"A repressed and unfeminine lump, vulgar and shallow to the core." "Just pushing for your own feminist vagina agenda regardless of the facts." "We used to confine people to sanitariums for these kinds of outbursts." These are just a few of the responses three female writers have gotten when they tried to express their views on the Internet. Sadly, they're far from alone.
Jill Filipovic, Kate Harding, and Sady Doyle posted the above on Twitter hashtag #mencallmethings, part of an ongoing discussion of the sexist language and threats that often dog women who dare to speak up online. Writes Helen Lewis-Hasteley in New Statesman, "The sheer volume of sexist abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet's festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a greatest hits of insults." Lewis-Hasteley says this abuse is "very rarely spoken about," and it's true that it hasn't necessarily gained public visibility. But bloggers trade stories in private, which is one way I know that many writers have suffered far worse than I have, whether they've gotten racial slurs or threats against their children. I'm relatively lucky in that I've only been called evil (a few times), ugly (repeatedly), bitter due to poor Photoshop skills (once, amusingly), sexless, man-hating, and unworthy of being addressed as "Ms."
Interestingly, I'm less likely to get such insults in real life. It's not that it never happens — occasionally men on the street have called me a bitch when I don't respond to their catcalls. And other women I know have been exposed to far worse verbal abuse from strangers. Still, I'm far from the first to notice that the Internet gives people a sense of anonymity that allows them to say things they might never say to someone's face. There's a semi-hopeful way to interpret this: that people actually do recognize one another as human beings when confronted in person, and only forget about this shared humanity when separated by a computer screen and miles of fiber-optic cable. And then there's a darker interpretation: lots of people are walking around filled with barely contained rage — against women, against people of color, against anyone who disagrees with them — and are eager to take advantage of consequence-free ways to let it out.
Both are probably true — for every accidental asshole who lets the Internet turn him or her into a monster (and I'll be honest, I've been this person too), there's someone just looking for a safe space to spew bile. And while we're not going to turn all the bigots in the world into respectful debating partners, we can dismantle the idea that hate expressed online somehow doesn't count. One way to start this process is to call sexist online abuse out for what it is, rather than just accepting it as the price of admission for women on the internet. Another is to affirm the basic humanity of everyone, even people who disagree with you, and to defend that humanity against those who seek to deny it or bury it under an avalanche of slurs.
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