Instead, a group of about 200 people gathered a stone’s throw from the Anaheim Convention Center to discuss the challenges women face on the platform. Huddled on the lawn, they shared their frightening encounters with sexual harassment, rape threats, and doxing—the public release of private information, like phone numbers and addresses—and what it’s like facing the constant refrain of “Tits or GTFO” (get the f**k out) that litters most YouTube comment sections.
“I received rape threats just because I was a woman talking about technology,” confided Amanda Aizuss, an 18-year-old vlogger who reviews tech products on her channel, iTalkApple.
An ambitious high school senior with curly, dark hair, Aizuss later told me that she’s received hundreds of comments and messages on YouTube with explicit sexual fantasies and harsh criticism of her appearance. Her experiences, regrettably, are by no means unique.
Franchesca Ramsey, a comedy vlogger best known for her viral video “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls,” has battled the same YouTube stalker for four years now. The trolls contacted her agent, her fiancé, and even Photoshopped her face on porn.
“You become afraid for your own safety,” she told me.
No one knows that chilling reality better than the impromptu panel’s cohost, Laci Green. Last year, the host of Sex+ was driven off the Internet entirely for a month by a relentless wave of harassment, cyberbullying, and criticism. Green spoke of having to move after someone posted her address online. She’s still reluctant to speak about that period for fear of further retaliation, recalling a particularly frightening incident where someone emailed her photos of her apartment building and of herself walking downtown. “As if to say, ‘We found you,’” she said.
YouTube’s guidelines prohibit hate speech of any kind, and reported violations are likely to result in an account being blocked or banned. But there’s nothing preventing a user from creating a new account and restarting the cycle. Among many in the community, there’s a growing sentiment that YouTube is not doing enough to protect its content creators or to curb such unacceptable behavior.
Earlier this month, Julie Mastrine launched a petition for YouTube to ban Simple Pickup, a popular channel that features videos of men crudely harassing women in public places under the thin veil of pickup artistry. It’s received more than 8,000 signatures to date.
Like the panel at VidCon, however, the women of YouTube remain stuck on the outside looking in—defenseless and forced to figure out ways to protect themselves, on- and offline.
YouTube has a serious gender gap.
Consider this: Women currently front just 17 of the top 100 channels on YouTube.
Part of the problem, many content creators feel, is the dependence on appearance for success. On YouTube, beauty gets reduced to a thumbnail, that still frame that’s meant to entice potential viewers to click. It’s small wonder then that some of the most successful women on YouTube—Jenna Marbles, Michelle Phan, Grace Helbig, and Felicia Day, among them—are soft on the eyes, or that the so-called reply girls could dominate the network for years with little more than halter tops and search-engine optimization tricks.
On a completely visual medium, and with unchecked moderation, women are subjected to an unintentional male gaze—and all of the inevitable criticism and sexualized responses that can come with it.
At VidCon, women discussed not wanting to make videos unless their makeup, hair, and clothing were all perfect for fear of trolling commenters. Some participants, mainly larger women and self-identified lesbians, said that they felt uncomfortable making videos in the first place and worried they would be instantly bullied off YouTube.
Aizuss said she’s tired of being “greasy” every time she films after taking a shower. “One guy is so obsessed with my hair, he regularly sends messages telling me how I would be so much prettier if I tried different hairstyles,” she told me. Sometimes his messages teeter on hostile.
The problem extends well beyond mere health, beauty, and sex channels. Karen Kavett, who hosts an insightful channel devoted to typography and graphic design, regularly gets called “ugly” in the comments to her videos and receives unsolicited suggestions for how she can improve her looks.
The harassment is often worse for women who appear to be entering a traditional “male space,” such as tech, gaming, or politics. Green’s trouble first started when she posted videos discussing her transition from Mormonism to atheism. She was just 17 at the time and ill-equipped to deal with the reaction.
“It was really in my face and really, really intense,” Green recalled. “All the comments like ‘tits or GTFO’ or ‘get back in the kitchen,’ delegitimizing my opinion because I’m a woman.
“It was sexism out of a textbook.”
Aizuss had a similar experience with tech vlogging. She noticed that both complimentary and negative comments on her videos mentioned her appearance, and most dismissed her opinion altogether.
“When male tech reviewers complain about hate/negativity, it’s usually because a commenter is hating on the operating system or phone the reviewer is using,” Aizuss said. “I rarely get legitimate critical comments. People ask if I have a boyfriend and why I don’t wear makeup.
“I don’t make videos to get comments about my appearance,” she said. “I make videos to share my opinions and to teach people about Apple products. I wish more comments would acknowledge my content.”
Harassment is not strictly a gender issue on YouTube. Men regularly deal with hurtful comments, trolling, and bouts of cyberbullying. The difference is a matter of severity, Megan Corbett of Wonderly suggested.
“It’s more personal with women,” she said.
“Sadly, against women, people tend to go the really horrible, violent route, and it’s scarier for women. For men it’s like ‘shut up, you’re stupid,’ but for women it’s more real because so many have faced that in real life.”
There are potential solutions to alleviate some of the more troubling issues facing women on YouTube. Ramsey, for example, has suggested that YouTube block offensive users by IP address or limit comments only to subscribers, and the company, as described in the aforementioned petition, could take a stronger stance against gender-based harassment on the site.
“There’s a higher level of nastiness that is really discouraging,” Ramsey added. “So many women email me to say, ‘I really want to start doing videos but I look through your comments and they’re so bad.’”
But it’s become frustratingly clear that, as with the impromptu panel at VidCon, the women of YouTube will have to find a way to improve the situation for themselves.
Green thinks video creators, especially women, can help by adding encouraging comments to one another’s videos and by stepping in when they see someone being harassed. “There is power in putting positivity there,” she said.
Another solution could be a push toward smaller, curated communities within YouTube. The Big Frame network has already found some success in that area with Wonderly, a channel that seeks to create an “inclusive environment that inspires young women by enabling collaboration and interaction between creators and consumers.”
“The young female demographic is one of the largest and most passionate on YouTube,” Sarah Penna told the Daily Dot via email, “so it felt important for us to provide the best content and communities for the most engaged fans.”
But what’s needed more than anything, many feel, is to force YouTube’s hand and break the cycle.
“One of the problems is that women are scared to talk about the harassment and problems they have,” Green said. “I certainly am.”
“People don’t want to talk about their experiences because they don’t want to open themselves up to more harassment, and then people think that it’s not a problem because people aren’t talking about it as much.”
The time’s come to speak up. Or better yet, to vlog.
Additional reporting by Austin Powell | Illustration by Jason Reed