The hazards of being a woman on the internet


Laurie Penny describes the terrible reactions she gets from readers on the internet for daring to have opinions that are outside the mainstream. It is really quite horrific what she has to put up with.

You come to expect it, as a woman writer, particularly if you’re political. You come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats. After a while, the emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance, something to phone your girlfriends about, seeking safety in hollow laughter.

I’d like to say that none of this bothered me – to be one of those women who are strong enough to brush off the abuse, which is always the advice given by people who don’t believe bullies and bigots can be fought. Sometimes I feel that speaking about the strength it takes just to turn on the computer, or how I’ve been afraid to leave my house, is an admission of weakness. Fear that it’s somehow your fault for not being strong enough is, of course, what allows abusers to continue to abuse.

I believe the time for silence is over. If we want to build a truly fair and vibrant community of political debate and social exchange, online and offline, it’s not enough to ignore harassment of women, LGBT people or people of colour who dare to have opinions. Free speech means being free to use technology and participate in public life without fear of abuse – and if the only people who can do so are white, straight men, the internet is not as free as we’d like to believe.

What is it about women in public life or positions of authority that drive some people up the wall? In real life person-to-person interactions, we seem to have reached a stage where women can express opinions in public without too great an expectation of being subject to abuse. Those who dislike it have learned that it is best to keep their views under wraps for fear of being viewed as troglodytes. But the anonymity of the internet seems to release their violent id in really ugly ways.

Comments

  1. says

    the anonymity of the internet seems to release their violent id in really ugly ways.

    That’s the good news: it means that they’re aware that that kind of thing is not welcome in the public discourse. So they have to bravely hide their “manhood” behind the distance and anonymity of the internet. It’s a general trend in trolling – the anonymous annoying troll dates back to the early days of usenet.

    I expect it’ll eventually get better, and here’s why: the fact that they feel they have to hide their identities indicates that they know their particular views are reprehensible and they’re not brave enough to defend them (usually because they don’t know how! I wouldn’t know how to defend racism, homo/lgbt-phobia, or misogyny either!) which means they’re going to be less likely to pass those views on. It may be a multi-generational problem but when it flips – like the current flip in homophobia – those views will be increasingly marginalized. This is why I think the pharyngula-style shouting-down of such ideas in a torrent of abuse is actually productive. It probably won’t make the current crop of trolls wise up but it’s going to teach the next generation of potential trolls why their chosen hobby isn’t going to be particularly gratifying.

  2. says

    Yes. That article is from last year (November 2011). I blogged about it at the time, and so did a lot of other people – because of course it had been (and still is) happening to us too.

    I’m not a bit optimistic that it will “eventually” get better – and when would that be, anyway? I don’t feel much like waiting.

    I’m not optimistic because I thought anybody with any sense already knew better. As far as I knew, this kind of thing was already marginalized – but boy was that wrong. If it’s not now, I don’t see why it would be later. I don’t think people draw any conclusions from their own anonymity other than that they can get away with any old shit.

  3. jenny6833a says

    Dear Ms Laurie Penny:

    I don’t doubt that you get the kind of crap you describe, and I don’t doubt that it bothers you — although speaking of “the strength it takes just to turn on the computer” seems totally foreign to me.

    I’m an outspoken atheist and nudist — I’m not sure which is the most unpopular — and a political and social liberal as well. I post daily on boards frequented by what I’d call Neanderthal jerks and jerkettes. They hand out a lot of nasty insults disparaging my gender, my assumed sexual proclivities, my intelligence, my husband, my kids, and just about everything else. Some such posters are anonymous, but most are not; they use their full names, talk about where they live, and can be found in the phone book or via internet search.

    I also hang out in various chat rooms, waiting for Instant Messages from those who’ve read my profile which deals heavily with nudism. I’m seeking private chat with those who want information on nudism, but 90% of the IMs I get are from men and women who want to talk about sex in the most graphic terms or to engage in cyber sex.

    Whether on discussion boards or in chat rooms, the jerks (and jerkettes) are not all elderly or white, far from it! In fact, the most direct and icky sexual approaches come from men who claim to be young and black and from women who claim to be middle-aged and white.

    While I don’t welcome the insults or the sexual approaches, I’m NOT bothered by any of it and most definitely NOT frightened. It did surprise me in the beginning, some 20 years ago, but that changed quickly. I’ve come to regard it as ho-hum reality in these United States. And, as far as I can tell, it’s not changing.

    Frankly, I don’t identify with your upset. I may be abnormal, but to me it’s just not a big thing.

  4. Rodney Nelson says

    jenny6833a #3

    Does the name Rebecca Watson mean anything to you? Almost two years ago Ms. Watson told about being propositioned in an elevator at 4 AM and made the comment “Guys, don’t do that.” Since then she’s been inflicted with threats of rape and murder on literally a daily basis.

    The women bloggers at this site have told about similar threats for simply expressing their opinions. One woman, Jen McCreight, was hounded off this site by vitriol heaped on her for being a woman with an opinion. (Looking at her blog, Blag Hag, she’s making a few limited posts now, which is good.)

    Apparently you’ve only suffered sexual approaches. Other women have received much worse.

  5. says

    Ophelia @#2 – yes, you’re right. My expectations have been lowered by time and bad experience.

    Anonymity on the internet has been something I’ve been puzzling over since the late 80s. :( It’s one of the valuable things about the ‘net but it’s also one of the reasons we have trolls and cybercriminals/scammers. The first of those is far more than a mild annoyance and the second costs our online economies billions. I’m optimistic that the trolling problem may eventually succumb to social pressure, but the cybercriminals obviously will not. Where does that leave us? As I see it the only effective responses will all require the sacrifice of privacy.

  6. says

    @ Rodney Nelson, who says “Apparently you’ve only suffered sexual approaches. Other women have received much worse.”

    It hasn’t been limited to sexual approaches.

    I mostly ignore insults, sexual stuff, and threats of all kinds. However, I’ve found that quoting the worst of the stuff over and over in my responses embarrasses the OP and results in others jumping on him/her/it as well. In one case, I quoted a threat in my tag line for about a hundred posts. The person dropped off the newsgroup after 50 or so repititions.

    I don’t use potty-mouth language of the kind so common in FtB, I don’t complain about anything, and I don’t show disgust or fear — although my responses can be quite sarcastic. I’m fond of ending responses with a phrase I picked up on alt.atheism: “What a maroon!”

    In short, I don’t engage in the kind of behavior that encourages more of the stuff. Put another way, I don’t give bullies the kind of reaction they’re seeking.

    Other women can get upset, and complain endlessly about their mistreatment, if that’s what floats their boat.

    I don’t.

  7. Stacy says

    You should include the labels of Chill Girl and Queen Bees…labels to disparage, dehumanize, and silence women

    “Chill Girl” and “Queen Bee” are on a level with “You deserve to be raped”? “Chill Girl” and “Queen Bee” dehumanize and silence women?

    Are you really that stupid?

  8. Stacy says

    I don’t use potty-mouth language of the kind so common in FtB, I don’t complain about anything, and I don’t show disgust or fear — although my responses can be quite sarcastic. I’m fond of ending responses with a phrase I picked up on alt.atheism: “What a maroon!”

    In short, I don’t engage in the kind of behavior that encourages more of the stuff. Put another way, I don’t give bullies the kind of reaction they’re seeking.

    Other women can get upset, and complain endlessly about their mistreatment, if that’s what floats their boat.

    I don’t

    Aren’t you special.

    Your only interest seems to be telling us all how superior you are, minimizing the impact of the mistreatment and sneering at other women who are upset about it. Your perspective is noted.

  9. says

    Stacy does her bully act, as follows:

    “Aren’t you special.”

    Dunno about special, but definitely successful. I’ve been posting on the internet, mostly in hostile forums, for nearly 20 years now without a break or a breakdown. My approach would seem to work.

    “Your only interest seems to be telling us all how superior you are, minimizing the impact of the mistreatment and sneering at other women who are upset about it. Your perspective is noted.”

    ROTFLM6833AO

    WHAT A MAROON!

  10. Stacy says

    If you honestly classify what I wrote as “bullying,” you’re either bullshitting us, or you’re not as impervious as you think.

    Dunno about special, but definitely successful.

    Who are you again?

  11. baal says

    This is why I think the pharyngula-style shouting-down of such ideas in a torrent of abuse is actually productive.
    Bull. Answering abuse with abuse is not ok. You’re providing social cover for abusiveness generally and punching the trolls’ activate buttons. That’s not the way forward. I have three observations that take a step back to notice.
    1. RL trolling is much less common than on line trolling. Much of what is done on-line couldn’t fly IRL because you’d get hit with reprisals (or physically just hit).

    2. RW, Ophilia, and other FTB blog hosts & Skepchicks get extreme levels of trolling and abuse. Really, it’s staggering. Other folks who are also loudly feminist don’t (some do but some don’t).

    3. The difference between feminists who get massive abuse and trolling and those who don’t seems to me to be based on how they handle the trolls – not on how they carry out their feminism.

    Sorting out 2&3 takes a lot of meta level reading and noticing what the trolls are up to. My assertion (no, I’m not going to prove anything go test my hypothesis for yourself or write me off apriori as you will) is that by dropping the “shouting down” approach, you’d lose all but the most rabid antis. Trolls are also a bit of a problem where getting rid of them is harder than not providing them food in the first place.

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