It’s like an avalanche. I’ve heard women speaking out about the online abuse they receive for years, but suddenly, it’s as if it has media traction, and more and more women are coming out to denounce the anti-woman hate speech that seems to be common currency on the internet. Laurie Penny, Helen Lewis Hasteley, Kate Smurthwaite, and now a profile of multiple female online writers all tell the same story: there’s a misogyny epidemic on the net. Ophelia Benson, who gets her share of the abuse too, highlights their stories.
I’m a guy who also gets a fair number of abusive emails — I even have a hobby of posting some of them now and then on the web — but there’s a qualitative difference to what I see. I get death threats regularly, but they’re usually of the form “you should get [violent fate] for [hating god, violating crackers, being liberal]”; I don’t get threats of the form, “[Man], I need to [crude sexual assault] you”. As a man, I can get threats for speaking against some cherished dogma, which I can sort of halfway understand, but I don’t get the threats for just being of my sex and speaking out, period.
I also don’t get much in the way of sexual threats, except for one telling class of insults: the ones that accuse me of being a woman. Vox Day is one of the milder practitioners of this habit: he refers to me as “Pharyngurl”, because after all, it’s demeaning to just reference me as a woman. I’ve had other, nastier messages where I’ve been called a “bitch” and threatened with anal rape, for instance; it’s as if they are first metaphorically translating me into a female so they can then really degrade me thoroughly.
So I get a faint echo of the female experience, and it’s utterly repulsive. As we’re beginning to see as more and more women speak out, the wretchedness is being more thoroughly exposed.
What’s also dismaying is that I once would have thought that people of my ideological stripe, you know, those all-inclusive egalitarian liberals and the rational, objective atheists, wouldn’t be guilty of such anti-woman attitudes. The other guys are the knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing thugs, right? But no — read about Caroline Farrow, a more conservative Catholic blogger — she gets five sexually threatening emails a day! And of course the atheist community in general has experienced some turmoil in the last few months over the revelation that there are openly misogynistic creatures in our ranks.
It’s dismaying. I don’t know what to do, other than to personally reject the attitudes of the people who treat women as lesser beings. I also hope the media doesn’t let attention to this problem flag. I’m sure it’s all going to be major topic at the Women in Secularism conference in May, and I hope journalists are paying attention — there will be some powerful stories coming out of that event. They shouldn’t miss it. As is often the case, an important first step in correcting an injustice is to first shine a light on it.
One other datum: over the years, I’ve had an actual decline in threats. Part of it is because the one event that prompted the most hateful letters, the cracker desecration, has receded into the past. But I think a contributing factor has also been my willingness to post the crazy email, so everyone can point and laugh at it (ridicule really does work), and because I’ve been open about my willingness to expose patent death threats with full source information. The unfortunate side-effect is that my inbox has gotten slightly less weird, the good side is that it’s also gotten slightly less hostile. When women publicize the fact that scum-sucking bottom feeders write the kind of crap they get, it’s going to make the scum-sucking bottom feeders more cautious.