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Meet the Woman Behind ‘Perv Magnet,’ a Project Documenting Online Harassment

Mia Matsumiya says she's received more than 1,000 salacious, misogynistic emails in 10 years. Courtesy of Mia Matsumiya

Mia Matsumiya began her Instagram account Perv_Magnet last month as a way to fight back and expose the thousand sexist and salacious messages she'd received from men on the internet over the last 10 years.

The messages, the Los Angeles-based violinist revealed, are more than cringeworthy.

"There are definitely messages that range from catcalls like 'Hey baby, you're sexy,' to low grade micro-aggressions," Matsumiya told NBC News. "And then there are the 'I know where you live and I'm going to rape you' messages and they're on the other side of the spectrum. But the catcalling-type are more common, or I'd be freaking out all the time."

Matsumiya said she's been blamed on occasion for the messages she received because of her unconventional interests.

"I'm eccentric," she said. Matsumiya is a violinist who plays with rock bands and on film soundtracks; has infiltrated cults like the Aetherius Society out of curiosity; has an interest in transhumanism—the futuristic belief that technology can transform human capability; dabbles in cryptozoology, the study of mythical creatures such as Bigfoot; and, for kicks, contorts her body into small spaces like newspaper racks.

Mia Matsumiya admits to being eccentric, with interests that include contortion. But she says that's no reason to be subjected to the degrading messages men have sent her. Courtesy of Mia Matsumiya

But, she said, her unique interests are no reason to believe she's somehow open to or deserving of the sexist and misogynistic messages that have come her way.

"I don't think I'm acting bad, maybe it's a little weird, but I'm not doing anything to hurt anybody," Matsumiya said. "I feel I should express myself without receiving death threats. I don't think I should be the one hiding. [The message senders] should be changing their behavior."

Matsumiya said she would accept apologies from individuals for their posts, but would not close the account entirely.

"I'd absolutely be willing to delete or not publish their messages for an apology," Matsumiya said. "The apologies so far have all been sent anonymously though, so I'm unsure who they are and who I should forgive or if I've even saved their messages. The apologies are very much appreciated."

In an interview with NBC News, Matsumiya discussed online harassment, her initial reaction to receiving the messages that led to Perv_Magnet, and the overall response to the project.

"To my happiness, the majority of the reactions have been overwhelmingly, and wonderfully positive. Women have told me that they receive these messages constantly too and they feel relief in the commiseration. A lot of men have been absolutely horrified by the messages I've received. They tell me that they had no idea this sort of thing was happening to women so to them, it's educational.

On the other hand, there have been critics, although thankfully, they seem to be in the minority. Some people, mostly men, have accused me of doing this to garner attention and that I'm trying to show off about how many people have 'complimented' me. These are absolutely not compliments though—they're repulsive, dehumanizing, degrading messages. I'm extremely surprised by the popularity of my project, but I think the negative reactions were definitely expected. These are attitudes that I'd been dealing with on a smaller scale for a long time now."

Your project has been an eye-opener for many. Do you feel the messages are typical of the way modern women are treated online or sexualized by others?

Yes. Reading other women's messages seem to corroborate that the overall reason we get these messages is because we're all women with some degree of visibility on the internet, whether very low or high. ANY degree of visibility as a woman is all you need to be harassed. The messages I've published demonstrate specifically the experience of being an Asian-American woman online and the disturbing, predatory behavior that comes with that territory.

If it's true that people are more open and aggressive online than in real life, then I suppose they'd be much more well-mannered in person. Does the online world allow men to unmask the ugliness within?

I definitely think it's true that people are much more open and aggressive online than offline. I think when there's no one standing in front of you giving you an emotional reaction, it's easy to forget you're talking to a human being. You might strike more viciously because of that, whereas in real life, you might just have a dark thought, but not act on it.

When you first got these messages, you must have been scared.

I was very scared the first time I perceived a threat. A man was implying he would break into my home and "immortalize" me, which scared me very much. I was young and I felt like it was my fault for putting myself out on the internet.

Did you call police? Or seek help from friends or family?

I called the police. They were unhelpful, telling me to just turn my computer off, as if this person was an imaginary being that lived in my hard drive. People didn't commonly use the internet back then, so I think the police didn't entirely get it. I ended up leaving the country for half a year to hide out. That person eventually ended up realizing the fear he had been causing me, and wrote to me with an apology, saying it was a joke and he had "just" wanted to scare me.

Did you know the other men, or did they just find you online or through your music gigs?

I didn't know any of these men. They were all strangers from the internet who found me through my various social media profiles and blogs. Some would find me through music gigs too.

What was the mix between sexist vs. racist messages? Would you have received the same amount had you been white? Did the Asian fetish factor bring out the worst in the messages?

Most of the messages are sexual/sexist. They vary from mild, unsolicited come-ons to super vulgar or bizarre ones. The racially hateful ones comprise a small percentage. I believe that for some, the Asian fetish factor definitely brings out the worst. I hypothesize that being seen as submissive makes them strike with more confidence and they think they can get away with more because of it.

You've said that at first you became desensitized to the messages, there were so many. You even said you thought it was kind of humorous. And then in time, you changed your mind again. And you got angry—was there a particular message that got to you? Or was it just the overwhelming amount of messages?

It wasn't one particular message, it was the overwhelming amount of messages. Receiving these types of messages became such a regular occurrence that I accepted it as normal for a very long time. Looking at them individually, I saw and still can see the humor in them—minus the death and rape threats, of course. It's hard to not laugh at a lot of them because the levels of depravity in some of them are just so, so absurd. You can't do much but laugh and be horrified that someone actually sent that to another human being. It's definitely a coping mechanism for the actual helplessness I feel for the human race when I read them.

Five years ago, I had an idea to make a humorous but disturbing coffee table book out of all the messages but I never really had the courage to actually launch it. Looking at the messages as an entire collection that just kept growing and growing over the years though, that's when anger slowly started setting in and I saw the disturbing larger picture. Why were so many people treating me like this? I didn't feel like I did anything to elicit such hatred and disrespect and I felt mad. No one deserves to receive these kinds of messages. I felt that something was very, very wrong with our society that we just accept this type of online behavior without doing much to stop it. Why do we so many of us accept this as normal?

One thousand messages in 10 years. You've got a backlog. Some would have erased them. Why did you decide to keep them?

I keep everything. Maybe it's a bit eccentric, but I hoard data in general, especially if it has an emotional effect on me. Maybe it's because my parents are both scientists and I have a genetic proclivity towards it, but I tend to be fascinated by patterns, especially when it comes to human behavior. These were sociologically fascinating messages, so I saved them in order to study them later. All the death or rape threats and stalker-type messages I saved in case something awful actually did happen.

You've said this is proof of the racism and sexism in the world. You've exposed it. How do we change this?

If I only knew. I feel like there's a very long way to go, but I know for sure that the first step to changing it is to raise awareness that this is happening. It's happening to me and it's been happening to all women and minorities online for a very, very long time now, with not much change. Education is key.

Have you thought about what makes you a self-described "perv magnet"? Would it happen to other women? Is the online world the real enabler here?

I think it's a variety of factors. My race attracts fetishists and leads some people to objectify me and believe I'm submissive. I'm also 4'9", which attracts another type of fetishist, and I probably appear physically vulnerable. Just these two physical factors alone, to some, make me look very defenseless, which is what a predator is always looking for. I know this happens to other Asian women in general. I've talked to so many about it, both offline and online. It's a terrible mix of misogyny, fetishism, and racism. Throw in that I'm also a musical performer and I become the recipient of so much disgusting, unacceptable, predatory behavior.

How long will you keep the project alive? Will you be releasing more messages on a regular basis?

I plan to post 1-2 a day. I'm also accepting submissions from other women, so we can get a fuller picture of what is happening here.

What's your basic message to women who may have been subjected to this sort of thing? What's your basic message to men who would engage in this sort of communication with a woman?

To the women, I'm so, so sorry that you've been subjected to this sort of thing. I completely understand and empathize how demeaning and frightening it can be. It's important for us to speak out about it and let everyone know that we don't condone this behavior and I hope you'll join me.

To the men who send messages like this to a woman, this behavior needs to stop. Please consider that there's a real human being on the other side and we don't like being sent these types of lewd messages. They scare and disgust us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested Matsumiya would close "Perv_Magnet" entirely if the men who sent messages apologized. That is incorrect: she would delete or blur the names from certain messages if the men apologized, but intends to leave the account up as "documentation of the way women have been treated online."