Earlier this month, Amanda Hess’s terrific article for Pacific Standard on her experience with cyber harassment and why, as the headline stated, “women aren’t welcome on the Internet” quickly prompted a number of responses. Jill Filipovic wrote about what happened when an online harasser experiencing a psychological breakdown tracked her down in real life. Megan McArdle weighed in on the double standard women who work in political journalism face, not only from online crazies, but also from otherwise intelligent men (and women) who arrogantly dismiss their views.
Male writers also shared their thoughts. Conor Friedersdorf wondered how many women have left online journalism as a result of the “hyper-sexualized hate” they received, and Ross Douthat encouraged his audience to ponder the root causes of the misogyny behind the harassment. Their responses were thoughtful and well-intentioned, but both men’s pieces also demonstrated some of the practices and ways of thinking that have led to their female peers’ predicament.
In his article for The Atlantic, Friedersdorf writes that the harassment and abuse women, as well as gay men, face online is an issue that “deserves more attention.” After a stint as a guest blogger for McArdle opened his eyes to the vitriol woman writers receive on the Internet, Friedersdorf spent time asking female friends about their experiences with online harassment and thinking about its detrimental consequences. However, his main point—the idea that moderators should consider removing hostile comments that are left on their websites—fundamentally misunderstands the problem. Hess makes clear in her piece that having a record of all the threatening tweets and comments she receives is one of the only ways she feels she can fight back against her online attackers.
“It’s been four years, but I still carry the case files with me,” she writes of a particularly determined online stalker in her concluding paragraph, “I record every tweet he sends me in a Word document, forward his emails to a dedicated account, then print them out to ensure I’ll have them ready for police in analog form if he ever threatens me again (or worse) ... The stacks of paper are filed neatly in my apartment. My anxieties are harder to organize.”
Hess also described the frustration of a series of threatening tweets being erased from Twitter after a well-meaning friend reported them to the website. Had she not taken screenshots of the tweets before the friend did so, they would have been lost as evidence in any future investigation. And deleting comments can be more damaging than deleting tweets. Twitter is not able to give out its users’ IP addresses, whereas invective left in a comments section can often be linked to an IP address, and therefore an exact location of its writer. In advocating an approach to create a safer environment for female journalists, Friedersdorf accidentally dismisses one of the best (and only) mechanisms that exist to identify cyberstalkers.
Douthat is more interested in examining the ideology behind the harassment of female writers. The “intraliberal misogyny” he briefly discusses vis-à-vis Rebecca Watson’s experience in the freethought community—the idea that many progressive men are still sexist in ways that undermine with their liberal ideals—is an idea that bears scrutiny. (Brocialism, anyone?) However, it should be noted that, if it exists, this breed of misogyny does not result from a combination of a “species of reaction” and the “dark fruit of sexual liberation,” as Douthat posits. It stems from a deep, internalized sense of violation of the dominance to which certain men feel entitled, a resentment toward the equality (and sometimes superiority) increasingly gained by women.
Furthermore, Douthat offers little evidence to back his assertion that intraliberal misogyny is a bigger problem than any kind of conservative misogyny. Presenting anecdotal evidence or a quote from a woman who had experienced it firsthand would have been revealing. Instead, Douthat links to McArdle’s piece, in which she explicitly states, “My experience is that the torrent of abuse comes not from ‘conservatives’ or liberals’ but from ‘people you are disagreeing with.’"
By misreading the message of McArdle’s piece, Douthat diminishes the concrete solution she offers. What’s interesting is that McArdle doesn’t actually see online harassment as “the real problem.” According to McArdle, the issue women on the Internet encounter is not being harassed by crazies, but rather being dismissed by peers. “A woman who is vociferously agreeing with you is not exactly violating the patriarchal dynamic, is she?” she asks. Women are noticeably absent in places like the “Bloggers on the other side I enjoy” lists that prominent writers often post.
The solution starts with people in prestigious media roles not dismissing women in the ways McArdle posits they do right now. Not every woman with an opposing viewpoint is “such an idiot” (which is how she argues we are seen right now). When men and women start to take women with whom they disagree seriously, it elevates women’s status, online and off. It’s one step toward getting rid of the entitlement cyber harassers feel they have to threaten and intimidate us.