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June 21, 2013 / missmarymax

Terms of Subservience: On Kickstarter & Crowd-Funded Rape Culture

Content warning for discussion of rape culture.


Y’all, I love crowdfunding. This should come as no shock. I’ve seen crowdfunding secure medical treatment for at-risk patients, create the first non-medical transgender studies journal, and publish a gender-neutral picture book explaining reproduction. The fangirl in me, who signed countless petitions to see Promised Land and Joan of Arcadia returned to the airwaves,* is in awe of a media landscape in which fans can secure a new season of a beloved television show 7 years after its cancellation. In which, come hell or highwater, Veronica Mars will return to Neptune to solve another crime.

Of course, any tool – including the tools of the Web – can be used for the bland as well as the brilliant. We’re getting a Garden State sequel we may not have needed. Countless valuable projects are going unfunded, lost among the pitches for Melissa Joan Hart rom-coms.  The Web is not a place where the fittest project necessarily survives. It is certainly not a place where justice conveniently rises to the top.

It can, in point of fact, be a place where downright damaging projects find their base. This is what we’ve seen the past several days, as a Kickstarter campaign funding a “seduction manual” (widely decried as a guide to sexual assault**) has sparked international backlash.

To be clear, it’s not surprising to me that this campaign was created. There’s a shocking lack of education about the realities of rape, outside of the “stranger danger” narrative. There’s a serious ignorance of the ways rape culture intersects with (and distorts) our ideas of masculinity, of romance, and of sex. It’s also not surprising that this campaign was funded; there are plenty of people out there desperate to connect with each other. (And rightfully so, — connection is awesome).  There are plenty of people who are oblivious to the critical uselessness of such generalized relational “tips” and uneducated about the hazards of these tips, specifically. So, it’s not surprising. But it is disheartening. And it’s similarly disheartening that, when notified of the campaign by more than 60,000 users, fans, and concerned citizens of the Web, Kickstarter refused to pull funding for the book.

This morning, material that a project creator posted on Reddit earlier this year was brought to our and the public’s attention just hours before the project’s deadline. Some of this material is abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as people and as an organization. Based on our current guidelines, however, the material on Reddit did not warrant the irreversible action of canceling the project.

As stewards of Kickstarter we sometimes have to make difficult decisions. We followed the discussion around the web today very closely. It led to a lot of internal discussion and will lead to a further review of our policies.

So, while the company finds the campaign “abhorrent” they do not believe it in violation of their terms of service and, therefore, will let it stand. This is an increasingly standard defense among sites that host content they do not create. It’s the reason Pinterest and Facebook and Instagram cite, to explain why they ban images of breastfeeding, while allowing slut-shaming posts. It’s the constitution of the website; any violation, so long as it can be said not to violate this sacred contract, can stand. Never mind those precious ethics.

Except, of course, that we do mind.

It’s hard to look at the response (or non-response) from Kickstarter in terms of this campaign without remembering the pressures placed on Facebook, mere weeks ago, to rethink their terms of service for similar reasons.  Last month, Women, Action, and the Media spearheaded a campaign sending over 60,000 tweets and 5,000 emails, urging Facebook to prohibit gender-based hate speech in its terms of service and to enforce its existing and revised TOS with regard for women as a targeted group.  After decades of Internet culture ruled by Lewis’ Law (the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism)***  — this specific brand of vitriol and violence has become a social justice hot topic, with organizations and activists banding together – more successfully than ever before – to see policies changed.

Change – for the better, for the worse, and for the simply different – is a constant output on the Web. I’m fascinated by the ways Web tools, including social networking and crowdfunding sites, are reshaping our interactions, online and off.  It’s my fascination and my excitement about those tools, about their accomplishments and their potential, which compels me to press for us to ask the necessary questions and take the necessary steps to ensure those changes are just. That the spaces we create and revise, online and off, are not mere reiterations of the same old privilege and harm.

In order to do this, we need terms of service that protect the common good, not terms that promote harm against targeted groups. If a site’s terms of service can be read to prohibit hate-based and sexually violent material – what will it take to have those terms consistently interpreted to protect against these practices?  If the terms don’t include these offenses, what will it take to have them revised?

Who must be involved in creating – and revising – the constitutions of the web, before we begin to see a sea change?

At the most basic level- how many survivors does it take to change a standard?

*We all have skeletons.

** If you have the spoons to stomach some excerpts, you’re welcome to see for yourself.

***Thanks, Melissa, for teaching me this last night.

UPDATE:  Since the publication of this post, Kickstarter has released a second statement. They’ve updated their policies to ban “seduction guides” and similar materials and they have donated $25,000 to RAINN, an organization they believe  “combats exactly the sort of problems our inaction may have encouraged.” You can read the full statement here.  (Many thanks to John O’Dwyer for the heads-up on this.)


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