Rape threats via email. Graphic descriptions of your own murder. 140 characters detailing what time a bomb would go off at your home.
That’s apparently now just the price of being online if you are female, according to a graphic and chilling article in which freelance writer Amanda Hess details both her own experience of harassment and cyberstalking and those of other female writers who have been through similar ordeals.
Harassment and bullying occur to many who live in public spaces online, but there is little doubt that the level of ferocity, the intensity of the violence involved, and the obsessive quality and quantity of the actions are focused at a higher rate on those who are female.
“According to a 2005 report by the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking the online lives of Americans for more than a decade, women and men have been logging on in equal numbers since 2000, but the vilest communications are still disproportionately lobbed at women,” writes Hess. “We are more likely to report being stalked and harassed on the Internet—of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female.”
Hess continues: “Just appearing as a woman online, it seems, can be enough to inspire abuse. In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.”
I’ve never experienced the kind of vitriol that many of the women in the article mention, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my own brushes with online harassment. When I first began writing, back in the early 2000′s, I used to have my own personal blog where I opined on politics, women’s rights and whatever else struck me day to day. My own harasser was someone I had met before in real life — I interacted a great deal with the conservative political bloggers in my state, both online and in real life, and he was one of them.
Although our interactions in person were non-events, he was different online. He could be vicious to anyone he disagreed with, but especially to LGBT and abortion rights advocates. A staunch pro-lifer, he’d often comment on my posts, call everyone names (especially me), argue and provoke.
To me, my blog was an extension of my friends and family. So when I became pregnant for the first time, I joyfully shared an ultrasound of the child to be. That was when he went beyond standard trolling and crossed into much more personal territory. He took the image and reposted it on his own site. He doctored it, adding a small helmet on the crown of the head.
He told his readers that they needed to step up and help protect it, since, as a supporter of abortion rights, I was months down the road eventually going to stab it through the skull and “late term abort it.”
The first time I saw it I was stunned. I considered shutting down my entire site. I swore I would never write again. After a few days I calmed down enough to ask him to remove the image and he refused. A month later he posted it a second time.
I had a decision to make. I had no control over him, only control over my reaction to him. I did the only thing I knew I could do. I made a donation to Planned Parenthood in his name, and I posted that online on my own page.
If he wanted to continue to use an image so precious to me to try to hurt me, my only choice was to find a way to make it not hurt. Going away wasn’t an option. Not writing wasn’t an option. Not advocating for my own beliefs was not an option.
Once I made it clear that I would continue to make a donation every time the image was used, he removed it, saying he couldn’t be responsible for the “deaths” he would cause by money going to a group that performs abortions. I began writing for different publications soon after, and he stopped most of his attacks.
Occasionally, he still sends a tweet at me online telling me I’m a baby killer. But they are few and far between. They aren’t like the constant barrage of vitriol that he would spew at me and my online allies back in my early days on the internet. And, luckily, I’ve never grabbed the attention of anyone similar since.
Still, I know how lucky I am. I know that simply the act of being online opens you up to potential trolling if you are lucky, or outright threats and stalking if you are not. Sadly, that seems to have become seen as the price of being a woman online.
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