Last 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 Breitbart.com 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 Amazon.com. 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.
In her article, Hess mentions the arrest of "three men" for making rape and death threats on Twitter to British feminist activist Carolyn Criado-Perez last year. Hess does not mention that a woman, 23-year-old Isabella Sorley, was also arrested. Additionally, only Sorely and one of the three men, John Nimmo, were prosecuted for the threats. Criado-Perez blamed Sorely's participation on internalized misogyny. Sorley herself blamed booze and boredom.
Men are also targets of online harassment as punishment for perceived antifeminist transgressions. Ken Hoinsky tried to raise money on Kickstarter to publish a men's "guide to being awesome with women" and received hundreds of abusive messages, including death threats, after excerpts were posted online and the book's advice on "escalating" physical intimacy was interpreted as encouraging sexual assault.
While Hess looks primarily at harassment and threats, some of the ensuing discussion has focused on less extreme forms of nastiness, such as abusive feedback (particularly sexual slurs) received by female bloggers and online journalists. 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. McArdle also believes that female commentators are generally respected less than men by their political counterparts and tend to elicit more vitriolic or dismissive responses from women and men alike.
Is this kind of prejudice really common? Perhaps, though it's nearly impossible to either prove or disprove. It always comes down to somewhat subjective claims that so-and-so would have been treated differently had genders been switched. Perhaps, as McArdle argues, an outspoken woman with whom one disagrees taps into many people's still-lingering, unconscious, atavistic distaste for women who step outside a proper feminine role.
But that's only half the story. Critics of anti-female bias underestimate the extent to which both sexual and political stereotypes may work against men. A man who gets into a fight with a woman risks being seen as a bully if he wins, a weakling if he loses. Women in the public eye may experience more hate, but they may also benefit from chivalry. For example, the recent outrage at ex-MSNBC host Martin Bashir's attack on Sarah Palin, was undoubtedly magnified by the fact that Bashir's target was female.
Female journalists, meanwhile, can get away with explicitly sexist attacks on their male colleagues. Last August, after getting into an on-air spat about U.S.–Russian relations with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, New Republic senior editor Julia Ioffe penned an article titled "Dear Lawrence O'Donnell, Don't Mansplain to Me About Russia." In January, Marjorie Ingalls, a columnist for the online Jewish magazine Tablet, derided male reviewers who were insufficiently impressed by Disney's latest animated feature "Frozen" as "boys" who miss the film's girl-power message because they are "writing with their penises."
As for nastiness in Internet comments, it is treated as white noise when directed at male writers. Comments on a 2012 piece by Deadspin columnist Drew Magary criticizing Jerry Seinfeld included: suggestions that Magary wrote the article while masturbating, advice to get some sexual action, a wish for Magary's genitalia to become infested with large maggots, and a threat to drive a pen up his urethra. Men routinely get comments impugning the size, or even the existence, of their male organs and are not infrequently accused of being sexual predators or perverts.
In The Atlantic.com, Conor Friedersdorf asserts that women are singled out for particularly demeaning and vitriolic abuse (and that such sexism is at least partly to blame for the relative paucity of female voices in the political blogosphere). Yet Friedersdorf himself was the target of some nasty sexually themed attacks from the far-right blogosphere in 2011. After he made fun of the poorly attended premiere of the pro-Palin documentary, Undefeated, two conservative bloggers responded with apparently satirical innuendo that Friedersdorf had made lecherous overtures to two teenage girls whom he interviewed at the movie theater. One post was headlined, "Conor 'Pee Wee Herman' Friedersdorf Exposes Himself To Female At Palin Film Showing."
Directed at a woman, such an attack would have likely struck Friedersdorf as horrific misogyny. When directed at himself, he treats it as deplorably crass but not particularly injurious.
This double standard is based partly on women's greater sexual vulnerability (specifically, the risk of sexual violence) and partly on historical inequities. Because journalism and political discourse were traditionally men's territory, a slur that targets a woman's gender or sexuality is taken to attack her as an interloper. A below-the-belt insult directed at a male writer is just an insult.
There is, of course, another aspect to this issue: Much of the abuse Hess deplores is directed not simply at women, but at active feminists. This is easy to interpret as misogynist backlash against women's quest for equality. Yet any honest discussion has to acknowledge the fact that modern feminism is not simply a pro-equality movement but rather, one that has disturbing strands of hate—a movement whose adherents argue that women should treat every man as a potential rapist and that the collective bashing of men is a justified response to women's oppression. Internet feminists have played a major role in turning online discussion of gender issues into a toxic swamp that naturally attracts trolls.
Amanda Marcotte, Hess's colleague at Slate.com, once hurled such epithets as "rape-loving scum" at commenters who questioned the guilt of the three Duke lacrosse players accused (falsely, as it turned out) of raping a stripper. More recently, atheist feminist and frequent troll target Rebecca Watson made a Twitter post stating that sex with "someone who is drunk" is always rape. She received reasonable objections to the statement, such as, "What blood alcohol content negates consent?" and "Is it mutual rape if you're both drunk?" Watson responded with a tweet that arguably qualifies as trolling in its own right: "Here's a thought, assholes: don't ask me if your specific situation is rape. Ask the one you're fucking." To cap it off, Watson reported the dust-up on her blog under the headline, "Twitter Users Sad to Hear They May Be Rapists."
Blogger and columnist Susannah Breslin often writes about sex-related matters and readily admits to getting her share of sexually abusive online comments. In an email exchange, she stated that she feels sympathy for feminist writers who have been harassed and threatened, but also believes feminist behavior is part of the problem. According to Breslin, "Today's feminism by and large defines itself in relation to men. It's about obsessing over how men are keeping women down and about attacking men for all the wrong they do. This feminism promotes reverse sexism." Moreover, she argues, "Feminists are the new thought police online, self-appointed cops for what men can and can't say on the Internet. And when you establish that as your methodology, men are not going to respond well."
The strategies many feminists propose for dealing with online harassment may hurt more than help. In a Jezebel.com article last July, Lindy West argued that, because online attacks on feminists are not simply random trolling but "hate speech … directly aligned with our male-supremacist power structure," they should not be dismissed or ignored but widely publicized and met with counterattacks. Watson has given similar advice, asserting that what misogynist trolls actually seek is not attention but the silencing of outspoken women, and thus remaining silent about their attacks gives them exactly what they want.
Criado-Perez, the British activist whose experience with Twitter attacks brought attention to the issue last year, has angrily lashed back at supportive Twitter users who have suggested that publicizing abusive tweets is counterproductive. She went so far as to threaten one of them, Guardian columnist Nicola Clarke with legal action for "harassing" her.
Yet, in reality—if the Criado-Perez case is any indication—these alleged cyber-warriors for male supremacy are likely to be losers and social misfits who do, in fact, take attention as encouragement.
"I think a lot of the so-called harassment is a self-perpetuating monster," Ellen Beth Wachs, founder of Atheists and Humanists of Florida, told me by email. "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."
Wachs is no stranger to harassment. At one point, she says, an obsessive cyberstalker, who targeted her as first an atheist and then as a feminist, not only sent abusive emails but created fake social media accounts in her name. She believes that real online harassment, sexist or otherwise, needs to be taken more seriously by both Internet companies and legal authorities. Yet Wachs also stresses that such threats need to be differentiated from garden-variety nastiness, ramblings by unbalanced people, and even comments that get labeled as misogynist trolling for merely questioning the feminist party line.
Both Breslin and Wachs have had run-ins with another kind of "gendered" online abuse: feminist trashing of female dissenters. Breslin encountered this in 2010 when she wrote a blogpost on the True Slant site criticizing the vogue for "trigger warnings" on feminist and social justice blogs (based on the idea that the readership is filled with trauma survivors who must be warned about flashback-triggering references to everything from rape to racism). The response was a hatefest in the comments on the post and on several feminist blogs. Breslin was slammed as a "Sister F***er," a "certifiable asshole," and a "cunt." For months after, she says, "an unhinged woman" sent her emails saying that she should be raped and killed.
Caroline Kitchens, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, came under feminist fire last fall after she wrote a column for U.S. News & World Report questioning the existence of a campus rape epidemic. Jezebel.com trashed her as a victim-blaming, slut-shaming man-pleaser and included a link to her Twitter page. Kitchens, a recent college graduate, received such a deluge of abusive tweets that she temporarily stopped using Twitter.
For Kitchens, the attacks ultimately strengthened her determination to soldier on. For women who are part of the online sisterhood, the toll of such bullying can be devastating. The Nation recently published a controversial article by Michelle Goldberg on "feminism's toxic Twitter wars," bitter, endless conflicts in which women are savaged for perceived ideological infractions, heresies and impurities, leaving many fearful of saying anything at all. Goldberg's piece echoes an essay posted last December by blogger Megan Murphy lamenting that Twitter feminism had turned into a "mean girls-style popularity contest" and an "absolutely endless stream of hate." With friends like these, who needs misogynist enemies.
In principle I don't have a problem with the idea that there should be less Internet nastiness. I even think Hess has a point when she argues that defenders of online anonymity sometimes underestimate the damage of cyber-harassment and stalking, especially when accompanied by nontrivial threats of violence, privacy violations, or slander. According to Stranahan, the conservative blogger who has been a target of such attacks, they can actively discourage people from blogging. "Some of the smartest political people I know have told me, 'I would never blog in a million years. I saw what happened to you, what happened to your wife, your kids' pictures being posted online,'" he says.
But framing this issue as a devastating "war on women" does far more harm than good. On a broad level, it continues the blame-and-shame cycle that has made gender debates such fertile ground for trolls and bullies.
Hess's article prompted Damon Linker, a columnist for The Week, to write that Hess's account of online abuse towards female journalists made him feel shame for his gender. Linker pokes preemptive fun at those who would accuse him of joining the "war against men." But one needn't embrace the "war" rhetoric to see his nostra culpa as the kind of collective guilt-tripping that could not be safely directed at any other group.
Meanwhile, in a BBC discussion of sexist abuse on Twitter, American tech journalist Quinn Norton opined that the larger problem is that "men are raised to hate women." Note how a discussion of hate speech towards women by anonymous Internet trolls becomes a vehicle for hate speech about men by a female journalist in a major media outlet.
In more specific terms, the crusade against online abuse of women can turn into suppression of legitimate criticism of feminists, particularly in countries with no First Amendment protections. In Canada, 53-year-old Toronto artist and designer Gregory Allan Eliot is currently on trial for "criminal harassment" toward three feminist activists with whom he had been embroiled in a political dispute on Twitter. The prosecution acknowledges that none of Eliot's tweets contained threatening language, only epithets such as the hashtag #fascistfeminists. Meanwhile, his supporters argue that Eliot himself was the target of abuse from Twitter feminists. Among other things, they point to a 2012 exchange in which Eliot questioned the morality of murder in retaliation for rape and a woman responded by repeatedly suggesting that his sons were rapists.
In the United States, the calls for Internet speech policing are directed primarily at social media companies, which obviously don't want to be seen as condoning online abuse of women. Last summer, an Internet user known as "Elevatorgate" had his Twitter account closed after several feminist bloggers complained that he was harassing them by using the Storify platform to compile, republish, and ridicule their public tweets. By that definition, MediaMatters.org could be taken down for harassing Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and other right-wing pundits.
Around the same time, feminist activists mounted a successful effort to pressure Facebook to crack down on "misogynist hate speech." The campaign by Women Action & the Media focused on unquestionably nasty content that slipped by the Facebook mods. They pointed to "humorous" graphics of bruised and battered women with such captions as, "She broke my heart. I broke her nose," and pages with titles like "Violently raping your friends just for laughs" (which had a mere 17 "likes" before it was shut down).
However, days after Facebook announced its new commitment to ridding its pages of "gender-based hate," the material removed for violating the site's "community standards" included a different type of image. One graphic challenged the "1 in 4" rape statistic for college women and proclaimed, "Rape culture is bullshit." Another mocked the popular "I need feminism" Internet meme, featuring a woman holding a sign that read, "I need feminism because when I kill my husband feminists will defend me." In these instances, the "misogynist" material amounted to an attack on specific feminist ideas and practices. (The men's rights group that posted these graphics has published genuinely vile stuff on its own website; but the graphics removed from Facebook expressed genuine criticism.) While this is not a First Amendment issue since Facebook is a private corporation, banishing such critiques from the Internet's largest social media site is a disturbing decision.
Finally, there is the issue of paternalism toward women. It's not very surprising that Ross Douthat, a traditionalist known to argue that women need to be protected from the perils of sexual freedom, would choose this particular feminist issue to champion. Feminists should recognize that this brand of chivalry, which treats women as fragile flowers, is not much of an improvement on misogyny.
We do need remedies for actual threats and cyberstalking, regardless of gender, and, perhaps, better guidelines to determine when trolling crosses the line into potentially dangerous harassment. Quinn Norton offers sound advice: ignore the trolls, flag the ones who won't go away when ignored. There should also be—and for the vast majority of Internet users already is—a stigma attached to misogynistic speech. Personally, I'd like to see the same stigma towards male-bashing.
But in the end, we must also accept it's a big Internet and bad apples will always be out there. They include bona fide misogynists, people willing to use every available weapon in a verbal fight, and trolls who get their kicks by pushing people's buttons. In the Internet age, any idiot with a laptop and an Internet connection can single-handedly declare a "war on women." To take this "war" seriously is to give the idiots far too much power.
While the political blogosphere, like punditry in more traditional media venues, skews male for many complicated reasons, the female presence in the new media is strong and thriving. Currently, the top-rated blog according to Technorati is the female-headed Huffington Post and the most popular independent, one-person blog belongs to University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse. Althouse's take on the issue of woman abuse online can be summed up as "report serious threats to the cops; otherwise, grow a tough skin."
To demand special protection on the grounds of women's particular vulnerabilities is to turn female disempowerment into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we casually assume that a woman suffers more harm from a nasty (or even sexually threatening) online comment than a man does from, say, castration threats and gibes about pedophilia or jeers about the death of his infant child, we're not only being callous to men but upholding the very stereotypes of "the weaker sex" that feminists supposedly deplore.
In the discussions of women and sexism online, I keep coming back to Eleanor Roosevelt's famous quote: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." I've always thought it was an overly simplistic statement; it's certainly not true for people relegated to inferiority by oppressive laws or stifling customs. But if you're a woman on the Internet dealing with people behaving badly, it's a pretty good guidepost.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.