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.

Comments

"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."

I grew up in a different world. I could claim it's a function of age -- I'm 66, but I expect it's due to a different cause -- I'm a guy. I've had insults tossed at me on the net, but never been threatened with sexual violence. I had thought, or at least hoped, we'd gotten beyond that. This articles saddens me -- totallly.

I read your posts because I find your writing interesting and stimulating, and I really don't give a damn about your sexual orientation -- or your gender, for that matter.

Keep up the good work!

I honestly don't know why so many men seem to think that this kind of behaviour is ok. I can tell you that I never see it in my own life, and that's part of the problem. There's a website called The Anti-Bogan, http://theantibogan.wordpress.com/ with the tagline, "Taking public comments and making them public". It republishes racist and discriminatory comments made publicly on facebook by Australians. This site has not only made the appalling comments of many people on facebook appear when you google their names (good bye job opportunities) but also keeps people like me (who aren't subject to discrimination and therefore tend to forget about it) aware of what's going on, and more sensitive to the problem.

I've heard Sady Doyle started #mencallmethings. This may be a good start, but I don't think its something that comes across the reading desk of many men yet. It would help to mainstream that sort of thing. The more normal men are aware of the shit that some a**holes do, the more those guys get marginalised.

Obviously this isn't a *solution*, but it may be a positive step.

Sadly I don't have short term solutions either. I just said to a friend the other day that I was very thankful that my opinion column in the college paper was pre-internet days for the reasons you say above. Thank you for continuing to put yourself out there to write feminist pieces in particular for writing this one- I forget myself just how many precautions we as women must constantly take and we certainly will not make progress without awareness and discourse.

Just speaking for myself as a white guy, I sometimes forget that women can be targets for such abuse. I don't experience it, no matter how many or what sort of opinions I brandish, and occasionally need reminding that my experience isn't universal.

One of the best solutions might be to do what you're doing here: call out specific behaviors, but without the broad brush treatment, and invite others to participate in a dialogue about how to address the behaviors. It seems to me that the abusive men thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy and silence. Exposing them and their abuse would go far to preventing more of it.

Also, and this is just my hobby horse, I find that people (okay, men) are likely to be much more cordial when they have to attach their real names to their words. Sites need to require verification of email addresses to comment (and maybe a waiting period of a day or two) and encourage people to use their real names. Anonymity and lack of accountability only encourage the worst among us. For abusive emails, well, I don't know if there's a solution except to avoid posting your email address. I would never want mine to be splashed on a website. That might prevent some decent, thoughtful people from emailing you privately with useful comments or ideas, but that's what comment boxes are for.

Thanks for the eye-opening article!

It's not just women and it's not just writing about politics and social issues My husband and I were selling a trailer and advertised in on a free online selling site. My husband made an incredibly innocent joke during an exchange with one interested party (a person who made a ridiculously low ball offer) and as a retort, this person said he had found out where the trailer was located and he was going to burn it. we had to get someone to watch our property until we sold the trailer, which we marketed through an old fashioned newspaper ad-- we never put anything on an online site again. too many weirdoes. the anonimity of the internet has spun people up to bizarre and incredible heights of rage, why, I don't know, and this has spilled over into their interactions with real live humans as well-- been in the post office, the grocery store or the gas station lately and seen someone come unglued? it's scarey. My husband, a six foot ex-Marine and Green beret has often remarked on how difficult it must be to be a woman and know fear when alone in public places, or at night alone in her home. Yes, it is difficult. We are small and comparatively weak, and retiring, most of us. I wish more guys realized that and were as kind and empathetic as my husband.

I am so appalled by reading this. I think it is pure hate speech and criminal. I think internet anonymity is poisonous. I consider myself a feminist and wish I knew or understood this truly perverted behavior. Yes, threatening sexual violence
is the real perversion . I hope men can become human. I'm trying.

I am sorry but as a man I feel like a dog after reading everyones comments. So on be half of all men in the world "We are sorry" and wish that one day we can all get along in the way God wants.

"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…etc.”
Wow, does this ever ring true. Before I relate why, let’s get something straight. I adore men. I enjoy their company. I know they are different from women, and expect them be. I do not see testosterone as a scourge on the planet. Most men are respectful and self-assured around women. I am not what misogynist flamers on the internet would call a dried up old maid. I am a 59 year old, married, heterosexual woman. I would never cheat on my husband! Despite the wedding ring, men flirt with me in the market, or gas station, wherever,--but they're older, late forties to early seventies, and mellowed. Also, the really immature men of that age have been weeded out. They are still chasing 20-30 year olds.
However, that said, I saw my first flasher at 11 (my daughter saw her first at 8), I carry my car keys, longest one pointing out between my index and middle finger. Just in case: better safe than sorry. I have been mugged, and talked my way out two potential rapes by weird random criminals. I have been stocked by ex-boyfriends, and acquaintances and strangers who have a thing about redheads. I have been sexually harassed in the work place--really suggestive comments, grabbing my breasts or buttocks (back when it was still legal), offered work, or threated to be fired, if I lighten up. Groped by an optometrist, grabbed by strange men, and literally tortured by physician who did an operation on me that required general anesthesia. I was kicked in ribs by a boyfriend in front of two police officers as I lay face down in the street. Back then it was still de-facto legal. They suggested I not file a complaint, most women didn't: “it’s a big hassle." I was barely conscious and agreed. And I've had the normal number of anonymous phone calls from sickos who hope to scare me, or get me to talk dirty.
I have had several serious threats to my physical safety from men; but they face to face, or over the phone, so at least I could recognize their voice.
Now with the internet, any anonymous punk can make threats of violence, rape or death to women. He can do this from the safety of his home, to as many women as he has time for. Anonymity has made the threats of sexual violence more graphic violent, widely distributed than ever before. Things change, and yet they still stay the same.

"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…etc.”

Wow, does this ever ring true. Before I relate why, let’s get something straight. I adore men. I enjoy their company. I know they are different from women, and expect them be. I do not see testosterone as a scourge on the planet. Most men are respectful and self-assured around women. I am not what misogynist flamers on the internet would call a dried up old maid. I am a 59 year old, married, heterosexual woman. I would never cheat on my husband! Despite the wedding ring, men flirt with me in the market, or gas station, wherever,--but they're older, late forties to early seventies, and mellowed. Also, the really immature men of that age have been weeded out. They are still chasing 20-30 year olds.

However, that said, I saw my first flasher at 11 (my daughter saw her first at 8), I carry my car keys, longest one pointing out between my index and middle finger. Just in case: better safe than sorry. I have been mugged, and talked my way out two potential rapes by weird random criminals. I have been stocked by ex-boyfriends, and acquaintances and strangers who have a thing about redheads. I have been sexually harassed in the work place--really suggestive comments, grabbing my breasts or buttocks (back when it was still legal), offered work, or threated to be fired, if I lighten up. Groped by an optometrist, grabbed by strange men, and literally tortured bya gynecologist who did an operation on me that required general anesthesia in his office. I was kicked in ribs by a boyfriend in front of two police officers as I lay face down in the street. Back then it was still de-facto legal. They suggested I not file a complaint, most women didn't: “it’s a big hassle." I was barely conscious and agreed. And I've had the normal number of anonymous phone calls from sickos who hope to scare me, or get me to talk dirty.
I have had several serious threats to my physical safety from men; but they face to face, or over the phone, so at least I could recognize their voice.
Now with the internet, any anonymous punk can make threats of violence, rape or death to women. He can do this from the safety of his home, to as many women as he has time for. Anonymity has made the threats of sexual violence more graphic violent, widely distributed than ever before. Things change, and yet they still stay the same.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.