This Is What the Harassment and Abuse of Women on the Internet Looks Like, Part IV

All week we're running personal stories from Pacific Standard readers in response to Amanda Hess' cover story, "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet."
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(Photo: kentoh/Shutterstock)

(Photo: kentoh/Shutterstock)

NORTH CAROLINA

This has happened to me. I am the ED for a statewide gun violence prevention group. I used to get voicemail messages telling me I "don't deserve to live for feeling the way I do." Then it was posts on Facebook about seeing me get raped and, even though they had a gun and could intervene, they would just walk by and let it happen. Then they mailed a picture of a victim of the Mexican drug cartel with nearly 50 knives stuck in their body that said I should be concerned about "kitchen knife violence." I took the letter and picture to the police and they scoffed and said the guy probably just disagreed with my views. I disagree with his views as well and I would not threaten him.

LONDON

I used to get harassed on a daily basis. Years and years of being told to ignore and shrug off the abuse, that it means nothing, that I'm being too sensitive. It got so bad I deleted everything, but it didn't stop. I ended up getting some excellent legal advice and changed my online and legal identity to be gender-neutral. When people don't know I'm a girl, they look at my knowledge, experience, and interests and I get a tiny fraction of crap. And, I mean, it's been years since anyone has directed a personally abusive message at me. They attack my arguments. They attack my skills, techniques, opinions, spelling, and grammar.

CALIFORNIA

Harassment changed the way I wrote and shared on my blog for a little while—but I also took it as a challenge, to absorb the nasty and transmute it into something useful. We call this art, no? The silver lining is that this kind of trolling rallies one's tribe. I was able to connect with a number of other feminist bloggers who were also harassed.

NEW JERSEY

I was threatened with rape. I had my father's death made fun of. My name and address were posted along with "gives good head." My phone number was posted in a fake online ad for casual encounters. All this online harassment was in conjunction with cell phone harassment and actual physical stalking for three years. The police did nothing.

VIRGINIA

We won't get this done until as a society frat boy behavior is out of IT companies, police stations, offices. The boys will be boys excuse is getting very, very old. I worked in IT for 20 years and the day-to-day grind of off-color jokes and being excluded from meetings and events because I didn't have the right gender. The men just got away with everything—mainly because the male higher ups didn't see a problem with the gender bashing and good old-boy network.

Consequences for threatening people should not be dismissed with, "Oh, they are just blowing off steam." I don't care what context it is in. We are not humorless, just tired of defending our right to make a living in a public way.

WASHINGTON

I've experienced that sense of violation that comes from an ad hominem attack online.

I'm a blogger, and a regular visitor of celebrity gossip sites. I'll often comment on the gossip posts. The one that sparked this incident was a tale of Leo DiCaprio allegedly "hooking up" with 10 women in one night.

As part of a light-hearted comment thread on the gossip site, I shared a list of "10 Men I Wouldn't Mind Spending the Night With"—it's a gossip site frequented by women, and I generally considered myself "in safe company" on this site, as it's blessedly free of misogynist trolls and very strictly moderated. This site deletes, and then blocks, users who submit offensive comments.

So in a thread of women sharing their list of their favorite celebrity 10, I added my own. A day later, I received a comment on the About Me page of my personal blog. The comment: "WHY ARE YOU A WHORE?"

I tracked the comment back to having originated on the gossip site where I submitted the comment. The person linked to my site via the comment, then found the general front page, added his comment, and submitted a false email address.

I deleted the comment, realizing that my primary visitors are my grandparents, aunts, and mother—and I didn't want to have to explain hate-comments to any of them.

I'd say I even felt a certain amount of shame, thinking, was it crass of me to have commented on a post about hook-ups with my own satirical hook-up fantasy? Does everyone think I'm a whore? I can imagine that's not an uncommon reaction among first-time victims of hate-comments—to wonder what they did to deserve the negative attention.

But this sort of harassment absolutely needs to be regulated. I was lucky—it was a one-time occurrence, the visitor hasn't returned to the site. But the fact is, there are people who actually take the time to review celebrity gossip comments, feel some sort of impotent misogynistic rage, and follow several links to find the personal site of the commenter, and engage in unsolicited name-calling.

I can only imagine how horrifying it would be to live through anything of greater magnitude, where I felt myself in jeopardy of bodily harm, or where my email or phone or Twitter account were under constant attack.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

This piece really resonated with me. I wrote an extremely viral blog piece about a guy breaking up with me. The publicity was enormous, which was great since I work in PR and am a published author. However, I did start to fear for a lot of things—my reputation, my family, and eventually even my life. The rape and death threats were non-stop for weeks, and I still see some come in to my inbox. I also got a gig as a relationship columnist for a men's magazine, and that seemed to add fuel to the flame. However, I refused to relent as writing is my life.

I am so glad you wrote a piece like this, and I would really love to help promote this cause in any way I can. Thanks again for spreading the word about this extremely important issue!

TEXAS

Project Management website. Several years ago. Someone posts a comment. I post a respectful disagreement, privately to him. He sends me back a hateful screed, an ad hominem (ad feminem?) attack, not addressing my points but accusing me personally, attacking feminism, attacking me. It was completely uncalled for, and had no constructive value. It was bullying in the first degree. I saved it in my email, thinking to confront him, but soon deleted it because it was so toxic. I stopped contributing to the group.

MARYLAND

The first time I was harassed online, I was 12.

When I was 12, I had just gotten very excited about coding. I coded a Star Wars fan site on Geocities using HTML from scratch, and I opened an AOL Instant Messenger account. I learned HTML tags and Javascript. I was enthusiastic; it was my new obsession. We didn't have parental controls, then—there were no controls, that was part of the appeal. I protected my identity, though—I never used any real personal information of any kind when signing up for anything.

My username was pretty feminine. One day, I got a message from a user I didn't know. "a/s/l?" it said. I didn't know what that meant. I asked if I knew the person. He responded by asking me how old I was. I replied something along the lines of not giving that information out to strangers.

He replied by calling me a whole litany of obscene names, beginning with the c-word and followed by a number of gendered insults that I had never heard before. My heart was racing, my palms were sweaty, and I blocked him immediately. I was terrified. I wondered if I should tell my parents. I decided he was one psycho and couldn't know anything about my real identity, so I didn't. I convinced myself not to worry, but I started to withdraw.

It wasn't the last time. I would go on to receive these kinds of insults and threats in most of the places I frequented: Xanga, Reddit, Digg, various MMORPGs. I knew I wasn't welcome. I stopped making websites. I stopped playing games. I didn't pursue computer science like I thought I would.

If we want to have more women in tech, or just to stop wasting human capital on the energy we currently have to expend to avoid harassers, we should think about addressing the problem of online harassment.

ILLINOIS

I have been stalked and harassed for a number of years by a woman who joined up with a few more people to organize a several-year-long stalking campaign. They have made phone calls to police to report my alleged suicide, called the local health department to report that I was supposedly working around new babies while carrying Pertussis (lies), and, again, called police to report that I was drinking myself to death (after once mentioning on Twitter that I had a drink before bed).

When the police showed up at my home at 3 a.m., they interrogated me about my comments online. ("Why did you tell anyone you were having a drink before bed? This wouldn't have happened if you weren't on Twitter.") Then they realized they just wasted a trip to my home only to find that I had been sleeping instead of supposedly committing suicide. I asked what can be done to stop these visits, but they said, "If someone makes an anonymous tip, we have to investigate." In reality, I live in constant fear that the police will show up at my door in front of my children or friends or family, all because the stalkers called in some phony tip again.

The stalkers have told me I should commit suicide, that my children should be taken away. I've been threatened that the stalkers would show up places I may be. This is all because I write a feminist blog. And, believe it or not, the stalkers are women—most of them are mothers themselves. They set up online meeting points to discuss the ways that they'll stalk and harass me, have multiple Facebook pages meant to screencap every word I say, and blogs meant to track all of my movements. The police won't do anything except tell me to stay offline. Given that I make all my money online, my choices are to give up my career or keep taking the abuse.

I also have intimate experience with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They joined a federal case filed against me wherein they asserted that I was trying to impede a stalker's "freedom of speech" by issuing a copyright violation notice to a stalker who'd stolen my picture off my site. Thankfully, the judge took our side on that one and the EFF lost their argument that day (the rest of the case is still hobbling through the slow legal system).

PENNSYLVANIA

A few years ago I had to go to the police when a man in Utah was sending women on OKCupid violent threats. I had a case opened, because the messages were saying he was going to "find [my] house and rape [me] with a knife." He had somehow tracked down an unrelated account on another website. Other women in the forums were saying he had been sending them messages of rape and death, all because we either existed at all, or had told someone to stop being a jerk in forums. It seemed like all the vileness was merely because of gender. He also kept circumventing his ban on OKCupid, because the website takes that seriously, especially when there is a police file, and I had to keep reporting him until he was IP banned. He might have finally given up.

This past summer I had an altercation with staff of a convention I sold because I didn't like the policy of letting attendees simply photograph whatever and whomever they wanted without any permissions. One of their staff members had also messaged me on OKCupid before this convention, spewing hate because he didn't like my profile. When I told them I didn't feel safe at the convention any longer, the staff member then proceeded to harass and send me messages on OKCupid again. They didn't tell their attendees to stop making horrible comments about me on their own Facebook page, either, and then lied about what happened after blocking me from their page, thus deleting my comments (I have most of them saved, because I know better).

And a few years ago, after being involved with the Anonymous protests against Scientology, I told some members to stop harassing another member (male), and then had one try and gain access to many of my online accounts, including lying to a website to gain access to an old email account of mine. I contacted his school and spoke to campus security, but they never seemed to do anything about it, even though that was clearly impersonation and not only violated their Internet TOS, but also federal law. Every few months I have someone trying to gain access to a random account I have on the Internet.

My proactiveness with contacting the police when I am threatened, and then telling them I have opened a case and it's being investigated, seems to be the only deterrent sometimes, but given the whole situation with the revenge porn photos in recent years, I don't put much stock into it.

COLORADO

Last year, a few colleagues and I chose to testify in front of a committee in my state legislature on a bill regarding concealed carry laws on college campuses. I got up to tell the story of how, my freshman year at college, I was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by a man who was legally carrying a gun on campus, and how it was a driving factor in me choosing to leave that school. A woman who works with a political engagement group live-tweeted some quotes from me, and people's responses were pretty vile. Over and over again, people tweeted or commented on articles featuring quotes of mine that they wished he had just finished the job in one way or another—either kill me or rape me or both—merely because I don't share the same views on gun safety.

While none of these were direct threats to my safety, my full name was attached to the quotes people were responding to, and so it felt as though it could, at any moment, become very real, as I have a fairly distinctive last name.

AUSTRALIA

I posted a photo of myself on my Instagram account. I was attending a No Hunting in National Parks rally in the city, and the photo was of me holding up a sign that read, "I only shoot photos." I had a gun sight painted on my forehead, in an effort to highlight the danger of being shot accidentally by those hunting in a national park. I got sent a comment: "U know what I would like to shoot that target on your head." I took some relief in the fact he seemed to live in the USA, but I thought it a terrible thing to say. What if I did live in the same city as him? I blocked the user. I didn't report it to anyone, this is the first time I have complained about it.

UNKNOWN

In the past five months. I've been getting Skype invites from men I don't know. Most show a picture of military men. I have no relation to the military and have  never put my Skype name out in public. While I block them, this is very annoying and scary as Skype does show my name, picture, and general location.

GEORGIA

Since I was a little girl, I have played video games. I grew up with Doom, Unreal Tournament, and Tomb Raider. When I was 14, I received a first generation PlayStation 3. For my birthday, my dad hooked it up online and gave me a small Bluetooth so I could interact with the players I met. At the age of 15, I received several threats of rape and offhand comments about my sluttiness and weight. I was a somewhat sheltered child, so I really had no idea what to do in response to these comments. I just learned to return as much venom as I received. There was no way I was going to quit playing online. I loved it too much

For the next several years and through all of the Call of Duty video games, I heard every kitchen joke, every rape joke, every threat I could possibly receive. I made a lot of really good friends, but it took some wading through the masses to find them. The one thing that always bothered me, though, is their complete inability to stand up for me. No matter how good a friend they were, they would always laugh along with the joke that I was inferior in some way, but then I would destroy the entire lobby and force my accusers quiet. Six years of Call of Duty can really make someone pretty good at the game.

I've learned to laugh off the attitude of my fellow gamers (especially as I move to PC games like League of Legends and World of Warcraft), but the occasional comment still throws me off. It's a sad world we live in where a 15-year-old girl must learn how to manage the onslaught of rape threats just to be able to play online games. No, I am not overweight. No, I do not consider myself ugly. Yes, I have a life outside of the games I play.

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