It’s time for us all to break the silence. It’s time for us to stand up together.
If you haven’t already heard about the harassment and abuse that Liss over at Shakesville is constantly under, please take the time to read her latest post. Probably best to have read it before you continue reading here.
I am so angry about this. Both for Liss, because I know how horrible it is to be subjected to abuse and harassment like this, but also because this shit happens time and time and time again to women online and nothing is ever done about it. I could list hundreds of women I know who have gone through this. Some of them I like and agree with, some of them I don’t. It doesn’t matter – women online of all backgrounds and experiences are harassed and bullied and abused simply because they are women and are active online.
Firstly, let me state clearly that I fully stand with Melissa McEwan and Shakesville. Shakesville has been incredibly important to me for some years now. I don’t necessarily agree with everything over there, nor am I interested in every single post. Because despite the abusers portraying people who read/follow/participate on Shakesville as some kind of clueless fool or victim, I’m a grown adult with a brain who can read and decide which posts are of value to me, and which I leave to other people who get something out of them. Liss’s work at Shakesville, and that of her contributors and moderators, has been integral in both educating me and giving me food for thought to be able to make up my own mind on so many topics. It has also been vital in building my self esteem as a fat woman, to hear Liss and others talk about their experiences, many of which I can truly identify with. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for years of reading Shakesville. Not to mention that I have been directed to and met many other amazing writers and activists via Shakesville, be it by links in posts, guest posts or other commenters.
I have always felt safe when commenting on Shakesville. Even when I disagree with something. I know that over there, there is a dedicated team who keep the space free of bullying and work very hard to keep threads on topic and respectful. That is a very rare environment for a woman online, believe me.
But I’ve also felt challenged by the writing over on Shakesville. It makes me think. Makes me ask questions of myself and others. It’s good to be intellectually challenged about things. It’s good to have your ideology tested regularly. Sometimes I disagree with someone on a topic, and that’s OK. I can choose to not read it at any time, to skip posts or give up altogether. Mind you, nothing about Shakesville has made me feel like I needed to walk away from reading it, even when I have disagreed or been disinterested. I like the mature, passionate, intelligent voices I am presented there. I like that I can rely on the comments not to descend into hatred, attacks and insults. It has inspired how I try to keep my comment policy.
Personally speaking, I am glad to have met Liss online. She is whip-smart, funny, passionate and articulate. She is also kind and thoughtful. She shows she cares so often when others remain silent. She has cute pets that make me smile and I enjoy her selfies and other photos she shares. Even though we’ve never met in person, and we don’t talk as often as I might with other folk I know and am closer to online, I consider her a friend. And I’m angry that a friend has been subjected to the abuse that she has.
I know this is going to draw me more harassment and abuse, because this is the way these people operate – they attempt to silence anyone who supports their target so that they isolate her further. That is their objective – our silence. They’re not going to get it from me. I’m already harassed daily by those who want my silence, and even when I am not active online they come after me. I long for people to stand with me and support me in the face of the harassment and abuse I receive, and it’s the right thing to do to stand by Liss in the face of hers.
I am no stranger to online abuse and harassment myself.
A couple of years ago I attempted to start an online magazine for marginalised women in the wake of yet another horrible example of “women’s media” being harmful to marginalised women. Within 48 hours I was harassed, abused and bullied relentlessly, as were those who supported the project, until I had to pull the plug on it because I could not protect the very women I was aiming to give space to. Most of it over a typo.
Daily I open my email to find hate mail telling me to kill myself, that I’m disgusting, that I am dirty, smelly, diseased and dying. Emails describing how they’re going to rape me, beat me or murder me. Another favourite method is to describe how someone horrible is going to rape/murder me – they delight in either creating fictional creeps/murderers/rapists or describing known ones. Alternatively they love to describe how not even the most disgusting, creepy man on earth would touch me.
Someone was ringing my home phone regularly and laughing down the line at me or on to my voice mail, or calling me a cunt/fat slut/bitch/etc until I unplugged my phone since I wasn’t using it anyway. I have come home to find notes stuck in my mailbox that simply point out that they know I where I live. I have received my own address emailed to me by fake email addresses. I have had my employer contacted by someone who demanded they demote me because they believed I wasn’t qualified enough. I have had my work contact numbers and addresses given to hundreds of weight loss businesses, diabetes clinics and gyms/personal trainers, so that I was inundated with these businesses contacting me at work following up on what they thought was my genuine interest in their business, wasting their time, my employers and mine.
They’ve created fake social media profiles of me. They create social media profiles just to harass me, so that no matter how many I block, they just create another one. They leave anonymous hate on all of my social media profiles. They email or message me gross pornography and gore.
There are pages and pages and pages of hate filled screed online about me. I see them linked to this blog, and people sometimes send them to me out of wanting to help (it doesn’t), and sometimes the authors of this bullshit send it to me themselves, just to goad me. There are pages discussing my hair, dissecting every little thing about it to ridicule me. They speculate over how often I wash it and what with, what brand colour I use on it and what technique I use to colour it. There are people who keep dossiers my online mentions of food. Others save/download every photograph of me that is online and then deface them. There are pages discussing my health, and dissecting photographs of me to try to find outward evidence of Type 2 Diabetes (I have it, have never hidden that). They discuss whether or not I have pain or illnesses, rubbing their hands in glee when they think I do.
They look for mentions of my family and friends and colleagues, and try to make me believe that nobody likes me, that everyone is laughing at me behind my back, that I am alone and unloved.
Generally they just find every way to try to abuse or harass me they can. The saddest thing is that I am just one of multitudes of women online, some of whom suffer far, far more disgusting abuse. The objective is to drive us off the internet. There is even a fucking website devoted to driving people off the internet, with users referring to it as “my internet”, as though they have some right to it that they can decide others don’t. Silencing people with abuse and harassment is not criticism or disagreement. It’s bullying. Instead of behaving like a decent human being and just turning their back on the person they’ve decided they hate and not reading their work or visiting their website, they make it their mission to drive them away altogether. Not content with making them unwelcome in their spaces online, they are determined to drive them out of ALL spaces online.
The truth of it is that as strong and courageous as any woman is, this constant abuse and harassment DOES cost us. It costs us our freedom, our voice, our peace of mind and our emotional wellbeing. It costs us relationships with people who cannot understand what it is like to be constantly abused and harassed, and with those afraid to be subjected to that abuse and harassment by association with us. It costs us actual money to mitigate the very real dangers we face. It costs us money in security for our homes, safe transport when we feel we cannot use public transport or travel alone safely, in software and services to block and filter and screen the abuse and attacks. For some it costs their careers and access to education. But worst of all it costs us our physical safety.
I know exactly what is going to happen. People are going to make excuses for the behaviour of these abusers and harassers. They will suggest that women just ignore it, or don’t go online. There will be those that suggest that Liss and I and other women bring it upon ourselves because we are so “opinionated”. Others will say that we cannot take criticism – as though these things are not at all abuse and harassment. Criticism is “I disagree with you because…” or “I find the way you handled this problematic because…” It’s not rape and death threats, stalking, harassment, name-calling, keeping dossiers and trying to silence someone.
They’ll say “Oh these are just sad losers on the internet.” as though they do no harm, or only harm themselves. Or those around us will just stay silent. They’ll read this or Liss’s piece, or any of the other examples of it that are written by the incredible strong, courageous women who put themselves online and they’ll just shrug their shoulders and say, “What can I do?”
The truth is, there are lots of things you can do. Start by believing women who talk about this abuse and harassment. Help by saying clearly and publicly “This is wrong. This has to stop.” Signal boost when women write about the abuse and harassment they face. When other people make excuses about the abuse and harassment women deal with, challenge them. Tell them it is not acceptable to minimise or excuse the abuse and harassment. Campaign online platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and any others to put in adequate security for their users – proper block functions, well moderated abuse reporting systems, clear anti-abuse terms of service requirements and strong anti-hacking/spam systems. If you know a woman who is being harassed/abused online, listen to her when she needs to vent. Ask her if she’s OK and if there are any ways you can help. Often just knowing someone cares and is listening is the thing that is least expressed. Support her if she goes to the authorities to report it. Document anything you receive by being associated with her.
If you stumble across abuse and harassment of a woman online, think carefully before you approach her about it. It is likely she already knows, and is finding it difficult to deal with already. Be sensitive about it if you do feel you need to raise it. Stay away from hate sites, use DoNotLink if you must link to it anywhere so the perpetrators don’t get the clicks/revenue. Report abusive social media accounts. Don’t blame the victim for the abuse, blame the perpetrators. Point out the difference between abuse and criticism – sadly it seems a lot of people can’t discern that for themselves.
It has to stop. Whether you agree with or like a particular woman online is irrelevant. This is not criticism, this is abuse and harassment. It is violence. We know what domestic abuse is, we know what emotional abuse is, we know what sexual abuse is. This culture of bullying, silencing and harassing women online is just another form of abuse. And online abuse is no more acceptable than any other kind.
It’s time for everyone to stand up and clearly state that the abuse of women online is unacceptable in any form. Not just to make it clear to the perpetrators that their time is coming to an end and that they will not be permitted to continue this behaviour, but to show support to those who suffer at the hands of these abusers.