Internet Harassment Of Women: When Haters Do More Than Just Hate
Anyone who posts something online runs the risk of getting negative feedback. But for some female writers, things are taken to an extreme level. Host Michel Martin talks with Amanda Hess, about her article "Why Women Aren't Welcome On The Internet." Writers Bridget Johnson and Mikki Kendall also discuss how they've handled harassments and threats - on and off line.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Finally today, we want to take a look at the world of Internet media. Now we often hear that the Internet is the brave new world where things like race and gender don't matter. Everybody can be who they want to be and have equal access and equal say. But we also know that there is an ugly side to the Internet, and that's something you may have experienced yourself, particularly if you are a girl or a woman.
That's what we're going to talk about today. Writer Amanda Hess, in a piece in Pacific Standard magazine titled "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet," says that the way women are treated online really is different - that women are subjected to a level of abuse that is in fact more pervasive and more vicious than that directed at men. She says, in short, quote, we have been thinking about Internet harassment all wrong, unquote. And Amanda Hess is with us now from Southern California Public Radio in Pasadena. Amanda Hess, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
AMANDA HESS: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Also joining the conversation, Bridget Johnson, the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media. That's a conservative libertarian news and commentary site. She's one of our regular contributors here in Washington, D.C. Mikki Kendall is also with us, writer and media critic with HoodFeminism.com. She's with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
BRIDGET JOHNSON: Great to be here, Michel.
MIKKI KENDALL: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Now here's where I think I need to pause and say if you want to know what we're talking about, you need to know what we're talking about. So some of the things that we are going to talk about might be very upsetting, and this is the time that I need to say maybe this is - you might need to make a different choice for the next couple of minutes about how to spend your time. We hope you'll stay with us if you can. So, Amanda Hess, let me start with you. How do you know that this is happening more and more often and more viciously to women? Because I'm sure there are people who will say, well, women are just more sensitive.
HESS: Sure. Well, there hasn't been a huge body of research on this issue, but there have been a few organizations and legal scholars who are beginning to dig into it who have been able to sort of isolate some statistics that show that women are disproportionately affected by online threats and harassment. The Pew Research Center is...
MARTIN: Well, you cite some of that in your piece, for example, in 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then sent them into chat rooms. And you said that accounts with female usernames or feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day and the masculine names received 3.7. And that you said that there was another study by the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking the online lives of Americans for more than a decade, that women and men have been logging on in equal numbers since the year 2000, but that the kinds of communications we're talking about are disproportionally lobbed at women. Any idea why?
HESS: Well, I think when you have any group that is traditionally marginalized in life, you're going to see a similar marginalization online because the Internet is really intimately connected to our real lives. So when we talk about women being oversensitive, that's also a complaint that's been applied to women who pursue sexual harassment litigation against their employers.
MARTIN: Well, that's another area we're going to get into. Just talk about your experience if you would - username - you talked about, in your piece, a personal experience you had with this. And I just think this is where you need to explain to people what it is that we're actually talking about. There's a person that goes by the username HeadlessFemalePig, and he did what?
HESS: HeadlessFemalePig set up a Twitter account this summer expressly for the purpose of threatening to rape me and cut off my head. He's just sort of the latest abuser in a long line of mostly anonymous people who have taken to the Internet to make sexual comments against me and threaten my life.
MARTIN: Do you feel that that is in part because of your subject matter? I mean, you often write about racy topics - you know, dating, female sexuality. Your bio website is titled Sex With Amanda Hess. Do you think that those kinds of stories are more likely to bring out people with this kind of, I don't know, desire to harass?
HESS: Yeah. I mean, I think when I speak with other women who talk about women's issues, whether it's, you know, from abortion to dating - by the way, I don't find dating to be a particularly racy topic - there will...
MARTIN: Point taken.
HESS: ...Be people who sort of use gendered harassment to lash out against people who are specifically taking on misogyny or discussing sexuality, frankly.
MARTIN: Well, here's why it's important that we have Bridget Johnson with us because you are a conservative writer for a conservative website, and I wanted to ask if you have had similar experiences.
MARTIN: And you write about politics.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I get kind of two different types of harassment. The first, you know, since I write about terrorism a lot, I get it from extremists. I actually don't really mind that that much 'cause I feel like it's more of a toe-to-toe battle. It actually does bother me more when you get ones that are, you know, personally harassing, that you know it's somebody with a screw loose.
MARTIN: But do they say things about your gender? Do they say things that are sort of directed to you as a woman?
MARTIN: Like what - do you mind if I ask?
JOHNSON: Things about a person's looks, things about, you know, if you write something that has to do with, you know, policy on birth control, etc., you could be branded as slutty very easily. When I was at the Rocky Mountain News, actually my home computer router was hacked. And the hacker made it so that when I started to enter the automatic fields where, you know, your name would drop down, it would be Bridget and then insults after that.
MARTIN: And can I ask you, Bridget Johnson, because, as I said, this is a conservative libertarian sort of news and website - do you think that the people who attack you online in that space, do you think that they are people who don't agree with your politics who are attracted to the site in order to be - harass you? Or are they fellow conservatives who don't agree with you about a particular issue and just become nasty - not just - but become nasty and harassing in expressing whatever?
JOHNSON: I can definitely...
MARTIN: Are they fellow conservatives is what I'm asking you.
JOHNSON: It comes from both sides. You can get, you know, the people who are coming onto the site, you know, just with express purpose of that. But you also have people, I think, who settle into a site and get really comfortable with it. And then if they see either on our site or another site another writer who is insulting somebody, they kind of - they're a follower. They kind of go along with that, and they feel that the Internet has given them this great license to be able to say, behind of the mask of a screen name, what they don't have the guts to say to somebody face-to-face in person.
MARTIN: Mikki Kendall, what about you?
KENDALL: So my experience has been both gendered and racial. I'm going to get called the B-word. I'm going to get called the N-word. I'm often going to be called them together. You get a lot of this - I think we all can all agree that it comes almost regardless of your topic. I had someone troll me - I posted a video yesterday of me and my kids having sort of fun science experiments in the deep frost. And I got a couple of angry trolling comments about throwing boiling water in the air to turn it into snow.
If you can find something controversial in snowed-in science, I don't really know what else to - I can't please you. And I've definitely had - I wrote about abortion. I definitely got a lot of flak and stalking and harassment behind that. But I've also, frankly, gotten from people who were theoretically on my side - you know, men of color, women of color, white women, whatever - who just don't like what I have to say that day. And they want to make sure that I know that they don't think I have a right to say it.
MARTIN: But you were dancing around the truth. In a way, we have to dance around a little bit because some of the kinds of things that have been said that - Amanda, that you write about in your piece and, Mikki, you told us about - are just not things that we would like to say in this space. But, Mikki, can you give us an example of what you're talking about? I mean, people threatening to rape you, that kind of thing. In addition to...
KENDALL: I've actually gotten rape threats. I've gotten death threats. I've gotten...
MARTIN: People threatening your children.
KENDALL: Someone sent me a picture of me and my kids walking across the parking lot of the building we were living in and threatened to come see us. We had to move. I had to actually move a few years ago. And it was horrible. And I've sort of gotten, in the wake of that experience - of an actual stalking - I've sort of gotten this sense of when I have to pay attention to the threats and when the threats are such that I can make fun of them.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us...
KENDALL: And I can block that person.
MARTIN: I understand, Mikki. OK.
KENDALL: Because sometimes there's just no use in trying to talk back and trying to interact with people. I've also gotten very careful about how much of my personal information is actually public. The name I write under is not the name I live under.
MARTIN: And you've had to do that because of - is this harassment that started in the real world and that was reflected online or is this stuff that started online?
KENDALL: No, it definitely - it began online and then spread offline. I had a couple of people even go so far as to do it on Facebook with their actual Facebook - you know, their real names and locations. And they sent me these messages on Facebook. And I suspect they were very confused when the police came a-knocking. But...
MARTIN: Well, let me talk about that because - if you're just joining us, we're talking about the whole question of why so many women writers are targets of Internet harassment. Our guests are Mikki Kendall - that's who was speaking just now - of HoodFeminism.com, Bridget Johnson of PJ Media and Amanda Hess who wrote an article about this for Pacific Standard magazine. Amanda, you draw a distinction - well, there are a couple things I wanted to ask you about - there's a lot to talk about in a short amount of time - is that you say that these - you liken these harassers to the Ku Klux Klan. These are people who are hiding under their hoods or behind usernames whose sole purpose is to intimidate people.
And you also say that, you know, law enforcement is sometimes just technologically ill-equipped to deal with this. But you also say that, you know, there seems to be a kind of a growing consciousness around this, that people are starting to get the idea that cyberstalking is wrong, that cyberbullying is wrong - a lot more stories about this. So what is it that you say that we're thinking about all wrong? How do we need to think about this differently in your opinion?
HESS: I think the main thing is that people need to understand that the Internet is as real as real life. I hesitate to use the term real life to even apply to this space that we are all walking in. And that's something that even as people can sort of understand that they spend really their whole days and their lives online, when it comes to abuse and violence against women and other marginalized communities, they often tell us to laugh it off or say that police resources should be used for crimes that occur, you know, in the meat space, if you will. So that's really the sort of paradigm shift that I think needs to happen in order to make sure that there are resources applied to investigating and prosecuting those crimes.
MARTIN: And why do you think so because there are people who would say really what you need to focus on are physical interactions, that if something happens, it's kind of - just ignore it, laugh at it - ignore it or just don't read the comments or whatever. Why do you feel that this needs to be elevated to the level of, like, a physical threat or something that takes place in your physical space?
HESS: Well, threats of physical violence, whether they are carried out in person or online are already illegal. They - it's a criminal act, but the problem is that there is not a lot of movement to even investigate these crimes. So, for example, when someone this summer threatened to rape and kill me, when I interfaced with the police about it - first of all, they had no idea what Twitter was, which was the platform where the threats came over.
So it was very difficult to even sort of try to convince this person that it was - that this is a space that I use for my professional life, that I use for my personal life and it's a service that I need to use. And the other thing is that because a lot of police don't have a very intimate understanding of the Internet and how it works, there's a tendency to ignore it, to not investigate it. And if they don't investigate it, it really becomes impossible to prove, you know, how direct the threat is, how close this person actually lives to me. The person who threatened me claimed that they lived close to me, but it's difficult to prove without the police looking into it.
MARTIN: Actually looking into it. But...
HESS: And it's also impossible to prove a pattern of harassment, which is also criminal.
MARTIN: Let's hear from the other guests on this as well. So, Bridget, how do you sort out when to engage and when not to engage? And is there a way in which you think you would like us to look at this question?
JOHNSON: Right. I categorize the harassers into two categories. You have the insulters, which I've already talked about, and those are those people who just kind of follow and call people names. Then the second group is people who have made criminal suggestions or threats. The people making rape threats are not just being rude. They have a criminal mentality. The Internet has given people a new way to act out. You know, for example, if somebody was previously into child porn, they'd have to surreptitiously meet somebody to get some photos or a VHS or something.
Now it's very easy for them to act out on that fantasy. So those making rape threats, you can believe that they've thought about wanting to do that. The Internet gives them a new way to virtually violate somebody. And what police need to be concerned about is the escalation. Are these people going to get to the point where the virtual fantasy is just not good enough and they act it out in real life? It might not be with the columnist or blogger that they're harassing, but it could be another woman who is more vulnerable.
MARTIN: It's hard to know, though, because, again, as Amanda pointed out at the beginning, there's so little research on this, it's hard to know what is a sort of a fantasy that acts out. But, I mean, you know, Amanda makes the point, though, that if this affects - the way she says - she describes it, that these messages are an assault on women's careers and their psychological bandwidth and their freedom to engage. It's like if you are censoring yourself because you don't want to invite the harassment, then - but I don't know. I don't know. Mikki Kendall, what do you think about this?
KENDALL: Well, so let's back this up for a second and talk about the fact that just because someone says it online, it doesn't mean they can't find you offline, right? Even if I personally don't use Foursquare or one of the other locator services, if my friend who's with me says on Twitter or anywhere else, hey, I'm at so and so with @Karnythia, and they talk about the restaurant name, then obviously you can find me. I write fiction as well.
Sometimes I do conventions. You can find me at a convention. You can find my name on the websites for those conventions. So I think it's really disingenuous to think that just because it's said online, it can't be taken to offline. We are all relatively easy to find if we're writing in public in the first place.
MARTIN: Do you feel, Mikki Kendall, that there is a - that your male colleagues understand the world that you're in when you talk about these issues? Do you feel that there's kind of a shared understanding of how this...
KENDALL: I think some of them do. I think it depends - you know, I don't think it's gender-based. I think if you are talking about, say, certain categories of black men or trans men or disabled male men in particular, they are also getting some of this harassment. You also see men who try to speak up for women get a lot of this hate and harassment. There are guys who - and I love them for it - will sit on Twitter when they have time and sort of wrangle my mentions to distract the trolls, to distract the threats. And one of the things that you'll see is that they'll then develop their own cadre of haters because somehow the fact that they're defending a woman means that they are worthless as well.
MARTIN: Let me give Amanda the final thought here since you were the person who kind of aggregated all this and put this all together. Is there something - is there one thing you'd like to take away - us to take away from this conversation?
HESS: I think whether or not a threat escalates into an actual physical confrontation, the sheer volume and accumulation of these threats has the effect of intimidating women from using the Internet. And I think, you know, it's a really sad state where some people are saying, well, if you're not literally raped then everything is fine. I think we as a society should have a bit of a higher bar than that for, you know, taking action to make sure that women have equal opportunities in our society.
MARTIN: Amanda Hess is a freelance writer. Her piece "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet" is the cover story of Pacific Standard magazine. She was with us from KPCC in Pasadena. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media, with us in our Washington, D.C. studios once again. Mikki Kendall is a writer and media critic with HoodFeminism.com, with us from NPR member station WBEZ, which is in Chicago. Thank you all so much for joining us.
JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.
KENDALL: Thank you very much.
HESS: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.