Crude insults, aggressive threats, unstinting ridicule

Wo. What was that we were saying about misogynist comments and sexist epithets and stereotype threat and the way racist and homophobic comments are uncool but misogyny is edgy and funny?

Maybe there’s actually something in it?

Crude insults, aggressive threats and unstinting ridicule:  it’s business as usual  in the world of website news commentary – at least for the women who regularly contribute to the national debate.

The frequency of the violent online invective – or “trolling” – levelled at female commentators and columnists is now causing some of the best known names in journalism to hesitate before publishing their opinions. As a result, women writers across the political spectrum are joining to call for a stop to the largely anonymous name-calling.

Largely anonymous, is it? Oh but surely that doesn’t matter. Surely that doesn’t make any difference, and anyway it’s a sacred right. Everybody has a sacred right to anonymously call non-anonymous women bitches and cunts. Obviously.

The columnist Laurie Penny, who writes for the Guardian, New Statesman and Independent, has decided to reveal the amount of abuse she receives in an effort to persuade online discussion forums to police threatening comments more effectively.

“I believe the time for silence is over,” Penny wrote on Friday, detailing a series of anonymous attacks on her appearance, her past and her family. The writer sees this new epidemic of misogynist abuse as tapping an old vein in British public life. Irrelevant personal attacks on women writers and thinkers go back at least to the late 18th century, she says. “The implication that a woman must be sexually appealing to be taken seriously as a thinker did not start with the internet: it’s a charge that has been used to shame and dismiss women’s ideas since long before Mary Wollstonecraft was called ‘a hyena in petticoats’. The net, however, makes it easier for boys in lonely bedrooms to become bullies.”

Linda Grant, who wrote a regular column for the Guardian in the late 1990s, has stopped writing online because of the unpleasant reaction. “I have given it up as a dead loss. In the past, the worst letters were filtered out before they reached me and crucially they were not anonymous,” said Grant.

“What struck me forcibly about the new online world were the violence of three kinds of attitude: islamophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny. And it was the misogyny that surprised me the most. British national newspapers have done little, if anything, to protect their women writers from violent hate-speech.”

The author and feminist writer Natasha Walter has also been deterred. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m less happy to do as much journalism as I used to, because I do feel really uncomfortable with the tone of the debate,” she said. “Under the cloak of anonymity people feel they can express anything, but I didn’t realise there were so many people reading my journalism who felt so strongly and personally antagonistic towards feminism and female writers.”

Neither did I. I do now though – boy do I ever.


  1. otrame says

    Maybe it’s time to stop the anonymity. Some time ago, PZ made it policy that any death threats would be posted, with ALL identity information available. In one case, not long after Crackergate, a man using his wife’s company email got her into serious trouble (and may have gotten her fired). In that case, it wasn’t very nice that the woman got fired, but there should be consequences for some of the more extreme behaviors we are talking about. The man threatened to come to Morris and bash PZ’s head in. Sure he was probably just spouting, but talk like that in meat space has consequences and it should on the internet as well.

    I do not think it should be acceptable to out someone just because you don’t like what they say and even ugly insults, flagrant misogyny, racism, etc. should be disdained but not be grounds for breaking anonymity. I think that it should only be used in cases of 1) death threats; 2) threats of sexual violence (not just “I’m going to rape you” but also “You deserve to be raped”); and 3) a long history of comments that while not quite crossing over the lines above, come very close and do so over and over again, over a period of months or years.The explicit situations in which the blogger will break anonymity should be stated on a sidebar of each blog post.

    Should I ever decide to try blogging, I will have that policy.

    It makes me proud that many women do not let the ugliness intimidate them. I do not mean that those who do have anything to be ashamed of. If you simply can’t deal with it, then you can’t deal with it. In a better world, you wouldn’t have to. I am just proud of those to stand up to it.

  2. says

    Trolls are out there.

    Weirdo trolls are out there.

    They have always been out there. It’s just that the web gives them a chance to engage in debate anonymously. That is, as distinct from meeting a bunch of their co-thinkers down at the nearest neanderthal waterhole for a mutual support session. The net gives them a chance to directly engage the enemy: ie anyone not out of the same concrete-block mould as themselves.

    They have been notably few at N&C over the years I have been reading and commenting here. By way of contrast, CiF at the Grauniad is studded with notices that such and such a comment has been deleted because of whatever.

    What the dickheads who comment this way want above all is to be noticed and to sit in some power chair. If their opponents hit the ball back to them, they are in the game they want. But if the ball gets hit, but deliberately hit out of court, it’s game over. No engagement with the abusive commenter while still engaging with non-abusive ones generally works, as does a polite one word response letting them know you have read their post.

    Though it is tempting to do so at times, I try not to descend to the abusive commenter’s level, following the old Maoist dictum: “Support what the enemy opposes; oppose what the enemy supports.”

    So the first question has to be, what dos this galah want me to do?

  3. Thylacine says

    They are not trolls. And they are not ‘engaging in debate’. These are people who are narcissistic bullies who think it is fun threatening rape and violence against women. These are the ones that absolutely hate women and want to silence all women through fear and threats.
    Please do not trivialise them as merely being trolls. It trivialises the damage they are doing.

  4. says


    Sorry, but trolling includes abusive and threatening behaviour, as well as the usual ‘gadfly’ bullshit.

    Links supplied on request.


    I said ‘dictum’ not ‘dicta’.

    Mao did some awful things, but that does not mean automatically that everything he said was wrong.

  5. sc_63d0a52c1f54231fb3d1d803608070b1 says

    I don’t understand where do you get the notion that racist and homophobic comments are considered “uncool”? This is certainly not the case. I don’t think it’s appropriate to attempt to bolster your case by acting as if other forms of hatred don’t exist or don’t matter.


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