On the 30th of June 2020, I deleted my Reddit account. In the box that asked for my reason for doing so, I typed ‘because Reddit hates women.’
I’d been a prolific user of the site, spending a good few hours a day on Reddit for over a year. As one of the moderators of r/GenderCritical, which was then the most active feminist community on Reddit, my morning routine involved working my way through a ‘modqueue’ of content to be approved or deleted. The usual fare of moderating a forum – keeping arguments in check, monitoring language, removing off-topic comments and posts – was a comparatively small part of the work at r/GenderCritical. The main work was dealing with harassment from trans-rights activists. This involved deluging us with puerile memes and threats. We complained to the Reddit Admins, but they never did anything helpful.
In fact, they ignored r/GenderCritical almost entirely - right up to the point when they banned us without warning or justification. The ban took us entirely by surprise: we had kept to Reddit’s rules scrupulously, at great personal effort, and the site was swimming in misogynistic, hateful, pornographic, and abusive content – particularly featuring women as targets - which was left untouched. There was no basis to ban us, so we had no reason to expect it. But we had been naive to believe that Reddit would abide by its own standards.
Now, I realise we were naive to believe that Reddit had any standards at all. Certainly, it has no safeguarding principles, despite being a site that accepts teenagers from the age of 13 as users. Underneath the fan communities, jokes, gossip and support groups, there is a dark underbelly: the potential for grooming. Some of it is blatant. r/TrueLesbians, a community for female lesbians (as if there were any other kind) was banned alongside r/GenderCritical. This meant that there was no longer a place on Reddit where a young lesbian can be affirmed in her exclusive attraction to the female body. Instead, in other LGBT communities, she would be likely to be told to ‘cope’ with her ‘genital hangups’ (as a certain philosopher-cyclist might phrase it) and accept trans-identifying males as sexual partners. That is no more or less than grooming.
Most readers of this newsletter will be aware of Aimee Challenor’s rise and fall within Reddit’s ecosystem, and his squalid history prior to that. When an article surfaced on r/UKPolitics that offhandedly mentioned him, a spree of banning users and deleting comments and posts relating to his past ensued. Normally, Reddit users pay little attention to the men behind the curtain, but these slash-and-burn tactics were impossible to ignore. Redditors rebelled; Challenor’s history became the top story on that day’s Reddit, Streisanding its way across every subreddit.
The largest communities on the platform, such as r/Music with over 27 million subscribers, went private in protest at Challenor’s continuing role at the site. This risked a massive loss in advertising revenue to the platform. In response, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman issued a mealy-mouthed apology and, eventually, removed Challenor from his post.
This was a staggering failing of safeguarding on Reddit’s part. As Gavin Haynes wrote in Unherd:
Either the company knew who Challenor was, but didn’t wish to disbar an individual with such heavily protected characteristics. Or, an org whose data systems are so sophisticated they can delete hundreds of user accounts in real time on the basis of two words, can’t use Google.
It also revealed the extent of power that Challenor and others like him wield in cyberspace. Looking through the hundreds of communities that supported the removal of Challenor, it’s notable that those you would think have the greatest motivation and commitment to protect vulnerable young people - LGBT communities – seemed least likely to join in the protest. Even pornography and fetish communities closed shop to protest Challenor's appointment. Meanwhile, the massive community r/LGBT remained open, along with the majority of other LGBT-focussed communities on Reddit. At that point, Challenor’s partner ‘Nekosune’ (Katrina Swales), another trans-identifying male, moderated dozens of communities, including many of the larger LGBT communities. Both Challenor and Swales are in a relationship with a paedophile, Nathaniel Knight.
Anna Slatz has found further evidence suggesting that a moderator of r/LesbianGaming was banning any criticism of his collection of sexual illustrations of underage characters, with none of the others stepping in to take action. She also shared screenshots of one of the moderators of r/ActualLesbians telling a minor ‘if you want me to jab you with a needle and load you up with two weeks of SUPER GIRL JUICE then come on over.’
The rot runs deeper than Challenor’s circle. Erin Perse argues that the banning of r/GenderCritical neutralised the power of a collective which would have been in a strong position to monitor and expose potential predators on Reddit. Certainly, many of the same communities that sat out the protests against Challenor - and Challenor himself - were active in the campaign to remove r/GenderCritical for ‘hate.’
In this light, the silencing of gender-critical women on social media platforms like Reddit appears more sinister. It’s not just neoliberal techbros following the latest in Silicon Valley social justice trends. It’s beginning to look more like a campaign of entryism by various actors like Challenor, each with their own investment in penetrating spaces which are intended for women and vulnerable young people, and in silencing those in a position to challenge them. Reddit’s management either does not understand the risk of infiltration, or is too reliant upon the vast amount of unpaid labour of ‘powermods’ to alter this dangerous state of affairs. Either way, Reddit will remain unsafe for women and minors until this is recognised and safeguarding measures instituted.
But if Reddit’s management is in denial about the problem, its users appear to be increasingly irked by the power wielded by moderators who push trans-activism upon them. Some are jumping ship, closing their Reddit accounts, as I did, back in June 2020. But that was not all I did last summer. I also joined a team with the other former moderators of r/GenderCritical, and many other volunteers, to create Ovarit. Ovarit is similar to Reddit in structure, but is owned, managed and run by women to provide a platform for women-centred communities. Many of our users are, or were, Reddit users.
‘Challenorgate’ on Reddit led to a noticeable boost in subscribers to Ovarit, but it was only the third event in a month marked by trans-identified users and moderators alienating female Redditors. Firstly, a few days before International Women’s Day, trans-identifying males flooded r/TwoXChromosomes with selfies, even though many other communities exist solely for this kind of content. Some women were offended by this narcissistic misappropriation of a significant date within the history of the women’s movement and eagerly sought out Ovarit invite codes. Secondly, the Superstraight phenomenon, which started on TikTok, but flourished on Reddit, might have been one joke – skewering trans-activism by using its own argot - but it was funny, and made a valid point about sexual coercion within trans discourse. Reddit closed the community after vague insinuations of far-right connections. Short-lived as it was, Superstraight raised awareness of arguments around gender to audiences that had not previously engaged with them, and again drew in new subscribers whose interest was piqued, and who wanted a space for more in-depth discussions of gender.
Ovarit’s mission stipulates that the site must always be run and owned by women, and that males cannot wield authority over women in any capacity. There can never be a rogue male admin or moderator exploiting Ovarit for his own purposes. This in itself is a form of safeguarding, since males perpetrate the majority of online grooming. Apparently, the vetting and safeguarding system of a fledgling organisation set up by volunteers out of our own pocket is more effective than that of a tech giant expected to generate $170 million in revenue over 2020.
Gender critical and radical feminist discourse is often quashed on mainstream social media besides Reddit, on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Wordpress, Medium, and many other platforms. Women have to tiptoe through the approved language to make any kind of point and can face social and professional ramifications when they do so, particularly if they do so under their own names. In this climate, spaces where women can speak freely and safely - the crucibles of feminist thought - have become rare, and all the more precious for it. Whether these are discussion boards on Mumsnet or Lipstick Alley, or networking on Giggle, women-centred spaces are the source for feminist consciousness, debate and activism, and for open critique of gender ideology.
Women deserve social media platforms that don’t silence them or empower predatory men. These shouldn’t be exceptional qualities. But in 2021, that’s exactly what they are.