Sexual predators on Twitch: We all knew

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We have to talk about Twitch. Specifically, we have to talk about the problem of predators on Twitch.

Over the weekend, several people came forward on Twitter to describe incidents of harassment, assault, and coercion by Twitch streamers, YouTubers, eSports players, and other people in the gaming industry. The floodgates appear to have been opened by several women in the Destiny community describing the threatening and creepy behavior they’d experienced at the hands of one streamer. Within a day, several others came forward with stories of other streamers who’d done the same or worse. More and more reports are coming in even as I write this.

The stories range from uncomfortable (open propositions with promises or implied threats regarding their future on the platform) to downright horrific (rape and the grooming of children). If you want to read an account of these — and I have to give the mother of all trigger warnings — @JessyQuil on Twitter has compiled a list of all the stories, along with corroborations from others and the accused’s response if there is any: 

I recognized several names on the list of those outed. One was a YouTuber I used to watch almost daily. One was a Twitch streamer I considered a friend. Both have since owned up to the allegations, which include repulsive interactions with fans they knew to be underage. I know even more people on the list by reputation or because they’re friends of friends.

I have spent almost every day of the last few years of my life on Twitch. I met my fiance through a group of Twitch streamers. I still count several people on the platform as my dearest friends. The lingo and behavior of the communities I’m part of are as familiar to me as the sea is to a sailor. And I want to make something clear with regards to the pervasive, predatory behavior of so many streamers:

We all knew this was happening. We all knew.

Everybody fucking knew

When the news about Harvey Weinstein broke back in 2017, just about everyone rushed to cut ties with the man. Some of the most well-known figures in the entertainment industry suddenly came forward with their own horrible Weinstein experience. And for those lucky enough not to have been harassed, assaulted, or raped by him, the reply was often: “I didn’t know.”

Then Scott Rosenberg, a former Miramax buddy of the Weinsteins, published an absolutely scathing invective, simultaneously admitting culpability and calling out hypocrisy with one short thesis: “Everybody-fucking-knew.”

In essence, Rosenberg takes away the denial defense by making it clear that every single person in the industry was aware, at least on some level, of what Harvey Weinstein was doing, himself included. That one statement — everybody fucking knew — made the most sense because it answered the question of how Weinstein could have got away with his behavior for as long as he did. Everybody knew what he was doing, but everyone willfully ignored or abetted it because they enjoyed the fruits of something Weinstein did.

Let me now co-opt Rosenberg’s statement. When it comes to Twitch, and the fact that several of its streamers are predatory, manipulative, and creepy, I say no one should feign surprise. Because we all knew.

Everyone on Twitch has a variation on the same story: a streamer (often male, but not always) who seems to pay special attention to the younger women in their chats and Discord servers. A YouTuber who brags about their conquests just a little too loudly and crudely in mixed company. Someone who says vaguely uncomfortable things, or whose hands wander a bit too much. We’ve seen what they say in Twitch chat. We’ve seen what they do at conventions. Every single one of us has a story.

We all knew these people existed. We all knew what they were doing. We all knew the prevailing attitude among Twitch communities was dangerously permissive of such things. If you haven’t, then either you’ve only spent time in walled gardens guarded with near-religious zealotry, or you are that person.

Because we all knew.

As with Rosenberg, I’m sure there will be many who willfully misinterpret this as me saying those who knew a bit knew everything, or that they’re in some way culpable. That’s not what I’m saying – I don’t think we all knew YouTubers were sexually grooming children. I don’t think we all knew Twitch streamers were using their audiences as cudgels to bully women into submitting to their advances. I don’t think you knew. But come on. You knew.

And how do I know that? Because I knew.

Yeah, I knew too

The former friend mentioned above? This wasn’t the first time he was accused of manipulative or sexually coercive behavior. A few years earlier, when revelations surfaced, he personally assured me that the text messages he exchanged with the woman and the images he extracted from her were a misunderstanding. This was a person who comforted me after the death of my mother, and I foolishly thought that act was a reflection of his true character.

The fact that one kind gesture was enough to get me to compromise my own principles is something I’m going to have to square with on my own time. I cannot apologize enough for being one of the people who did nothing, for not cutting ties then as I have now. I didn’t know this person was engaging in his inappropriate behavior with minors, but I knew the way he behaved wasn’t right.

He wasn’t the only one. I’ll never forget one instance when I fled a channel’s chat room because one popular member of it threatened to rape me (or, as I’m sure he remembers it, “offered to bend me over a table and have his way with me”), and what he said was met with little more than “tsk tsks” from both the streamer and others in chat. I’ve been the recipient of more pet names and unwanted compliments, jeers, and catcalls on Twitch than I ever have in my real life. And, were I not bound by discretion, I could tell the stories of all my friends who’ve experienced this and more.

Judging by what some of the people involved have said, even Twitch itself was aware of this. After Twitch posted a statement about how it was “actively looking into accounts concerning streamers,” whatever that means, several came forward to point out that they reported their abusers to Twitch, only to be met with silence. One streamer reported that CEO Emmett Shear refused to entertain the notion when staff members raised it to him, passing it over with no comment. Shear has since spoken about the issue on Twitter, saying that it was never his intent to dismiss the issue and that “I do care, deeply.”

We know, so now what?

Twitch and YouTube “work” because their stars feel so accessible. You feel that you’re close with them, that they’re not strangers. This is such a danger for the young and vulnerable on the platform, the children we all know haunt these chats and these comment sections. The unfettered access this gives content creators to malleable, easily manipulated minds is nothing short of alarming, and we should not be so accepting of it as a trade-off for having streams or videos.

In several of these cases, the accused have come back with a line about how they weren’t aware that their advances were unwelcome. They didn’t hear “no.” If you’ve said that in your own defense or in someone else’s, this is not the strong argument you might think it is. That was my former friend’s defense, that the woman he harassed and manipulated never told him she was uncomfortable. Unfortunately, that is the exact inverse of consent, and a toxic way to approach social interaction. You should not approach other people thinking you’re good to behave the way you wish until you hear “no” — you’re supposed to withhold until you hear “yes.”

Another common defense is that the behavior of the accused, while gross, isn’t illegal. And buddy, if that’s your bar to clear when it comes to acceptable actions… that’s practically subterranean. Still others have attempted to blame the victims of sexual assault and rape by asking why they’re talking about it on Twitter rather than reporting it to the police, a shoutdown tactic so common it’s becoming a painful cliche. 

I could respond with a list of reasons emotional and logical why a victim might not go to the police, but no one who asks that really cares to hear the response — it’s a desperate attempt to rid both oneself and one’s idol of responsibility, to assure oneself that the accusation can’t possibly hold water because, if it did, the accuser would have gone to the police.

If you’ve tried to defend the streamers and content creators who’ve been accused, I urge you instead to turn those energies inward and ask yourself what else you’ve seen that fits this pattern of behavior. How many times have you shouted down complaints on their behalf, or willfully ignored bad behavior, simply because you think of these entertainers as your friends?

It’s on us to fix this. We have to take out the trash. We knew it was there and too many of us did nothing.

We all knew.

Celebrate Pride 2020 with us this month!

Why is queer representation so important? What’s it like being trans in tech? How do I participate virtually? You can find all our Pride 2020 coverage here.

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