in favour of the KKK having the right to say whatever the fuck they want. I’m in favour of feminists (including the most radical feminists at radhub advocating male genocide) to do that out in public. I don’t want them to do that in some private listserve. I want people to be able to see that.
Greg Scorzo: So you want to be able to see and hear your death threats?
Karen Straughan: I want to be able to see and hear what everybody thinks. All of that is just words and ideas. As soon as you silence one set of words and ideas, people will demand that other things and people be silenced too.
Greg Scorzo: It seems like you want a society where lots of cultural practices will discourage large sections of the population from getting involved in them. I’m thinking of things like sports, games, competitons, discussion groups, leisure activities, and things like that. Banter norms in those practices might completely turn off huge chunks of the population who might otherwise enjoy getting involved in them.
Karen Straughan: Well I don’t like the banter norms in feminist discussion groups. I don’t like the references to “beard tears”, “neckbeards”, “shit lords” and all of those things. I don’t like how they completely dismiss male suffering as inconsequential or something to be happy about. But I don’t want to force them not to do that. I just avoid those spaces. I go into my own space and comment on what is being said in feminist spaces.
Greg Scorzo: Suppose a kid might be really good at a particular sport. Suppose it’s hockey. But suppose that in hockey games, it’s a cultural norm that the players make fun of and viciously mock people with big noses. Suppose that child has a big nose and so decides not to get involved in hockey. Let’s assume that banter norm completely discourages most kids with big noses from ever getting involved in hockey. Here we have a situation where those kids with big noses who might be world class hockey players have a massive psychological incentive not to get involved in that sport. In a sense, that banter norm marginalises and excludes them. Would you be ok with leaving that banter norm alone in the name of free speech?
Karen Straughan: Well, that sounds like bullying. But the solution to bullying is rarely an institutional one. Institutional solutions to bullying breed resentment. The best solution when a kid is being bullied is for him or her to just go crazy and freak the bullies out. There was a blog post a woman wrote about how when she was about ten years old, a group of boys would push her off her skateboard and bully her. Her Mom had no practical solutions. Her Dad actually had the solution that worked. He told her that when one of the boys approached her and tried to push her off her skateboard, that she should jump on him like a monkey and go crazy and scream gibberish. She did that and the bullies never bothered her again.
Greg Scorzo: But do we want a society in which that’s what you have to do in order not to experience bullying?
Karen Straughan: Why shouldn’t bullies experience what they dish out?
Greg Scorzo: Maybe it’s because we want a society in which most people are socialised to interact in ways where those situations don’t happen. We want a society where most people are socialised not to initiate or engage in those kinds of conflicts.
Karen Straughan: I’m ok with a society in which you are allowed to take matters into your own hands. That’s empowering to the individual. It’s not empowering to have somebody do something for you. It’s empowering to take care of it yourself.
Greg Scorzo: Do you worry that way of thinking would, in practice, make society far less safe and far more uncivilised?
Karen Straughan: No. Top down solutions to bullying don’t actually stop it. They may drive it more underground. There are always ways bullies can work around them. In a situation with children where a child is really crossing boundaries by bullying, having one of their victims actually put them in their place can stop the bullying behaviour altogether. It’s effective in a way that top down intervention is not.
I was bullied when I was a kid. There was a boy in my neighborhood called Mike. When I was five months old, my mom was standing with me in the stroller talking to Mike’s mom. Mike was about two years old but he was still in diapers.
He habitually carried a hammer for protection, even at that age. It was an actual hammer. He walked up to the stroller and slammed me in the face with this hammer.
Greg Scorzo: Jesus!
Karen Straughan: He almost took my eye out. It’s fortunate for me that babies tend to have very good skin regenerative properties. I had this big huge gaping wound with stiches. It was horrible. My mom spanked Mike and sent him home. That would have been socially acceptable when this happened. It was 1971. Later that day when Mike’s Dad came home, he knocked on our door and my Mom answered and he pushed his way inside. He started screaming at my Mom that no one was allowed to hit his kid but him. He threatened to kill my mother if she ever touched Mike again. This was before my Dad got home from work. Somehow my Mom managed to shove Mike’s Dad back out the door.
A few years later, Mike’s Dad got arrested. His wife finally phoned the police. This guy had rigged explosives all along the back fences of our entire street. He had dozens of firearms, trunkloads of them in the house. His wife called the police because he said that if she ever left him, he would not just kill her and the kids. He’d blow up the neighbourhood. So the police came and took him to jail. As far as I know, he’s still in jail. But Mike bullied me all throughout elementary school. I think it was probably because his Dad told him, “You let yourself be spanked by Karen’s Mom? You let that happen?” He probably beat him up and abused him for that. He was a fucking psycho. So all throughout elementary school until I was in grade four and Mike was in grade six, I went out of my way to avoid Mike. He was really really nasty to me.
Two years later when I went into junior high and he was in grade nine and I was in grade seven, I was dreading it. But for some reason, he stopped. It’s like he learned somehow that bullying a girl didn’t get him any street cred. At the same time, I can’t see a kid who at age two is carrying a hammer for protection as 100 percent perpetrator and zero percent victim. To only focus on my experience of being bullied by him and not his experience of being raised in that fucked up house would be completely self-centered. For all of the things that he did to me, I can guarantee that none of them matched up to what his fucked up psychotic Dad did to him. His Dad was obviously mentally ill, not even remotely on the spectrum of normal male behaviour. Part of me wonders what happened in his Dad’s childhood that turned him into the man he became.
Greg Scorzo: Do you think you have a right to be uspet at Mike?
Karen Straughan: Of course I do. At the same time, I still have to look at him as a human being and somebody who is the product of his genetics, upbringing, experiences, and all of that. I can’t necessarily say that what he did to me is explained by the fact that he’s evil. I can’t say he had bad intensions in every aspect of life. I can’t say he did what he did because he’s male. In explaining him, you have to look at everything. This reminds me of why there is a sentencing disparity between men and women who commit crimes. That disparity exists because we do look at all those things when it comes to how we evaluate female criminals. Not male criminals.
Greg Scorzo: Do you think your ability to be empathetic towards Mike was an important component of how you formulated your political views?
Karen Straughan: I suppose it is. I mean, I wasn’t thinking about him when I started researching and formulating my views on gender. But I did think about him after that. I’ve always felt like I had things better than Mike. So it wasn’t like I let him off the hook in the sense that I didn’t let him upset me. He upset me and I felt ill will towards him. But I also understood that right from early on, he was an extremely troubled young man. For whatever reason, he decided that I was the one who he was going to scapegoat for the issues he had. It wasn’t because of anything I did. It was him. He was the one with the problem. I’m not sure my experience with him is the reason I’m an anti-feminist. But it was a formative experience that impacted the person I became. So I guess it did have an impact on where I am now.