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Sexist online abuse: Why it’s not just bloggers that are targets

There’s been a lot of discussion online over the past week about the sexist abuse female bloggers put up with from internet trolls. It all kicked off with an article by Helen Lewis-Hasteley in the New Statesman asking female writers for their experiences, carried on to a panel discussion in The Guardian, and has been covered by dozens more bloggers and columnists.

Internet trolls: Definitely not as cute as this...

We all know that anyone expressing an opinion on the internet – male or female – is likely to receive insults and abuse of some kind. Some people take the cloak of anonymity as a green light to act like a prize twat and say things they’d never say to someone’s face.  But females, particularly ones writing about politics or feminism, seem to encounter a particularly nasty, sexualised, gender-based strain of abuse.

Sometimes you’ll get called ‘Ugly’, ‘Lesbian’, or ‘Hairy’ (as if not being attractive automatically makes everything a person says worthless and their opinions invalid). Other times it gets far more sinister – many female bloggers have reported finding rape and death threats in their inboxes.

I wanted to add my two cents about my on experiences of online harassment to highlight the fact that it’s not just bloggers that are targeted. If you’re a female involved in politics or campaigning in any way, be prepared to become a target. Personally, the worst abuse I ever encountered was when I was volunteering for all-female environmental campaigning group Climate Rush.

Vile messages were often left on our Facebook page, one particularly nasty one that sticks in my mind is: “You’re not real women – real women are to be respected, all you lot are good for is to be f***ed in the **** and left for dead in the gutter.” Once someone got hold of a member’s personal email address and sent her an anonymous message calling her a w**** and threatening to throw sulphuric acid in her face.

On top of this we had a lot of “Who’d wanna shag any of you lot?” and “You’re all hairy lezzers!” type comments, which to be honest I find pretty funny, especially as I’m neither a lesbian or particularly hairy (and even if I was, so bloody what?). I also think that if you’re going to use childish insults against me then you obviously don’t have a single well-formed argument with which to disagree with me. However, the actual threats of violence were terrifying. Knowing someone had got hold of one of our personal email addresses (which wasn’t publicly available), and contacted us anonymously, did make me question my safety and if what I was doing was worth it.

I also am certain that we received these comments and threats because of our gender. I’ve seen male bloggers and activists called many things online, but they are usually non-gender specific insults, such as ‘naive hippy’, ‘dirty hippy’, or even ‘d***head’ (yep, internet trolls are such wordsmiths). I have never once seen a man told he should shut up because he’s ugly and no one wants to sleep with him.

Looking back, I think the threats did make me more nervous about expressing my opinions about certain subjects too strongly online, and caused me to take a more softly-softly approach. People abuse and harass in this way because they want someone to shut up, and I’m sad to say that, for me, it worked for a while.

But now, hearing all the women speaking out recently has been really inspiring, and made me realise how important it is that we keep exposing these cowards (because that is what they are) and don’t waste our precious time getting distracted and engaging in discourse with them and, most importantly, don’t let them shut us up. If we want to change all those awful stats, like the fact 4/5 MP’s are still male, then we need to rally against this because I strongly believe it is putting young women off engaging in politics, writing and campaigning.

I’m not sure if censorship/ greater moderation is the answer. The internet is too wild a beast to tame, plus shutting these people up often adds fuel to their fire, causing them to shout “but it’s my freeeeeeeedom of speeeeeeeech, you evil fascist censors!”. I also think taking away anonymity is a massively dark pathway that we really don’t want to walk down. However, I think some kind of ‘naming and shaming’ blog to post abusive comments on could be good, if only to show other women who are receiving harassment that they’re not alone and to provide help and support.

Some people have suggested that the women speaking out at present are ‘belittling’ the abuse the abuse that men receive. This isn’t the case – I am sure some prominet male campaigners and writers receive some very nasty stuff. But this is a subject we can only talk about our own personal experiences of and, in my case, the worst abuse I have received is gender-based, so this is what I am going to talk about. If you are a male activist/ blogger fed up with the harassment you receive, then by all means blog about it, write about it, tweet about it – no one is stopping you!

All in all, I think the best way to beat these trolls is to ignore them, carry on writing, working together and supporting each other until we become a force and voice significantly stronger than them. Hopefully our voices will one day drown out theirs.

Want to read what other writers have been saying? Hannah Pool at The Guardian has written about the racist and sexist abuse she receives as a black writer, Suzanne Moore has detailed the harassment she’s received even before the days of the interwebs, Sianushka has written about the the various forms of sexist online abuse and the excuses people make for them, and Cath Elliott has detailed the horrific comments she was subjected to earlier this year, and how she dealt with them.

(Picture by Cali4beach, shared under creative commons)

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About the Author

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I am a journalist living in Bristol, UK. My work has been published in The Independent, The Guardian, Dazed and Confused, Mixmag and DJ Mag, amonst others. Drop me a line at jess.fmb@gmail.com.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Jess,

    Really good response to what’s been happening this week – as you can imagine, have been following this debate with avid interest.

    You hit the nail on the head when you say both censorship or military moderation is not the key (although in some online communities, community standards which are tight on misogyny would help) and of course I’m a firm believer that anonymity has nothing to do with it either – just take a look at some of the awful sexist hate speech and threats you get below some comment and news articles on Facebook.

    But I don’t think a place for naming and shaming people is the answer either – anyone who deals with trolls regularly will know giving them any attention or engaging with them in any way will only add fuel to the fire (and put off other contributors from getting involved). Have you read Lucy Pepper’s piece on the subject? http://www.trollologist.com/2011/11/the-misogyny-thing/

    So I might suggest the best thing we do is ignore them completely if we can. And, hopefully female bloggers won’t feel they need to shy away from posting what they like because of what a threatening group of trolls might say below their piece.

    Great article.

    • Cheers Han! Hmmmm hadn’t thought about how naming/shaming could encourage them, good point – I suppose many would just get a kick out of knowing they had upset people and that their bullying tactics were working.

      I initially thought it would be a good idea after seeing this site: http://fatuglyorslutty.com/ – I think the solidarity offered to bloggers (or in this case gamers) by a site such as this is really helpful and comforting, as receiving a horrible hate-filled message while you’re all on your own at the computer can feel quite scary and isolating. It’s reassuring to know that other people are experiencing the same thing.

      Cheers for that link, love the little troll illustrations!

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