As a warning, the topics that I discuss here – including paedophilia, transphobia and online harassment – may be uncomfortable for some readers.
As with the last couple of years, the 2016 Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy brought another crop of controversies. The nomination process was heavily influenced by Vox Day’s “Rabid Puppies” campaign, with the result being that most of the finalists were effectively chosen by Day himself.
One of the most widely-criticised nominees is the Spanish cartoonist Kukuruyo, who – thanks to the Rabid Puppies – is now a finalist for Best Fan Artist.
Kukuruyo is a supporter of Gamergate, and is best known for his SJW-bashing webcomic Gamergate Life. He also dabbles in commissioned fanart, and a few days after the Hugo ballot was announced, he posted a new piece of work: a pornographic image of the Marvel Comics heroine Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan, whose canonical age is 16. The drawing shows Kamala with her trousers dropped and her vulva bared to the web-surfing public.
Phil Sandifer, a vocal opponent of Vox Day and his associated campaigns, ran a blog post about Kukuruyo’s drawing. Sandifer’s choice of title was uncompromising: “Vox Day Put A Child Pornographer On The Hugo Ballot”.
After this, Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston suggested that the Ms. Marvel image may become a test case for child pornography laws. Meanwhile, Kukuruyo was forced to defend himself: “this is a DRAWING,” he wrote; “imaginary characters have no ‘age’. The age of a fictional character is just a number put there by the creator.” Vox Day concurred: “The idiots haven’t figured out that the character is a) imaginary and b) of legal age.”
The controversy culminated in advertising service Project Wonderful withdrawing from Kukuruyo’s website. The cartoonist blamed this on the “regressive left”, apparently failing to realise that he had fallen victim to one of Gamergate’s own tactics.
Possibly the most bizarre contribution to the debate came from Daniel Eness, a Vox Day associate who exploited child molestation in writing the infamous smear-job “Safe Space as Rape Room”. Under his Twitter pseudonym of XDPaul, Eness insinuated that Kukuruyo’s detractors were motivated by anti-Spanish bigotry:
Not bad, just drawn that way
Despite my general distaste for his creative endeavours, I would tend toward Kukuruyo’s side of the argument. It strikes me as rather spiteful to draw pornographic fanart of Kamala Khan, one of relatively few female superheroes to be conspicuously unsexualised, but I am not convinced that such material should be criminalised under child pornography laws.
Of course, indecency is not the only legal concern: some of Kukuruyo’s opponents expressed hope that the Walt Disney Company would go after him on copyright grounds. Once again, I am unconvinced.
In 1967 Wallace Wood drew the Disneyland Memorial Orgy, a poster in which Goofy has sex with Minnie Mouse, Tinkerbell strips for the Lost Boys and the Big Bad Wolf catches the Three Little Pigs in ménage à trois. In 1971, Gerald Scarfe made an animated short called Long Drawn-Out Trip, depicting Mickey Mouse smoking pot and a naked woman transforming into Donald Duck to the strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I would defend the work of either artist on both legal and ethical grounds.
Kukuruyo is neither a Wood nor a Scarfe, and it is hard to discern satirical intent behind his Ms. Marvel drawing. But even so, I find it hard to cheer at the prospect of a multinational corporation coming down on an obscure independent artist.
It is undeniably amusing to see Vox Day being forced to defend the Ms. Marvel image. I cannot help but remember the stern moral condemnation that he directed at Charles Stross’ Hugo-winning novella “Equoid”, a Lovecraft pastiche in which an adolescent girl is raped by a tentacled monster. According to Day, Stross’ horror story is evidence that “you wouldn’t dare to leave the average science fiction author alone with a Boy Scout for 10 minutes”, while the people who voted for it at the 2014 Hugo Awards are “seriously disturbed”.
And yet, we now find the same man labelling Kukuruyo’s opponents “idiots” for criticising a pornographic drawing of a teenager. Kamala Khan is imaginary, Day informs us – but then, so is the girl in “Equoid”.
It all goes to demonstrate the contradictions that exist within the “SJW” stereotype. SJWs, apparently, are prudish neo-puritans who want to purge fiction of sex, while simultaneously being depraved hedonists who celebrate and encourage paedophilic fantasies. To confront them, it seems, one must become an awkward blend of the libertine and the moraliser.
But all that being said, even if you wish to play ideological soccer with Vox Day, it seems hardly fair to use Kukuruyo as the ball.
We need to talk about Sarah
For the full context behind this dispute, I will have to introduce another individual: Sarah “Butts” Nyberg, former owner of the gaming fansite Final Fantasy Shrine.
Nyberg appears to have first garnered notoriety circa 2006, when she was in her early twenties. As an example of her writing from this period, take a look at her contribution to an archived discussion about paedophilia at ThePriceIsLol, a forum that has since closed. Her screenname there was simply “Sarah”, but her signature identified her as the owner of Final Fantasy Shrine.
In her post, Nyberg states that “it’s not inherently abusive” for a 20-year-old to have sex with a 14-year-old. She acknowledges that “most people aren’t ready at 12”, before adding that “most people not being ready is NOT a valid reason to outlaw sex at said age.” This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Nyberg’s views on child sexuality:
couldn’t it be that children that had a positive, fulfilling, non-abusive sexual relationship with an adult as a child are more likely to realize such relationships are not inherently abusive, and be more likely to admit they’re attracted to kids (either to themselves or others)?
another thing that most people don’t seem to get: childhood sexuality is typically NOT expressed in the form of full-blown intercourse. instead it’s in ways that are inherently less dangerous and virtually impossible to lead to pregnancy, etc. childhood sex play is typically anything from playing doctor to mutual masturbation to SHOW ME YOURS AND I’LL SHOW YOU MINE. there’s nothing harmful about it. what’s harmful is society pretending children are asexual.
Unsurprisingly, such sentiments earned Nyberg a rather rotten reputation in certain quarters. Here is a post made at another forum in 2007, in which a user discusses their experiences at Final Fantasy Shrine:
Another character was Sarah, an administrator who was allegedly a pedophile […] I think Sarah had been expressing an unhealthy fixation on children from the very beginning, and I could only hope it was all some disgusting in-joke that had gone on for too long.
Where does Sarah Nyberg fit into the current discussion about the Rabid Puppies, the Hugo Awards and Kukuruyo? Well, the linking factor here is Gamergate.
In 2014 Nyberg established herself as one of the more dedicated opponents of Gamergate on Twitter. Her opposition to the campaign quickly earned her a hit-piece at the troll wiki Encyclopedia Dramatica – which, while not strictly speaking a pro-Gamergate website, is frequently used as a tool by Gamergaters. Evidence indicates that the first draft of the Encyclopedia Dramatica article on Sarah Nyberg was compiled at a Gamergate forum.
And, predictably, the story became a lot murkier once Gamergate got involved.
A key detail in this matter is that Gamergate and Encyclopedia Dramatica initially mounted a harassment campaign against Nyberg for reasons entirely unrelated to her history as a paedophilia apologist.
Encyclopedia Dramatica’s article about Sarah Nyberg (or Sarah Butts, as she was known at the time) was uploaded on New Year’s Day 2015. For obvious reasons I will not be linking to it, but it can be easily found through Google, and viewing its history is a simple enough matter. Here is the first paragraph of the article as it was originally posted:
What makes a human being an absolute nightmare to stand beside? Is it an irritating voice that sounds like an old air conditioner covered in runny horse shit? Is it the mental instability that comes with being a disgusting tranny? Is it an obsessive need to check twitter every single hour of every single day for the validation of strangers because you feel “threatened” when you’re called a crazy introvert? If you’re the train-wreck that is that is Sarah Butts, it might just be a combination of all of the above!
In its initial form, the article did not associate Sarah Nyberg with paedophilia. It attacked Nyberg for her physical appearance, her gender identity, her Twitter habits and even her voice, but not for her established reputation as a paedophile supporter. Only the following day was the article updated to incorporate this detail.
Gamergate obtained more evidence against her, including Final Fantasy Shrine chatlogs in which she can be seen repeatedly identifying herself as a paedophile, showing sympathy for white nationalism and – most concerning of all – expressing sexual attraction towards an eight-year-old cousin. However, the campaign’s prior history of harassing Nyberg for unrelated reasons made it all too easy for her supporters to dismiss these accusations. Gamergate was the boy who cried wolf.
In September 2015, when the controversy reached its height, Nyberg penned an article entitled “I’m Sarah Nyberg, and I Was a Teenage Edgelord”. Here, she claims that her repeated and consistent defence of paedophilia (or, as she rather euphemistically describes it, “defence of sexual deviancy”) was written as a trolling attempt that she has now come to regret.
I am not convinced by this defence. But at the same time I find myself appalled by the way in which many of Nyberg’s detractors behaved: as can be seen in screenshots collected in the article, members of the campaign against her openly gloated about the prospect of driving her to suicide. Even after it was confirmed that the case against her was not strong enough for her to be charged with a criminal offence, it seems that a number of wannabe Frank Castles were still hoping for her blood.
Sarah Nyberg remains a hot-button topic in the online culture wars. After going up against her support base, Gamergate wasted no time in labelling “SJWs” in general as paedophile enablers; this narrative was later bolstered by the Alison Rapp affair. On the other side of the argument we find people willing to absolve Nyberg of all suspicion and instead portray her as an innocent victim, no matter how many mental gymnastics are necessary for this conclusion. Special demerits should go to RationalWiki’s Timeline of Gamergate: its coverage of the Sarah Nyberg affair seems deliberately written to be as inaccurate as possible.
Legitimising Sarah Nyberg
Which brings us back to Phil Sandifer. During the height of the campaign against Nyberg, Sandifer emerged as one of her staunchest supporters.
On Twitter, he legitimised Nyberg’s paedophilic postings as “the minute complexities of a trans woman’s relationship with the idea of childhood”. While I appreciate that Twitter’s 140-character limit often leads to rhetorical distortion, I must say that I am somewhat offended by Sandifer’s insinuation that lusting after eight-year-olds is an expected symptom of being transgender.
I am not the only one. “While Sandifer is perhaps among the most extreme and least credible of Nyberg’s supporters, it’s revealing that he’s more willing to buy into transmisogynistic rhetoric that labels trans women as sexual predators than disassociate from [her],” writes Emma Houxbois at The Rainbow Hub. “By embracing this rhetoric, all Sandifer has achieved is placing trans women like myself in an even more precarious position”.
Sandifer also stated that “the modern notion of childhood was invented by the Victorians, and like everything else they invented, was a fetish”, in a tweet that was widely attacked by his opponents. I suspect that Sandifer was drawing upon James Russell Kincaid’s book Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, although Sarah Nyberg herself can be seen making a similar argument in the Final Fantasy Shrine chatlogs: “sex with children is banned because of victorian ideals of sexual normacy [sic]. if you’re not a man it’s not possible to want sex, clearly”.
Outside of Twitter, Sandifer elaborated upon his defence of Nyberg:
The person in question appears to have identified in several online discussions over the past decade as a non-offending pedophile, and has indicated that she’s sought psychiatric treatment for this and was, in her therapist’s professional opinion, not a danger to anyone. She also appears to have made rather a lot of tasteless jokes in IRC, but then, that’s basically true of everyone in IRC.
Ultimately, I support her because of my intense ethical revulsion at the tactics of stalking and harassment used to obtain this information, and in the face of Breitbart and other news sources making international news out of a matter that is in no way newsworthy. If credible accusations of illegal activity on the part of a minor activist exist, they are a matter for the police.
I think that Sandifer makes an entirely fair point about the tactics used by Gamergate and Breitbart in procuring and disseminating their dirt on Nyberg. But the final sentence of the above quotation – “If credible accusations of illegal activity on the part of a minor activist exist, they are a matter for the police” – could just as easily be applied to Kukuruyo and his alleged child pornography. It is hard to miss the double standard: Sandifer appears unwilling to give Kukuruyo the same benefit of the doubt that he has granted Nyberg.
Vox Day is currently trying to smear the left-wing SF community as a hotbed of paedophilia apology; as I demonstrated in an earlier article for Women Write About Comics, he will merrily scrape together whatever evidence he can to back up this thesis. Given that he had previously butted heads with Phil Sandifer over the Rabid Puppies campaign, it was inevitable that Day would take advantage of Sandifer’s association with Nyberg. On his blog, Day ran a post called “Anti-Gamergate is Pro-Pedophile”, and began referring to Sandifer by the nickname “Pedophil.”
With this in mind, Phil Sandifer’s subsequent decision to label Kukuruyo a “child pornographer” looks like nothing so much as his way of getting back at Vox Day. It is almost as though he was trying to find an equivalent to Sarah Nyberg within Gamergate, which would make his argument a case of tu quoque.
The whole Sarah Nyberg affair – and its semi-sequel, the Kukuruyo affair – left me picking at a mental scab.
As a sixteen-year-old in 2003, I was a regular poster at GameFAQs. Amongst other things, this community was notable for housing a subforum called “Life, the Universe and Everything”, a proto-4chan that revelled in shock for shock’s sake.
And when I saw Nyberg’s postings on paedophilia, I was struck by just how familiar they were.
At GameFAQs, posters would regularly come up with rhymes like “old enough to pee, old enough for me” and “incest, incest, it’s the best, put your sister to the test”; in the Final Fantasy Shrine chatlogs, Nyberg and a friend can be seen posting the rhymes “before 11 is heaven” and “Sex before eight or it’s too late”. More than once I saw GameFAQs members sharing photographs of preteen bikini models, just as Nyberg appears to have done.
There was a running gag at parts of the GameFAQs forum: if a poster mentioned a female relative, someone else would tell them to “pee in her butt”. Final Fantasy Shrine appears to have had a similar culture, given how Nyberg was able to repeatedly make indecent comments about her preadolescent cousin with little or no censure from the other members.
I remember a certain poster at GameFAQs who always struck me as one of the more sensible members. He used to hang around the anime subforums, and sometimes commented with distaste on the paedophilic overtones of the conversations there. In one thread he remarked that a sociologist should look into the matter, a sentiment that I recall going down rather badly. Expressing such concerns was the kind of thing that would get you labelled a “soccer mom” – this was before the term “SJW” entered online parlance, and so “soccer mom” was the preferred phrase for a censorious bogeyperson.
“It’s alright to be a paedophile, so long as you don’t act on your desires” was a mainstream point of view at the video game and anime forums I visited as a teenager. And from what I have seen, it remains so at other, similar forums.
Take a look at this 2012 thread from the gaming forum Facepunch, entitled “Felling [sic] sorry for pedophiles?”. Here are some of the comments made by the board’s members:
I’ve said it before so fuck secrecy, I am a pedophile but sure as hell don’t want to harm anyone so I’m not a dangerous one.
I’m 100% okay with pedophiles, it’s just another type of sexual attraction like liking big booty bitches etc.
So basically, there’s nothing wrong with being a pedophile. Hell, even give them access to their child porn (preferably just virtual- no need to create a demand, but really, is the viewing of it causing any harm in itself? Is there an imminent danger or threat?), since like 4 studies have shown that it keeps that pedophile in the basement fapping to his fetish instead of outside looking to find some way to gratify himself sexually (except for the Canadian study, but that was rigged).
It makes me so mad when people refer to pedophiles (not child molesters) as “sick fucks”. No, it isn’t wrong. There is NOTHING inherently wrong with being a pedophile.
Pedophilia it’s like homosexuality, some people can’t help to feel ”love” to childs, some people say it’s a disease, not all pedos were molested as a childs. It’s a taboo topic, why don’t people start looking it less wrong? This is just like when most of people used to say homosexuality was bestiality and now we can see gay parades. Do you think it could be possible that man/boy love can be accepted some day?
When you’re just sitting in your house wanking to little kids, there’s no issue.
I have no problem with pedophiles, in fact, I’m friends with a couple, but I have a big problem with child molesters, and people who look at child porn.
I know there are lawful pedos out there, because they can’t ALL be rapists and rapists are the only pedos media is willing to give attention to. People who hate blindly cannot hope to see reason.
What should I make of all this? I honestly do not know. That is why I would like to see an open and honest discussion about the normalisation of paedophilia in Internet culture.
Right now there is a discussion going on, but it is a discussion that has been muddied. Gamergate prefers to present paedophilia apology as a specifically “SJW” position; but I do not recall the gaming forums of my teenage years being particularly left-wing or politically progressive – and whatever ideology Sarah Nyberg follows now, the white nationalist sympathiser of ten years ago was clearly no SJW. The discussion is muddied further by Phil Sandifer using the term “child pornographer” to describe someone who draws dirty pictures of ambiguously-aged anime girls.
If anything, the paedophilia apology that I saw in geek circles as a teenager makes it easier for me to excuse Kukuruyo’s Ms. Marvel fanart. The drawing may be in poor taste, but it is at least clearly a work of stylised fantasy, depicting a stylised fantasy girl.
This has been, all in all, an ugly topic to write about. I can understand the temptation to simplify the whole affair into a narrative of good guys versus bad guys: on the one hand we have a story of the saintly, victimised Sarah Nyberg fending off entirely baseless accusations of paedophilia; on the other, a story of the noble but unjustly maligned Gamergaters exposing the dark secrets of the SJW Illuminati.
Either narrative would be false, and each side has used its share of dirty tricks.
Saying this will make me unpopular in certain quarters, of course. I imagine that Sarah Nyberg’s supporters will call me a Gamergater, while Gamergaters will call me much worse. But this is par for the course in the culture war.
We all know what the first casualty of war is.
Note: This post arose from an unfortunate incident that occurred over at Women Write About Comics. Last month I wrote an article there entitled “Comics and Controversy at the 2016 Hugo Awards”, which covered the effects of the Rabid Puppies campaign on the comic-related Hugo nominees. As well as an overview of the Best Graphic Story finalists, I talked about the criticism directed at Best Fan Artist nominee Kukuruyo for his pornographic drawing of Ms. Marvel.
The article was pulled by WWAC editorial shortly after being published. The initial problem was a last-minute legal concern over my choice of images: amongst other things, I had included the full, uncensored Ms. Marvel drawing. As my editor Claire discussed the article with the rest of the WWAC team, a couple of other issues raised their heads. One was the way in which I had delved into some sensitive topics that were only tangentially related to the main subject of the Hugo Awards. The other was the admittedly awkward structure of my article: between the Best Graphic Story finalists and the Kukuruyo controversy, I had tried to cover two quite different topics at the same time.
After talking things over, Claire and I agreed that the simplest solution to these problems would be to split the article in two. WWAC would run my assessment of the Best Graphic Story finalists as a safe-for-work article, viewable here, while my coverage of the Kukuruyo affair would be expanded into a separate post on my personal blog – the post that you have just read.