Monday, February 23, 2015

Feminist writers and the cruel internet

A few weeks ago, Professor Lisa Pruitt mentioned that the comments section on this blog is open only to those with an invitation to contribute to the blog. This restriction on comments was placed for good reason. Many feminist activists and bloggers receive backlash and abuse from internet commenters, causing many of them to pull back from writing about feminism online.

For example, Jessica Valenti is a columnist for the Guardian, author of four books on feminism, and founder of the blog Her feminist writing exposes her to constant harassment from internet users. In 2014, she asked a seemingly harmless question on Twitter about women's health: "Twitter friends: Anyone know a country where tampons are free or somehow subsidized?" This question was met with a barrage of abusive answers from Twitter users, such as:
@JessicaValenti here's a thought: get married. Then your husband can pay for it. As long as your putting out.... 
@chelsea_elisa @lizzyf620 @JessicaValenti Yeah, it's called the Middle East where they sew your vagina shut for being a loud mouth.
Valenti admits that if she had the chance to start over, she might prefer to write anonymously, not only because of the "physical safety concerns, but [also] the emotional ramifications" of the non-stop abuse from anti-feminist internet users.

Lindy West, another feminist and a former writer for Jezebel, wrote an article asserting that many male comedians are "careless" with the subject of rape. She too received ample backlash from an internet community that left several obscene and sexually violent comments on her article, punishing her for daring to criticize males and announcing that West deserves to be raped for publishing the article. West stated, "[b]eing insulted and threatened online is part of my job, which is not to say it doesn't hurt. It does. It feels -- well, exactly like you would imagine it would feel to have someone call you a fat cunt every day of your life."

Jaclyn Munson and Lauren Rankin, both pro-choice activists and writers, have stopped writing online altogether, each stating that she feels exhausted from the constant, vicious internet abuse.  Lauren Bruce -- creator of the blog -- is another feminist blogger that has completely pulled back from sharing her feminist ideas on the web, leaving others to run the feminist blog she created.

Although the internet and social media have given feminists new forums in which to discuss such issues as gender and sex equality and female advancement, the internet is also a means by which feminist bloggers are publicly abused, humiliated, and targeted, and their ideas are shot down and demonized.  Because commenting on the internet is often a collaborative effort (in that people can comment on each others' comments) and because comments are posted instantaneously, feminist writers today are more exposed and likely burn out more quickly.  In the past, people needed to send hate-mail through the post -- a slower, less public process.  Feminist writers were not met with multitudes of hateful and abusive messages in a matter of seconds when snail-mail was the only form of communication with the author of the offending article.  Moreover, there was not a gold-mine of personal information available through social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, all of which may include the author's picture and other identifying information.  The internet also potentially allows stalkers and hackers to access writers' more sensitive personal information -- such as banking and social security information, telephone numbers, and addresses.

In an age where men and women alike pay lip-service to gender and sex equality, why does feminist blogging spark such hateful responses among internet users?  Does the anonymity provided by communicating online simply allow people to voice what they're "really" thinking?  Or does the collaborative environment of internet commenting result in internet users "egging" each other on to see who can make the most inflammatory comment?  Do internet users really hate feminists this much, or do they simply make these offensive comments for shock value?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I am curious to see your thoughts.  While it kills me to see these feminist writers backing down in response to internet harassment, I understand the emotional vulnerability that results from nonstop internet abuse, and I can't blame them for protecting themselves by disengaging.  This appears to reinforce the wisdom behind restricting comments on feminist blogs, and/or encouraging feminist writers to write anonymously.  That way, feminists can keep writing without fear of being personally targeted and without exposing their articles, ideas, and selves to endless internet harassment.

For further perspectives on "hate speech" against feminist writers online, read this post.  For a discussion of the potential benefits feminist blogging has on our culture, read this post


Hart Ku said...

It's definitely discouraging to see just how rampant sexism can be on the Internet. Especially when you visit the more inclusive and loosely-moderated online social networks (e.g., YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, reddit, etc.). I'd like to believe that those voices of bigotry are over-represented on the Internet, but part of me is a little more cynical. Maybe online anonymity offers us an unfiltered look into how many people really think. You can barely have a conversation about anything without a group of people trying to argue that they’re inconvenienced because political correctness is more oppressive than sexism, racism, homophobia, etc..

I guess it kind of illuminates some of the benefits and costs of widespread access to the web. The Internet offers outcasts and the oppressed tools to meet other people like themselves. Perhaps many young girls and women wouldn’t have had the opportunity to explore their feminism without online informational sources or support groups. But on the flip-side, the Internet can be a playground for the hateful, who can also build communities with like-minded people online. It’s just depressing when it seems like the latter group seems to gaining a larger and larger online presence every year.

Jessica S. said...

I know this is an alternative viewpoint, but I'm glad this all of this is being documented on the internet. Before, women getting bullied and threatened were told "it's all in your head" or that they somehow provoked it. Now the US cannot deny that misogyny is prevalent within our own country, and we are not post-gender.

Sara said...

It's sad that abusive comments drove these women to stop posting online. Unfortunately, I think some spend their days surfing the web, bullying authors by making asinine comments about whatever they can. For them, it's a form of power.