“When I first started online, it was so unbelievably vile,” says YouTuber Laci Green over a late-June brunch of chicken sausage scrambles in her Berkeley, California, neighborhood. “I couldn’t believe the stuff people sent me. There was a point where it got so creepy I had to move apartments. People were taking pictures of me without my knowledge, and just sending it to me online and being creepy. There’s been a lot of bullshit online, but these days I just don’t give a shit. I honestly don’t give a shit. I don’t care. Like, I’m ready to die.”
Green is perched across from me at Venus, a California seasonal eatery, in a white lace top and black stretch pants. Her bangs frame her boxy glasses. She talks with such stark conviction that it’s easy to find yourself nodding along, ready to walk out the door and start a nonprofit that very day. It’s that charisma that makes Green such an effective voice online, calling out hypocrisy and bringing controversial topics to her audience with little hesitation, even if she’s under attack every time she posts something. Over the last few years, she’s become one of the most prominent women on YouTube and a leader in the larger sex-positive movement.
Breeze through Green’s most recent videos, and you’ll quickly see the barrage of trolls she deals with on a daily basis. “If a nightmare of mine ever came to life to haunt my existence, it would be this horrible bitch,” one commenter wrote on a recent video. Others toss around terms like “feminazi cunt” and drop sexist non sequiturs like, “Damn she has huge tits.”
“That’s really what brought me on YouTube: a pursuit of justice.”
In 2012, she received death threats accompanied by images of her home—in response to an older video in which she used the word “tranny.” Green deleted the video, apologized, and called herself “18 and ignorant” at the time of its filming. The backlash made her take a step back from social media and had other prominent YouTubers like John Green (no relation) up in arms over how women are treated and threatened on the platform.
The experience of women online hasn’t changed much since then. Simply existing as a woman on the internet in the past year has led to threats of violence and death. Gamergate garnered national attention for threats against women like Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian who dared talk about sexism. But Green and her contemporaries have not backed down in their pursuit of a more women-friendly web.
Of course, Green’s “ready to die” stance is hyperbole, punctuated with pointed laughter. The 26-year-old doesn’t plan to go anywhere anytime soon; if anything, she’s just getting started. But as a highly visible feministand sex-positive vlogger on perhaps the worst platform for women—at least in terms of threats, violence, and all-around misogyny—Green has learned how to roll with the punches.
Green didn’t originally intend to be one of the faces of feminism. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, she was raised Mormon, and she spent most of her childhood in Portland, Oregon, before her family moved to Sacramento, California. There, she finally began questioning the religious doctrines she’d been raised to believe but had no outlet to discuss or explore her feelings.
“I went online and started making videos about my gripes” at age 18, she recalls. “My first channel was very teen angst. There was a bit of rabble-rousing, and I was talking about things that really affected me, like sexism and homophobia in the church. I was coming into myself intellectually and realizing how many things did not add up. I was feeling so frustrated, feeling like I was on another planet. Some of the stuff was so mind-blowing to me. How do you justify this? I was extremely angry about it.”
Green first ran with the disaffected atheist crowd on YouTube, on the channel gogreen18. It’s since been purged but for one video, “Why Atheists Care About YOUR Religion,” a monologue underscored with dramatic music outlining her views. Through her vlogging there, she found a community, albeit a fleeting one.
“Now that community largely happens to be an MRA [men’s rights activists] community,” she said. “Funny how that works out. In the atheist community online, there’s a lot of really smart people there, for sure, but a lot of them ended up going into the weird MRA land.”
Within a year she’d moved to her namesake channel, LaciGreen, reflecting her shift from a frustrated ex-Mormon to a more generally frustrated American woman—in short, a feminist. “That’s really what brought me on YouTube: a pursuit of justice,” she says. “At the time, my context was religious, but then it became broader, realizing, ‘Oh shit, religion is not the only place you’re going to find vile misogyny.’ You’re going to find it everywhere.”
She filmed at her parents’ house, and while they were aware of her content, they didn’t approve and were “kind of hostile” about her work.
“We fought about it all the time,” she says. “There was this moment when I was featured by YouTube, and it got a million views in a couple days. Then my family paid attention. That was kind of a turning point.”
“I know it’s weird, because I’m a YouTuber, but I don’t particularly like being on camera.”
With the increased attention, her extended family’s approach to her YouTube channel is to “pretend it’s not there.”
“My parents just kind of turned a blind eye to it,” she says. “There’s a tacit disapproval.”
It’s not hard to understand why, given that the Mormons preached abstinence until marriage. She was raised to believe that while boys were off on missions, she should be waiting for her greater purpose of motherhood and wifedom. By contrast, her most-viewed videos are “Dirty Vag!nas”—a myth-busting guide to feminine hygiene—and “Laci’s Guide to BUTT SEX”—which is exactly what it sounds like.
Her videos are frank and bubbly, edited in the jump-cut style defining the vlogger set. She’s the older sister you wish you had, cutting out all the small talk and getting down to the real deal. In the same way that YouTube is increasingly being used to complement lessons in the classroom, Green’s videos fill a void in sex education for the teens who need it most. Now more than 1.5 million subscribers follow her discussions on topics like consent, relationships, and dress codes.
“I’d really like to speak at high schools, but in most states it would not be easy,” she says, noting that most states require if you talk about sex you must mention you can be harmed from it. “You have to not only emphasize abstinence, but also the dangers of sex. That’s very fear-based, and that’s not what I am about.”
Green’s growing audience has put her in the spotlight, and it’s not always a comfortable position. It’s made her feel responsible, as when her open letter to Sam Pepper—the YouTuber who touched women without their consentin the name of “pranks” and subsequently faced allegations of sexual misconduct by fellow YouTubers—rallied the YouTube community to call out abuse and impropriety. Green says during that time, as people informed her about Pepper’s conduct, she was mid-tour and trying to help do research for each woman to figure out the best course of action.
“It’s a mess, but I am happy to be that person,” she says. “It’s just very stressful.”
Green spent years working as a crisis counselor for a state-funded legal clinic for domestic and sexual violence victims in Oakland, California. But when faced with a different kind of crisis, she felt like she wasn’t sure exactly how to help everyone who needed her. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how to help you; I don’t know what our police force is like,’” she recalls. “I felt like a helpless vessel, where you could deposit all of your troubles and fucked-up stuff, but I don’t know what to do.”
Pepper’s wasn’t the only incident of sexual misconduct to rock the YouTube community in 2014 and 2015. YouTube musician Tom Milsom sexually coerced a 15-year-old fan when he was 22; his former bandmate Alex Day allegedly sexually assaulted women, including his ex-girlfriend. As the list of alleged abusers grew, Green never shied away from lending an ear, speaking out, and helping creators and fans alike figure out how to cope.
In the aftermath, Green thinks there’s been an increase in feminist rhetoric and support, but she doesn’t think the culture has radically changed, at least not yet. “I think we have a lot more male allies on board, and that helps because, unfortunately, we are in a sexist culture that tells us that women are shrill and freak out about nothing, and hearing it from a guy is more validating for a lot of those people,” she said. “Fucked up, but that is the truth.”
But, she says, the YouTube community’s focus on feminism and sex positivity is part of a greater cultural shift, of which Green is happy to be even a small part.
“I think 2014 was the year of the reemergence of online feminism,” she said. In years past, luminaries of the digital teenscape had skirted the issue, but Taylor Swift embraced the term in a 2014 Guardian interview. Beyoncé stood in front of the word midway through her 2014 VMA performance, causing a flurry of viral images and general swooning. While 82 percent of Americans still don’t consider themselves feminists, more than a third do say they believe in “social, political, legal, and economic equality of the sexes” and “equality for women,” according to a Vox poll.
Thanks to people like Green, the online millennial set can easily find a world of digital influencers waiting to help them learn more. “[Feminism] really started to take over the Internet,” she says. “There’s been a huge online shift, and that’s been the result of a lot of different people being fearless about it. I do think my audience has helped to accelerate that conversation.”
Green’s prominence brought her directly to a larger audience. In 2014, Green launched Braless, an MTV (other) production that uses pop culture as an entryway to explaining feminism for the tween and millennial set. Now in its fourth season, it’s not so different from what Green had been achieving on her own channel, but it boasts the cachet and reach of MTV’s already established brand.
When she’s not in front of the camera, Green still commands audiences at colleges and universities as a speaker, helping to change how people think about sex and sexuality. She does the same thing as a consultant for health organizations within corporations. For Green, these activities are about changing the culture and pushing for “substantive, across-the-board change” that pushes feminist initiatives in business and in education. In some ways, she’s more comfortable in that realm her work.
“I know it’s weird, because I’m a YouTuber, but I don’t particularly like being on camera,” she says. “I’m down to do it to start the conversation and stuff, but I don’t know; I like behind-the-scenes stuff more. In the past year or so, I’ve made fewer videos. I feel less stressed out by the work I do offline.”
“I felt like a helpless vessel, where you could deposit all of your troubles and fucked-up stuff, but I don’t know what to do.”
Outside of her professional life, Green is a hiker and a self-described “foodie,” even if she hates the term. But there’s very little time to relax, as she’s interested in finding more avenues to affect change, be it via academia or by publishing a book. For now, she feels like working on the issues in a real and intimate way is more effective than earning another degree.
It’s all part of a larger, ongoing fight for social progress. And as for the haters?
She laughs. “I see it as like, ‘Well, I must be doing something right, because you’re pissed off.’”
A version of this story originally appeared in the July 19, 2015 issue of the Kernel.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai