He said, they said

Content note for discussion of sexual violence.

A number of people are now coming forward with details of the long record of sexual misconduct committed by Jacob Appelbaum. The stories I have read are entirely consistent with my own experiences being sexually involved with Jacob in 2006-2007.

I am writing this under my real name because I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to. I am lucky to have a stable economic and immigration situation, and I am not close enough to Jacob’s world to be in any way dependent on his opinion of me, or on the opinions of people who might support him. I know that’s not true for everybody, and I recognize that many of the people speaking up about Jacob’s abuse are marginalized – by state surveillance, by gender, by sexuality, by geography, by poverty, and by other factors. I stand with their decision to publish their accounts of his actions in a way that allowed them to feel safer speaking out. I am also glad that Nick Farr has also felt able to come forward with his own experience under his own name.

Jacob and I were involved on and off over the course of 2006 and 2007, mainly spending time together at security conferences. During that time, I was also seeing other people, with the consent and awareness of all involved. In that time we spent together, he violated boundaries I set as though they were a game, particularly at times when I was intoxicated. There were a number of times I felt afraid and violated during interactions with Jacob. Being involved with him was a steady stream of humiliations small and large as he mistreated me in front of others and over-shared about our intimate interactions with friends who were often also professional colleagues.

For example, on several occasions in professional situations, he told other people that I was good at a particular sex act. On another occasion where my primary romantic partner at the time, Paul Wouters, was also present, Jacob ignored my use of a safeword when his sexual behavior turned into violent behavior that violated my limits. Paul and I both had to repeatedly tell Jacob to stop, and the experience was profoundly upsetting. I believe that one of the common elements of Jacob’s abusive behavior is humiliating one or another member of a couple in front of the other – as other accounts of his actions are published, that is something worth watching out for. (NB: I am including Paul’s name here with his consent – because that matters.)

Jacob was a charismatic and central figure in the security community I spent the early part of my career in. Many of our friends and colleagues saw the way he treated me and did nothing about it, so it took me years before I realized how abusive he was to me. Until that realization, I remained “friends” with him. It was witnessing his uncritical support of Assange and smearing of Assange’s accusers – something I disagree with intensely – that made me understand the true measure of his character. It was seeing him deny other women’s experiences of sexual violence that made me fully realize how bad my own experiences with him had been.

If you are horrified by this and want to take action, here’s what I suggest.

  1. Believe victims.
  2. Educate yourself on your role in enabling sexual violence: victim-blaming, the phenomenon of “missing stairs“, the effects of misogyny in activist communities, and why “go to the police” is so often bad advice for victims. Learn more about what you can do to fight it.
  3. Donate to nonprofits which fight sexual violence, such as SF Women Against Rape or Sexual Health Innovations, whose Project Callisto is trying to automate the process of collecting reports of sexual assault and connecting victims with each other, much in the same way Jacob’s alleged victims connected with each other. (Disclosure: I’m a volunteer on their advisory board because I care so much about what they do.)

One final note of warning: I’ve noticed at least one person who also has a history of sexual assault spreading word about the accusations about Jacob in a supportive way. I just want to say that, like Jacob himself, simply talking the talk about consent and sex positivity and “yes means yes” does not make someone a safe person to be around. Watch for people using this technique to groom future victims and don’t let someone’s words speak louder than their actions, big and small.

Comments are open but will be heavily moderated. I would prefer that people not contact me to disclose their own stories of mistreatment, as I am not (currently) a trained counselor and am already struggling with the emotional toll of publishing this. But know this: I believe you. If you need emotional support, please reach out to people close to you, a counselor in your area, or to the trained folks at RAINN or Crisis Text Line.

46 thoughts on “He said, they said

  1. Thank you for writing this, It must have been tremendously hard. And particularly thank you for your action points and support for others, and for the extra warning that some of us hadn’t considered.

  2. Incredibly brave and courageous. I liked you before, but this article has given me a new respect for you.

    [edited out one line for privacy]

    Thank you.

    P.S. Fuck you, Jacob.

  3. Thank you so much for speaking out. I know firsthand how much courage that can take. This was elegantly poignant and furthers my resolve to stay away from Jacob by any means necessary. Thank you for being so brave, and for caring about other people enough to disclose your own story.

  4. Wait wait wait. This isn’t “here’s evidence that his character is poor, therefore you should believe other accusations”. This is “I, a named person, did not consent to some sexual act (as evidenced by use of a safeword) and he ignored it, in front of a named witness”. This is evidence that would be acceptable in court if we had halfway-decent courts.

  5. Thank you so much for makeing this public with your name and help this way against all this “it’s a nsa conspiracy” guys! I wish you all the best!

  6. Thank you for doing this, Leigh. I that I had your bravery to stand up to others who have acted badly in our technology community.

  7. it took me years before I realized how abusive he was to me

    That is so normal and I wish more people understood that. Thanks for sharing this, I hope that you’re doing okay.

  8. So radically important to let people know about violence against us, thank you for speaking up.

  9. As an outside observer, I can’t believe this has been going on this long. How was he not called out long, long ago? Before it got to the stage it has?
    Of course, then I read the fascinating group psychology article you linked to (“the broken stair”) and suddenly I can see *exactly* how it came to pass.
    This next bit is where I struggle for the right words: I hope he gets what is coming to him, & I hope that everyone (else) involved manages to have a long & happy life.

    1. Cause he was hero-worshipped uncritically. A prominent figure, including in a film that won an Academy Award for best documentary. He made some inane comments in that film which were given zero analysis.

      I find there is less and less progressive about the hermetic nature of the privacy movement. It lends itself to subterfuge and abuse.

  10. Thank you for sharing. I can finally breathe after carrying around the weight of abuse. You are a strong and caring person.

  11. I first want to salute your courage in coming forward and offer emotional support for what must be an onslaught of attention in the wake of your struggle with your revelations (as you say, the degree to which you understand you were abused and maltreated, years later).

    With respect, I’d like to offer one additional “What Folks Can Do” suggestion for your list, as you allude to its counterbalancing factor yourself (poverty) as a significant reason why more folks don’t come forward with corroborating accusations after being assaulted in the way you were – to wit:

    º If you are in a position to hire, offer qualified women and people from other marginalized groups an EQUAL WAGE FOR EQUAL WORK.

    Recognize that people from those populations are frequently overqualified to begin with as their professional contributions are regularly and systematically undervalued, even if unconsciously – see also ‘implicit bias’
    – throughout what is often the entirety of their careers.

    Recognize further how that precise state of affairs contributes directly to making them prime targets for grooming, further marginalization, and disempowerment – particularly since the predators who prey on these people certainly recognize the conditions which create said disempowerment as creating, as a result, “prime targets” on whom to inflict this kind of abuse, and offering said predators no incentive whatsoever to abate these conditions.

    Item: Daniel Holtzclaw and the police culture that enabled him
    Item: Brock Turner and the legal team who enabled him

    Additional Item: a culture that prioritized these men’s prowess & perceived contributions (in Holtzclaw’s and Turner’s cases, athletic; in Applebaum’s & other cases yet to come to light, intellectual) over womens’ & other marginalized peoples’ very lives & physical, mental, & emotional well-being.


  12. You are a strong person! I don’t know you personally but I hope you are well. Thank you for taking the time to write this, for your bravery, and for your resolve.

  13. [redacted a bunch of unsolicited legal advice, please don’t do that.]

  14. Although I have had to deal with several pathological predators myself (but rarely in any kind of sexual way) over the course of my life (so I’m fairly familiar with how they operate by now) they still occasionally manage to pull the wool over my eyes where it takes me to long to fully figure them out, which is usually by the time they turn on me and the damage (although more and more limited) has been done.

    Thank you (and the others) for your courage to come forward, this whole ordeal has been a real eyeopener, at least to me. And it kind of puts the Assange case in a whole “new” light for me that I never really even wanted to consider (I’m ashamed to admit) even though it’s not that I ever worshiped him.

    I now wish I could have somehow stayed “friends” with the last one that I ran into, just to be able to slip some kind of warning card (along the lines of: the charming guy you’ve just met is a sexual predator, feel free to get in touch if you need more information) to the women he just met and tried to charm in my presence which (in hindsight) happened a couple of times (before I wised up). But I’ll try and pull something like that on the next “missing stair” I happen to have the misfortune to run into. I doubt that would last long but I reckon every case that might be prevented helps.

    I wish you much love and strength, so you can keep up the good work that you are doing.

  15. We need more people like you in the world Leigh. Unfortunately, we need a lot more men to STFU, listen, and support.

  16. Thank you for doing this. I hope you dont take this the wrong way but it’s bugging me so I have to ask: Why did you have to establish a safeword with him in the first place?

    1. In “kink 101” you learn to always have a safeword. So I had a safeword. The details aren’t really important.

      With the wisdom of experience, I actually think that safewords are stupid to teach as “kink 101” and should instead be taught as graduate-level kink. The range of kink that’s possible while preserving “no for really real means no, no safeword necessary” is very broad.

  17. Hi!
    Thanks for posting this.
    [unsolicited advice]
    You may want to join the conversation on the talkpage of Jacob’s en.wiki article. But of course I also totally understand if you do not want to do that.
    If you do, please read the conflict of interest guideline first, you can find it by Googling “conflict of interest wiki” and clicking on “Wikipedia:Conflict of interest – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”.
    I don’t know you, so this may be horrible advice and it may be good advice (or somewhere in between); feel free to remove this comment if you are not interested.
    [/unsolicited advice]

  18. Hi Leigh. Do you know of any abuse support orginization specific for the tech community we can donate to? And I hope out of all this we are able to also build or support one for the hacker community as well.

  19. I had no idea you were dealing with all this at Foo. Had I known, I would have walked straight up and asked for your consent to give you an enormous, enormous hug. I can’t imagine how hard it has been for you and fellow victims to take this leap, but that courage and selflessness will help us move forward to create the change we need. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Kat. I decided not to bring it up much at Foo because I didn’t want to make the whole weekend about that. I do hope that we can do better as communities in the future, and I’ll be writing more about how I think we can tackle these issues soon.

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