Are women being harassed off the Internet? It’s happened to me

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you read this long and thoughtful piece from Pacific Standard, an American magazine, by Amanda Hess about women bloggers being harassed, threatened and vilified?


An excerpt:

The examples are too numerous to recount, but like any good journalist, I keep a running file documenting the most deranged cases. There was the local cable viewer who hunted down my email address after a television appearance to tell me I was “the ugliest woman he had ever seen.” And the group of visitors to a “men’s rights” site who pored over photographs of me and a prominent feminist activist, then discussed how they’d “spend the night with” us. (“Put em both in a gimp mask and tied to each other 69 so the bitches can’t talk or move and go round the world, any old port in a storm, any old hole,” one decided.) And the anonymous commenter who weighed in on one of my articles: “Amanda, I’ll fucking rape you. How does that feel?”

None of this makes me exceptional. It just makes me a woman with an Internet connection. Here’s just a sampling of the noxious online commentary directed at other women in recent years. To Alyssa Royse, a sex and relationships blogger, for saying that she hated The Dark Knight: “you are clearly retarded, i hope someone shoots then rapes you.” To Kathy Sierra, a technology writer, for blogging about software, coding, and design: “i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” To Lindy West, a writer at the women’s website Jezebel, for critiquing a comedian’s rape joke: “I just want to rape her with a traffic cone.” To Rebecca Watson, an atheist commentator, for blogging about sexism in the skeptic community: “If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.” To Catherine Mayer, a journalist at Time magazine, for no particular reason: “A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT EXACTLY 10:47 PM ON A TIMER AND TRIGGER DESTROYING EVERYTHING.”

Here’s a response from a female writer, in the progressive magazine Mother Jones:

She’s done exhaustive reporting on the failures of law enforcement at all levels to comprehend, let alone address, the emotional, professional, and financial toll of misogynistic online intimidation. She’s called local police, 911, and the FBI on a number of occasions when she feared for her safety IRL; law enforcement officials have recommended to her and other women that they stop wasting time on social media. One Palm Springs police officer responding to her call, she recounts, “anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘What is Twitter?'” “When authorities treat the Internet as a fantasyland,” she writes, “it has profound effects on the investigation and prosecution of online threats.”

It’s a painful read, but Hess’s piece should be required reading for anyone with an Internet connection. And check out this excellent response by Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic (a “6-foot-2, 195-pound man”), who recalls guest-blogging for a female colleague there who was on vacation. “I’d never been exposed to anything like it before,” he recalls.

I’ve fled a public space on the Internet — Open Salon — years ago after a really frightening experience there; my last post there is May 2012.

It’s a space — unlike some others on-line — that attracts some terrific writers but also some really weird, creepy people with a shitload of anger and animosity. I blogged there a lot for a few years, and usually cross-posted from this blog to that one. But what worked here just fine, there sometimes prompted some crazy-ass responses.

It got really ugly at one point, with dozens of commenters piling on to vilify me, mocking my resume (wtf?) and eventually escalating to the man who told me that he would physically hurt me if I continued there.

That was it for me.

I went to my local police station — I live in a small town north of New York City. The cop stood above me, barely listening, clearly dubious. Some woman whining about the Internet? Really?

Only when (too ironic) I started brandishing my legacy-media dead-tree credentials — 20+ years writing for The New York Times — did he start to pay closer attention. I also knew, (from a friend also posting at OS), that the man threatening me lived in Florida.

We thought.

I wanted to be sure he lived very very far away from me, so his threats were highly unlikely to come to fruition.

I also know a District Attorney and have some knowledge of the law. I pushed hard and the cops finally did determine that yes, my harasser lives in Florida but — so far — had no criminal record. I also pushed hard, repeatedly, to get the guy removed from OS and, finally, management there did so.

I haven’t been back since.

Having been, in 1998, the real-world victim of a con man, a convicted felon, I have no illusions that the world is filled with unicorns and rainbows, nor that law enforcement gives a shit about how absolutely terrifying it is for a woman to be threatened and/or pursued by a malefactor determined to do us physical, emotional and reputational harm.

They don’t.

So women have to figure this out for themselves.

Interestingly, very few trolls find their way to Broadside.

I have very strong opinions on volatile issues like gun use, abortion, women’s rights and more, but rarely express them — for the reasons stated above.

I have no time or energy to fight with trolls or to keep running to the cops for help.

And, yes, it’s very much self-censorship.

Ironic, in a medium designed for the maximum freedom of expression.

Have you or other women bloggers been harassed in this fashion?

63 thoughts on “Are women being harassed off the Internet? It’s happened to me

  1. I’ve been harassed online, but not by men. The whole thing makes me furious! I’m all for freedom of speech, but people who leave rape comments and other bits of misogynistic rubbish to be hunted down and exposed!

  2. I’ve never had this experience myself, but I’ve seen the comments on many fairly innocuous posts that were pretty appalling. I really can’t comprehend why threats of physical violence should be treated any differently when they’re online than they are through any other form of media – from letters to phone calls to Tweets.

    1. Oh, but they are. Women need to really be much more aware of the law — and its limitations in this regard. And/or fight for better ones to protect our Constitutionally-protected right of free speech.

  3. I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t been harassed whatsoever, aside from the odd trashing of something that I’ve written and one very persistent man who wanted my Facebook details. These sorts of comments are disgusting and it must be a really scary experience to have to receive them. Unfortunately, the people that send these sorts of comments have become used to the anonymity that a computer screen provides and so their comments are growing more and more extreme, and it is only in rare circumstances that the law brings these people to justice. The question is, how can it be policed efficiently?

    1. Good to hear you’ve escaped it.

      I don’t think it CAN be policed efficiently. That’s part of the problem — and why these creeps get away with as much as they now do. Cops and law enforcement may not know or care. The reaction of L.A. cops to Amanda — “What’s Twitter?” is pretty shocking in 2014. Remaining audible and visible on social media, as she argues in her piece, is now as essential and basic to any ambitious writer as a computer or pen.

  4. It’s unconscionable and unbelievable in this day and age that these small minded, yet dangerous morons could endanger somebody’s life and threaten and harass them over such a simple thing as a television appearance or a blog opinion. One can only hope and pray that animals such as this eventually get their due and are removed from society. I am embarrassed and appalled being a male and reading this …

    1. Not going to happen, sorry to say.

      The much deeper problem is many men’s conviction that women need to shut up and remain politely invisible. That we now have an outlet for our ideas and opinions — international and free of cost to us — drives the weirdos MAD.

      1. Caitlin,

        I dissent. The deeper problem is that a generation of men were taught by mothers to not respect women.

        With the rise of feminism, and the projection of women not needing men, there has been this rise in men threatening women.

        And maybe the correlations do not show causation, but I think they do.

        And though I may dissent on with you on this, thank you for your blog.


      2. Thanks.

        Interesting point of view.

        I would argue that there are many additional issues — if that one is true — such as lax to non-existent enforcement of existing laws that protect women’s rights, bodies and safety, whether ready access to legal abortion or enforcement of child support payments. I’m not going to lay lousy male behavior at feminism’s feet — it’s been going on for millenia.

        I grew up in Canada, where the Supreme Court — in a nation with 10 percent of the U.S. population — has four women on the court, including the Chief Justice. I was very struck when I moved to NY, a state that likes to style itself as progressive (hah!), and discover what lousy protection and treatment women actually get here under the law.

        People will get away with whatever the law allows. So…few laws protecting women and law enforcement of same certainly passively and tacitly encourage some men to behave with impunity, whatever their personal moral or ethical standards.

      3. But, see. That does not really address any of the issues.

        I was threatened by a young man just 6 months ago, I think he was trying to get the courage up to try the ‘knock out game.’

        The police never showed. And lucky for him, I called the police first.

        Laws do not affect behavior, the affect reactions. So, the bottom line is, people get away with whatever they were taught to get away with.

        Even in Canada, and especially NY.

        And just because they define progressive as excessive taxation, does not mean they do not live up to their definition.



      4. We are certainly taxed to death here. Maybe even beyond….:-)

        I can’t address millenia of misogyny and male oppression in a comment. Most of the time, like many women, I ignore it as best I humanly can and go to work.

      5. If we can agree on taxes, eventually, we will agree on fixing what ails our women and our men in America.

        I cannot address the millennia of twisting history to sound like all men are misogynists.

        Most men are not. Just as most women are not feminists.

        But both groups of sexes are led and controlled by the 1% of the elite who control all of US ….


      6. Oy.

        You’re my new Steve — not sure if you’ve been around to witness our many previous…rousing…disagreements. Fur flies but we end up smiling, somehow.

        I can’t spend much time today commenting, sorry to say. On a super-tight deadline and a crazy busy week.

        But we’ll come back to this, I’m sure.

  5. I’ve never experienced it, though I’ve come close to it.
    All these people are bullies in addition to possible threats to our safety and well-being. They are cowards who hide behind the anonymity of the Internet in order to say things they feel they can get away with. God forbid any one of them should ever have the motivation to say that crap without the Internet to protect them, and God forbid they should ever try to carry it out!

      1. Well, the cops should be instructed in the Academy and afterwards that threats made over the Internet can carry as much threat as threats through the mail or phone. Websites should also have monitors or filters like YouTube to look for comments that may contain threats or upsetting content. Other than that, I’m not sure.

  6. how incredibly awful and frightening. i have never experienced anything at this level, but did get a scary email from a local man once.
    i am simultaneously internet dating, and a guest columnist/community blogger tied to a local chain of newspapers. i received a note from a man who i had connected with online, but i had decided not to meet him, something about him seemed off, then he read my column, and wrote me a scathing letter about how i had used him just to write about and i had better rectify it asap and how all women are liars, and our friendship would be lost if i didn’t make amends. first of all, it was scary and secondly, if was using him as fodder, would i not have met him, would i not have written about him? we were not friends at any level, had never met and i never plan to meet him. my editor said it was very creepy but not a threat so nothing i could really do about it but be careful and she was right –

    1. It’s a real challenge to manage how exposed we can afford to be(come) as bloggers, writers and journalists. I think the best writing requires some vulnerability but then we’re potentially at risk.

      Good luck!

  7. Yes, this is reprehensible. Completely. And yet, I hate to see too much censorship on a fairly open space. But I thought there were laws to handle harassment like this? Maybe this is fantasy on my part, but I actually know of a person who was charged with “making terrorist threats” by leaving a very nasty phone message to an ex-spouse. One that threatened bodily harm, obviously, not just a threat to take them back to court (and yes, the harasser in this case was a woman, not a man).

    What difference does the medium of communication make? A threat of bodily harm is a threat – it’s an assault (maybe not a battery, but assault does not require a physical touching at all). So I guess I’m a bit confused as to why a police officer would act like such a jerk and say, “What’s twitter?” – yes in 2014.

    I have to agree with you in the main and it makes sense that legislators begin to redefine harassment to include internet threats, but I hate to see one more area of censorship that can be used as a club the other way, too.

    1. Messy, isn’t it?

      Not sure where you live, but these laws vary widely state by state and probably within each state (or province) within Canada and the U.S. I knew in 1998 that telephone harassment is a misdemeanor for which you can get someone arrested — in NY, where I live — as the con man I dated was using the phone for a while to terrify me and my family. I learned the law quickly!

      My sense (not a lawyer!) is that, again, the laws are variable, and the misuse of the internet/email is probably less developed in this respect. Sadly, the law isn’t always as quick to respond to current changes as we need it to.

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed reply, Caitlin. I live in California and I suspect we have laws similar to those in New York and (mostly) vice versa.

        In reading other replies to this topic, I think it is the specific threat of rape, not just a threat of other bodily harm or even death, that terrorizes women so poignantly.

        What is it about rape that so gets our “knickers in a twist”? When I try to explain this to men I try to paint the picture of what it is to feel vulnerable basically every day of your life. Men, in general, do not feel this way, but many women (myself included) do. Not that I have decided to not engage in life anymore, but there is a vulnerability there not easily shaken.

      2. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about assault as much as having cops and a DA I no longer have much faith in. It was a really shocking experience to discover they would not protect me from a convicted felon.

  8. Oh wow! I can’t believe some women bloggers are being treated this way.!

    I’m not a journalist, but I was harassed on Twitter in 2012 by a poet/writer. According to his profile, he’s from Canada. He got upset with me because I asked him kindly to stop making sexual comments to me. He was making me really uncomfortable. I stopped replying to his comments on Twitter and he flipped out.

    He then started tweeting and sending me hateful direct messages calling me a bitch, whore, and so on. Saying he hopes I die and I’m crazy. Just awful things. I had to block him. I should have reported him, but I didn’t think about it at the time.
    I later found out from one of my female followers (who is a writer) he was doing this to other women on Twitter., too. Apparently, he trolls women who are writers or who use Twitter and blogs as a forum to discuss current events, family life, writing, etc. She started calling him out on it and let other followers know not to interact with him. She then reported it to Twitter

    He tries to befriend women on Twitter, then starts inappropriately flirting with them. and when asked to stop, flips out and harassed them. It was really unsettling. I’ve never had that happen to me before.

    What bothered me was, I blog about my family life and I share my family photos. I’m careful to omit my last name, location, and other sensitive information. I share my blog on Twitter, as many other bloggers do. It concerned me because what if he lived in my area.

    (I know his name if you ever want to look up his Twitter account.)

    I never realized many women, professional journalist and general bloggers, are being harassed like this. Thank you for sharing and writing this post! More writers need to be aware of this issue.

    1. Poor you!

      That is some scary shit, esp. if the harasser actually lives nearby. My address and phone number (ugh) are on the ‘net because I put my resume on my website years ago. I feel a lot more confident (probably than I should) now, though, because I know a private detective, a DA and several tough NYC lawyers. Oh, and I am a *very* good shot with a Glock 9mm. 🙂

      I’m glad the con man scared the crap out of me. It taught me to get a LOT smarter and tougher about protecting myself, fighting back — and warning other women.

      If we don’t talk about it, we don’t know how bad it can be, or share strategies for fighting these fuckers.

      1. Good for you for being a “good shot”! I need to learn how! 🙂

        And I am glad you were able to find ways to protect yourself and now make other writers aware of this very important issue!

  9. Julia

    This is fascinating. Do you know of anyone in any jurisdiction that has been criminally charged with harassing/threatening online? I think I have heard of this in the case of minors bullying minors and parents working hard to insist that charges and penalties be brought, but I would have to say I don’t know the legal result of these cases.

  10. art

    I tend to avoid social media; this and a couple other blogs I follow. You are a fantastic writer, but every post seems to be some recapitulation of your life story somehow. We get it, you are a journalist and have written 2 book. Why the need to be so repetitive with every post?

    1. A few thoughts:

      1) It’s free. Read it or not. Your call!

      2) I’ve published ***more than 1,500 posts*** since July 2009. Surely, if you have a spare minute or two, you could roam around the archives and find the most popular ones I’ve ever written — like those offering advice to women traveling alone and/or the one about surviving boarding school and/or the multiple posts about how to blog better, filled with helpful advice. i.e. NOT about me or my work at all.

      3) Can’t help you, frankly…I blog for a variety of reasons, as most bloggers do. One, for my pleasure. Two, for readers’ pleasure. Three, to find and grow audiences who will pay me for my skills as a writer, editor and coach. So being coy (or repetitive) about what I do for a living (street cred, boring to you, helpful to others) is my choice. Personally, I don’t enjoy reading blogs where people give me NO clue as to their politics or life experience or work credentials. So, yeah, this is what I do and who I am.

      4) We write from what we know, what we live, how we think and what matters most to us. I have no kids or pets or hobbies. So I talk a lot about my work. Sorry it’s too tedious for you!

  11. My ex-narcissist threatened me over the internet – he was living in Victoria and I was in Alberta at the time – but one call to the local police and he was dealt with. I didn’t experience any more harassment after that. The cavalier treatment that you and others have been getting from law enforcement, however, boggles the mind. Because it’s the internet the treats are meaningless? Yikes!!!

  12. I haven’t personally but there has been a lot in our media about this issue; here in the UK a labour MP called Stella Creasy, and a women who was campaigning for more womens faces on our money, both were severely abused on twitter in a manner similar to which you describe. I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, as such, but it is intolerable that this can go on without more regulation. The women who was campaigning, I apologise her name escapes me, has had some retribution in court but as she points out, what about all the other women without media backing to help them out? What’s worse is one of the abusers who made vile comments, mentioning rape and the like, turned out to be non-other than a women! How sad does that make us feel?

  13. Here in the UK, there has been some progress. This week, two people were hauled into court and pleaded guilty for sending “menacing tweets” to a woman who campaigned to have at least one woman on one of the British bank notes.

    What is surprising is that one of the defendents was a woman and she sent rape threats by tweet. These were very sad people, as I suspect most of these people are.

    I think thast there should be a mechanism in the T&Cs of Twitter, Facebook etc by which such obviously menacing tweets (containing rape or violent threats) – emails etc should be dealt with immediately by the service providers on pain of legal consequemnces if they don’t. If I walk up to a person and threaten (continuously) to rape or kill them – I can be arrested and convicted. The same should be so if it is said across the internet.

  14. Interesting that a police officer would say “what is twitter?”. Most school districts have policies about online harassment of students. And private schools will actually expel students who harass other students online. Online bullying is on the rise and it is scary.

    I haven’t had too many issues on my blog…a few people have made comments assuming I thought like they did, but clearly they were delusional. I wrote an entire post on teaching the holocaust…a woman from Russia wants me to read her thorough study on why the Holocaust is a hoax, because obviously I think like her. What?!! Or the woman that chimed in to my criticism of Oprah over the hand bag thing. I wasn’t saying it didn’t happen, I was just saying German/Swiss customer service is bad….for EVERYONE. So a person who clearly had an anti-Oprah blog thought we were on the same page. When I didn’t post her comments, she kept sending me nasty messages.

  15. Caitln,

    And I thought the harassment I get from Word Press and Twitter was bad. OK, it is bad. But, they have not threatened violence, just regularly shutting down my free speech.

    There is no reason for threats of violence in the world. There is reason for self-defense.

    I do not know where you live(*), but a decent dog, and a Concealed Carry License might be appropriate. On the dogs, retrievers or Russian Mastiffs are the best. For carry? Something you do not fear the recoil.



    (*) don’t need to know, and as part of your personal security, you shouldn’t post that where creeps can find out.

    1. Thanks.

      I live in NY — and have blogged about where, so that is already public. Concealed carry is not an option in my county, nor would it be personal choice. But thanks for your suggestions. I appreciate it!

  16. CRGardenJoe

    Interesting post, and a very thorny issue. The Wild West of information that the Internet has become needs some good cops–but policing information is a difficult, dangerous thing for government to attempt or do well. Yet, I do think that what you describe is harassment that shouldn’t be allowed. Who polices the ‘net and how? And yes, I can see that women are particular targets–especially for inappropriate comment on their looks and for intimidating sexual/rape references. it’s very discouraging. And we do need more females in power to help think about appropriate answers.

    1. Good to hear from you again!

      If there were tougher laws — making such threats the equivalent of assault or battery? along with arrests/prosecutions and convictions — I suspect this would die down pretty quickly. Not holding my breath but it’s got to be dealt with.

  17. I was mobbed on a blog I had when I was setting up my communications consulting business a few years ago. I had the temerity to suggest (in a post) that the IT department of an organisation should not be managing social media (which I had seen happen with disastrous results). That post probably would have gone unnoticed, but I tweeted the link, and then the onslaught started. Comment, after abusive comment, after abusive comment appeared on my blog – most by males who worked in IT. It was relentless and went on for days, stirred up by one individual (male) on Twitter who just would not let up until I apologised for the post a few days later. I have never experienced anything like it in my life, but I know that this is nothing compared to what other women have experienced online.

  18. What a horrifying experience, Caitlin. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. There is something about the anonymity of the internet that allows people to act like downright jerks. While I have not had a negative experience on my blog, I have been targeted on dating websites. When one potential suitor was unhappy that I wasn’t interested, he proceeded to tell me about how I had “put on some weight” and tried to make me feel insignificant. I immediately reported him for harassment and blocked all contact. And this wasn’t the first time I’ve had to report someone for something like this. It is so shocking to hear that threats are not taken seriously. What will have to happen for law enforcement to protect?

  19. I’ve been harassed off line but never online. I had once incident with a client that was harassed, tracked him down and it turned out to be a 14 year old boy using a computer at the Boy’s Club in upstate NY.

    I have a few suggestions:

    Do not put your real information online if you can avoid it. My standard online address is 123 Main Street. If you have to use a real address get a PO box and use that for your online address. If your real address is already online, get it removed. Same with the phone – use a different, or throw away cell that can’t be connected to your real address.

    Do not engage with anyone that is harassing you, ignoring them is the best way to handle it.

    If you get harassed, keep a copy of everything, take a screen shot, track down their IP and document every incident with a time stamp in a file on your computer. I had an offline situation once and I also uploaded a copy to my server.

    Contact their ISP to report the harassment, you can find an ISP with an IP address here: If they’re a pro they’ll have this disguised (Tor, VPN) but keep a record of it anyway.

    If you really feel threatened, file a police report, they won’t want to do it – insist.

    Most of these guys are harmless but on the off chance you run into a real crazy you’ll be glad you have the documentation.

  20. As a blogger, copywriter, and social media person, I’ve always pushed myself to try different online venues. These experiences have not always been positive. As you observed, the same content can elicit very different responses in different places. The worst for me was Reddit–I think that it must be the anonymity of the site that cultivates/attracts a particularly mean type of online personality. People took personal stabs at me–my profession, my sexuality, my romantic life, my alleged financial standing. It was awfully upsetting, and I have to say that I’ve lost any appetite for sites like it.

    I know that these comments aren’t often founded on anything substantial, but being an artist is a sensitive endeavor. You’re constantly putting yourself out there for all to see, and my writer’s armor is still in its nascent stage.

    More than anything, I think these type of experiences have me wondering about all of these nameless, faceless, angry, and hateful people. When the veil is in place, is this who many of us become? Who are these trolls? Are they my neighbors, my cousins, my coworkers, grocery store clerks, bus drivers, preachers, the young, the old, the mentally unstable, old money or new money or no money? And why are they so upset?

    1. Thanks very much for sharing your experience — and sorry (although not at all surprised) to hear how nasty it had gotten for you as well. There’s an ongoing convo right now on Twitter and FB and elsewhere about this harassment and the larger goal of shutting women up. As if! 🙂

      You make a very good point about vulnerability. Many blogs are slick and silly but the ones that resonate are truthful and authentic. Every writer risks indeed in so doing. That armor will **always** have chinks in it.

      Another great question…and one I’ve pondered as well. I think we really live now in an era of formless rage. Think about it…Occupy Wall Street withered years ago, but millions of people in Europe, the U.S. and Canada are completely fed up with lives of penury, debt, falling or stagnant wages and a crappy job market. There is nowhere to vent that rage! In the U.S. many Congressmen are (!?) millionaires, so they have no real idea what it feels like, every day, to struggle hard for voters to progress socially or economically. There are few unions. There are very few communal places to shares stories and take **positive** action toward political, economic or social change.

      Hence, I think, any one of those groups you name might be spewing toxic shit all over the internet…for lack of any other space in which to do so. Income inequality makes it worse as we withdraw into our camps of have and have-nots.

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