Is There a Cyber War on Women?

Some pundits say women are under attack on the Internet. But do they have the data to back up their claims?

No Girls AllowedRock1997Last month, freelance journalist Amanda Hess, in a lengthy feature in Pacific Standard, declared that women are not welcome on the Internet. After describing her own frightening experience of online stalking, Hess lists other ugly incidents and cites statistics and studies arguing that women on the Internet—journalists, bloggers, and general users—are routinely terrorized solely because of their sex. New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat called the article “a candidate for the most troubling magazine essay of 2014.” 

Troubling, indeed. But is it true?

There is no doubt that many women, prominent and obscure, have experienced severe online harassment that can spill over into “real life.” Hess’s stalker, who repeatedly threatened her with rape and murder, went from emails to phone calls and voice mail messages. Whether such harassment is a female-specific problem and so pervasive as to actually deter women’s online participation, is far less clear. 

Hess and her supporters’ argument relies heavily on out-of-context (and sometimes inaccurate) data, anecdotal evidence, and conflating serious harassment with garden-variety trolling and petty insults. These claims, uncritically received, are fanning a moral panic that could punish legitimate speech and create a more negative environment for women on the Internet. 

As evidence of the perils of being a woman online, Hess states that, “of the 3,787 people who reported harassment incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female.” This is an average of 288 women per year and these numbers hardly indicate an epidemic. Moreover, only a minority of the reports involved threats of violence (20 percent on average, and as few as seven percent in 2011-2012). 

It’s important to note that men make up a nontrivial percentage of the victims of online harassment. Some of the disparity is likely due to self-selection; men who are harassed may be less inclined to complain than women. When American Internet users in a random survey by the Pew Research Center last year were asked if they had ever been stalked or harassed online, 13 percent of the women said yes—but so did 11 percent of the men. This is a surprisingly small gap within the poll’s margin of error. 

Hess’s article does not include these statistics, but cites another finding from the same study: “A Pew survey reported that five percent of women who used the Internet said ‘something happened online’ that led them into ‘physical danger.’” For men that figure was three percent. Again, a gender gap so trivial it wasn’t even mentioned in the Pew report on the survey, which gave a combined figure of four percent for both sexes. 

Quoting a different Pew study, Hess reports, “From 2000 to 2005, the percentage of Internet users who participate in online chats and discussion groups dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent, ‘entirely because of women’s fall off in participation.’” She offers this as proof that sometimes, women are actually driven out of virtual spaces by sexist abuse.  Yet this alarming claim turns out to be, quite simply, a pseudo-fact made of statistical smoke and mirrors—an apparent error made by the report’s author, Deborah Fallows, and further amplified by Hess. The statistic is contradicted by one of the study’s own infographics, in which chat and discussion group participation rates for September 2005 are listed as 24 percent for men, 20 percent for women. The full dataset shows considerable volatility for both sexes on this item, with a low of 20 percent for men and 14 percent for women in February 2005. 

In an email responding to my query, Pew senior researcher Mary Madden acknowledged that the wording in the report “does not appear to reflect the fluctuations that occurred in online men's use of chat rooms” and said that “clarifying language” would be added to the text. Meanwhile, other Pew data on Internet usage are dramatically at odds with Hess’s claim that “on the Internet, women are overpowered and devalued.” 

In September 2013, the Pew website featured a “FactTank” brief, “It’s a Woman’s (Social Media) World,” based on the finding that in the last five years, women’s use of social media has exceeded men’s by an average of 8 percentage points. This gap is partly due to Pinterest, where women dominate five to one. But women are also the majority on Facebook, used by 72 percent of women Internet users and 62 percent of men in 2012–2013. Twitter and Tumblr are both close to a 50/50 split. The only predominantly male social media network is Reddit, used by eight percent of the men online and four percent of the women.

Of course, these generally encouraging statistics are cold comfort if you’re in the small minority to be targeted by a cyberstalker. 

But online harassment doesn’t only happen to women. Last August, First Amendment advocate Ken White documented one “progressive” activist’s persistent harassment of several male conservative bloggers, including postings of lurid violent fantasies and, in the case of former writer Lee Stranahan, phony child abuse reports to authorities. Stranahan was also one of several men who received rape and death threats (their phone numbers were also posted online for anyone to see) over their role in a documentary critical of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And, in 2012, a number of bloggers (all male) were targeted in “SWAT-ting” attacks, phone calls intended to trick the police into dispatching an emergency team in response to an alleged homicide.

In a little-noticed response to Hess’s article, Gerard Harbison, a chemistry professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and libertarian who blogs as “The Right-Wing Professor,” described his own experiences with online retaliation. In 2008, a blog called “The Gerard Harbison Files” not only labeled him a “right wing nut” and a “sociopath,” but falsely asserted that he had been “accused of sexual harassment” and was “infamous for making inappropriate sexual advances towards his students.” While the Gerald Harbinson Files has not been updated after the first three posts, it remains online. Harbison believes the culprit is a local Democratic Party activist and says that his attempts to get the page removed proved futile.

Just as the victims of cyber-warfare are not always female, the offenders are not always male. On average, about a third of the reports of online harassment to Working to Halt Online Abuse identify the aggressor as female (with the perpetrator’s gender unknown in another one-fifth of the incidents). 

Last year, novelist James Lasdun published a compelling memoir, “Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked.” He recounts his experience with a former student who contacted him for advice on getting published, then progressed from flirtatious emails to obsessive ones, and finally declared war when he began to ignore her. Over several years, the woman bombarded Lasdun, and several people close to him, with abusive and often threatening emails, faked emails from him to others, and posted vicious attacks in comments threads on his articles and in reviews of his books on She accused him of stealing her writings and ideas, sexually exploiting his female students, and even setting her up to be raped because she wouldn’t sleep with him.

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  • RishJoMo||

    Sometimes man, you jsut have to roll with the punches.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Talk about your cyber wars on women.

  • Fist of Etiquette|| who are harassed may be less inclined to complain than women.

    Ms. Young just fired another shot in the online war on women.

  • John C. Randolph||

    I get threats from internet tough guys all the time. Nazis, Commies, L. Ron Hubtards, etc. I have no reason at all to believe that any of them would actually show up and try to attack me.


  • Palin's Buttplug||

    I've been threatened by GOP tuff-boys on this very site - not that I care very much.

  • Sevo||

    Palin's Buttplug|2.2.14 @ 11:04AM|#
    "I've been threatened by GOP tuff-boys on this very site"

    Cite missing.

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    What, you don't count the voices in his head as reliable sources?

  • Michael Ejercito||

    I frequently post on soc.culture.israel, defending what is right and true. One of the subscribers, who goes by the name of the Revd, keeps calling me a gook and keeps accusing me of having a needledick.

  • Flat Fifth||

    Clearly we need legislation for this including, but not limited to, funding for hotlines and support groups and severe punishments for any who would dare anonymously call someone names.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Watching Meet the Press.
    Is it just my imagination, or are All the President's Fellators starting to sound palpably desperate?

    They seem to be thrashing the water desperately in an attempt to convince themselves his True Glory will be revealed in the fullness of time. Just because he walks like a failure, and talks like a failure...

  • Mokers||

    It's like watching people trying to convince themselves that the rapture is coming. If only they remain faithful then their faith will be rewarded.

  • Ken at Popehat||


    A couple of points.

    1. I am not a statistician -- I am basically innumerate. I have observed this: of all the things I blog about, and many are controversial, the posts that have drawn the most comments and the most vituperative comments have been the ones talking about how women are treated on the internet and inquiring why it makes some people so very angry even to talk about this topic. I don't get people furious at me for discussing any other topics. I recognize that's anecdotal.

    2. As to Lasdun's experience, when he wrote his book about his experience being stalked, a female reviewer wrote and the LA Times printed a review that amounted to "maybe he was asking for it."

    3. It would be interesting to see real and reliable scientific research into this. I have only observations, which are biased. But even though I have drawn crazy stalkers (male and female), it sure appears to me that women saying things on the internet draw threats and nutty vitriol more reliably than men.

  • Tarrou||

    As a participant in a few of those very long comment debates, I seem to recall most of the vituperation from the pro-feminist side, with one or two trolls who got cross-linked from the MRA groups to muddy the waters. There was a lot of interest, to be sure, but most of it was substantive debate. I have no doubt you saw the debate as particularly scathing to your side, but as you note, we are all biased. Just my (unwelcome, I know), two cents.

  • kibby||

    I was rolling my eyes at this & then realized I know people who genuinely believe these things are true. That they're abused, oppressed & constantly in danger simply because they're women.

    & in some countries that is one hundred percent true. In some situations, even -- the campus police at my school are kidding themselves if they think I'm not carrying some self-defense every time I'm there at night.

    But I have an acquaintance (hardly friends anymore, it's hard to be friends with someone you want to hit upside the head with an iron half the time) who sits at home & reads these ridiculously inflated rape statistics posted by places like Jezebel & is convinced that every man she encounters wants to sell her into sex slavery. She's never been on a date. She couldn't even talk to guys when we were in high school, before she was exposed to all this, so you can imagine how terrible she is dealing with them now.

    It makes me sad that young women are being taught that they must be protected from everything, particularly men. Of course there are terrible men out there, but also some really terrible women -- the constant us versus them helps absolutely nobody in the end.

    (This is, uh, long. Sorry.)

  • wareagle||

    it would be more surprising if you did NOT know people like this. When you have marinated for years in a stew of "rape culture/male gaze/patriarchy/ad nauseum", it is impossible to believe there will be no effect on anyone.

    What is ironic is how many of the women who perceive themselves as victimized also bitch about how few decent guys exist. No self-awareness at all.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    I wonder if anyone ever defined "raspe culture"?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Megan McArdle suggests that while most bloggers experience verbal abuse, those “different from the able-bodied, thin, heterosexual white male norm” tend to be singled out for more specific types of abuse—fat jokes, racist or homophobic insults, or gender-specific and sexual taunts, for example.

    Can we finally come up with an adequately derisive term for able-bodied, thin, heterosexual white male normals? This playing field really needs to be leveled.

    Be advised, those of you too lazy to read all the pages of this multipage post, it name drops several Hit & Run commenter favorites (Lindy West, Amanda Marcotte, ect.) so I suggest you give it a read.

  • ||

    I tried. I failed. I could only stand 1.75 pages documenting grievance mongering.

    Fake scandals huh? Has anyone mentioned at H&R that the left constantly projects? That they never argue in good faith?

  • SusanM||

    How about WHAMs (White Heterosexual Affluent Males)?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Wake me up before you get this to catch on on.

  • Flat Fifth||

    Can we finally come up with an adequately derisive term for able-bodied, thin, heterosexual white male normals?

    I would like to help, but I don't think all the white devil, cracker, honkey, white trash, scrawny, bean pole, anorexic, health obsessed, fitness freak, potential rapist, breeders could take the insults.

  • Jon Lester||

    If guys are stupid enough to put this stuff in writing and permanent storage, then girls should save every such thing they get, to substantiate their cases. I've done that with a couple of women's text messages and emails, too; I didn't have to take real action, but I let them know it's all saved, and any more abusiveness would be considered harassment.

    As for the mix of real data and nameless anecdotes, that's never good. I'm kind of reminded of one woman who was complaining about dumb things guys want to do in bed with them, and I finally asked her, have you ever had an intelligent boyfriend? She didn't really answer.

  • np||

    On that NYT hit piece on libertarians:

    There, as of yet, has been no response. Here is the bottom line response Walter Block received from NYT after he attempted to get a correction:
    Dr. Block,Thank you for your reply, but we are comfortable with our characterization of your views.


    As Dr. Block responded to NYT, "Wow"
  • Sevo||

    Maybe Obo could fix the WoW the way he has helped gays. Oh, wait:

    "Now that President Obama has responded to congressional inaction on minimum wages by ordering pay increases for federal contractors' employees, gay-rights advocates want to know why he has ignored their pleas"...

    Surprise! Someone else finds out he's a lying bastard!

  • jester||

    The world is a little more complicated than some seem grasp. Not all cultures in the world have the same take on gender issues. Do we wage war to impose an *ideal* one? Do we incarcerate or economically sanction men into accepting this *ideal*?
    I don't know many guys these days who if they said they hit their wife or girlfriend, would have their buddies condoning it and more likely having their buddies disturbed by it. This is a relatively new attitude and I doubt that it came about because of legal sanctions.
    Men don't beat their wives these days because it just isn't acceptable to most people.
    Modern radical feminism is best described as a war on sexuality.

  • AlmightyJB||

    If you're not being verbally abused on the internet, you're doing it wrong.

  • RishJoMo||

    OK thats liek the craziest thing I have heard all year lol.

  • Vincent Milburn||

    "Quinn Norton offers sound advice: ignore the trolls, flag the ones who won’t go away when ignored."

    Best advice on this whole thing. I never fully understood cyberbullying. There's so many safeguards to shut it off. If someone insults me, I delete the comment or contact the admin and move on.

    One way in which women really do have it worse, though, is that they are judged on looks regardless of context.

  • ||

    One way in which women really do have it worse, though, is that they are judged on looks regardless of context.

    I agree. While I think the idea that women are singled out for harassment is wholly unsubstantiated at best, I will concede that (many) women have some "weak spots"* that men don't -- rape and looks -- and that trolls are cognizant of this and take advantage.

    *Disclaimer which should be obvious, but this is the internet so I have to make it anyway: it's not that women are inherently weak in these respects, it's that (a) outside prison, women are overwhelmingly more subject to rape and (b) society tends to base women's worths on looks much more than it does men's.

  • ||

    A troll attacks a woman. She reacts in the manner the troll wants her to. The troll gets the satisfaction [he or she] was looking for and continues, and perhaps onlookers see this and join in.

    Dealing with trolls 101.

  • R C Dean||

    Considering that known Dem activists have actually instigated no-shitting assaults on their on-line male conservative enemies by having them SWATTED, I think there is no question whatsoever that IRL stalking/harassment is emphatically not a female problem.

    One way in which women really do have it worse, though, is that they are judged on looks regardless of context.

    I would say "different" rather than "worse", because being judged works both ways. Let's not forget that if you are a good-looking woman, you automatically reap a benefit from that regardless of context.

  • hroark314||

    If you want to understand modern feminism, check out XOJane. Over the last week they've published not 1, not 2, but 3 articles about being in a yoga class with one black girl in it. It's an issue of such importance that even the Huffington Post has gotten into the action (though it's only published one article on this pressing topic).

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I've been threatened by GOP tuff-boys on this very site - not that I care very much.

    "Ridiculed" =/= "Threatened"

  • Sevo||

    Now if shreek used words like they had meanings, it wouldn't be shreek, would it?

  • R C Dean||

    Who are the GOPers who hang out here?

    Tulpa and John, perhaps, but they don't strike me as braindead partisans who turn everything into a simplistic, binary MY TEAM GOOD, YOUR TEAM BAD thing.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Who are the GOPers who hang out here?

    Ken Schultz went on a months-long crying jag about how simpleminded libertarian backstabbers, Hell-bent on making the perfect the enemy of the maybe-perhaps-not-quite-ultimately-horrible (aka Romney), handed the election to The Zero.

  • Virginian||

    No, that was Tulpa. Or was it both?

    God that was an annoying time online and IRL. I had one friend trying to convince me to vote for Mittens, and finally I said "Look man, the guy is MA RINO squish. Holding my nose and voting for someone is one thing, but you're basically asking me to pretend that his entire governing record doesn't count, because it was MA and he didn't mean it."

    Honestly, the GOP needs to run someone from Texas who can respond to all the diversity/war on women concern trolling with fervor and humor.

    "Oh I'm sorry, I was talking to the lesbian mayor of the fourth largest city in the nation the other day. Tell me again how backwards my state is."

    They do this stupid shit where they're like "The rubes in the South will always vote for us. If we nominate a Northeastern governor, then we can split off PA!!!!" This will never happen. Ever.

  • FuriousFatMan||

    been on the internet for 20 years. there's still that red X up in the right hand corner of every browser ever that makes it all go away.



  • Sevo||

    Sorta like the folks who shout "KILL YOUR TV!"
    Every one I've ever seen has a switch and it comes from the store with the switch in the "off" position. If you really don't like it, leave the switch where it is.

  • Number 2||

    "Hess and her supporters’ argument relies heavily on out-of-context (and sometimes inaccurate) data, anecdotal evidence, and conflating serious harassment with garden-variety trolling and petty insults. These claims, uncritically received, are fanning a moral panic that could punish legitimate speech..."

    Gee, haven't we been here before? Sounds just like what happened with sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual assault on campus, hookers at the Super Bowl, spousal abuse spiking on Super Bowl Sunday, etc., etc., etc.,

  • Iamcuriousblue||

    First, big props to Cathy Young for finally getting an accurate story on the Internet "gender wars". There's been some very skewed coverage and an incredible double standard perpetrated in how incivility toward women, and feminists in particular, is treated versus general incivility online. In particular, Young is right on the money in seeing the toxic "callout culture" of the online feminist and social justice movements as part of the same phenomenon as online misogynist bullying. I've been saying this for several years now to anyone who will listen.

    I do however, have one quibble with a minor detail in the article:

    'Goldberg’s piece echoes an essay posted last December by blogger Megan Murphy

    Actually, this is a problematic example, because Meghan Murphy is an extremely bad actor and in fact one of the absolute worst "mean girls" on Twitter and other online spaces. She's notorious for claiming victimization in the light of backlash toward nasty fights that she herself has started. The real source of her animus against online feminism is not meanness and incivility per se, because she dishes that out in spades, but rather the fact that the kind of old-school Dwrokinista feminism she pushes so zealously has fallen out of favor, with a more trans- and sex-worker friendly "intersectional feminism" largely supplanting it. Radfms getting a taste of their own vitriol is something Murphy simply can't abide with.

  • Tejicano||

    Maybe I just haven't been paying close attention (again?) to this particular issue but whenever I read about how the internet is so mean to women all I can hear is a nine year old girl whining about not getting her "female privilege" while on-line.

  • dixonm||

    Twenty years ago, on the online service Delphi (i.e., before the Web), I was an active poster on the PC-Compatibles forum. There were a lot of flamewars, and I participated in them vigorously (as did most of the posters there), but I also helped other people with troubleshooting computer problems (as did most of the posters there).

    One day, a newbie showed up and started telling us that we should make the forum more welcoming to women. The forum moderator agreed and suggested holding a special "woman's chat". I wrote to the newbie privately and told her I saw no reason for such handholding; that there was already a women's chat group associated with the forum, just an unofficial one, and I gave her its details.

    Well, she went crying to the forum moderator about how a terrible male chauvinist had flamed her (funny thing was, I hadn't; I'd been being polite by my standards of the time), and the forum moderator took me to task in the forum, and I said, "Whatever else I may be, I'm not a male chauvinist, because I'm a woman myself."

    So thus far, I agree with the above article.

    On the other hand, there is an ironic sequel. For the rest of my time on that forum, just about everyone ignored my technical-help posts. I had been, I think, fairly well-regarded as a source for technical advice, but once they knew I was a woman, that changed. I spent ten years afterwards hiding my gender online, just in case.

  • AgrarianBarbarian||

    Modern women. They want to pick out the resturant, but still expect you to pick up the check. This is just more of the same. If you want to try running the world for a few milennia, ladies, it's fine with me. I've got better things to do, anyway. You're just going to have to develop thicker skin.

  • Sigivald||

    Heuristic: If Amanda Marcotte is on "your side", you want to examine your actions very, very closely and rethink things.

    I suppose Marcotte can't always* be wrong, but over years of seeing her antics I've noticed she comes pretty close.

    (* I mean, she probably likes kittens and thinks the sky is nominally blue, which are both fine positions to hold, and that I agree with.

    But on substantive or disputed issues, well...)

  • Sigivald||

    Iamcuriousblue said: [...] the kind of old-school Dwrokinista feminism she pushes so zealously has fallen out of favor, with a more trans- and sex-worker friendly "intersectional feminism" largely supplanting it.

    Dworkinists vs. intersectional oppression-fetishists?

    "Don't pick sides, pray for an asteroid", as the saying goes.

    (Oh, for the day when feminism becomes what the bumperstickers assure me it is, "the radical proposition that men and women are equal".

    I'm behind that 100%, and act on it to the greatest extent I'm capable of.

    Pity the "feminists" don't seem to think it suffices.)

  • Prattleonboyo||

    Wow, you cite the infamous Hoinsky Kickstarter case and compare it to being a female writer who is stalked/threatened by internet sociopaths. Seriously? I suppose it all boils down to waiting until after the blood is running down the walls and the bodies located (eventually) before threats are to be taken seriously, eh? Good thing I'm a big tough hero and don't have to worry about anyone making threats to dismember/disembowel me BC they disagree with my opinions. 0_o


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