This is just what happens to women online

Laura Bates takes a look at online sexism. (Cue a rumble of outraged outrage in response.)

The internet is a fertile breeding ground for misogyny – you only have to look at the murky bottom waters of Reddit and 4Chan to see the true extent to which it allows violent attitudes towards women to proliferate. But, crucially, it also provides a conduit that enables many who hold those views to attack and abuse women and girls, from what they rightly perceive to be an incredibly secure position. Meanwhile, the police seem near-powerless to take action, social media sites shrug their shoulders, and women are left between a rock and a hard place – simply put up with the abuse as a part of online life, or get off the internet altogether.

These are not just nasty comments, or harsh criticisms – they are extreme, detailed and vitriolic threats of rape, torture and death. I have received messages detailing exactly how I should be disembowelled, which weapons could be used to kill me, and which parts of my body should be raped. When I ignored the threats, they intensified and proliferated, finding out information about my family members and threatening to rape them instead. They are the kind of messages that race around your head at night when you try to sleep, no matter how much you wrote them off as empty scare-mongering during the day. They make you hesitate to post online and change the way you use social media. And nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. Of the three rape threats I reported to police in recent months, two have already been dropped because the police are unable to trace the perpetrators…

Just like Sweetie and any other young girls her age venturing into shared online spaces, the answer seems to be an ambivalent shrug – this is just what happens to women online so you might as well get used to it. And woe betide you if you try to protest the apparent unfairness of that, because didn’t you know that you are threatening free speech?

If this really is just what happens to women online then women face a massive obstacle to being online, don’t we. It’s not a thing you just get used to, nor should it be. The price of participation should not be bullying and harassment, let alone threats of violence. Using harassment and threats to stop people participating is itself a threat to free speech. Which speech has the better claim to freedom? The kind that harasses women just for showing up, or the kind that objects to being harassed just for showing up?



  1. Emily Wishessurnameswereneverinventedinthefirstplace says

    “Using harassment and threats to stop people participating is itself a threat to free speech. Which speech has the better claim to freedom? The kind that harasses women just for showing up, or the kind that objects to being harassed just for showing up?”


  2. Emily Wishessurnameswereneverinventedinthefirstplace says

    Simone de Beauvoir’s understanding of the necessity of intersubjectivity for freedom is instructive. To put it crudely: selfish freedom is not freedom at all.

  3. John Morales says

    It’s an age-old problem — put into simplistic terms, good must necessarily operate under a tactical handicap when confronting evil; that’s what the two stances entail.

    (The asymmetry is built-in)

  4. Cuttlefish says

    She wrote a thoughtful article, and posted it online;
    It showed she was a thinker, and it showed she had a spine
    A critical analysis, presented with true class…
    The geniuses who read it had to comment: “Hey, nice ass!”

    With stubborn perseverance, she resolved again to try—
    She’d interact as mind to mind, or know the reason why—
    When something’s worth the battle, she could never call it quits…
    The geniuses who read it had to comment: “Yo, nice tits!”

    She wondered if she’d wandered into someone else’s world,
    With the banner of misogyny so blatantly unfurled—
    “They treat me like an object, and won’t even get to know me!”
    And the geniuses who read it had to comment: “Baby, blow me!”

    It wasn’t worth the trouble; no reward for her to stay,
    She could tell she wasn’t welcome, so she mostly kept away
    Every now and then, she’d read there, though it mostly made her vexed,
    Cos the geniuses who wrote there had to comment: “Bitchez, Next!”

  5. says

    When you confront many of these folks about what they would think if their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters faced behavior like this, I often see the attitudes change. I’m more optimistic about long term behavior and culture, but getting there will not be easy. Getting out of old cultures and routines and into new ones will take some time but people will get fed up, they will get fed up faster when politicians, and celebrities with harassed family members get in on the act. The internet is sadly a young interaction environment.

  6. MadHatter says

    Brony @6

    I wish I had the optimism you do about the internet. I have in fact faced down men who felt they could abuse me in-person or on the net, and asking them about the women in their lives never seems to change things. These same people may not want their sisters, mothers, daughters, or wives treated that way but that’s not because they are women. It’s because they are in a special category, and those other women aren’t like their women after all. It’s not so different from the virgin-whore dichotomy where the women close to you are perfect and would just never do what those other women do so of course their women don’t deserve the abuse. Of course if their women step out of line they’ll be the first to abuse them back into the safe space.

    As I see it they fail to see any woman as a person deserving of respect just for being a person and the internet just makes it easier for them to express it.

  7. Amy Clare says

    “Using harassment and threats to stop people participating is itself a threat to free speech.”

    Exactly. The dudebros who say ‘waah waah free speech’ have never had anyone threaten to kill or rape them, or hurt their families. The worst that’s happened to them is they’ve had their comments removed by a moderator. They don’t know what it means to have their free speech threatened.

    @6 Brony: Isn’t it sad that it has to be that way, though? That these men have to envision something bad happening to women and girls they care about, rather than actually being able to empathise with any female human simply because they’re human?

    The OP is essentially the reason why despite being an opinionated sort, I’ve never set up my own blog. I’ve already had a small taste of online nastiness from misogynists and I don’t wish to attract any more. I know this means they’ve won, etc, and maybe it means I’m a scaredy-cat, but life is hard enough as it is without hours spent awake at night wondering if aggrieved MRAs could find out where I live. A trillion hats off to all those much braver women including OB and Laura Bates, who put themselves out there anyway.

  8. S Mukherjee says

    Men have had mothers, sisters, wives, daughters for thousands of years in all societies. That hasn’t taught them to respect women as human beings, why should it suddenly work now?

    (I don’t mean that all men behave or believe this way)

  9. Kaliana Dietrich says

    This poses an excellent research idea. A scientific survey of how many women have been victimized in this manner would be beneficial to explaining the prevalence of the problem. I think it has happened at least once to every woman who uses social media sites.

  10. says

    @ MadHatter 7
    Well I did say “many of these folks” for a reason. For each group receptive to a particular strategy, there will the ones that are not receptive. I agree that the family structure is a huge factor there. Many families do see the women in their families as “their women” in possessive ways. These are the cultures and families that still want us to mirror a hunter-gatherer past where biology made some divisions harder to deal with. I’m pretty up front with these folks about thinking that they are regressive social primitives that don’t have solutions for modern living.

    The receptive ones tend to be from families and cultures that at least pay lip service to the idea of women getting an “equal playing field” even if they don’t have the awareness to see the structural problems that prevent it. The hard part is dealing with them in mixed groups and the fact that I am male is an advantage that is all too obvious. Since they are operating on group social rules more than individual social rules the dynamic is harder for you to break and I can’t fault you for your pessimism. I try to be an ally though.

    @ Amy Clare 8
    It is sad, but it’s also implicit in how our hardware and software work. Our mental simulations of other people are based off of the mental simulation for ourselves. We (general human “we”) define everything based on how it relates to ourselves. Our in-groups are mental extrapolations of family, and out-groups are mental extrapolations of how we see potential predators.

    Black-and-white dichotomous thinking is the default state and thinking in spectra or probabilities has to be learned. So many of us (especially the young, and those socialized to take aggressive approaches to disagreement) start with simple cognitive best and worst case predictions of the things we encounter and in politics (which this whole slymepit thing really is) we hardly ever get out of the habit of the out-group being the “worst thing ever” and the in-group being the “best thing ever” and in a stressed society we get even more black and white than “normal”. Add in all the cognitive fallacies and methods of biased thinking meant to enable us to “win” instead of be correct about reality and you have our modern problem, and local problem. Huge swaths of their behavior is meant to avoid actually addressing what you think, rather the group just implicitly accepts that you are not worth paying attention to ahead of time.

    Getting through that requires a group effort so even commenting on blogs like this is helpful. You don’t need a blog of your own, just supporting the people blogging is a good place to be. FTB is a safe space and elements in the pit HATE that, even if they don’t really know why. The communities will continue to grind against each other because the pit was born as a response. Figuring out how to respond to that is key, which is where my mind has been living lately. This is not the only embattled community that I try to be involved in.

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