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

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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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."
(Photo: kentoh/Shutterstock)

(Photo: kentoh/Shutterstock)

When we first started talking about her cover story, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” Amanda Hess had a file thick with examples and statistics. To decide what to keep in, and what to (painfully) leave out, took time—because so many people are affected by online abuse and harassment.

One of the numbers we left out: 42 percent of women who sign up for online dating sites, according to the Pew Research Center, said they’ve received “uncomfortable or bothersome” messages. That compares to 17 percent of men.

I’ve wondered if we should have kept that statistic in.

Amanda also had a trove of reporting about the gaming world. (Here is a passage from her files: “Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the highest-profile cases of Internet death threats were made against David Vonderhaar, a video game developer whose studio designed Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Vonderhaar had made a small tweak to the game that apparently displeased some players. Not content to confine their threats to a man, the disgruntled players also directed rape threats to Vonderhaar’s daughter.”) And reporting on abuse that female science writers have faced. And on women who harass other women.

One of the numbers we left out: 42 percent of women who sign up for online dating sites, according to the Pew Research Center, said they’ve received “uncomfortable or bothersome” messages. That compares to 17 percent of men.

Danielle Citron, the legal scholar at the University of Maryland that Amanda spoke to at length for the story, had a lot to say about revenge porn sites, and how the people who run them are doing little more than extorting money from others to take down threatening and disturbing material.

I’ve wondered if we should have kept those details in the story, too.

As we’ve listened to Amanda on radio and television, read through the submissions we’ve received on our site, and seen many other commentators—both female and male—add important context to the issue (just a few: Jill Filipovic at Talking Points Memo, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, and Ross Douthat at The New York Times), it is ever more clear that online abuse and harassment has permeated all corners of our digital lives. Just this past week, in the news were stories about Robert Kinney’s harassment case in Texas, the Criado-Perez case in London, the Gregory Alan Elliott case in Toronto. This story is really about the Internet, and the vulnerability we all face every time we log on.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the more than 80 heartbreaking stories you have submitted since we posted Amanda’s story a week ago. (And the emails we’ve received from other colleagues and friends who have written to tell me their own stories of abuse and harassment.)

Today, tomorrow, next week, people will continue to be barraged by threats online. So here, each day this week, we are going to run a selection of the personal stories we’ve received.  They aren’t easy to read, but they are important to read.

I thank every one of you that wrote in, and all of our readers.

—Maria Streshinsky, Editor

NEW YORK

When I was still in college I happened to comment on a blog run by a feminist and sex-columnist who years before had suffered a scandal when her nude images were leaked by an angry ex-boyfriend. What I didn't know was that this columnist had a stalker at the time who would collect names and email addresses of every woman who commented on her blog in any way, shape or form, and then would attempt to wreak (an admittedly pathetic kind of) havoc on their personal lives.

I got called a "slut" and a "herpes-ridden skank" by my full name and university affiliation on a thread of a law school forum, and pictures from my OKCupid account were uploaded and harshly judged by a bunch of anonymous creeps. It's still there if you know where to look, which is why I'm being vague, as I'd prefer for it not to go any higher in the Google rankings. Luckily, it hasn't affected my career or my personal life in any way that I know of, but I have had to explain it to more than one guy I've dated since then, and it definitely scared the heck out of me at the time.

Ironically, to this day I still attribute that incident as one of the reasons I seriously began to get into feminism as a concentrated social movement rather than just as a general "Hey, let's all have equal rights" kind of thing, so that stalker basically had the exact opposite effect that he was intending.

CANADA

My story starts in 2010 when I got in a simple disagreement with a member on a forum about politics. I thought he would go away but what ended up happening was years of harassment, which still goes on to this day. The last time I was contacted was Christmas Day 2013. My personal information was sought out and posted online along with lies about me, some sexual. My phone was called, my employer was contacted. Information on my employer was posted online as well. I have had to move. I have attempted suicide and, prior to the harassment, I was diagnosed with PTSD, but it has gotten worse.

Police told me to get off of the Internet. I am a computer programmer by profession so that was not an option. Doctors also told me this, as I went to the doctor to get something for stress because I had such a hard time dealing with this. I was also told that I should retrain and get into another career when I explained that I cannot get off of the Internet because of my profession.

Because my harasser and I were in different jurisdictions, I was bounced around between the two police forces, my local telling me to contact the harasser's jurisdiction, and my harasser's jurisdiction telling me to contact my local jurisdiction. It was a very exhausting and stressful situation.

Also, I was subject to "victim-blaming" by other people saying I brought this on myself by posting things online—my opinions and such. This made me very angry. To me it was like blaming a rape victim for being raped because of what she was wearing.

NEW YORK

As a feminist and abortion rights activist, I've been harassed on Twitter relentlessly, but one troll in particular has started to stalk me and send me death threats (and now contacts me via email). I wrote about my experience for The Daily Beast about how neither Twitter nor the New York Police Department took my reports seriously. This man who stalks me littered my article with comments and he's now like a phantom limb. I really can feel him wherever I go.

TEXAS

I had an account on a dating website for women who prefer women.

A man targeted me, telling me that he would rape me straight. He continued to send me threats over the course of three months. He also harassed my family, posting online stories about my father hiring him as a male escort and physically beating him.

He posted reviews of my employers, private individuals who did not actually perform business. He would call their house and state that I was rude to them in the store (there wasn't a store).

I tried to make a police report, but the cops were definitely not interested even though I showed him stating physical threats and located his IP to a very close address. His phone number was a residential line; I had his name on the caller ID. They did nothing. They didn't even file a report. They wouldn't even give me the paper trail I would need. This incident, along with two others cement in my mind that the police have no interest unless someone they can get their Hollywood hero moment.

It did end in hiring a lawyer.

CANADA

I was a participant on Gawker and Jezebel's forums, becoming active shortly before they switched to a new system called Kinja in the summer of 2012. In the old system, you needed to attach a Facebook, Twitter, or G+ account to your username; your comments couldn't be seen by the public unless another member gave you kudos, and the mods were able to ban accounts from ever posting again.

Under Kinja, the system was thrown into chaos; with the introduction of new anonymous "burner" accounts, Jezebel's forums were hit with a constant barrage of violent pornography, animal deaths, and other abuse from trolls. I had set up my Jezebel ID using an old Twitter account of mine that was an alias; it did not contain my real name, where I was from, or any other immediate identifying information. At the time of the switch, I was going through a bad break-up and taking comfort in the community at Jezebel.

One morning I woke up to a concerned Facebook message from a friend, warning me that I needed to get over to the Jez forums quickly. An anonymous user had posted my real name, my Facebook profile photo, and—most horrifyingly—my ex-boyfriend's Twitter profile URL and profile photo. I had never mentioned his name, and only barely alluded to the city in which he lived. This information was posted with the comment "This is the mean guy who made [my username] cry!," among other posts identifying who I was and even where I lived.

I was horrified, but when I went to the police to attempt to set up a report, the officer gently told me that it sounded as if this person was actually being protective of me in the aftermath of the break-up—she completely failed to understand how much of a breech it was, and the malicious intent behind the words. I was sent away from the office feeling like I'd complained about nothing.

I was lucky; I wasn't threatened with violence, or stalked habitually. But having someone hunt down my personal information for the sole purpose of posting it to prove he could was the most horrifying experience I've ever had online.

UNKNOWN

I'm a white man, and in the 10 years I've been using the Internet, I have never even once received harassing or threatening messages. Privilege is real.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

My story is a bit long and complicated, and I'm still in the court process (though three jurisdictions are now involved: Virginia, D.C., and the FBI). The case involves an individual who found me on Twitter, then created multiple email accounts and accounts on many social media platforms to stalk, harass, and threaten me.

COLORADO

You should check out the insane invective against female legislators in Colorado as a result of the gun control bills the legislature considered (some of which actually passed). You can still see it every single day on the #coleg and #copolitics hashtags. Here's a sample of the email they got.

It's not like these legislators have a staff to insulate them. Colorado legislators each share a half-time minimum wage aide, who is typically an elderly retired person or a young kid who lives at home—half or more of whom are women (Colorado has way more women in the legislature both elected and at the staff level than just about every other state). It's very traumatizing to all of them, and frankly to some of those of us who care about them as well. But I can't tell you how many times other men have told me that I'm bizarrely oversensitive because I'm outraged and scared when rape and death threats come to women, including women I know and care about.

I don't understand that callousness, especially when it comes from men who I would generally consider to be enlightened, feminist types. I would note that it's always straight men. Gay men (like me) in large part have had a taste of that same treatment at least at some point in their lives. Many straight men must not have a frame of reference is the only explanation I can think of.

WASHINGTON

In the mid-90s, I found the Internet and IRC. I became a regular on a chat channel for a small dial-up Internet Service Provider in a neighboring state, and made friends on a different chat channel with one of the owners and his wife. When my friend needed to oust the guy effectively running the ISP, I volunteered to work for him, answering phones and assisting users.

It was an incredibly nasty divorce. The fired sysadmin took his entire staff to the ISP next door. The continued proximity took a toll. There was the drama inherent in the change-up, but one of the ISPs employees being female took it up a notch.

Even before I got the job there I was harassed online. I was a young woman who enjoyed sex, so people Photoshopped my head onto porn models. After the drama at the ISP, it got worse. Raps were written about me, in which I was labeled a breeder and a whore. My name was dragged through the mud in print, as the fired sysadmin had something of a fan club who were outraged that making poor business decisions (the guy had top-notch electronics equipment at home but wouldn't pay the business phone bill for the dial-up lines) had repercussions after all—and worse, a woman worked at the ISP now! It had a reputation for only employing teenaged boys who'd toe the line and worship the sysadmin.

One of the customers for this ISP was a notorious stalker, who turned his attentions upon me. He stalked me and my roommate, telling her all about where she parked at school, or saying that he watched me come out of the building in downtown Minneapolis. Being that I had records of his connections in our server logs, I got the police involved. I ended up working with the sex crimes unit, who were very helpful. I gave them access to all of the data I had, and they contacted my stalker and informed him: "She has a case, but it would be very expensive and time-consuming for you both, we suggest you just leave her alone." To my ever-lasting surprise, it worked. He's probably still stalking others, just, blessedly, not me.

Thankfully it's been almost 20 years since this happened, but I believe if you Google my maiden name you'll continue to get hits from the local paper about the "hostile takeover."

I've had countless incidences of random Internet jerks being douchey to me, but this was the worst. Since then, all you can do is ignore it. The stalkers, the haters, the threats—all of it is designed to cause a reaction. Don't give in.

MARYLAND

I am a radical feminist lesbian activist in Maryland. In August 2011, myself and another lawyer submitted a letter to the United Nations regarding gender identity laws. As a result of that action, I have received literally hundreds of death and rape threats from transwomen and their allies. The police have been to my house at least six times in the last two years. I got a protective order against one woman. It's been non-stop, and social justice warriors on the Internet say it's my fault because if I changed my political views, transwomen would not threaten me.

This happens a lot to radical feminist women online.

CALIFORNIA

I'm a blogger at DailyKos and other outlets focusing mostly on climate change. I chose to use my initials when I first started blogging, in large part because I have an abusive and nosy ex-husband who did jail time for beating me up.

I am assumed to be male by the progressive bloggers, journalists, NGO staffers, government officials, and others with whom I interact. Sample statements from liberal men meeting me for the first time: "You sound like a man online" and "I assumed you were a guy because you write so tough." I've had to ask the Washington Post and The Guardian to correct gender pronouns.

I don't hide the fact that I'm female, but my Twitter profile is gender-neutral. And it's because of stories like this one. I'm already in the polarizing environment of climate politics. I don't want to be attacked on a personal level.

SOUTH CAROLINA

After posting on a sexual assault survivors message board about being raped by a man in his 40s when I was 11, someone called me a slut, found my email address, located my Facebook profile, and asked my fiance why he would ever marry "used goods."

CALIFORNIA

I was injured on the job in 2001. Since at least 2009 State Compensation Insurance Fund has been systematically and methodically following my whereabouts online, including my blog where I write about my experiences since becoming an injured worker, the corrupted workers compensation system, and share my general feelings.

In one blog post I shared an email from the SCIF lawyer where he threatened me with ex parte communication with the WCAB judge on my case. The judge subsequently threatened me with medical insecurity which I have been dealing with since.

TENNESSEE

I have a few stories, but the most prominent one has a start in 2012. I have written about a lot of things over the course of my life. The one thing that has managed to stick? Video games. Male territory, for whatever reason. At the end of that year, I wrote a piece for popular Gawker-owned blog Kotaku about games as they related to my relationships with my ex-husband and current boyfriend. In that piece, I let slip that my ex and I had, essentially, cheated on each other. Maybe I wrote inexpertly, maybe I could have explored another way to edit these stories together, but after a story about how my ex had let me die in a game, I casually slipped in that cheating had occurred.

You'd have thought the world ended. People who apparently were previously on my side turned on a dime. Throughout the day, and even for months after, I was harassed.

The Twitter messages calling me a deceitful slut did not end for a while. People called me a disgrace to women. People criticized my relationships and my choice in games. Email messages were sent to me telling me to die, or that I was a terrible person. (I had my fair share of fans in all this, but, of course, they're harder to remember.)

Someone found my Google Voice number and called with a number of their own they'd gotten only one digit from my own. Someone found a resume of mine, Googled my parents, told me they would tell them how their daughter was a slut.

The weirdest thing is that people would send me long screeds about philosophy and my behavior and just ask me to prove myself as not a bad person.

Parts of 4chan made a point to go through and criticize whatever photos of myself I had posted on Twitter.

Abusive messages on Tumblr.

Even months later, I would get critical messages on my OKCupid account (since closed).

Honestly, this experience has kept me from writing professionally online for months. But perhaps this all is part of sharing your story as a woman.

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