This is what happens ‘when women refuse’


A screenshot from the viral Tumblr When Women Refuse

Last week’s horrific killing spree in Isla Vista, Calif., launched an international conversation about the casual misogyny that women still face on the daily. But a set of digital activists, most located in New York, decided that #YesAllWomen didn’t go quite far enough.

“Many people participating in these conversations seemed to point to the UCSB shootings as an isolated incident,” they wrote in the introduction to a Tumblr that has since gone very, very viral. “… But the reality for many is that women denying sexual advances to both men they know and don’t know is often fraught with violent results.”

Case in point? Their Tumblr, When Women Refuse, has already collected more than 140 news stories about women who were killed or assaulted after rejecting sexual advances. The blog only launched Monday.

There’s the 15-year-old, shot in the back at a high school event when she refused to leave with a 20-year-old man. Or the Cleveland woman beaten and held at knifepoint by her boyfriend when she told him she didn’t want to have sex.

And the response has been overwhelming thus far, just as it was on the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Deanna Zandt, a digital strategist and founder of the blog, wrote on her personal Web site Tuesday that the blog saw more than 80,000 visitors in its first 24 hours online, and that many of those visitors scrolled through multiple pages. (For those of you who don’t work on the Web: This is the white whale. It never happens.)

That popularity is interesting, in and of itself — as is, obviously, the profoundly important, weighty topic that the blog chronicles. But When Women Refuse is also notable as a case study in viral digital activism — something Zandt, and several of the blog’s other editors, specialize in. Zandt was also behind the Tumblr Planned Parenthood Saved Me, which shared women’s personal stories about PP during the great Komen controversy of 2012. She has a book on social networking for social justice. In other words, when people argue about “hashtag activism” and its effectiveness, Zandt is one of the forces tipping the scales toward “yeah, it works.”

But how does it work? And what good is it doing, really? Zandt wrote Tuesday that a few specific factors helped send When Women Refuse viral: an emotional, social-boundary-crossing news event; the Tumblr’s trove of shocking information; the extent and activity of Zandt’s personal network; and the assistance of women in the “TechLady Mafia,” a group for women who work in tech. Some of those factors have also been at play in other viral social causes, like #BringBackOurGirls. Meanwhile, other worthy social justice issues — like yesterday’s World Hunger Day, quietly promoted through the hashtag #BelowtheLine — never really took off.

And maybe that’s not a big deal, argue the doubters of digital activism. Maybe all the social media conversation amounts to just that — words, or “awareness,” a vague, passive achievement that doesn’t connote much actual change. But Zandt, for one, seems to think that When Women Refuse and similar projects do a whole lot more than that.

“I think it’s been really eye-opening for many people,” she told Think Progress. “… the fact that this conversation is happening now is a huge indicator of the structural connectivity work that online feminists have been doing for years. We’re in a different place than we were five years ago. … We’re creating a space for these discussions.”

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · May 28