The XX Factor

Online Misogyny: Can’t Ignore It, Can’t Not Ignore It

Lady on computer.

The Internet is fertile ground for expressions of hate toward women

Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images.

Jessica Coen, the editor at Jezebel, has a soul-searching piece up today about the way that online misogyny grinds at you until you simply stop feeling it anymore, which is your brain’s strategy for protecting you, but has the drawback of making you forget how serious a problem this is. The impetus was her realization that she read this story about the harassment of Anita Sarkeesian and felt so inured to it all that she didn’t even seriously consider assigning the story. Her post leaves us with more questions than answers about how to deal with online misogyny, especially with regards to striking the balance between not letting the haters get to you and remembering that this stuff actually matters. As someone who’s had dozens and often hundreds of men trying to tell me every day for the past six years that I’m stupid and worthless, I can certainly say I have yet to really find that balance. It’s tough; even writing that last sentence makes certain that I’ll be accused repeatedly of being a crybaby and an attention whore, which I will proceed to ignore for mental health purposes, but which will be seen by other women and will leave them afraid of what happens if they think they deserve a chance to put their thoughts out there for others to see.

Sarkeesian’s story is a doozy, by the way. She started a Kickstarter page to raise money to make a documentary about the tropes used by video game designers to portray female characters. She hadn’t expressed an opinion about video games yet, but simply by stating that she would at some point in the future do so, she had to endure an absolute avalanche of misogynist abuse from men who hoped they could silence her before her too-scary-to-be-heard opinion could be voiced. Every access point they could exploit was used to try to get to her, especially her YouTube page. Her Wikipedia page was repeatedly vandalized with lies, links out to porn sites, and pornographic pictures.* Eventually, Wikipedia shut it down. Unfortunately for the misogynists, this sort of thing generated a lot of sympathy for Sarkeesian, and she was able to fundraise well beyond her original goals. Like, more than $90,000 beyond what she originally wanted to raise.

So that story has a happy ending, but the ugliness that preceded it once again puts women trying to grapple with this problem in a weird position. Drawing attention to this problem is hard to do, since most men and those women who haven’t faced it tend to dismiss it as a matter of a few weirdoes on the Internet. But trying to reduce misogyny to an arcane hobby like stamp collecting misses the point. The reason these attacks hurt is because they reflect a reality women have to deal with that can’t be dismissed so easily. We live in a country where many people are eagerly pushing for restrictions on women’s rights, where rape victims meet a sea of hostility from their community and law enforcement, and where huge percentages of women have been directly raped or beaten by men. We also live in a society where women’s voices are routinely discounted and marginalized, resulting in a situation where men dominate the legislatures, the media, and the courts. The men screeching at you online to shut up—or condescending to you about how cute it is that you think you have an opinion—aren’t outliers. They reflect reality. They just do so in a way that’s more direct, because the social structures that allow sexism in real life to be more subtle haven’t really taken hold on the internet. The fact of the matter is these kinds of pressuring tactics do work to silence women’s voices, and that alone is reason enough to take them seriously.

But how to do so without causing permanent shifts to your blood pressure? If anyone can figure out the strategy there, I’d love to hear it.

*Some day someone is going to have to deal honestly with the fact that misogynists clearly seem to think porn is hate speech, the equivalent of using a racial slur at a person of color.