Social Media Attacks on Women: Rape Culture at Penn State and Kappa Delta Rho

Picture of a sign at the Window of Opportunity rally that says "End Rape Culture."

The theme of the Window of Opportunity Rally and March. This informal coalition was created last week as a “window of opportunity” to impact town and gown policies and programs to reduce/eliminate sexual assault, stalking, and harassment in our community.

A little over two weeks ago, Penn State University’s Kappa Delta Rho fraternity was suspended by the national fraternity’s office and by the university after it was announced that the State College police were investigating the fraternity for possible criminal activity related to hazing, drug use, and the sexual exploitation of college women though the use of a private Facebook page.

The town and gown are now in an uproar.  Once again, the university is in the national spotlight for another instance of sexual misconduct.  This time via the use of social media.

So far two rallies have been held protesting the rape culture that pervades this town and campus.  One of the rallies was held yesterday. It included a speakout and then a march from the entrance gates of the University Park campus to Fraternity Row where the Kappa Delta Rho House is located.

I was the first speaker at the rally.  The following is the written version of my speech. Thank you to Michele Hamilton, NOW Mid-Atlantic Region Board Member, Vice President of Pennsylvania NOW, and President of Ni-Ta-Nee NOW and Marian Bradley, NOW Northwest Regional Director and Past President of Montana NOW for their assistance in putting these ideas together.

Once again, PSU has garnered a national demerit in the public’s view due to allegedly inappropriate sexual misbehavior.

We’re concerned that this mistreatment of women continues to happen in the PSU community.

These actions by KDR have resulted in the appropriate suspension of the fraternity. It also resulted in both police and campus declarations to further investigate what and how this happened. We applaud the University and the national office of KDR for taking these actions. We also applaud the State College police for their pro-active investigation.

We also believe that these types of sexist activities need to be reviewed within the greater milieu of the Penn State environment. This review needs to determine what additional policies and protocols should be implemented to prevent such future acts by members of the community and to hold perpetrators accountable for their misogynistic actions.

The PSU President’s Task Force on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment was charged by President Barron to “[combat] sexual misconduct and to [engage] all employees and students in a direct call to action.”   We call on PSU to add this social media bullying type of assaults to this review.

In addition to calling upon PSU to review their policies, we are also asking the public here and across the country to view these actions within the larger scope of online harassment of women. Here’s what we are talking about.

Gamergate. Doxing. Revenge Pornography. Swatting. Posting of pictures of hazing and of nude and unconscious women without their consent. Threats of rape and death via social media. These are all forms of cyber bullying that we have recently heard about across the country. And most of the victims have been women.

In light of these social media attacks, Pennsylvania NOW and Ni-Ta-Nee NOW ( the local NOW chapter) have signed on as organizational supporters of Representative Katherine Clark’s (D-MA) “Dear Colleague” letter sent to her Congressional colleagues in an effort to highlight concerns about gender violence on all forms of social media. This letter, through Congress’ oversight and review process, urges the US Department of Justice to “intensify their efforts to combat cyber stalking, harassment, and threats.”

After the speak-out, we marched to the Kappa Delta Rho House about 12 blocks away.  During the march several reporters came up to me for additional comments.  One of the reporters – Hannah Sarisohn for the PSU Daily Collegian asked me about the Task Force appointed by President Barron that I mentioned in my speech.

During our conversation, she asked me what I thought of the make-up of the student portion of the oversight committee. She told me that the only two student representatives are a sorority sister and a fraternity brother.  No other part of the student community is represented on this task force.  I said, “that’s not right. That’s not enough.”  She then used part of what I said in the article she wrote:

Joanne Tosti-Vasey, resident of Bellefonte and regional director for the Mid-Atlantic region of the National Organization for Women, said while the task force is a good step, more than fraternity life needs to be looked in to.

“We have students not in greek life who need representation. [Undergraduate students, graduate students, students of color,] LGBTA students and students with disabilities, everyone needs representation,” Tosti-Vasey said. “The task force needs to include people from all of these backgrounds.”

Finally, here are some of the pictures I took at the Rally and March:

Signs at that protest rally that say "Kick down rape culture" and "This is not satire."

The protest started and ended at the entrance gates to the Penn State University. About 50 people participated. These are a few of the signs seen at the rally.

picture of more protesters and signage at the Window of Opportunity Speak Out and March

More protesters and signage at the Window of Opportunity Speak Out and March

Picture of a toddler and her mother carrying a sign that says, "I want to grow up in a town what I know I am safe."

The youngest protester (three years old) at the rally carried her own sign on the shoulders of her mother. Here she is with her mother Gina Thompson of Bellefonte, PA who is speaking to one of the reporters that covered the event.

Picture of protesters shouting "Shame on You" in front of the Kappa Delta Rho House in State College, PA

After the speak-out, most of the protesters marched about 12 blocks to Fraternity Row to bring our protest to the front door of Kappa Delta Rho, the fraternity whose members created the online Facebook page that is now under investigation for potential criminal activities. Afterward we marched back to the Gates at PSU to wrap up the rally.

Good Start on Facebook Guidelines, But More is Needed

This morning, the Huffington Post posted an article about yesterday’s statement from Facebook.  Facebook has agreed to take the following steps to reduce online violence against women and children on their pages:

  • We will complete our review and update the guidelines that our User Operations team uses to evaluate reports of violations of our Community Standards around hate speech.  To ensure that these guidelines reflect best practices, we will solicit feedback from legal experts and others, including representatives of the women’s coalition and other groups that have historically faced discrimination.
  • We will update the training for the teams that review and evaluate reports of hateful speech or harmful content on Facebook. To ensure that our training is robust, we will work with legal experts and others, including members of the women’s coalition to identify resources or highlight areas of particular concern for inclusion in the training. 
  • We will increase the accountability of the creators of content that does not qualify as actionable hate speech but is cruel or insensitive by insisting that the authors stand behind the content they create.  A few months ago we began testing a new requirement that the creator of any content containing cruel and insensitive humor include his or her authentic identity for the content to remain on Facebook.  As a result, if an individual decides to publicly share cruel and insensitive content, users can hold the author accountable and directly object to the content. We will continue to develop this policy based on the results so far, which indicate that it is helping create a better environment for Facebook users.
  • We will establish more formal and direct lines of communications with representatives of groups working in this area, including women’s groups, to assure expedited treatment of content they believe violate our standards. We have invited representatives of the women Everyday Sexism to join the less formal communication channels Facebook has previously established with other groups.
  • We will encourage the Anti-Defamation League’s Anti-Cyberhate working group and other international working groups that we currently work with on these issues to include representatives of the women’s coalition to identify how to balance considerations of free expression, to undertake research on the effect of online hate speech on the online experiences of members of groups that have historically faced discrimination in society, and to evaluate progress on our collective objectives.

What I don’t see in this Facebook statement is an agreement to be more transparent in their monitoring process. I would like to see them report how many and what types of pages/ads that they have monitored, shut down, and/or contacted for possible violation of their regulations.  In addition, in their efforts to “balance the consideration of free expressions,” I believe they need to provide to the public upon request reasons they allow or disallow a particular ad or page that allegedly violates the new anti-rape policy from remaining online.
There were several petition sites where you could raise your voice to call on Facebook to follow through on this statement to end their misogynistic rape ads that they have called “humor.”  The one that gathered the most signatures was called Demand Facebook Remove Pages That Promote Sexual Violence.  It is now closed.  This petition collected signatures that were sent to Facebook. It successfully called upon Facebook to do several things (others are listed on the petition page itself), including

  1. Make a public statement that rape is never acceptable; that promoting sexual violence and violence against women is repugnant; remove content that advocates rape, sexual violence, and violence against women; and that the terms of service/community standards will be updated to specify this.
  2. Be transparent about the content monitoring process; to state publicly if and how many pages are removed that promotes sexual violence or violence against women.  (Note, this was not part of Facebook’s recent statement, but I believe should be part of their new policy).

Since the second issue of transparency was not covered in Facebook’s statement, I would suggest we continue making comments to Facebook about the need for more transparency.  There is another petition on Change.org. It is still open and allows you space to comment on this issue.  In that comment box, you can make your suggestion for more transparency as they craft this new policy.  Here’s what I wrote to them in that comment box:

Thank you for issuing your statement to review and update your policy on any type of hate speech that allegedly condones or promotes violence against women including domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault (whether it is in ads or on pages).  And thank you for agreeing to “establish more formal and direct lines of communications with representatives of groups working in this area [of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking], including women’s groups, to assure expedited treatment of content they believe violate [your new] standards.”
However what I don’t see you your agreement is a willingness to be more transparent about this issue to the public.  I am therefore asking that your efforts to “balance the consideration of free expressions,” that you to provide to the public upon request reasons why you either allow or disallow a particular ad or page that allegedly violates your new anti-violence policy from remaining online.

Nel's New Day

MySpace was a popular social network several years ago, but it was quickly taken over by Facebook and pretty much disappeared. Now, the most popular social network is showing very bad judgment.

Last week, protesters boycotted Facebook advertising because the network permitted images of domestic violence against women at the same time that it banned ads about women’s health. Companies that pulled their advertising include online bank Nationwide UK, Nissan UK, and J Street. Dove, a Unilever brand running a “self-esteem” ad campaign for women, faces pressure on Twitter although Procter & Gamble responded, “We can’t control what content they [our advertising] pops up next to. Obviously it’s a shame that our ad happened to pop up next to it.”

Zappos replied that users upset by an ad appearing next to a date rape image “click the X to delete the ad.” Zipcar is still advertising but “expressed to Facebook…

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