The year is new, but we already have a candidate for the most troubling magazine essay of the year: Amanda Hess on Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet, in the latest issue of Pacific Standard.
Hess takes a reality many people may be only dimly aware of — that female writers come in for an extraordinary amount of abuse online — and fleshes it out with detail, data and personal experience.
The anecdotes, her own and from others, range from the offensive to the terrifying, but there is also a thudding, soul-crushing sameness to them: graphic threats of sexual violence, rape and murder, intertwining and repeating.
Everyone who writes online comes in for abuse, but Hess’ essay describes a form of intimate attack that few male journalists experience. We hear about it over drinks, we catch glimpses of it on Twitter, but it is easy for us to miss how radically different it makes our female peers’ experience.
Hess’ essay is mostly interested in solutions and responses: How women should deal with their harassers; how online forums should police abuse; how the laws surrounding stalking and discrimination might adapt to deal with online threats.
However, it is also useful to think about root causes, and where all the hate and twisted fantasies are coming from. Is this misogyny always latent in a subset of the male population, or are there magnifying forces at work?
One potential magnifier, of course, is the Internet itself, which by its nature is a kind of unreal space for many users — a place where a range of impulses can be discussed, explored and acted out in what feels like a consequence-free zone.
There is some evidence that the emergence of this fantasy space has actually made the real world slightly safer for women: Studies have shown correlations between access to online pornography and lower rates of sexual assault.
However, the flip side is that many men who might have successfully regulated their darker impulses now have what seems like a green light to be “virtually” abusive ... because they are just trying out a role, or because the woman on the receiving end seems no more real to them than a character in a pornographic film.
Another magnifier is ideology. Hess is a feminist who works in culture-war terrain, and there is no question that women writing from that perspective come in for more personal, sexualized abuse than women writing about, say, monetary policy.
Where the personal is political, the political becomes personal more quickly, and the grotesque abuse that liberal, feminist writers can receive for being liberal feminists is a scandal that conservatives, especially, need to acknowledge and deplore.
Many conservative and libertarian women also take a remarkable amount of sexual-political abuse. So it may be that the culture war cuts both ways and a certain kind of left-wing narrative about gender — in which women are expected to hold liberal views just by virtue of being female — can become a license for allegedly progressive men to demean and dehumanize women who decline to play that part.
And then to further complicate matters, there is the phenomenon of intra-liberal misogyny — like the flood of abuse, cited by Hess, that greeted the atheist writer Rebecca Watson when she wrote about sexism and harassment at a skeptics’ convention.
Cases like Watson’s suggest that there is a chauvinist attitude in play here, a kind of crypto-ideology of sex and gender, that does not map neatly onto what we usually think of as culture-war divides.