The examples are too numerous to recount, but like any good journalist, I keep a running file documenting the most deranged cases. There was the local cable viewer who hunted down my email address after a television appearance to tell me I was “the ugliest woman he had ever seen.” And the group of visitors to a “men’s rights” site who pored over photographs of me and a prominent feminist activist, then discussed how they’d “spend the night with” us. (“Put em both in a gimp mask and tied to each other 69 so the bitches can’t talk or move and go round the world, any old port in a storm, any old hole,” one decided.) And the anonymous commenter who weighed in on one of my articles: “Amanda, I’ll fucking rape you. How does that feel?”
None of this makes me exceptional. It just makes me a woman with an Internet connection. Here’s just a sampling of the noxious online commentary directed at other women in recent years. To Alyssa Royse, a sex and relationships blogger, for saying that she hated The Dark Knight: “you are clearly retarded, i hope someone shoots then rapes you.” To Kathy Sierra, a technology writer, for blogging about software, coding, and design: “i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” To Lindy West, a writer at the women’s website Jezebel, for critiquing a comedian’s rape joke: “I just want to rape her with a traffic cone.” To Rebecca Watson, an atheist commentator, for blogging about sexism in the skeptic community: “If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.” To Catherine Mayer, a journalist at Time magazine, for no particular reason: “A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT EXACTLY 10:47 PM ON A TIMER AND TRIGGER DESTROYING EVERYTHING.”
A woman doesn’t even need to occupy a professional writing perch at a prominent platform to become a target. According to a 2005 report by the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking the online lives of Americans for more than a decade, women and men have been logging on in equal numbers since 2000, but the vilest communications are still disproportionately lobbed at women. We are more likely to report being stalked and harassed on the Internet—of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female. Sometimes, the abuse can get physical: A Pew survey reported that five percent of women who used the Internet said “something happened online” that led them into “physical danger.” And it starts young: Teenage girls are significantly more likely to be cyberbullied than boys. Just appearing as a woman online, it seems, can be enough to inspire abuse. In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.
There are three federal laws that apply to cyberstalking cases; the first was passed in 1934 to address harassment through the mail, via telegram, and over the telephone, six decades after Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. Since the initial passage of the Violence Against Women Act, in 1994, amendments to the law have gradually updated it to apply to new technologies and to stiffen penalties against those who use them to abuse. Thirty-four states have cyberstalking laws on the books; most have expanded long-standing laws against stalking and criminal threats to prosecute crimes carried out online.
But making quick and sick threats has become so easy that many say the abuse has proliferated to the point of meaninglessness, and that expressing alarm is foolish. Reporters who take death threats seriously “often give the impression that this is some kind of shocking event for which we should pity the ‘victims,’” my colleague Jim Pagels wrote in Slate this fall, “but anyone who’s spent 10 minutes online knows that these assertions are entirely toothless.” On Twitter, he added, “When there’s no precedent for physical harm, it’s only baseless fear mongering.” My friend Jen Doll wrote, at The Atlantic Wire, “It seems like that old ‘ignoring’ tactic your mom taught you could work out to everyone’s benefit…. These people are bullying, or hope to bully. Which means we shouldn’t take the bait.” In the epilogue to her book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin—an editor at Slate—argued that harassment of women online could be seen as a cause for celebration. It shows just how far we’ve come. Many women on the Internet “are in positions of influence, widely published and widely read; if they sniff out misogyny, I have no doubt they will gleefully skewer the responsible sexist in one of many available online outlets, and get results.”
So women who are harassed online are expected to either get over ourselves or feel flattered in response to the threats made against us. We have the choice to keep quiet or respond “gleefully.”
But no matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment—and the sheer volume of it—has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet. Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages. I’ve spent countless hours over the past four years logging the online activity of one particularly committed cyberstalker, just in case. And as the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day.
“Twitter is the place where I laugh, whine, work, schmooze, procrastinate, and flirt. It sits in my back pocket wherever I go and lies next to me when I fall asleep. And since I first started writing in 2007, it’s become just one of the many online spaces where men come to tell me to get out.”
THIS SUMMER, CAROLINE CRIADO-PEREZ became the English-speaking Internet’s most famous recipient of online threats after she petitioned the British government to put more female faces on its bank notes. (When the Bank of England announced its intentions to replace social reformer Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the £5 note, Criado-Perez made the modest suggestion that the bank make an effort to feature at least one woman who is not the Queen on any of its currency.) Rape and death threats amassed on her Twitter feed too quickly to count, bearing messages like “I will rape you tomorrow at 9 p.m … Shall we meet near your house?”
Then, something interesting happened. Instead of logging off, Criado-Perez retweeted the threats, blasting them out to her Twitter followers. She called up police and hounded Twitter for a response. Journalists around the world started writing about the threats. As more and more people heard the story, Criado-Perez’s follower count skyrocketed to near 25,000. Her supporters joined in urging British police and Twitter executives to respond.
Under the glare of international criticism, the police and the company spent the next few weeks passing the buck back and forth. Andy Trotter, a communications adviser for the British police, announced that it was Twitter’s responsibility to crack down on the messages. Though Britain criminalizes a broader category of offensive speech than the U.S. does, the sheer volume of threats would be too difficult for “a hard-pressed police service” to investigate, Trotter said. Police “don’t want to be in this arena.” It diverts their attention from “dealing with something else.”
Meanwhile, Twitter issued a blanket statement saying that victims like Criado-Perez could fill out an online form for each abusive tweet; when Criado-Perez supporters hounded Mark Luckie, the company’s manager of journalism and news, for a response, he briefly shielded his account, saying that the attention had become “abusive.” Twitter’s official recommendation to victims of abuse puts the ball squarely in law enforcement’s court: “If an interaction has gone beyond the point of name calling and you feel as though you may be in danger,” it says, “contact your local authorities so they can accurately assess the validity of the threat and help you resolve the issue offline.”
In the weeks after the flare-up, Scotland Yard confirmed the arrest of three men. Twitter—in response to several online petitions calling for action—hastened the rollout of a “report abuse” button that allows users to flag offensive material. And Criado-Perez went on receiving threats. Some real person out there—or rather, hundreds of them—still liked the idea of seeing her raped and killed.