November 16, 2011 - originally published on fem 2.0
“You come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats,” writes Laurie Penny of The Independent.
What has Penny done to deserve the barrage of attack and abuse? Oh, well, she’s a woman writer.
Over the past weeks, women bloggers and writers including Penny have taken to Twitter (#mencallmethings) to share their stories of the abuse they have faced as women writing online.
Scrolling through the thousands of tweets and blog posts emerging about the topic, themes start to emerge: rape, “slut,” “hoe”… you get the picture. The threats and insults these women have faced are often graphic, often sexual, and almost always unwarranted and hurtful.
The theme of trolls leaving unsavory comments on websites of course isn’t new, or exclusive to women writing online. Part of the deal when writing on the internet – man or woman – is opening yourself up to criticism and comments. The issue here, though, isn’t criticism. It’s the misogyny veiled as criticism. Calling a woman a ‘slut’ in response to a political post or threatening to rape her isn’t criticism. It’s abusive.
Further while the internet has blurred boundaries and most content produced online falls under free speech, as Helen Lewis-Hastley of the New Statesman makes an important distinction – that the right to free speech is not the right to make threats against another person.
These comments are worrying not only because they make the internet feel a little less safe, but also because they are telling about society. That some deem it acceptable to criticize a writer based on gender, to comment with threats of sexual violence is worrying. And that someone’s gender can be seen by trolls and critics as a writer’s weak spot – an easy target to attack – is just appalling.
The price that women pay for sharing their opinions should not be threats and abuse, and equally importantly, should not be sexualized threats and gender-based abuse.
Many bloggers – often those who have faced such comments – have spoken up in recent weeks about #mencallmethings and the abuse that they face. While anger from these women is expected and universal, that they often argue that these trolls are an expected part our reality is a harsh truth.
For example, Kate Smurthwaite of Cruellablog writes, “These comments reveal a deep-seated hatred towards women. I find that unsurprising in our culture. Violent, extreme pornography is normal internet fare. Gang rape and prostitution are subjects for popular music. At least 95% of actual rapists are on the streets.” #mencallmethings is just the tip of a very big iceberg – it’s indicative of bigger problems in society – that “we still live in a sexist society, [and] any woman who sticks her head above the parapet will encounter misogynistic abuse,” according to Natalie Dzerins ofForty Shades of Grey.
It’s worth noting, of course, that while the internet has in a sense enabled this trolls – giving them an easy voice, these trolls are not representative of all commentators.
Just look at the solidarity found on #mencallmethings. Just as there are critics and abusers, there are many offering comfort and calling out for change.
And as the women who face vitriol share their struggles and their stories, they further an important discussion, not only about comments on the internet, but about the underlying causes for these comments in society. By discussing the opinions and stereotypes fueling this abuse, we take another step toward tackling the misogyny behind it.