What Men Can Do To End Cyber-Bullying And Jailbait Porn

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Bringing an end to online bullying means understanding that cyber-predators are as much exhibitionists as they are voyeurs, says Hugo Schwyzer.

It’s been a bad month for online bullies. The exposure of Violentacrez, (“the biggest troll on the web”) and the successful hunt for the man who hounded young Amanda Todd to suicide have made it clear that motivated journalists and cyber-Samaritans can, given time, track down even the most determinedly anonymous creeps. Yet even as the naming and shaming of Michael Brutsch and Kody Maxson gives us a small sense of hope that the tide may be turning against the bullies, their downfall raises larger questions about the countless other men who give these famous trolls their power.

Michael Brutsch (Violentacrez) was, until his outing, one of the most valuable moderators on Reddit, famous for having created the “jailbait” section on the site. As Adrian Chen reported for Gawker, “Jailbait was the online equivalent of systematized street harassment. Users posted snapshots of tween and teenage girls, often in bikinis and skirts. Many of these were lifted from their Facebook accounts and thrown in front of Jailbait’s 20,000 horny subscribers.” (That 20,000 figure doesn’t represent anything like the total number of viewers, just those who chose to sign up for updates when new “material” was posted.)

Maxson, if possible, is an even more sinister figure: a 32-year-old Canadian man who blackmailed young Amanda Todd using a topless webcam photo she had created when she was as young as 12. Though Maxson did his worst tormenting out of public view, Vice reports that he regularly bragged on a “jailbait forum” that he was “blackmailing underage girls.”

What Brutsch and Maxson did is appalling. Yet it’s all too easy to focus on a few spectacularly creepy figures, cheering at their public exposure and at the pushback against online bullying that their downfall presumably heralds. The reality is that each man was, to different degrees, supported by a huge community of other men eager to see what Brutsch and Maxson posted next. Their sexual interest in underage girls may have inspired them to hunt down their victims, but their equally compelling interest in being praised by other men is what encouraged them.

In an interview with CNN, the disgraced Brutsch proudly showed off a gold-plated Reddit Alien bobblehead that had been sent to him in thanks for his contributions to the site. Much of his defense centers around the way in which his work with “jailbait” was sustained by the praise of both Reddit administrators and other site users. Watching his conversation with a suitably disgusted Drew Griffin, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Brutsch was more motivated by public attention than by private prurience. What got him off, it seems, was more the “attaboys” of his male fans than the actual creepshots of tweens in their underwear.

When it comes to fighting cyber-bullying and Internet predators, our attention tends to be on two things. We focus on educating children about online safety, and we work (as Adrian Chen and Anonymous did) to hunt down particularly egregious figures such as Brutsch and Maxson. There’s another equally worthwhile action we need to take: challenging the passive complicity of the men for whom Brutsch and Maxson performed and to whom they bragged. 

We need to see that in their own bizarre way, cyber-predators are as much exhibitionists as they are voyeurs. They derive obvious pleasure from violating young girls’ privacy. But as their boasting makes clear, an equally vital turn-on comes when they are recognized for their ability to source and post images that no one else can. It’s “kiss and tell” behavior in which the blackmail of children substitutes for the kissing, but the payoff is the same: other men’s praise.

It’s important to warn teens about the dangers of webcams, and it’s vital to hunt down nasty trolls like Brutsch and sadists like Maxson. We need to acknowledge, however, that this is a strategy that focuses on drying up the “supply” of images and videos that get posted online. The real solution lies in ending adult men’s demand for visual access to the bodies of the underage and the unsuspecting. That’s only quixotic if we believe that most straight men’s sexuality is both naturally predatory and naturally directed toward adolescent girls. 

The currency of “creepshots,” “jailbait,” and blackmail isn’t sex. It’s power—the power to capture the image of a girl who doesn’t know she’s being photographed, or to shame her by endlessly reposting what was meant to be a private image. What drew male fans to Brutsch and Maxson wasn’t just the chance to see pubescent boobs, but to bond over the experience of another human being’s humiliation. Ending the allure of these forums will mean challenging men to make this kind of exploitation fundamentally unacceptable.

My friend Pia Guerrero (founder of Adios, Barbie) often points out that the four most helpful words men can use to fight sexism are “Dude, that’s not cool.” In a world where so many of men’s choices are driven by the desire to please other dudes (the technical term is “homosociality”), the extent to which guys “police” each other is what sets the limits of what is and isn’t acceptable. It’s not enough for guys to be (justifiably) contemptuous of the Michael Brutschs of the world. They need to make it equally unacceptable to be even a casual member of an Internet forum that focuses on “jailbait” images. 

This isn’t about bullying the bullies. This is about destroying the reward system that feeds them. A terrific example of just how to do that comes in the Drew Griffin interview with Brutsch. Mary Elizabeth Williams described the moment for Salon:

“At one point in the conversation, Griffin faced Brutsch and said of his behavior, ‘I’m a father. Of a daughter. I would be very mad at you.’ Brutsch’s face at that moment was priceless, briefly flickering with the understanding that those drooled over girls in their underwear he posted all over Reddit are somebody’s daughters. Then the light went off again.”

I’ve watched that section of the interview several times, and though I think Williams’ piece is superb, I think she misses the key reason why Brutsch blanches. It isn’t that he suddenly recognizes the precious humanity of either young girls or their fathers. It’s that he’s reacting to the hostile disapproval of another man. Until this moment in the interview, you can hear Brutsch’s braggadocio; when he gets the unmistakable “Dude, that’s not cool” message, he’s—at least briefly—rattled.  

Men don’t need to couch their disapproval in the language of protective fathers, as Drew Griffin did. They don’t need to be fathers or brothers or uncles to teen girls to call out the men and boys who take such delight in chasing down jailbait images. All they need is a clear sense that creeping on 15-year-olds in their panties is indefensible. Sexual desire is shaped by more than biology; it’s stirred and directed by culture. If we want to make a safer world for our daughters, we have to ask grown men to create a culture where their exploitation is never rewarded.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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