Why Women Troll Other Women on the Internet

It's not just men harassing female writers online.
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It's not just men harassing female writers online.
(Photo: GlebStock/Shutterstock)

(Photo: GlebStock/Shutterstock)

On January 7, 2014, 24-year-old Isabella Sorley was sentenced to 12 weeks in a London prison after she sent harassing tweets to British feminist Caroline Criado-Perez. In years prior, Criado-Perez had made headlines for successfully campaigning for female historical figures to remain on bank notes. For a few months, Criado-Perez received death threats and claims that she would be gang raped from a slew of trolls. One of them was Sorley, who tossed in tweets like, “Go kill yourself”; “Rape?! I’d do a lot worse things than rape you”; and “die you worthless piece of crap.” After her release in February 2014, serving half of her sentence, Sorley blamed her rage-induced comments on poor judgment and alcohol. “Social media allowed me to use my vile mouth in a different outlet,” she claimed.

Like Criado-Perez, female writers are harassed online on a daily basis. Sadly, that’s not surprising. But not all of these hateful comments can be attributed to men’s rights activists spouting anti-feminist rhetoric. Some of it is coming from other women.

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A 2014 study titled Misogyny on Twitter by London-based think tank Demos revealed that women are nearly as likely as men to use the words "slut" and "whore" on Twitter. The study narrowed in on tweets that contained the words “rape,” “slut,” and “whore,” from Twitter accounts in the United Kingdom, between December 2013 to February 2014. The researchers found that “rape” was the most frequently used word, appearing around 100,000 times in that two-month span. Broken down by gender, the use of “rape” was similar for Twitter users. For example, on January 6, 2014, about 1,250 men mentioned “rape” in tweets, while roughly 1,150 women used it as well. For instances of “slut” and “whore,” the study’s graph reveals that men and women used those terms equally as often with women some times surpassing men in their abuse. “Not only are women using these words,” the researchers wrote, “they are directing them at each other, both casually and offensively.”

A 2014 study titled Misogyny on Twitter revealed that women are nearly as likely as men to use the words "slut" and "whore" on Twitter.

In the United States, jail time hasn’t been issued (yet) for the vilest online trolls, the the majority of whom center their attacks on women—particularly younger ones. As a Pew Research Center survey points out, young women between the ages of 18 to 24 report that they’ve been stalked online, physically threatened, called offensive names, and sexually harassed. Compared to their male peers, the longevity of the physical and emotional harassment lasts much longer. In January 2015, prominent Seattle-based writer Lindy West confronted her troll—who created a fake online account posing as her deceased father, with a bio that read, “Embarrassed father of an idiot”—over the phone in a This American Life broadcast. Listening to West and her troll discuss how awful this interaction made her feel is heartbreakingly sad, but beyond that one confrontation, there’s no real repercussions for online abusers in the U.S.

Personal essays with click-worthy headlines like “I Cheated, He Cheated, Then He Married My Sister,” and “I Am Proof That Not All Millennials Are Incompetent and Terrible” are the bread and butter for many successful online women’s websites, including xoJane, Cosmopolitan, and Jezebel. But for some of those authors, writing for women-centric audiences doesn’t necessarily generate the desired “I am woman, hear me roar,” response from their readers.

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Freelancer Jennifer Purdie once wrote for the popular xoJane column, “It Happened to Me.” These confessionals originally began as a regular column in xoJane editor-in-chief Jane Pratt’s now-defunct Sassy magazine. When Pratt started xoJane, the column was carried over into the new online outlet. In print, “It Happened to Me,” offered amusing, often insightful essays for teen girls to relate to; on the Web, they sparked a lot of trigger-happy commenting. Purdie penned one piece, “I Sued a Guy I Met on an Internet Dating Site,” in which she detailed a blind date gone wrong after the guy accidentally spilled his hot tea all over her lap—and her laptop. The date assured Purdie that he’d pay for half of the repair bill before promptly bailing. While Purdie isn’t new to online vitriol, the personal aspect of her story made the matter worse when women tweeted at her that she had no business suing anyone and didn’t deserve any money.

Ninety-seven percent of women confessed that they had an “I hate my body” thought at least once a day.

A few days after her essay went live in July 2014, a friend of Purdie’s scrolled through the 300-plus comments to the article. The friend told her to not read them; they only worsened as the list grew. “This harassment felt worse than my reported stories, because this was a personal story,” Purdie says. “I wanted to share how empowered it made me feel. Instead, I was attacked for it by women who I have no doubt all have had bad date stories.” Even xoJane’s executive editor recognizes that the onslaught of harassing comments can break a writer, noting in a Washington Post op-ed that women writers rarely last on the site.

Cosmopolitan often features similar personal essays and listicles (“11 Things Not to Say to Someone in an Interracial Relationship”). Cosmopolitan’s weekend blogger Laura Beck has written for many media outlets, so she’s been exposed to all sorts of online attacks. One unidentified troll, whose username was “LauraBeckHasAids,” had only one comment on her: Get AIDS and die. Her recent post, “10 Reasons I Won’t Lose Weight for My Wedding,” drew so much ire from women that Beck tells me she could feel it “start to chip away at the self-esteem I fought so hard to get.” The comments alone, after Cosmopolitan posted it to its Facebook page, were gut-punching. One woman snarked: “This should be retitled 'Excuses as to Why I Won't Lose Weight for My Wedding' … If you want to start out the flabby arm trend, more power to you however, I will pass.” Thirty-two other women wholeheartedly agreed with her and “liked” her comment. Another woman wrote: “It's your prerogative but, don't pass it off as some empowering thing.”

Unlike Beck’s past haters, these women were not anonymous trolls operating through outlandish usernames. Of course, someone can create a fake Facebook persona, but often the commenters are real people. When asked about some of her worst reactions from women, Beck mentions that any time she writes about her body, she receives backlash from ladies who don’t love “pieces that focused on being OK with your body at whatever size.”

Could Beck’s body-image haters be projecting their own insecurities on to her? Possibly. In 2011, women’s magazine Glamour conducted a nationwide survey on how women feel about their bodies. The shocking (or maybe not so shocking) results showed that 97 percent of women confessed that they had an “I hate my body” thought at least once a day. Ann Kearney-Cooke, a Cincinnati psychologist who helped co-design the survey with the magazine, commented that, in group discussions, if a woman said that she felt OK about her body, another woman would disagree that she didn’t believe her. Perhaps then, when writers like Beck and West affirm their positive body image, some women (and men) feel threatened by their confidence.

Mean girls existed long before the Internet; the 300-plus comments didn’t.

West’s troll admitted that after gaining about 75 pounds, he hated anyone who loved their body, particularly fat women. The unnamed harasser said, “Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. ... And I think that—and I think, for me, as well, it's threatening at first.” While that unnamed troll is a man, his words could be one way of understanding why harassing provocateurs hate on others. As the prominence of female-penned personal essays rises online, unfettered honesty leaves those writers vulnerable to possibly self-hating trolls who bash anyone with the gall to admit their own truth.

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Mean girls existed long before the Internet; the 300-plus comments didn’t. The mantra “don’t read the comments” doesn’t work for most online writers who are often tasked with responding to postings. Earlier this year, I wrote a personal essay for BuzzFeed about how I didn’t want to keep my miscarriage a secret anymore. The day before the story went live, I told my husband that someone was going to hate on me. “Why would anyone do that?” he said. “It’s such a personal story.” Little did he know. My editor asked me to chime in on the discussion. Buried among the stories of loss was the one comment that haunted me. The anonymous user claimed that she wasn’t sympathetic because I should simply “suck it up.”

I didn’t just suck it up. Even though scores of positive feedback existed, I wallowed in this one snarky comment. But my reaction isn’t just isolated to me, most women feel just as badly after being attacked online. According to a Social Science Computer Review paper on the “bad boys and girls of cyberspace,” men and women react very differently to online trolling. “Women perceive online deviances to be as negatively impactful as offline deviance,” the authors wrote, “whereas men perceived it to be less impactful.” Interestingly the researchers found that men tended to confront their trolls while women preferred to ignore the discussion. How we feel post-trolling differs too; the aforementioned Pew Research Center study stated that, “38 percent of harassed women said that their most recent experience with online harassment was extremely upsetting compared with 17 percent of harassed men.”

Before I asked other women writers if they were trolled by women, I assumed I was alone. But the feedback I got was, yes, mean girls exist. They use rape as a way to degrade other women. They tell us to stop being proud of our bodies and want us to suck it up. As female writers, disappointingly, we’re used to this type of behavior. We just wish it wasn’t coming from our team too.

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