“It’s just one rape threat,” I told my mother. “It’s not a big deal.”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted saying them. No mother wants to hear that her child is being threatened, especially not when that child lives on the other side of the world. More than the fact that I had spoken the words aloud to my mom, though, I regretted — I was appalled by — the casual tone in which I had said them. It’s not a big deal? I thought to myself. A stranger is emailing you and threatening to rape you and you’re calling it not a big deal?
How the hell did you get here? How did this become your normal?
I’ll tell you how. I became a feminist blogger, and I started writing about gender, body image, and sexual violence. And now, rape threats, and other forms of abuse, are my normal. They’re just part of my job.
Last week, the long-time feminist blogger Melissa McEwan posted about the harassment she receives as part of the work that she does, and about the need for those of us who experience similar harassment to talk about it. McEwan, who runs the blog Shakesville and has been doing feminist advocacy and blogging far longer than I have, shares my frustration that, when she tells people about the torrent of abuse that she and her colleagues face for saying things like “I don’t think being fat doesn’t make you a lesser human being,” or “I think rape is bad and men should stop doing it,” or “I don’t think the government should be able to force me to give birth against my will,” those people are surprised. They’re surprised that we receive rape threats, death threats, and so much more:
Death threats. Rape threats. Threats to kill my family, my pets. Detailed emails describing what it would be like to rape me, to murder me. Emails imagining what sex is like between my husband and me, and how he must hate it because I am disgusting. Hopes that someone else will hurt me. Admonishments to kill myself.
Pictures of weapons that people want to use on me. Photoshopped images of me being jizzed on, raped, sliced, diced, murdered. Pictures of dead fetuses.
Pictures of my house. Emails the entire text of which is just my address. Comments the entire text of which is just my address. Comments with threats. Comments with slurs. Comments with insults.
Harassing phone calls. Voicemails with threats of violence. My home address and phone numbers published. A publicly posted campaign offering a reward to anyone for proof of my rape and/or murder.
Private images stolen and published. Photoshopped images of me as various historical tyrants. Hate sites. My image used in fake Twitter accounts, online dating profiles, blogs. My life scrutinized, my privacy invaded, lies told about me, my appearance mocked, my reported experiences audited.
People have pounded on my front door. Dumped garbage on my lawn. Smashed a phone just beneath my office window, as if to say this is how close I can get.
Melissa’s full list is considerably longer than what I’ve excerpted here, and you should read the whole thing. I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the level of harassment that Melissa has. But I’ve experienced enough to make me wonder whether or not I want to keep doing the work I do — which is, of course, the purpose of such abuse. The point is to scare you off and shut you up, to frighten you into silence. Melissa’s argument is that we — the people who do this kind of work — can’t be surprised or frustrated when people outside of our circles are surprised to hear that abuse is our normal. Because we don’t talk about it. And as a result, people are surprised when we tell the truth about what people do to us when we speak our minds, when we dare to suggest that sexism exists and that we all have a role to play in ending it. “I am tired of people being surprised,” Melissa wrote. “I am tired of hearing ‘I’m sorry this happens to you.’ I don’t want shock and I don’t want pity. I want your fucking awareness and I want your fucking anger. I want us to talk about the real costs of being a woman who does public advocacy.”
So let’s talk about it.
Last month, I wrote an op ed at CNN about sexual assaults on college campuses. I was threatened with rape as a result. Last summer, I had the temerity to point out that yes, Andy Murray was indeed the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years unless you think women are people, and count the several British women who had won single’s trophies on those hallowed courts in the intervening years. For that, I had several teenage British boys tweet diagrams at me titled “how to disable a woman.” They felt perfectly comfortable threatening me in public, in full view of their school administrators, the police, and, in theory, everyone else in the internet-using world. Last year, I pointed out that a sign encouraging people to consume fewer calories because “summer’s coming” was shaming fat people, and requested that the sign be taken down. For that, I was called a fat, ugly, unrapeable cunt, amongst many, many other things. These are just the three incidents that come most easily to mind, but really, it’s only a taste, just a sample of the abuse and intimidation that have become normal for me in the five years I’ve been doing this work.
It could be worse, of course. My friends and colleagues — Anita Sarkeesian, Sady Doyle, Kate Harding, Jessica Valenti – all get it worse than me. And then there’s Feministing’s Zerlina Maxwell, who is Black, and Jos Truitt, who is a transgender woman, who get called things that white and cisgender women can’t even imagine — in addition to all the things we can. And it’s true that most people who do public advocacy, regardless of their gender and regardless of what they write about, have to deal with trolls. But rape threats are not trolling. Let’s not pretend that a man who writes about economic policy is up against the same barrage of bullshit that awaits my women friends when we write about abortion rights.
So, what are the costs of working in the face of this kind of hostility? People drop out. People burn out. People decide it’s not worth the risk. This is not because they are weak, or inadequately committed to the cause. It’s a rational reaction to an utterly irrational situation. It is also the intended outcome of all that abuse.
For me, the costs have been hard to measure, but entirely real. In some ways, I’ve reshaped my life around the possibility that people will try to do me harm as a result of the work I do. I don’t tweet about where I go anymore — not in real time, at least — unless I absolutely have to. When I’m speaking at an event, and the location and time have been advertised to the public, I’m on high alert. I rarely post photos of myself with my friends or family. I don’t go by my real name on Facebook, after enough rape threats made their way into my inbox there.
Those are all real, and difficult to quantify, and so too is what, to me, is the greatest cost: the blasé tone in which I reassured my mother that one piddling rape threat was nothing to worry about. Or rather, it’s what that conversation represents. The extent to which, at 26, I have internalized this way of living, without even realizing that I was doing it. The fact that I am no longer surprised. The matter of fact tone in my voice when I tell teenagers who aspire to do this kind of work that this is just something they’ll have to learn to live with if they want to speak their minds in public. When rape threats are your normal, and when you find yourself trying to convince people — not just any people, but your own mother — that it’s no big deal, something is wrong. And Melissa is right: we need to talk about it.