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?

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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?

Women Who Hate Women Who Write The Wrong Things

Angry woman, Female head, nice nose, hair band...
Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

Fascinating and honest post by Emily Gould on how women hate women who write the “wrong” stuff and how annoying it is:

So I become, once more, the kind of person I can’t bear: the female critic who despises any female writer who doesn’t project what she feels is the accurate or ideal vision of modern womanhood. This critic believes it is her job to tear down women who are “off-message” because there is only so much publishing space allotted to women, and so more attention for them is less attention for her and other worthy types. This critic lives inside us all, but she is also embodied, occasionally, by real people. One of them, an online “feminist” columnist, once wrote a supposed defense of  “women’s voices” that dismissed something I’d written because the photos that accompanied the essay were of me lying (rather unprovocatively, to my mind) in bed. She’d said that the question wasn’t why my voice was being heard–the implied answer being, presumably, my bed-lying ways–but why others weren’t, “in a media landscape in which there are a severely limited number of spaces for women’s writing voices.”…[There is a ] kernel of truth at the heart of that columnist’s infuriating declaration that only a handful of women’s writing voices are heard, and that those prominent voices are too often salacious, self-revealing, “unfeminist”, or otherwise unworthy. Wrong as she is, she is right about one thing: women have not yet come so far that we can shrug off worries about being misrepresented.

It is tempting to feel resentful when we don’t see ourselves or our stories or our ideals reflected in the prevailing narratives of femaleness. Luckily, there is an alternative: instead of simply criticising other women’s stories, we can take it upon ourselves to make sure that our own stories get told. Creating something takes a lot more effort than writing a bad review or a dismissive blog post. But if we don’t make that effort, if instead we keep insisting that a mere handful of female writers are qualified to speak for us, we’ll miss out on the larger truths that are to be found somewhere in the chorus.

I love this and wish we were having that conversation more often.

But we’re not.

The blogosphere, by its nature, is disembodied and asynchronous. There are women out there, of all ages, writing stuff that makes me dance with joy and others whose neck I’d truly like to wring, utterly mesmerized by issues I find trivial and/or inane and/or so deliciously titillating  — lurid sex!! celebrities!! celebrities having lurid, preferably adulterous sex!!! — they’re absolutely guaranteed gazillions of pageviews, book deals, fame, fortune! (No doubt there are women whose hands might reach happily for my neck, too.)

It’s one reason I’ve given up reading most “women’s magazines”, and am so damn grateful for the alternate universe — literally — of the blogosphere. Magazines’ vision of what it means to be female is so narrow, white, thin (or dieting really hard to get there), middle-class, aspirational and, natch, dying to get married and have babies, stat! I know it pleases the advertisers, without whom there would be no magazines, nor the pay rates that make it worth my while to sell a story to a magazine editor. I get that.

Here’s something funny — not! We have a little system here at T/S called Zemanta that suggests photos to accompany our posts. Or you can type in what you seek. Here’s one it can’t handle — “angry woman.”

Seriously! It offered me photos of women mourning (noooo, grief is a little different) and this very, very, very old statue. This is what I’m talking about, the narrow gauge railway along which women are publicly expected to travel: be nice! make people happy!

Tonight I’m off to hear an author (male) talk about his new, raved-about history of Paris, with a new friend, a fellow Francophile and an author of two books about cops. We met recently at a writers’ dinner and — how cool is this? — turned out we know the same lovely, gentle retired NYPD detective, the one who saved me from the con man, whom she interviewed for her book.

The way she thinks, and writes, does matter to me: fearless, tackling tough stories, telling powerful tales that are hard to winkle out. I celebrate women who write cool stuff.

I tend to ignore, (not trash), other women who write stuff I find stupid. It’s only my opinion and millions clearly adore what I find risible or tedious.

An early women’s magazine had the delicious name of The Delineator, and it published from 1873 to 1937, a good, long run. I like the truth of its title. That’s what women’s magazines do — prescribe and proscribe what’s normal and OK and acceptable. Which is why most of them are booooooooring, because the monocultural values they enshrine encourage women to — buy stuff! get married! have kids! work really hard at a white-collar job!

Pretty radical. It’s probably why I sat at the guys’ table in our high school cafeteria and did some of my best writing — sports, guns — for Penthouse. (And, yep, I also wrote for Ms. Go figure.)

Here’s Emily’s blog (and a plug for her new memoir.)

A Little Solitude Is A Powerful Thing: A Room Of One's Own, Even For A Week

Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Viginia Woolf, one of my favorite writers. Image via Wikipedia

Silence. Solitude. Space.

These are three of the most prized commodities anyone creative — hell, anyone — can enjoy. In a culture packed with buzzing, beeping distractions, one that races all the time at top speed and scoffs at those slowpokes who dawdle, having a calm, quiet, private physical space to oneself, with only the hum of the fridge, the rumble (in New York today) of the snowplow or the wind in the trees is a great luxury.

We tend to pity those who live alone, imagining them sad and dreary, pining for company and amusement. Many who live solo, in fact, deeply prize their privacy and quiet.

I’ve been on my own for a whole week, my partner away on business. I’ll join him tomorrow, but oooooh the luxury of not having to clean up or cook or tidy up or be civilized for a while. Feels good to be feral.

Last night I devoured an entire book, “Drive”, by Daniel Pink. Turned off the TV, wasn’t enjoying lively conversation, wasn’t worried about dinner. Just read non-stop, gulping it down.

As many know, it was Virginia Woolf, lecturing to university women, who suggested that every woman needs her own money and a room of her own in order to create.

She’s right. A woman seen to be ignoring the needs of her loved ones is often considered a selfish, wretched demon, no matter how divided she feels between what new work she needs to create and what she has already chosen — family — to create. It’s no wonder some of the world’s most highly creative women eschew marriage and motherhood to get on with their own work, uninterrupted, unharried, undistracted by the jammy hands and dirty socks of people they might adore but whose relentless needs also take up a lot of time and energy.

One of my favorite women creators, whose invention — ironically — helps check the health of newborn babies, was someone who never married, Columbia University physician Dr. Virginia Apgar, for whom the test is named. Her dream, as a devoted amateur aviatrix, was to fly under the George Washington Bridge.

Read any issue of any women’s magazine aimed at those with partners and children, and you’ll find an article on carving out a bit of time and space for yourself. A woman wanting to be alone, like Greta Garbo, is seen as a little odd.

Maybe she’s just…thinking.