For the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a certain kind of story that seems to bubble up at least once a month: a woman says something in public (whether vocally or in print), and gets attacked by roving gangs of cybermobs.  There seems to be no shortage of stories of women who write about stuff…things…anything…to eventually be plagued by threats of rape and/or death, bomb threats, having their personal business hacked, their personal addresses published. If they have children, they may be targeted as well. Of course, she doesn’t have to just write things on the Internet. She just may speak in public, voicing her thoughts and opinions. It’s like there’s some list being kept somewhere by a clandestine organization, and they’re just checking off women who are small-scale public figures, one-by-one: Lindy West. Zerlina Maxwell. Laurie Penny. Caroline Criado-Perez. Anita Sarkeesian. Mary Beard. Linda Grant. Kathy Sierra. Rebecca Watson. Jenna Myers Karvunidis. Heidi Yewman. Adria Richards. Rebecca Meredith.
     Most, if not all, of the women I just mentioned do work under the heading of “feminist writer/activist/blogger, etc,” which seems to bring out a very particular kind of troll. There’s respectfully disagreeing with someone’s thoughts on life, and then there’s wishing them dead. And then there’s wishing them raped. But the real purpose of it all, as Kelly Diels lays out:
 “…[are] attacks are explicitly designed not only to silence you, but also to embarrass you, scare you, harass you, get government agencies to investigate you, vandalize your property, make you move, get you fired, ruin your life.”
     As I said, most of the previously mentioned women do their work under the heading of “feminism.” This made me curious as to whether this applied to only women who write about feminism, so I sought out some men who also consider themselves feminist, or are at least comfortable enough in their masculinity to take the women’s side from time to time. So I sent out some questions…
  • As a man who writes about feminism or competently writes about women like they’re your fellow humans, have you ever been physically threatened?
  • Have the threats ever reached a point where you believed that your own personal safety, and/or that of your family, was in jeopardy?
  • Have you ever had to deal with any serious breaches of personal security (personal info hacked and posted, etc)?
  • Have you ever shied away from saying anything out of fear of what the response might be?
     I contacted freelance writer Noah Berlatsky on the strength of his Slate piece, “All the Selfish Reasons to Be a Male Feminist.” Based on my questions, he seemed to immediately know where I was going, and said that although he’s never been outright threatened, he does get some hate mail from people who don’t like his reviews. The worse of it culminated in regard to a negative review he gave an Art Spiegelman book, which Berlatsky described as, “…vague wishes that my family would be harmed.” But he closed by noting that
“I think guys can be bullied and face threats online. It does seem like women are especially targeted for this kind of thing…”
     In chatting with feminist blogger Charles Clymer, he said,
“Do I get hate mail? Yes. Have I gotten at least one random phone call from a ranting MRA? Yes. Do I feel harassed? Yes. But I have never had to deal with a fraction of the abuse and vitriol women in this field endure for their advocacy. I’m in awe of their resilience.”
     Blogger and active-duty Army officer Kevin Hanrahan shared similar experiences in receiving nasty comments and Twitter threats, and solved the problem by just blocking people he described as “nasty, slanderous, or outright ignorant.”
     Ultimately, all three men said that the threats or hate mail never reached a point where they genuinely believed their lives were in danger, or those of their immediate family. No breaches of personal security or hacking, no indication that they felt they had to shy away from expressing certain ideas out of fear of greater retaliation.
While I had hoped to hear from a few more guys, I think this is enough to satiate my curiosity on the question of whether or the topic or messenger were bringing in the threats. Based on Berlastsky’s and Clymer’s statements, I’ve come to the conclusion that the gender of the messenger is usually a bigger deal than the message. However, it’s worth noting that in Hanrahan’s case, it was his series supporting women in combat that brought out the haters.
In a 2011 piece in the Guardian, Catholic blogger and vicar’s wife Caroline Farrow, who is described as having little in common with feminists like Laurie Penny, decried her situation as,
“… for some men this seems to make you a legitimate sexual target. I get at least five sexually threatening emails a day.”
     I also find it kind of weird just how mundane the writings and activities of some of these women are to inspire the threats. Anita Sarkeesian made some YouTube videos about video games and Caroline Criado-Perez successfully campaigned to keep women on British money, resulting in Jane Austen’s face being plastered on the back of the Bank of England’s ten pound note. Rebecca Meredith participated in a debate, as part of her debate team, at her university. And yet, the threats themselves are hardly mundane. While I can easily say that Sarkeesian’s and Criado-Perez’s work was definitely feminist-inspired, how then, to explain Farrow’s situation? And are there more like her out there?
     And my answer is: I really don’t know. I wish I did.
     I decided to track down some conservative women bloggers and writers, and I never got an answer from any of them. So I made a couple of posts that look like cattle calls, and still, nothing. A friend of mine suggested that conservative women might think I’m baiting them somehow, or trying to set them up for an ambush, and after thinking it over, I think he may have a good point. To start with, partisan politics have reached such an insane level of, well, insanity, I can see where it’s reasonable to distrust outsiders. If I was asked the same of a conservative blogger, regardless of gender, I’m not entirely sure what my response would be.
     But I also kept thinking something else: Is is something I’ve said?
     On the blog, I’ve expressed my permissive views on gay rights and abortion, and I agreed with Dan Savage that the Bible is loaded with bullshit (especially in regard to slavery, women, and gays), and wondered aloud where Donald Rumsfeld keeps his fucking brains. I’ve also been told I have a mouth like a sailor, to which I can honestly say, there were a lot of ex-sailors in culinary school, and they may have schooled me in the delicate art of letting the expletives fly. I’ve also been told I have a wicked arrogant streak and an attitude problem. And those are things that have been said by people who love me. So, was it something I’ve said? Or how I said it? It probably didn’t help my case. But I think I may have been overly optimistic. For each group, I sent out a dozen or so emails and messages, and while I only heard back from three guys, I found them all very interesting, and am now proud to count them among my Internet buds. I expected a similar thing from the women.
     With all that in mind, I still feel unsettled by the lack of response, and here’s why: I can’t escape the feeling that there’s probably some very similar threats being directed at conservative women. As much as I don’t agree with them, that doesn’t mean that I want to see them silenced by rape threats, death threats, and just being hounded into oblivion by Internet trolls. Freedom of speech still applies to speech we don’t agree with, and it does not apply to threats to one’s personal safety. The fact that we may have crossed a threshold where women, of all political stripes, are more afraid of speaking honestly than the trolls are of threatening women.
     So, who are the trolls? There’s no good way to answer that. I mean, I’m sure there’s ways for them to be found, but then I worry that they might follow me home. Only puppies get to do that.
     Naturally, I couldn’t help wondering who these guys are that do this trolling, and what their motivation is. Then it hit me: they hate women. Strangely, some of the threats almost seem culled from David Wong’s article on Cracked: “5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women.” Enough threats are centered around attacking a woman’s appearance that it does indeed seem as though the trolls feel cheated out their hot chick, or they can’t understand why their decorative piece of potential trophy wife is talking–using big words, even. Perhaps some of these trolls are angry because sometimes women are, amazingly enough, smart and pretty, have a healthy sense of self, and say things they don’t agree with, and so they suffer some kind of boner confusion resulting in…what? blue balls? headaches? nose-bleeds?

     But it’s points #2 and #1 where I think Wong really nails what’s going on in their minds: they believe they’ve been cheated out of “true” manhood, and they feel powerless. The point of feeling cheated on “true” manhood is especially interesting:

“A once-great world of heroes and strength and warriors and cigars and crude jokes has been replaced by this world of grumpy female supervisors looming over our cubicle to hand us a memo about sending off-color jokes via email. Yes, that entire narrative is a grossly skewed and self-serving version of how society actually evolved. It doesn’t matter.”

     Here’s why I find that so interesting: what I think Wong is getting at is that some contemporary men seem to mourning their loss of dominion over women. That men are supposed to be the heroes of all stories all the time, and women, at best, are sidekicks. The trolls see themselves as Batman in a world where Batgirl is in charge. But this begged another question: Why would the trolls see the world this way?
Perhaps their motivation for hating women are more individual than Wong describes, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not buying into some kind of fantasy of times past, where women were compliant and content to care for the house while their husbands were the breadwinners and little kings in their little castles. The pre-Women’s Movement reality for my own grandmothers were quite different. Neither of my grandmothers had an education past grammar school, and both were single mothers, one through divorce, the other through being widowed very young. While they worked whatever jobs they could find, it was still very much a Mad Men world where, as John Oliver described it, a woman’s Christmas bonus could easily come in the form of a slap on the ass. (It’s insane how much my mother loved that joke.)
There’s a rather famous quote from Gloria Steinem, that since that time, we’re raising our daughters more like our sons, but we’re not raising our sons more like our daughters. I don’t know that raising our sons more like our daughters is really the answer as much as we have just got to stop lying to our sons about what to expect from women. We have to stop raising them with these insane expectations of sexually compliant women who are more than happy to make their sandwiches and clean their bongs while the guys play video games, and look totally fabulous while doing it, because those women don’t exist.
The other point in Wong’s article that I think relates is “We Feel Powerless.” As a woman, I find his argument difficult to digest–if only because the rights of women don’t have the constitutional protections in the way most people think–and yet I think there’s something to it. Wong explains it like this:
“So where you see a world in which males dominate the boards of the Fortune 500, and own Congress, and sit at the head of all but a handful of the world’s nations, men see themselves as utterly helpless. Because all of those powerful people only became powerful because they heard that women like power.”
     So men who aren’t CEOs or Congressmen feel powerless–I get that but, and I know this isn’t Wong’s intent, it does sound like the sort of excuse misogynist would use to harass, abuse, and stalk women.
In a recent post, Rebecca Watson talks about dealing with law enforcement to help with online threats. She eventually hires a private detective who finds that one stalker who has been giving her an especially hard time has had a prior arrest for domestic violence. Perhaps if we were to look deeper into the personal histories of the trolls and stalkers who have plagued the women I’ve mentioned, we might see similar patterns of behavior, but really, I have no way of knowing.. I am sort of amazed at how often I see screen-pulls, and these guys are often posting under their own names, and use their own pictures of themselves. Like I said, the trolls are less afraid of being exposed than women are for speaking their minds.
I mentioned that men are still raised with unreasonable expectations of women, and I do think that by the same turn, men are still raised with unreasonable expectations of grandeur. They still grow up expecting to always be the heroes of every story that they’re in, and the reality is that most of us will never achieve that. The best most of us can hope for is to just be interesting. And respectful.