Memories of My Misogynist Trolls

I started to realize something was seriously wrong the other night when the guy in the cowboy hat started shouting about violence.

He was advancing on me, waving his middle fingers in the air, yelling "Do you want violence?" and followed it up with something incoherent to the tune of: most domestic violence is committed by women who beat their men with bottles of wine for having other girlfriends. No, seriously.

As he was pushed out by a few people, including the organizer of the event where I was one of three featured "bold young feminist" readers, I stood frozen behind the podium, my face half obscured by the reading light and microphone in front of me. The piece I was there to read wasn't even about domestic violence — there was one sentence that mentioned a domestic violence shelter.

The microphone was the problem, obviously.

I first noticed that this was a recurring problem for me back in October. After a rough day, I headed to a Greenpoint bar with a dear friend for whiskey and the third presidential debate. We were meeting a crew of people, but when we got there their table was packed, so we sat at the bar until the debate was over.

When the crowd thinned out, we joined our other friends at the table and chatted a bit, and then I caught an earful of some guy pontificating, at the other end of the table, about how he actually agreed with Mitt Romney on teachers' unions. (Item: by day, I am a labor reporter who's well used to listening to white male quasi-liberals blathering about how teachers are the problem with our schools, maaaan, and if we just had merit pay all the problems that are actually caused by endemic poverty would just go away, but I digress.)

I admit that I can be a bit mouthy and I like proving blowhard guys wrong, so I leaned over and asked sweetly, "Who are you and how are you such an expert on teachers' unions?"

His answer, which almost made me snort out loud, was that teachers' unions are opposed to meritocracy! I shrugged and told him that I was too — because "meritocracy" is usually code for "white guys get the promotions."

It's such a terrible cliché that I hate to say it but: he snapped.

Dude, in his nice blazer, stood up and threw a tantrum worthy of a Park Slope toddler denied its organic vegan ice cream. He was yelling and I'm pretty sure stamping his feet, telling me that I was useless, I'd never amount to anything, that my feminism and support for Hillary Clinton had nearly ruined Barack Obama's (the president who after that third debate went on to handily win reelection) career. (Another item: I was a volunteer on the Obama campaign from sometime in December 2007 up until election day, through three primary states and a hell of a lot of late nights. But you get that it doesn't matter, right?)

My friends, who knew him, tried to calm him down; he sat back down once and then got up again to scream some more. The barback tried to push him back and the bartender shouted at him to leave. Eventually my friend took him outside and read him the riot act and I realized that I was shaking.

While it was happening, I think I smiled. I know that I repeated several times, "This is why I'm a feminist," as the table full of women behind him stared. A few of them came up to me after he was gone, expressing sympathy, but I didn't really get upset until later.

Before this, sure, I'd dealt with internet trolls mansplaining economic issues and calling me a whore for supporting abortion rights. I'd been shouted at by an irate member of the Spartacus Youth Brigade at the Left Forum for daring to discuss student debt in a context that didn't, at the moment, involve violent revolution of the proletariat, and had Prestigious Members of the 1960s Left talk over me on radio roundtables.

But lately it seems like the worst of the internet has followed me out into the real world.

Two days after Angry About Teachers Unions Man and his epic tantrum, a guy with whom I'd had a complicated relationship turned up at an event where he knew I'd be. I'd repeatedly asked him to stay away from me, but didn't realize until he walked in exactly how much I would freak out until I saw the glass in my hand shaking.

After an ugly confrontation, I tried to explain to a friend why it made me feel unsafe, and why I insisted on going out in spite of that. Because the fact is that every night I go out in public, there might be another angry man ready to shout me down, another person who knows his presence is deeply messing with me and doesn't care, or worse, seems to enjoy it.

The fact is that being a woman and a semi-public figure, a journalist currently on her freelance hustle who needs every public speaking spot and every schmoozy event in order to maybe convince editors to pay her enough for Brooklyn rents and dog food, means I can't afford to hide out. And being a feminist who knows that half the reason those men are shouting is my gender means I have to face them down.

The week after Superstorm Sandy hit New York I was part of a panel discussion, part of a course being taught on Occupy Wall Street at Hampshire College. I was there to talk about media representation. The panel was open to the public, which meant that in addition to the students in the class, there were several locals in the audience.

We were about to begin when a man dressed in a clown-costume version of a rich man's getup — with, no joke, a velociraptor puppet on his hand — walked in. He had a top hat on and sunglasses with dollar signs, and he made constant noise, tapping his fingers, clearing his throat, interrupting the speakers. He'd introduced himself (unasked) as "The one percent, here to hear what you people are saying about me," so perhaps the velociraptor puppet was some sort of statement about capitalism? Velociraptor capitalism? I caught one of the professors' eye and she shrugged — he definitely wasn't part of the program.

I thought he was going to be our problem, and finally turned on him when an older man in the crowd asked a question about the hurricane relief being carried out by members of Occupy Wall Street. "We're talking about people dying," I snapped. "This isn't particularly funny."

But the evening wasn't over. No, next I fielded a question from a woman in the audience about the media representation of women at Occupy — or the lack thereof. And of course I gave my standard answer, which is that that was more the media's problem than Occupy's, and that it's not only Occupy coverage which suffers from a lack of women.

It was when I made the point that even progressive women hosts Rachel Maddow and Amy Goodman tend to have more male guests than female when the older man with the questions about Occupy Sandy started grumbling. "They're women! Rachel Maddow and Amy Goodman!"

Yes, I replied, and that's not enough.

"Maybe you should take that up with your therapist," he snapped, and someone in the room gasped.

I think I botched my first comeback, but then the professors got to him, telling him it was time to leave. "I'm not going outside with you!" he said to the two of them, both women. "What if you're a martial artist or something?"

They escorted him out, finally, and I looked at a roomful of students unsure of how to react.

"That's how it goes when you're a woman who speaks up in public," I told them. "And it sucks."

Men shout things at me. They're likely to continue doing so, as I have no plans to shut up or stay home. And it's pretty funny, actually: I say something about sexism in hiring or media, about the existence of domestic violence, and they react by blowing up and essentially proving my point.

Back to Tuesday night, before I got up to read. I leaned in to the table where I sat with my friends and co-readers. "With my track record of being shouted down in public lately," I said, "I'm betting that it's going to be that guy." He was over by the bar in his cowboy hat and trenchcoat, lurching from girl to girl in an attempt to get some attention.

When he started shouting in the middle of my reading, I was frozen for a minute, but then burst out laughing. What else could I do? He'd been escorted out, and I still had the microphone.


Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist, rabblerouser and contributor to Truthout, AlterNet, the Nation, Jacobin and others. Follow her exploits on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.