The Internet Miniskirt

I've been lucky. There was no Internet back in the 1990s when I was one of the few women writing in the mainstream media about LGBT issues. Hate mail, then, was actual, physical mail, usually sent to a newspaper and forwarded, although one or two writers somehow found my home address. But even those were pretty mild. The usual theme was that I was going to hell; sometimes I got conversion pamphlets, with handy cartoon illustrations of people on fire. I got a couple of letters with disgustingly graphic ideas about my sex life, but those were overshadowed by the religious pamphlets and the psychotics' letters—which you learned to recognize by the tiny handwriting on the envelope, and which ran six to ten pages, and almost always mentioned alien life forms somehow.

So when, in the Internet era, I started writing more about women's economic lives—exposing the gross details of sexual harassment, or explaining the violence involved in occupational segregation—I was honestly shocked by the responses. Write about gay people, and you get told to go to hell. Write about women, and you get threatened with rape. I don't know about you, but I find hell much less frightening.

Over at The Independent, Laurie Penny has written a must-read exposé of what it means to be a woman with an opinion:

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...

An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they'd like to rape, kill and urinate on you....

Like many others, I have also received more direct threats, like the men who hunted down and threatened to publish old photographs of me which are relevant to my work only if one believes that any budding feminist journalist should remain entirely sober, fully clothed and completely vertical for the entirety of her first year of university. Efforts, too, were made to track down and harass my family, including my two school-age sisters. After one particular round of rape threats, including the suggestion that, for criticising neoliberal economic policymaking, I should be made to fellate a row of bankers at knifepoint, I was informed that people were searching for my home address. I could go on....

Penny is aware that she's far from alone. I know women who've been stalked for publishing. I know many who've received similar sexualized threats, regularly, over long periods of time. Penny calls for a public discussion of how to end the normalization of the sexual threats against women who dare to think. I am trying to understand what such a discussion would be like. In her ironically titled piece, "The Girl's Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet," Sady Doyle offers more detail about the disgusting personal attacks, with more detailed language (the "c" word is frequently deployed) and stories about "Santorum"-style online attacks, aimed at preventing women from getting jobs, or online attackers who find bloggers' family members' addresses for additional attacks:

This is the game, for feminist bloggers: the more recognition you receive, the more dangerous the job becomes. Other writers may be able to nurture ambition, and pursue goals without ambivalence. Feminists, on the other hand, live with the fear of Schrodinger’s Promotion. Every step we take toward recognition might be the step that makes blogging itself an intolerable risk. I’ve spoken to other bloggers — one of them male — who have changed pseudonyms or deleted blogs once they got an unacceptably large readership, just to avoid it. Those who stay put have paid a high price.

I'm lucky over here at the Prospect: You, readers, have treated me with respect, unlike some of the readers I've had at, say, TPMCafe (several years ago), or those I've had when I've published in The Washington Post. Perhaps that's because you're only reading me here if you already agree. Perhaps it's because I'm a middle-aged dyke and therefore not a prime target as a male sexual object. I'm fine with that. Whatever the reason, thank you.

But the underlying issue isn't particular to women with opinions. Fear of publishing one's thoughts is just an extension of the underlying fear women have of being public at all. It's sexual harassment and street harassment in just another venue. After a certain age—say, by 19—women know that we must keep our heads up and our eyes open in the back stacks of libraries or hidden areas of public parks, lest we encounter flashers or worse; be alert when walking at night or in empty areas; stay near streetlights and away from parked cars; keep our keys splayed in our fingers as potential weapons if jumped; check our back seats before getting into our cars and to lock the car instantly on getting in; make sure a friend knows where we are at all times; avoid being near certain bosses alone. Heterosexual women know, when dating, not to give out their home addresses until they've run criminal background and personal reference checks on a dating prospect (okay, maybe the criminal background checks are illegal and impossible, but many wish they were not).

A lot of men have no idea how fully women's lives are limned by caution and fear. This is the invisible burka for women in the West. I don't mean to exaggerate it—god forbid that I should be mocked by Katie Roiphe, who has made a silly career of asserting that sexual violence is just flirting by another name—but neither should this gendered background noise continue to go unnoticed.

Here's the larger question for me: Why do so many men feel comfortable having and acting on such sexually violent attitudes toward women? What will it take to end this underlying beastly treatment of women who dare to be anything but silent bodies? How do we end this epidemic of violent disrespect? I am honestly asking for your thoughts.