The last week has seen a sudden explosion of talk, hashtags, blogs ands news comment pieces regarding harassment of women online. It’s sparked some really interesting discussion about the extent to which it exists and the particular brand of violence and vitriol that many feel is reserved specifically for women.
The discussion began with an article on TheNewStatesman. In it Helen Lewis Hasteley spoke to a range of women who used the internet to amplify their voice. Some were bloggers and feminist activists, some were journalists and one was a conservative, Catholic. The thing they had in common was the level of abuse they got for voicing their opinions in public. All of them had experienced abuse that went far beyond mere disagreement with their opinion but was instead directed at their gender and often their appearance. Many of them had been targeted with violent threats including rape and in some cases they had been sent emails which included their home or work addresses.
In response to this article many bloggers have added their voice to the discussion and articles have appeared on sites such as The Guardian. A Twitter hashtag (#mencallmethings) also appeared, where women could share their stories of abuse and name-calling online, thanks to blogger TigerBeatDown.
So how bad is it, and is it something only women experience? For some women it’s bad. It’s really, really bad and it’s been going on a long time. Much has been written about the experiences of Kathy Sierra in 2007. She was a blogger and prominent consultant on development and programming and her blog was technology based, rather than political or feminist. The level of abuse she began to receive was to the extent that it left her cancelling public appearances and being in genuine fear for her life. She was threatened with having her throat slit and a picture of her with noose around her neck was circulated. She closed her blog, deleted her twitter account and retreated from public life.
Things haven’t improved. Cath Elliott, a feminist and trade union activist as well as blogger and writer for publications such as The Guardian, has had some horrific experiences online. Like Kathy Sierra, in one case hers seemed to be an orchestrated attack through one website. However, she experiences regular and often violent abuse as evidenced by her contributions to the hashtag above.
When reading about cases like this, it’s hard not to believe that there is a large community of people out there determined to shut down the opinion of women - who readily dismiss everything they say on the basis of their gender. If a woman is too pretty, they can’t be smart enough to have opinions worth listening to and if they’re not pretty enough, they can’t be worth paying attention to (being too ugly to rape is a comment which has been levelled at some). Women with opinions are not disagreed with, they’re dismissed.
It is true however that women aren’t the only ones to experience harassment and sometimes violent reaction online. Tim Adams has written in The Guardian about how the culture of the internet breeds trolls and abuse, often directed at comedians for reasons passing understanding.
Hannah Pool wrote a fantastic piece today about her experiences as not just a woman, but a black woman. She gets a particular brand of abuse which includes comments telling her should ‘go back to Africa’ as well as the usual abuse that women get. It’s obviously not an area I have direct experience of but I’ve seen enough of it online to know that racism is just as alive as sexism in online comments.
The comments after some of the recent Guardian pieces on this have made interesting reading as did the reaction published in The Telegraph. Many seem to think that women should just stop moaning and toughen up. Brendan O’Neill seems to think that the reaction to this abuse is merely a Victorian ‘attack of vapours’ brought on by exposure to bad language.
However, it’s too easy to dismiss writers’ experiences as claim they’re a bit too thin-skinned. The level of abuse is just not acceptable and should be challenged. There’s a vast difference between disagreeing with someone and even swearing at them, and saying they deserve to be gang-raped or penetrated with one of a range of objects. Men shouldn’t be shrugging their shoulders and saying it’s just part of internet life either. It shouldn’t be. We should all be loudly proclaiming it to be unacceptable. I wrote recently about the need to address street harassment of women and think this is a similar issue.
So what can be done? Well firstly I think online communities need to call it out. The campaigns against Cath Elliott and Kathy Sierra are perfect examples of mob rule and gang mentality. Communities need to become just that, social communities with acceptable norms and standards. Sites like Comment is Free do a pretty good job of moderation but many sites don’t and should.
What’s much harder to control is the steps that personal people take, anonymously sending emails to writers and bloggers. Twitter at least requires some kind of personal profile which may identify people and prevent public abuse but anyone can set up a temporary email address solely for abusive purposes. Sites like Feministing use occasional name-and-shame tactics in their Anti-feminist mailbag posts. In one case, they received a hateful email from the university email address of a man who turned out to be the public relations officer of the Southern Illinois University College Republicans. Having named and shamed him online, he resigned from this post, sent an email of apology to Feministing and the University administration took action. It is important to call out this behaviour when it occurs but it was nice that he made it so easy by using his real name and email address.
I don’t really have the answers to lessening online abuse or violence and am grateful that, to date, I haven’t received it. Like street harassment though I do believe that sharing stories, gaining strength in numbers and calling it out when we see it will all go a long way.