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Surprise! The Internet Is Not A Nice Place for Women

Raise your hand if you didn't see this coming.


It probably shouldn’t come as a shock, but as Amanda Hess’s new piece for Pacific Standard Magazine points out, women on the Internet get harassed a whole bunch more than men do, and there’s nothing that anyone can really do about it. Hooray! In other depressing-yet-obvious news, the universe is an unfeeling place, and we are all going to die one day.

As Hess notes in the article “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” women on the internet are often targeted for lewd and threatening comments, regardless of whether or not they’re considered public personas in the way that most female journalists are. According to Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents over the past decade are female, and in an experiment conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland in 2006, feminine-sounding usernames in chatrooms got an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. (For the record, male-sounding names only got an average of 3.7 messages of the same kind).

It’s especially difficult to explain the real feelings of fear and anxiety one might feel at the hands of an semi-anonymous commenter on the Internet to local police departments, who not only have little to no jurisdiction or even understanding of social media, but who are more likely to wave away these types of encounters as harmless. In the beginning of the piece, Hess recounts a recent example of harassment lobbied against her, when a friend alerted her to a Twitter account that “seems to have been set up for the purpose of making death threats to you.” She explains her decision to alert the authorities:

My fingers paused over the keyboard. I felt disoriented and terrified. Then embarrassed for being scared, and, finally, pissed. On the one hand, it seemed unlikely that I’d soon be defiled and decapitated at the hands of a serial rapist-murderer. On the other hand, headlessfemalepig was clearly a deranged individual with a bizarre fixation on me. I picked up my phone and dialed 911.

Two hours later, a Palm Springs police officer lumbered up the steps to my hotel room, paused on the outdoor threshold, and began questioning me in a steady clip. I wheeled through the relevant background information: I am a journalist; I live in Los Angeles; sometimes, people don’t like what I write about women, relationships, or sexuality; this was not the first time that someone had responded to my work by threatening to rape and kill me. The cop anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, “What is Twitter?”

According to Hess, it’s not going to get any better until the law figures out a way to take these kinds of threats as seriously as we take offline threats against women — which might mean prosecuting online threats as bias-motivated crimes, she suggests. Easier said than done, but either way, it would certainly be nice if we all stopped pretending that spewing mindless, unwarranted vitriol at other people on the Internet doesn’t have some kind of consequence and that we can all just shrug that sort of thing off without any problem. 

The rest of the article is absolutely worth your time, if you can stomach all the graphic language. And if you have a harassment story of your own that you’d like to share — and let’s face it, if you identify as female, then you do have one — then you should know that Pacific Standard is also accepting anonymous submissions to help “document what could be a coming civil rights issue.” We assume they mean of the magazine, since it’s already, you know, an issue.

(via Pacific Standard Magazine, image via Ian Britton)

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