"You should have your tongue ripped out": the reality of sexist abuse online

Female bloggers speak out about misogynist comments, rape threats and death threats.

You always remember the first time someone calls you ugly on the internet. I imagine -- although it hasn't happened to me -- you always remember the first time someone threatens to rape you, or kill you, or urinate on you.

The sheer volume of sexist abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet's festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a greatest hits of insults. But it's very rarely spoken about, for both sound and unsound reasons. No one likes to look like a whiner -- particularly a woman writing in male-dominated fields such as politics, economics or computer games. Others are reluctant to give trolls the "satisfaction" of knowing they're emotionally affected by the abuse or are afraid of incurring more by speaking out.

Both are understandable reasons but there's another, less convincing one: doesn't everyone get abuse on the internet? After all, the incivility of the medium has prompted a rash of op-eds and books about the degradation of discourse.

While I won't deny that almost all bloggers attract some extremely inflammatory comments -- and LGBT or non-white ones have their own special fan clubs, too -- there is something distinct, identifiable and near-universal about the misogynist hate directed at women online. As the New Statesman blogger David Allen Green told me: "In three years of blogging and tweeting about highly controversial political topics, I have never once had any of the gender-based abuse that, say, Cath Elliott, Penny Red or Ellie Gellard routinely receive."

So far, I've got off lightly -- most of the off-colour comments I get are just that, off colour. My personal favourite is the man who suggested I should drink his sperm, although there is a special place in my heart for whoever wrote:

Why is it that young females with three names and large hairdos are always haters of large, successful, popular producers, and always buy into every anti-capitalist myth produced by the government subsidized educational establishments? Are they (three-named females with large hair) really the most naive among us, or the most envious of success?

(On reflection, I've decided there's probably a political side to Sarah Jessica Parker and Sophie Ellis Bextor I hadn't previously known about.)

The first time I wrote an article that attracted a lot of adverse comment, I lay awake that night, wondering if I would write another blog post. Even if the individual comments are (just) within the bounds of civility, the effect of feeling a wave of attack wash over you is one that has to be experienced to be understood. After a while, you toughen up: stop reading the comments or stop letting them get to you.

But that's the small beer (which is what the comments I've attracted are). What does it feel like to be subjected to regular rape threats or death threats? To have people send you emails quoting your address, or outlining their sexual fantasies about you? That's the reality of what many female bloggers experience.

It's my belief that "normal" net users simply don't realise what it feels like to open the front door to a chorus of commenters howling at you about your opinions, your name, your appearance, your sexuality. If they did, we might all have a little less tolerance, be a little less ready to excuse sexist abuse as part of the "rough and tumble" of blogging.

So here, nine bloggers describe the kind of abuse they get, how it makes them feel, and what -- if anything -- they believe can be done about it. Please be warned: some of the abuse described is graphic.

Kate Smurthwaite

Feminist activist and comedienne, author of Cruellablog

I get abusive comments on my blog or under my videos. Some is straight up hate-speech: fat, ugly, desperate or a bitch who deserves to be slapped, hit or gang-raped. Other times it is in the form of unsolicited advice: subjects I "shouldn't" cover or opinions I "shouldn't" have. I'd say in a typical week I get 10-20 abusive comments though there are undoubtedly more that I don't see on other sites.

The vast majority of the abuse is gender-related. There is a clear link to internet pornography. Much of the language used could have come straight from pornographic sites. For example, from this week: "IF THIS TRASH TALKING K*NT HAD HER F*CKNG, TONGUE RIPPED OUT OF HER SUCK-HOLE..." [I won't correct the spelling or grammar, that would seem odd].

At first it really upset me, but much less so now. My friends are always surprised with the casualness with which I can mention threats of gang rape. The unsolicited advice is worse because the message seems to be: "Just comply with the patriarchy a little tiny bit more and everything will be OK." That's sinister.

What frightens me the most is when an abusive message includes my personal details. I've had my own address quoted at me with a rape threat and -- yes -- that is terrifying. That's when I call the police; they're not much help.

As for what can be done, the superficial part of the problem is easily solved. I get very little abuse on Twitter and Facebook because to participate in those forums you need a profile which has been checked against a valid email address. Sites also need to have a "report this comment" button, and use it. It amazes me some of the comments that are left up on sites like The Guardian. There is a difference between hate speech and free speech and we need to draw it and stick to it.

There is an underlying issue though -- the people who post these comments reveal a deep-seated hatred towards women. I find that unsurprising in our culture. Violent, extreme pornography is normal internet fare. Gang rape and prostitution are subjects for popular music. At least 95 per cent of actual rapists are still on the streets. That's the real problem. We need to address that.

Eleanor O'Hagan

Freelance writer living in north London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae

When you start writing, nobody warns you about the abuse you'll receive. For me, it began almost instantly: not outright nastiness, though I have had my fair share of that, too, but attempts to discredit me. The comments came mainly from men and they were always in line with existing gender stereotypes. Instead of engaging with my opinions, commenters would make me out to be a hysteric, a "silly little girl" or a whinger. I remember some commenters telling me to stop going on. It was like they saw me as a sort of nagging fishwife, not a political commentator.

On the whole, I've managed to avoid the worst threats and misogyny that other women writers endure but I don't think that's luck or because my opinions are more well-argued. I think it's because, very early on, I became conscious of how my opinions would be received and began watering them down, or not expressing them at all. I noticed that making feminist arguments led to more abuse and, as a result, I rarely wrote about feminism at all. I was so nervous about the abuse I would receive when I wrote an article about cultural misogyny. It felt like I was exposing myself as a feminist.

To me, misogynistic abuse is an attempt to silence women. Traditionally, men have been the ones who influence the direction of society: I think there is still a sense that it's not women's place to be involved in politics. That's why the abuse women writers experience is really pernicious and needs to stop. Women will never achieve equality so long as they're being intimidated out of the picture.

Gendered abuse should be seen as a form of hate speech, because that's what it is. Website owners should remember that misogynistic comments do cause harm and should not be tolerated. If women writers complain to the police of threats, they should be taken seriously. At the moment, there is too much complacency around the issue and women are afraid to speak out. It's a situation that shames us all and it's time to say "enough is enough".

Cath Elliot

Freelance writer and blogger

If I'd been trying to keep a tally I would have lost count by now of the number of abusive comments I've received since I first started writing online back in 2007. And by abusive I don't mean comments that disagree with whatever I've written -- I came up through the trade union movement don't forget, and I've worked in a men's prison, so I'm not some delicate flower who can't handle a bit of banter or heated debate -- no, I'm talking about personal, usually sexualised abuse, the sort that on more than one occasion now has made me stop and wonder if what I'm doing is actually worth it.

When I read about how I'm apparently too ugly for any man to want to rape, or I read graphic descriptions detailing precisely how certain implements should be shoved into one or more of my various orifices, I try to console myself with Andrew Marr's comments at last year's Cheltenham Literary Festival, replacing the term bloggers with commenters:

"A lot of [commenters] seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting."

It feels a bit less threatening if you can picture your haters that way. But sometimes even that won't work, and there have been a couple of times recently when I've thought about going to the police. How am I supposed to know for instance whether "Let's hope she doesn't end up getting stabbed in the head or something" is a throwaway comment by a sad little man sat in his bedsit in his underpants, or whether it's something slightly more sinister that means I need to keep looking over my shoulder whenever I leave the house? At what point does "a bit of online abuse" cross over into sexual harassment or hate speech? And how do you determine when a 'nasty comment' has crossed a line and become a genuine threat to kill?

I'm not sure what the solution to all this is, although I'm beginning to wonder if it might be worth one or more of us having a go at taking a test case through the criminal justice system. In the meantime though, I think it's imperative that women who write online continue to speak out about the abuse we're subjected to, and that we expose the Internet misogynists at every opportunity we get.

Dawn Foster

Blogger at F For Philistine. She tweets: @DawnHFoster

The worst instance of online abuse I've encountered happened when I blogged about the Julian Assange extradition case. As more people shared it on Twitter with positive comments, a growing trickle of abusive comments appeared. Rather than simply being negative, it was clear the commenters hadn't read the post: just clocked the title, my gender and started punching the keyboard furiously.

The emails rarely mentioned the topic at hand: instead they focussed on my age, used phrases like "little girl", described rape fantasies involving me and called me "ugly" and "disgusting". Initially it was shocking: in the space of a week, I received a rabid email that included my home address, phone number and workplace address, included as a kind of threat. Then, after tweeting that I'd been waiting for a night bus for ages, someone replied that they hoped I'd get raped at the bus stop.

Occasionally, I'd respond to emails casually, to show the sender hadn't affected me in any way. Their responses usually disintegrated into unhinged ranting, away from discussing how much they hated me and into their hatred of women in general. Blog posts sprang up about me, full of ad hominem attacks, and assumptions about my views. Speaking to friends who also blogged, but were men, I learned this type of abuse wasn't common, unless you were a woman. Even posts about cycling drew vitriolic emails or requests for dates and sex. Being a woman on the internet seemed to be enough to anger people, regardless of what you were writing.

In the end, I discovered the best way to combat the abuse was to ignore it. If someone writes a derailing comment, delete it. Someone wishes rape upon you on Twitter, block them. Someone emails you self-righteous bile, don't reply: forward it on to your friends to amuse them during their coffee break. Nobody's entitled to a reply, contrary to what the trolls may think.

Anonymous blogger

The site I write for does get some abuse: "unlikeable bitch", "thick as pig shit", "Do you have any brain cells or share them?" But I think a major factor in my avoidance of such abuse so far is that I am not particularly high-profile.

I would say the misogynistic abuse that a number of women bloggers and writers have received functions as a form of censorship and warning to the ones not currently experiencing it to watch what we say.

As feminists, we know that there's at least something about us or something we want to say that will incur the wrath of misogynists. We're constantly ducking and diving, choosing our words carefully and having to walk the tightrope of being completely true to our beliefs, regardless of whether they happen to please other feminists or (conversely) the sexist majority, but also making sure we don't prompt misogynists to attack us because of an ill-chosen word or two.

We feel like our arguments have to be tight at all times and that we'd better not type out anything less than reasonable (in anger) because the punishment we receive is likely to be disproportionate to the intellectual crime.

The blogger asked for her name not to be used because she was concerned about the attention that writing would attract.

Caroline Farrow

Catholic blogger, mother of three and full time student

My blogging tends to be centrered around areas of Catholic social teaching as opposed to purely political, but when I do make forays into the political arena, it is fair to say that I adopt a right-of-centre stance. It is the hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage that tend to provoke the most controversy and comment, and the resulting abuse seems to stem as much from the women as it does the men.

I am well versed in dealing with the "you believe in sky pixies which is proof enough of your inherent irrationality" approach, but I find the personal abuse most difficult to take. One of the most upsetting was being informed that I "deserve to die at the rusty scissors of a backstreet abortionist" when I was heavily pregnant; "God is not your friend, he can't help you now, may he strike you down", cursed the enigmatically named "Teresa's mother".

I am often told how my mouth would be put to better use giving fellatio or that I am uptight and sexually repressed, someone who could clearly benefit from a "regular seeing-to" and how my defence of conservative values stems from a deep-seated need to be anally penetrated. I am crying out for anal rape to be put in my place, preferably by an HIV-positive male who is not wearing a condom, in order to understand the iniquity of the Church's teaching on contraception.

The comments about my appearance tend to focus upon the fact that I am unattractive but yet paradoxically inviting sexual advances. People would deign to have sex with me either out of pity or to teach me a lesson.

Although on one level I am able to brush off comments of this nature, which say more about the inadequacy of the poster than they do me, it does feel like violation and I won't publish them because they make my blog feel squalid, unsafe and invaded, which is the main effect of abuse - be it sexually-motivated or personal attacks upon me or my family. People have wished teenage pregnancies, STDs and homosexuality upon my children, as well as expressed concern that someone as toxic as me is allowed to bring them up.

It is unsettling when someone wishes you serious harm or death, particularly when you feel that you have done nothing worse than to voice a dissenting opinion. I find it difficult to let go of the anxiety and tension and have to make a conscious effort to put it to the back of my mind so that it doesn't have an effect on my children. When my daughter cried because she was upset by mummy's distress caused by "those nasty people on your blog", I realised that I needed to be able to put this in perspective and not let their twisted objectives succeed.

What can be done to reduce it? Nothing, nor would I support any moves to legislate for trolls. It's simply the flip side to freedom of speech, we cannot have a society whereby people are not allowed to say things that could be perceived as offensive, regardless of intention. What concerns me is whether or not people might ever carry these grudges and vendettas through to real life, which is what I have been threatened with in the past. With freedom comes great responsibility.

Natalie Dzerins

Author of Forty Shades of Grey, a blog about feminism, the media and current affairs. She tweets: @TheNatFantastic

Last night, I was informed that if all women looked like me, there would be no more rape in the world. I have to admit that I laughed when I read it, as it was exactly the level of response I was expecting. If there is one thing I have learned about being a woman with vocal opinions, it is that everything I ever do or say is wrong because of my physical appearance. Well, at least according to the common or garden internet troll.

Trolls are a funny old breed, but they've never bothered me too much. That's not to say I'm not trolled, because I get nasty abuse almost daily. However, I've never let it affect me on a personal level. Trolls, like the playground bullies they seek to emulate, go for what they perceive to be your weakest spots. As a woman, I'm supposed to care if a bloke calls me a man-hating lesbian.

I think one of the reasons I am able to laugh it off so easily is that insults of that nature prove how little the trolls actually know about me - they may as well be insulting me for having a third arm (I have no problems with lesbianism or polymelia, but neither of them are defining characteristics of mine). And if the best argument someone can come up with against something I've written is to call me fat, I'll consider that a win. If they could actually prove what I say to be incorrect, I'm sure they would have. I do sometimes wish that I were a man though, so that if I were to get abuse, it would be for my ideas, not for having the gall to have them in the first place.

As for a suggestion on how to make it stop? I'm afraid I have none. While we still live in a sexist society, any women who sticks her head above the parapet will encounter misogynistic abuse.

Rosamund Urwin

Columnist at the Evening Standard, she tweets @rosamundurwin

"WERE you abused by a male relative as a child?" I was asked by an online bile-spewer last year. Troll-in-chief "Frank from Home Counties" had typed out his little bit of venom under a piece I had written about some of the sexist traditions of weddings; nothing -- I should add -- that gave the impression that my answer would be in the affirmative.

I only saw his comment after my sister called me at work, upset. Tired of the unfettered misogyny, I had weaned myself off reading them a few months before. That's one of the strange things about these comments though -- there is something initially compulsive about reading them, even though you know it is a damaging habit.

On Twitter, of course, they are harder to avoid. The abuse I have suffered there is nothing compared with the vitriol I have seen thrown at other female writers but I have had what might constitute an incitement to violence (a request for someone to cut off my fingers), as well as comments filled with the f-word (and I don't mean feminism). I have largely forgotten most of the latter now, though, as I simply block them.

I wasn't always so thick-skinned. When I started writing comment pieces (I was a business reporter first), I naively had no clue quite how misogynistic the comments would be. The first time I was attacked, I felt both lonely and exposed. Lonely because I thought I might be the only woman suffering them (I clearly didn't read Comment Is Free), and exposed because I knew everyone else could see them, too. The green biro brigade can be vicious to anyone, but -- my God -- some of them hate women. Many of them complain that feminism has "gone too far", that men are now more discriminated than women, while exposing with their cruelty how much feminism has left to do.

I don't have a solution as such, though I would argue some of the comments constitute hate speech. My suggestions are that the goodies should try to stick together (I googled a blogger's name with "is brilliant" afterwards (she is), because I hoped it would show up in her analytics information) and to keep writing uncowed. We mustn't let the bile-spewers win.

Jane Fae

Writer, journalist and blogger on issues of IT, policing, the law -- and sex and sexuality.

I write for a range of national press and magazines, with pieces in some of them that are blogs in all but name. I also write a blog that started out as something aimed at the trans community, but has lately expanded to take in issues around sex, sexuality and feminism. Oh. I am also, as that horrid phrase has it, a "woman of trans history".

So I am in the fairly unique position of having written under both genders -- and having sight of my email postbag as male and female. There IS a marked difference. In fact, when I first started to notice the difference, I was quite shocked.

First off, even the nice comments seem, at some level, to be more personal. I won't say I never got strongly dissenting views before I transitioned: but there was usually, mostly, some appeal to the rational argument underlying. Not so much any more, as many of those critical of what I have to say seem far readier to reach for the personal attack: the implication that I only say what I say because I am a woman. Or, as one politely put it, "an ugly woman".

Or a feminist, natch. I have lost count of the comments that use the phrase "typical feminist", before going on to accuse me of being an inadequate parent, mother, person and to call into question my parenting skills (this last because I do write quite extensively on subjects such as sexualisation . . . and where my views don't match the Daily Mail consensus, the usual response is whether i have any experience of kids. Yes, thank you. Two, in fact: a beautiful girl and a very confident boy).

One made me giggle because I think it was written without knowledge of my situation or any ironic content whatsoever: a guy suggested that the problem with women like me is that we "didn't see things rationally and what [we] needed was to be able to see things through male eyes for a few days". Indeed.

Nothing particularly stands out. It all sort of fades, after a while: there was a particularly vile thread in the Independent, which seemed to be a reaction to me writing about Slutwalk and suggesting that victim shaming was a bad thing (a lot of blokes didn't like that: several told me all about how I dressed and how I only did it to titillate men; and some of the comments were pretty low. So low the Indie eventually pulled the whole thread).

Still, they're as nothing compared to what I get when people do twig I'm trans: "it" is a pretty common insult that gets thrown my way. Love it? No. Actually, I find it quite disturbing.

If you have a similar story, you can get in touch with Helen via email [helen AT newstatesman.co.uk] or tweet @helenlewis.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.