Several British women writers have decided to tackle the the topic of misogynistic attacks aimed at women who write on the Internet. Helen Lewis Hasteley in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny in the Independent and Vanessa Thorpe and Richard Rogers in the Guardian all write about women bloggers and journalists and the kinds of slurs we routinely receive.
On this side of the pond, Jill at Feministe lists some of the threats she has received and Digby discusses the differences in the treatment she gets now that readers know she is a woman, compared to the time when most readers assumed that she was a man.
It is important to be clear about a few things when discussing this topic. First, the level of malicious attacks women receive is probably higher than the level of malicious attacks men receive, in the sense that if two writers wrote exactly the same opinion pieces but one appeared as female and one appeared as male, the female-seeming writer would receive a more vitriolic treatment. This is only a hypothesis, but it has empirical support from a study: "Assessing the Attack Threat due to IRC Channels"* which assigned Internet bots male, female or neutral names and then observed the number of malicious messages these (silent) bots received:
The female bots received on average 100 malicious private messages a day, exceeding by far the totals of any of the other bots, with the other attack types being roughly equal. It is interesting to note that the bots with ambiguous names received significantly more malicious private messages (on average 25) than the male bots (on average 3.7), but less than the average between the male and female bots (which is around 52).Because this study controlled for everything but the name of the bots, the large differences found must be due to the female, neutral and male names of the bots.
Second, the types of threats or attacks vary by the perceived gender of the writer or blogger. Digby writes:
When people thought I was a male, the insults had a very different tone. They were always on the intellectual/political playing field, tough and challenging but never personal.Now, when things heat up, crude and nasty misogyny appears, the most common being that I'm a bitter old spinster who needs to get laid --- which would come as something of a surprise to my husband. But in normal times I mostly have to put up with being condescendingly lectured about what a silly old bubblehead I am for ....fill in the blank. (My favorite all time comment has to be the fellow who complained, "You wrote a lot better before you came out as a woman.")And Laurie Penny:
You come to expect it, as a woman writer, particularly if you're political. 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, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance, something to phone your girlfriends about, seeking safety in hollow laughter.And Helen Lewis Hasteley:
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. This week, after a particularly ugly slew of threats, I decided to make just a few of those messages public on Twitter, and the response I received was overwhelming. Many could not believe the hate I received, and many more began to share their own stories of harassment, intimidation and abuse.
The sheer volume of sexist abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet's festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a Greatest Hits of insults. But it's very rarely spoken about, for both sound and unsound reasons. No one likes to look like a whiner -- particularly a woman writing in male-dominated fields such as politics, economics or computer games. Others are reluctant to give trolls the "satisfaction" of knowing they're emotionally affected by the abuse, or are afraid of incurring more by speaking out.In short, women are more likely to be attacked simply because of their gender than men are. Writing-as-a-woman is still a crime in the minds of some on the Internet.
Both are understandable reasons, but there's another, less convincing one: doesn't everyone get abuse on the internet? After all, the incivility of the medium has prompted a rash of op-eds and books about the degradation of discourse.
While I won't deny that almost all bloggers attract some extremely inflammatory comments -- and LGBT or non-white ones have their own special fan clubs too -- there is something distinct, identifiable and near-universal about the misogynist hate directed at women online. As New Statesman blogger David Allen Green told me: "In three years of blogging and tweeting about highly controversial political topics I have never once has any of the gender-based abuse that, say, Cath Elliott, Penny Red, or Ellie Gellard routinely receive."
Third, it is important to stress that Internet misogyny is a whole different beast from honest criticism or arguments as long as they are about the topic itself. The latter is to be expected and encouraged. The former has only one intention, and that is to silence women who write on the net. Indeed, to silence all women who would ever consider writing on the net.
The linking to the article caused me trouble. You can access it through this old post.