On Sex Offenses, Progressive Double Standards
Imagine that a conservative activist who crusades against same-sex marriage and abortion becomes a target of persistent rumors that he is a pedophile. Then, his online foes manage to obtain chat room logs and forum posts from 10 years ago in which the activist, then in his early 20s, discusses his attraction to children as young as 6 and specifically to an 8-year-old cousin he calls his “little girlfriend,” argues that adult/child sex would not be harmful in a healthier society, and shares photos of the cousin with other chat members. Imagine this material is made public in several blogposts and later becomes the subject of an exposé on a left-wing website such as Salon.com. The activist defends himself by claiming that he was a troubled young man who found refuge in online communities where people vie to outdo each other in provocative and nihilistic humor, and that his discussions of pedophilia were just an act.
Is there any doubt that leftists and progressives in the professional commentariat and on social media would have run with such a story, gleefully put it through the outrage mill, and used it to discredit the “family values” right? Or that the “just kidding” defense would have been roundly rejected as a laughable attempt at self-justification?
As it happens, everything in this hypothetical is real—with a twist. The accused person is not a conservative activist but a left-wing “social justice warrior” who has spent a year crusading against GamerGate, the online movement that is, to a large extent, a backlash against “social justice” politics in the video-game community. The activist, Sarah Nyberg, has been the target of a brutal exposé—or hit piece, according to her defenders—by Milo Yiannopoulos on Breitbart.com. And many Twitter progressives have rallied to Nyberg’s side.
This is not a story I wanted to write about. Attack journalism is not my favorite genre, particularly when it targets minor public figures, causes obvious pain and humiliation to the target, and involves wading into the worst kind of muck. I am also not a great fan of Breitbart, which is pretty much the right-wing equivalent of Salon: a site where some excellent pieces coexist with hyper-partisan sensationalism and red meat for true believers. The reason I’m wading in is that the double standards have been too blatant—and revealing about today’s political culture.
A bit of background. Nyberg (known as @srhbutts on Twitter), a “watchdog” who specializes in tracking and publicizing tweets and posts that show the worst of GamerGate, has relentlessly attacked the movement for alleged links to child pornography. This charge is based on the fact that one of GamerGate’s “hubs” on the Internet has been a massive board known as 8chan, unmoderated and dedicated to virtually untrammeled free speech. Unsurprisingly, 8chan features some repellent content including pedophile forums—in some of which users routinely share images just this side of child porn, such as young children in bathing suits. While actual child pornography and other illegal content is not allowed, there have been claims that 8chan can be slow to remove it when it’s reported to the site’s owner. GamerGaters who use 8chan say they are not responsible for what gets posted on forums they never visit just because they use the same hosting site.
Rumors about Nyberg’s alleged history as a pedophile had been circulating since early this year, after GamerGate supporters revealed Nyberg’s real name and outed her as transgendered. (While these are nasty tactics to be sure, they were a part of mutual warfare in which Nyberg herself was accused of abusive behavior, defended “doxxing”—the exposure of anonymous posters’ personal information—and attacked pro-GamerGate software developer Brad Wardell as a sexual harasser on the basis of past accusations that had been dismissed and retracted.)
Pro-GamerGate blogs began circulating material from chat logs and forum posts in which someone who was alleged to be Nyberg self-identified as a pedophile, complained about society’s unfair bias against pedophiles, and discussed a sexual attraction to an 8-year-old female relative. In March, Nyberg wrote an article for the women’s website Ravishly.com (also reprinted on The Huffington Post) titled “I Set Out to Expose a Hate Movement in Gaming—So They Set Out to Destroy My Life,” in which she refers to those claims as “absurd lies” and “defamation.”
The Breitbart piece, published after weeks of advance buzz on social media, featured screen shots from these chat logs and posts as well as apparent evidence linking them to Nyberg. (Among other things, Yiannopoulos wrote that he had interviewed the parents of the 8-year-old cousin, identified as “Alice” in the article). Some of the chats show Nyberg sharing photos of “Alice” in a swimsuit, as well as links to sexualized photos of young girls from other sites (including one that other chat room users describe as “CP”—child porn—because of partial nudity).
One may take issue with aspects of the article, such as its grab-bag approach to Nyberg’s alleged misdeeds—accusations of online harassment, digital piracy, and tax evasion are all dragged in—and its use of a pre-transition photo of Nyberg as a teenage male, which makes a point of her transgender identity. But none of that changes the facts of Nyberg’s online admissions.
The response from Nyberg’s supporters, including prominent left-wing writer Arthur Chu, cultural critic Tauriq Moosa, feminist academic and author Katherine Cross, and Daily Kos diarist Margaret Pless, was to denounce the accusations as an “ugly smear campaign” and harassment. Pless published a blogpost claiming that the electronic records had most likely been either fabricated or tampered with. (In the same post, she accused GamerGate of having a history of defending child porn; her sole evidence for this was a thread on GamerGate’s Reddit forum, Kotaku in Action, in which posters objected to the methods of some anti-GamerGate activists targeting 8chan.) A link to the post was tweeted by ex-NFL player and progressive Internet activist Chris Kluwe, who also advised GamerGaters to “drink bleach.”
A few days later, Nyberg published her defense, titled “I’m Sarah Nyberg, and I Was a Teenage Edgelord”—Internet slang for people who say deliberately shocking and offensive things to look “edgy.” Nyberg fully admitted the authenticity of the logs and conceded that their content was “gross and disturbing”; but she described those records as “the decade-old account of a troubled young person raised on 4chan and internet edgelord culture trying to out-shock and out-troll the people around her.” (Despite Nyberg’s use of the word “teenage,” she was in her early twenties during the period in question.) She presented her story as a tale of hardship, error and redemption—outgrowing “edgelord culture” and getting out of it.
Ironically, some of the same people who had earlier endorsed the “fabricated evidence” theory turned around and embraced Nyberg’s plea without batting an eye. Kluwe tweeted a link to her article with the comment, “You should read this. It’s pretty important.” Feminist artist Kiva Bay tweeted, “I have to share this and talk about how proud I am of @srhbutts.”
Yet the truth is that an unbiased look at the full record makes Nyberg’s “edgelord” defense hard to sustain. Some of her chat room comments and forum posts are clearly provocative jokes, as Yiannopoulos acknowledges. But others appear to make an entirely serious argument, in a moderate and “reasonable” tone, that it is possible to be an “ethical pedophile,” that the real harm is society’s denial of children’s sexuality, and that there is nothing wrong with political advocacy of pedophilia. (While it is obviously not illegal to express such views, they are generally, and quite rightly, considered grounds for severe opprobrium.) Nyberg’s defense also makes no mention of her sexualized chat room discussions of her underage cousin—easily identifiable from the information she disclosed—or of sharing the cousin’s photos.
I showed the Breitbart article, and Nyberg’s defense, to two female journalist friends who are politically moderate and do not follow GamerGate controversies at all. Both felt that the material disclosed by Breitbart was quite damning and that Nyberg’s explanation was extremely unconvincing. (One said Nyberg came across as “vile and hypocritical.”) Even some people on the anti-GamerGate Neogaf forum who deplored Nyberg’s targeting expressed unease at her digital trail of pedophilia-related postings, and one suggested she had “put anti-GG people in a compromising position by becoming a voice for the movement.”
Meanwhile, it seems clear that some of Nyberg’s supporters would be willing to defend her even if they had to accept that she was not trolling. Before the Breitbart article appeared, sci-fi writer and social justice blogger Phil Sandifer posted a series of tweets arguing that even if the records were authentic and Nyberg was not joking, exposing them was still hateful and “sadistic.” He suggested that Nyberg’s comments should be understood in light of the fact that “lots of trans people have really complex and fraught relationships to childhood” (a comment that comes dangerously close to suggesting that transgender people are likely to behave inappropriately toward children). Sandifer further added that the “modern notion of childhood was invented by the Victorians” and was a mere “fetish.”
Could one feel that, regardless of Nyberg’s conduct, her exposure amounted to cruel mob justice? Sure. But it’s instructive to compare this reaction to the response earlier this year when it was disclosed that Josh Duggar, the eldest child of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar of the “19 Kids and Counting” reality show, had inappropriately touched several of his younger sisters 12 years ago at the age of 15. Virtually no one seemed bothered by the fact that these reports involved leaked confidential police records on a juvenile. Josh Duggar was gleefully labeled a “child molester” and a “kid-diddler” despite the fact that he was himself underage at the time (and received counseling). The Duggars were excoriated for “minimizing” Josh’s abuse of his sisters by stressing that he touched them over clothing while they were asleep and that they weren’t aware of being victimized.
It’s a different situation, to be sure. But it’s hard not to suspect that part of the difference is that Duggar is a straight male conservative Christian advocating for traditional religious values, while Nyberg is a transgendered woman who is a progressive activist.