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The Price of Being a Woman Online

The Price of Being a Woman Online

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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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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121 comments

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8:51AM PST on Jan 23, 2014

Kimberlee W., way to be proactive! Good on you. More victims should have that attitude, if they know the offender's address and details of course.
I would like to add a suggestion that it is best to try to stay anonymous online, don't post personal stuff...only share your personal life with people around you that you meet and interact with in person, that way a potential offender has much less ammo to launch an attack. I know it seems like letting others dictate our sharing online, but if you are not prepared to guard your privacy online, then at least be prepared like Kimberlee to launch an offensive attack if necessary....and also be prepared to rise above whatever any low down dirty cyber attacker decides to hurl your way.

5:38AM PST on Jan 19, 2014

This isn't really unique to women. This is the price you pay for being online when 7~ billion people have access to the internet and a % of them are crazy. Ask anyone who does any form of anything online that's noteworthy, you get threats.

3:37PM PST on Jan 17, 2014

Kimberlee W - lol, awesome

12:19PM PST on Jan 17, 2014

Abuse such as harassment, blackmail, threats is not acceptable and even less online, I fail to understand why is so many people letting this happen and say online all goes and no one is jailed when people can actually get severely depressed and even fail to live their lives normally in fear. Plus often online abusers are someone they know because they actually know intimate details or if not someone they know often can be pervy hackers which hack into the victims computer and steal personal pictures and impersonate the victim online. Many cases like that and worse is, most people don't care they even laugh it off.

3:23PM PST on Jan 16, 2014

Loved this solution!! I had a troll in my face-to-face life who used to give me crap about all my liberal views. At one point, he even tried to screw with my wedding.

So come Christmas, I made donations to the poor, women's shelters and animal shelters. (he was very into social Darwinism) In his name. Sent him the card. Used his address.

One thing I know about the places I donated to - they share info like crazy. This was in the days before e-mail so his physical mail box was full of what he considered crap on a regular basis.
When he harassed me at work after that, I sent a gay porn mag subscription in his name to his very public office.
Women - don't be sensitive in these situations. That's what makes you a target. The author basically laughed in his face. Much better solution.

8:17AM PST on Jan 16, 2014

Thanks for sharing.

8:08AM PST on Jan 16, 2014

Noted.

7:42AM PST on Jan 16, 2014

Educative

9:30PM PST on Jan 15, 2014

lots of men have nothing better to do...go read a book instead of harassing people

8:05PM PST on Jan 15, 2014

Thank you.

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