Jill Filipovic on harassment of women online. (Hey have you ever noticed that this seems to happen to quite a lot of women? That’s interesting, isn’t it.)
We want to believe that the Internet is different from “real life,” that “virtual reality” is a separate sphere from reality-reality. But increasingly, virtual space is just as “real” as life off of the computer. We talk to our closest friends all day long on G-Chat. We engage with political allies and enemies on Twitter and in blog comment sections. We email our moms and our boyfriends. We like photos of our cousin’s cute baby on Facebook. And if we’re writers, we research, publish and promote our work online. My office is a corner of my apartment, and my laptop is my portal into my professional world. There’s nothing “virtual” about it.
Or separate. It’s really not separate.
Imagine going to work and every few days having people in the hallway walk up to you and say things like, “Die, you dumb cunt” and “you deserve to be raped” and, if you’re a woman of color, adding in the n-word and other racial slurs for good measure. Consider how that would impact your performance and your sense of safety. But you still love your job and your co-workers. That’s how the Internet feels for many of us.
Except for the part about every few days. It’s all day every day. Not walking up to you, to be sure, because blocking, but it’s there.
I know these harassment stories are ubiquitous to the point of being boring. “Women get rape threats” is not news. Amanda Hess helpfully details the actual costs of these threats: The hours of work lost to tracking someone down online, to reporting someone to the police, to developing self-protection mechanisms when the police fail, to, in extreme cases, hiring professional enforcement for speaking gigs. For me, the costs included a law school education, professional contacts, and a robust work life.
But what about the things you can’t put a price on? How many stories weren’t written because the women who could best tell them were too afraid? How many people like me, damaged and lashing out, paid their online cruelties forward? How many women look back at the person they were before their skin thickened, before they learned how to deal, when they were a little more sure-footed, and how many of them grieve a little bit for all the good things that got lost in the process of surviving?
What does an online landscape look like when the women most able to tolerate it are the same ones who are best capable of bucking up and shutting parts of themselves down?
Like this one. It could look a lot better than it does.