Rhiannon Adam for HuffPost
NEWS
24/07/2021 05:00 BST

Female Twitch Streamers Spend Their Lives Online. Predators Are Watching.

For women who earn a living on Twitch, being the target of coordinated, multiplatform sexual harassment campaigns comes with the job.

Late one evening in June, 30-year-old Anita was perusing Reddit to unwind after a day spent on Twitch, the livestreaming platform popular among gamers. While searching for a clip from one of her recent streams, she stumbled upon a subreddit claiming to host “NSFW” photos of her. She was baffled: She had never streamed nude. 

As a star on Twitch, where she has 1.7 million followers, much of Anita’s life is spent broadcasting her every move — playing video games and chatting with her viewers for hours on end under the screen name Sweet Anita. She immediately clicked the Reddit page and was horrified to find thousands of men openly exchanging pictures, collages and slowed-down videos of her while boasting about how often they masturbated to them, and discussing in crude detail what they’d like to do to her body.

The images were not explicitly pornographic; most were clipped from Anita’s lengthy livestreams during the precise moments when her cleavage, thighs or undergarments were briefly exposed as she stood up from her chair, or at times when she walked away from the camera or bent over, resulting in a view of her backside. In some cases, men had gone so far as to digitally enhance the pictures to make her clothing appear as see-through as possible, and had used editing software to imagine what she might look like naked and to insert her face into actual porn. They also traded links to channels on the messaging apps Discord and Telegram, where they shared even more explicit content, including videos in which they filmed themselves ejaculating onto stills from her livestreams that had been captured while her mouth was open.

Rhiannon Adam for HuffPost
“These people are literally ruining my experience of streaming,” Anita said.

Anita, who has Tourette’s syndrome, was used to being sexualised against her will. Throughout her life men had fetishised her verbal outbursts and other tics. But as she sat alone in her U.K. home that night and scrolled through one degrading post after another while watching hordes of strangers talk about her as if she was their collective human sex doll, she felt sick. 

“No matter what I do or how I dress, they do this to me,” said Anita, who keeps her full name private out of fear for her safety. “I haven’t ever even taken my clothes off in front of the camera and yet I’m still a very successful porn star.”

Compilations of content pulled from Anita’s livestreams at inopportune moments have spread from Twitch and Reddit to major pornography websites, where they’ve racked up hundreds of thousands of views in spite of her repeated pleas for them to be removed. Similar NSFW-themed subreddits and encrypted messaging channels exist for just about every female Twitch personality with even a moderate following, including teenage girls who produce streams that are in no way sexual.

There’s no social media platform where women are safe from sexual harassment. Mobs of misogynist trolls have chased countless women and girls off of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and lesser known sites. But when it comes to streaming on Twitch, women are exceptionally vulnerable to this kind of abuse, which has become normalised as an intrinsic part of their experience both on- and off-platform, regardless of the nature of their content.

Most all women who earn a living on Twitch know what it’s like to have male viewers who, after spending countless hours watching them in real time, develop obsessive feelings of romantic and sexual entitlement. The result is an environment where extreme harassment, rape and death threats, blackmailing, stalking and worse have become regular workplace hazards.

Female streamers who spoke to HuffPost said they wish they’d known before joining Twitch that they were also signing up for a torrent of endless, dehumanising harassment with little to no recourse. After futile attempts to get abusive subreddits and other similar channels taken down, some have turned to cybersecurity firms offering content removal assistance — a service that can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year.

“These people are literally ruining my experience of streaming,” said Anita, who earns a living on Twitch. “It’s basically like having millions of people be your boss, and your boss is allowed to sexually harass you every day.”

Rhiannon Adam for HuffPost
Compilations of content pulled from Anita’s livestreams at inopportune moments have spread from Twitch and Reddit to major pornography websites.

A Perverse Fishbowl

Successful Twitch streamers are a unique kind of internet celebrity. Unlike most Instagram influencers, YouTube vloggers and other content creators, they typically make themselves available to their followers for hours on end, multiple days per week, in real time. As any professional streamer will tell you, building and maintaining a large audience on the platform is a full-time job that demands near-constant effort. It’s not unusual for Twitch streamers to “go live” for 40 or more hours per week, especially while trying to launch a career on the platform. 

Streamers can earn money through subscriber donations, brand deals, merchandise and — if they reach theinvite-only status of Twitch Affiliate or Partner, as Anita has — paid subscriptions and ad revenue, too. Many of Twitch’s biggest stars earn six-figure incomes or more. But for women on the platform, success comes at a cost. 

The streaming marathons that are necessary to both take off and stay relevant on Twitch provide misogynists with ample opportunity to capture recordings or screenshots of women at awkward moments that can easily be recontextualised to seem sexual.

“They turn the wrong way to get a bottle of water or they get up to go to the bathroom and suddenly it’s ′click-click-click, save-screen, save-screen,’” said Ryan Morrison, who’s known online as the “video game attorney” and whose law firm, Morrison Rothman, helps individuals and businesses get harmful content taken offline. It’s a service that’s especially popular among female Twitch streamers, he said.

The countless hours streamers spend on camera also make women in particular prime targets for deepfake porn videos, in which their faces are digitally superimposed onto porn actors’ heads. To look convincing and glitch-free, deepfakes require a vast dataset of imagery of a subject’s face, and all-day Twitch streamers unwittingly provide the perfect catalogue. 

Courtesy Anita
Anita's Twitch chat and social media feeds are flooded with creepy and misogynistic comments.

The biggest deepfake porn websites on the internet all have sections specifically for videos featuring female Twitch streamers, including each of the women in this story. Doctored but real-looking videos that show them masturbating, performing oral sex and being penetrated have spread across the internet, making them next to impossible to take down for good.

Influencers on Instagram, YouTube and other networks tend to share far less footage of themselves online than Twitch stars do, and generally post select images or carefully edited videos, so “they control everything they share, and they’re happy with what’s out there,” Morrison said. “That’s different than a Twitch streamer or really anyone who goes live.”

But the platform itself is also part of the problem. Misogyny is deeply woven into gaming culture — and by extension, Twitch culture. Its userbase is 65% male, including a lot of “lonely men and socially inept boys” who grew up “hiding in gaming instead of developing social skills and speaking to anyone, let alone the opposite sex,” Anita said. “It’s really hard for them to empathise with the people that they’re attracted to. And so you get this behaviour in a really concentrated level on Twitch.”

Twitch has a policy explicitly prohibiting hateful conduct, which it recently updated to “take a clearer and tougher stance on objectifying and sexually harassing behaviour,” as well as tools to help streamers temporarily or permanently ban abusive users from their livestream chats. But female streamers say they’re still sexually harassed on a daily basis on the platform. 

“Sexual harassment is a societal ill that is never acceptable in any form - be that in the physical or the digital world,” a Twitch spokesperson said in a statement to HuffPost.

“Further, community safety is not an end state, and we must, and do, continually evolve our safety policies and tools to ensure they are comprehensive and account for emerging behaviours,” the spokesperson added. “We consistently engage in industry conversations to combat harm towards women and protected groups, and are committed to collaborating with peers in the industry to more effectively combat cross-platform abuse.”

Knowing that people are doing this without my consent makes me feel used, makes me feel assaulted, makes me feel gross.Blaire, 27-year-old Twitch streamer

Blaire, 27, a California-based streamer who’s known to fans as QTCinderella, joined Twitch in 2018, shortly after her mother died. She was already spending her free time gaming and figured it would be nice to have an online community to talk to when she felt lonely. Building that community didn’t take long: Within a couple of years she grew so popular that she realised she could make a career out of streaming. She quit her job as an interior designer and made the full-time leap to Twitch in early 2020.

As she devoted more and more of her time to her audience — giving them a window into her life for hours on a near-daily basis and responding directly to their chat messages in real time — Blaire noticed a growing number of men seemed to treat her as their online girlfriend, behaving like they knew her personally and as if she owed them individual attention and affection.

“It was weird,” said Blaire, who also keeps her last name private, and who livestreams herself doing anything from gaming to cooking to playing online chess and poker. “Some people actually got really angry when they found out I had a boyfriend.”

Parasocial interaction (one-sided relationships in which audience members feel as if they have personal, mutual connections with entertainers) isa dynamic that Twitch has propelled to new heights. It poses potentially dangerous implications for female streamers whose male viewers may grow to feel possessive of them — and their bodies. 

This became frighteningly clear to Blaire last summer when she discovered a subreddit where a sprawling network of men posted supposedly erotic images from her livestreams, such as a screenshot zoomed in on her butt that showed her bending over in her kitchen while putting cookies in the oven.As with Anita, there were also crudely edited photos, looping GIFs of Blaire sitting up and back down to simulate a sexual motion, and links to Discord and Telegram channels containing far worse. 

“Knowing that people are doing this without my consent makes me feel used, makes me feel assaulted, makes me feel gross,” Blaire said. “I work just as hard as some of the top male streamers on Twitch, but they don’t have Reddits where they’re sexualised against their will.”

Gamergate Never Ended

Twitch was launched 10 years ago, not long before Gamergate, a horrific harassment campaign targeting female video game developers, some of whom were forced to flee their homes. A decade later, the gaming space is still a boys’ club, and women in the industry, especially those of colour, are regularly treated as if sex appeal is their only value. Twitch is no exception.

Across the platform women have been doxxed, stalked, harassed, blackmailed, assaulted, hacked, and threatened with rape and death by their viewers, sometimes mid-livestream. Earlier this year, a German Twitch streamer known as Vylerria said a man threatened to kill her father if she didn’t flash the camera during her stream.

“While streaming my ‘Dad’ called me. When I picked up, a guy demanded that I must show my boobs onstream,” she tweeted in January. “He said if I refuse, he will slit my dad’s throat who, according to him, was lying tied up on the floor.”

The man kept calling her names and revealed her address — “in order to terrify me even more,” she said. 

(Vylerria found out almost immediately that her father was safe.)

Anita has endured similar threats. A man from her livestream stalked her for months, waiting outside her home with a knife, following her out in public and even threatening to kill her, her pets and her mother, she shared last summer. (Twitch has since introduced an Off-Service Policy, which enforces against severe offences that occur off-platform, including “actions that would directly and explicitly compromise the physical safety of the Twitch community.”)

The paralysing fear Anita experienced is familiar to many women on the platform.

“Simply having a vagina means you will be viciously, incessantly sexually harassed as a streamer on Twitch,” said an American streamer who is also the focus of a subreddit and other channels similar to those targeting Anita and Blaire. She asked not to be named or described in potentially identifying detail, so as not to draw more attention to these pages.

“No matter how original or clever or brilliant your content is, you’ll never escape the crowd who wants to strip you of your worth and diminish you to a pair of tits and ass,” the woman said. “It doesn’t matter if you dress like a nun, men on Twitch will find a way to sexualise you and they won’t stop. It almost feels like it’s a sport to them — like they do it because you don’t want them to. There’s so much free porn out there from women who feel comfortable being seen in that way, yet here we are.”

Another female streamer who also requested complete anonymity said that when she begged her audience to stop redistributing her content in hypersexualised contexts, anonymous male viewers told her it was their “right” to do so, and that she should feel “flattered” that they found her arousing enough to set up an online network to exchange images of her to masturbate to.

“They told me I was asking for it by wearing shorts, by turning around to get up to pee, as if my intention was to show off my butt,” she said. “I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it makes me. I cry every time I read what they say about my body. Maybe it’d be different if it was happening in private, individually, but seeing all these complete strangers come together to cheer on each other’s sexual fantasies about me with these photos — when I’ve never posted anything remotely sexual — is just too much.”

The notion that women are asking to be harassed and violated by becoming streamers, or that they’re teasing men, is commonplace on Twitch. 

A San Francisco man named Erik Estavillo, who claims to be a sex addict, filed alawsuit last year suing Twitch for $25 million because “hot female gamers” on the platform caused him to masturbate so much that he allegedly wounded his penis. Two photos of Blaire are featured in the legal filing, which was dismissed by a California judge. One shows her goofing around while dressed as a bride on stream; in the other, which was pulled from her Instagram profile, she’s wearing a bathing suit. It also features other fully clothed streamers who are pictured bending over or working out. 

These women “are only streaming with the sole purpose of taking advantage” of sexually addicted viewers who are “enticed to spend money on these women for attention and sexual innuendo,” Estavillo’s suit claimed.

No Recourse

As soon as Blaire found the subreddit, she sent a message to Reddit requesting that it be taken down, but she received no response. The subreddit’s moderatorsalso ignored her pleas for compassion.

Courtesy of Blaire
The message Blaire sent to the moderators of the subreddit that was sexually harassing her.

“I know you probably don’t care but please imagine if this was your sister or mother asking you. I really don’t want to be sexualized,” she wrote to them. “I’m begging you to please delete this.”

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law passed in 1996, protects social media websites and other online intermediaries from liability for things their users post. Platforms are free to decide what content they will and won’t allow, and to implement policies that can be as vague and as inconsistently enforced as they wish.

Going after the distributors of the content would likely be futile, too. Lawsuits are often extremely expensive, and to sue for harassment, impersonation, defamation or even misappropriation of image, you’d need to know who you’re suing. The men exchanging Twitch streamers’ supposedly “NSFW” images on Reddit, Telegram, Discord and elsewhere are all doing so anonymously, effectively shielding them from accountability.

My only option is to pay to get these taken pictures down or just find a different job.Blaire

Feeling like she had no other options, Blaire turned to a firm that provides online content removal and other cybersecurity support, which costs her $2,500 per month. Some months, she said, that’s half her income. And while most of the images shared to the subreddit started getting quickly removed, its members shifted to more heavily posting links to Discord and Telegram channels where they continued to trade photos of her with even more vilecommentary.

“It’s insane,” Blaire said. “I literally have to pay so much money just to get photos of my ass taken offline.”

Even the takedowns Blaire pays for are limited in scope. Reddit and other platforms will generally comply with DMCA notices demanding the removal of copyrighted material, explained Morrison, the attorney, so content that’s taken from Blaire’s livestream and reposted elsewhere online usually ends up coming down in the face of legal threats. But getting these platforms to take action on the grounds of sexual harassment — and to remove entire channels or subreddits for consistently abusive behaviour — is much more difficult. 

After HuffPost reached out for comment last week, Reddit finally banned the subreddit harassing Blaire, citing “excessive copyright removals.”

“Our site-wide policies prohibit content or behaviour that threatens, harasses, or bullies individuals or groups of people. Users and subreddits that engage in such behaviour will be banned,” Reddit said in a statement to HuffPost. “Additionally, in accordance with Reddit’s User Agreement, we respond to valid DMCA takedown requests for cases of infringing or copyright materials and will action any users or communities in appropriate circumstances.” 

A new subreddit was created almost immediately and remains active.

“My only option is to pay to get these taken pictures down or just find a different job,” Blaire said. “I think about that all the time.”

Anita has considered quitting Twitch, too. Before joining the platform, she worked in wildlife rehabilitation.

“That sort of thing is probably what I’ll end up going back to one day,” she said. “The mental toll of being at the mercy of these people for the rest of my life would just not be survivable.”

Rhiannon Adam for HuffPost