What about the men?

Male writers on whether their experience of online abuse is as bad as women's.

Since I've been banging on about sexism for the last week, one rejoinder has come up more than any other: isn't online abuse just as bad for men? Why have this discussion in gendered terms? What's to be gained by being a feminist about this? Well, in the spirit of playing together happily in the online sandpit, I thought I'd tackle it head-on.

Call me outrageous, but I do believe that the sexism directed at women is more widespread, and more ferocious, than that directed at men. While women can point to the pay gap, under-representation in business and boards and so on, the evidence that most commenters seem to come up with for "misandry" is that adverts portray men as being useless, in a way they wouldn't dare do to women. To which I say: have you seen adverts? They also portray women in a host of unappealing ways, not least the obvious (naked and sprawled over something they're trying to flog).

Then again, I would be a pretty rubbish feminist if I hadn't absorbed one of the main lessons here: your experience of the world may not be the same as other people's. As a white person, I'd be pretty reluctant to make sweeping statements about the persistence of racism in British society, based on the fact that I've never been a victim of racism. So why should I presume to know how men are affected by online abuse?

Well, as it happens, I spoke to quite a few male writers before writing the piece, and they told me the same thing -- yes, we get abuse. Yes, some of it is ad hominem and it gets to us. No, we don't get the volume that women get, and the tone is generally not slanted towards sexual violence.

At this point, if I were you, I'd repeat back my favourite phrase to me: "The plural of anecdote is not data." It's perfectly true, but all we have here is anecdote, so collecting a decent amount of it is the best I can do. The broad consensus is that although male writers get abuse, they don't get it simply for being male. Even Brendan O'Neill, who is otherwise what you might call "unsympathetic" to my point of view, can't stand that up.

So here I present men talking about their experiences of online abuse. They're mostly "on my side", so you might accuse me of selective quotation -- and that's certainly possible, as I've mostly seen the blogs and comments below as a response to my original post -- so I would be really interested to hear the countervailing position. But don't just assert that it exists; please bring me some evidence.

PZ Myers:

I'm a guy who also gets a fair number of abusive emails -- I even have a hobby of posting some of them now and then on the web -- but there's a qualitative difference to what I see. I get death threats regularly, but they're usually of the form "you should get [violent fate] for [hating god, violating crackers, being liberal]"; I don't get threats of the form, "[Man], I need to [crude sexual assault] you". As a man, I can get threats for speaking against some cherished dogma, which I can sort of halfway understand, but I don't get the threats for just being of my sex and speaking out, period.

I also don't get much in the way of sexual threats, except for one telling class of insults: the ones that accuse me of being a woman. Vox Day is one of the milder practitioners of this habit: he refers to me as "Pharyngurl", because after all, it's demeaning to just reference me as a woman. I've had other, nastier messages where I've been called a "bitch" and threatened with anal rape, for instance; it's as if they are first metaphorically translating me into a female so they can then really degrade me thoroughly.

So I get a faint echo of the female experience, and it's utterly repulsive.

Steven Baxter:

I think we all expect a bit of abuse when we write stuff. It happens if you have an email address, a comments box or a photo byline. But judging by what I have read about and heard about over the past few days, the only sensible thing to recognise is that there is a particular kind of abuse aimed at women writers, and that it's not really the same thing as the (distressing and upsetting, but different) abuse levelled at writers of all kinds. It's not even a particularly subtle thing to recognise. It's really there.

Sure, I've been called a cunt plenty of times, and it's been annoying and hurtful on occasions, but no-one's threatened to rape me or said that I deserved to be hurt. That's a whole different world of intent, and aggression. We need to recognise this.

John Scalzi:

I do of course get hate mail and obnoxious comments. The hate mail gave me a title for a book, after all, and the obnoxious comments on the site are just part of doing business as a Public Internet Figure™. This is why I have a robust commenting policy and am not afraid to follow up on it. Whenever jackholes pop up, I mallet them down, and that's the way it should be. What I don't have, however, is the sort of chronic and habitual stream of abuse this blogger describes.

What follows is my own anecdotal experience, but it's also the anecdotal experience of someone blogging for 13 years and having been engaged in the online world for almost 20, i.e., decently knowledgeable. In my experience, talking to women bloggers and writers, they are quite likely to get abusive comments and e-mail, and receive more of it not only than what I get personally (which isn't difficult) but more than what men bloggers and writers typically get. I think bloggers who focus on certain subjects (politics, sexuality, etc) will get more abusive responses than ones who write primarily on other topics, but even in those fields, women seem more of a target for abusive people than the men are. And even women writing on non-controversial topics get smacked with this crap. I know knitting bloggers who have some amazingly hateful comments directed at them. They're blogging about knitting, for Christ's sake.

Why do women bloggers get more abuse than male bloggers? Oh, I think for all the stereotypical reasons, up to and including the fact that for a certain sort of passive-aggressive internet jackass, it's just psychologically easier to erupt at a woman than a man because even online, there's the cultural subtext that a guy will be confrontational and in your face, while a woman will just take it (and if she doesn't, why, then she's just a bitch and deserves even more abuse).

Owen Jones

In the last few months, I have received a fair whack of abuse from people who strongly disagree with me. Some take issue with the fact I look like a 12-year-old; others (somewhat hilariously) think my views represent a mortal threat to British society. With the exception of one email from a neo-Nazi suggesting I would be among the list of victims in a coming racial genocide, I have never received threats of violence (and certainly nothing even approaching as graphic as described above); I have never been threatened with rape; I have never received a single comment making a link between how I look and my political opinions.

That's because I am a male writer. Though I am open to the sort of abuse all left-wing writers suffer from time to time, there is nothing that offends, disgusts, even sickens a misogynistic right-winger than a prominent left-wing woman who is unashamed about her politics. In the view of these individuals - call them "trolls" if you like - they have no place in public life, and the threats and abuse are an attempt to drive them out of it.

As for this ridiculous idea there is two-way sexism in this society: look at the fact that nearly 4 out of 5 MPs are men; the pay gap between men and women; the fact the cuts are disproportionately hitting women; the way women are so commonly objectified as sex objects that exist for the pleasure of men; and so on. Men who claim they suffer from some kind of systemic sexism are either deluded or dishonest - and certainly suffering from backlash at the progress made because of the struggles of the women's movement.

Martin Belam:

I've been on the receiving end of criticism BTL and via email over the years, but never with the regularity and ferocity that seems to be experienced by women writers.

Jeff Pearlman:

The words were snarky and snide and rude. His final message, however, left an extra special impression: "I got caught up in the anonymity of the internet. I'm sorry and here is a legit post with my criticisms." Upon opening the pasted link, I was greeted by a nasty pornographic image that would make Sasha Grey vomit into the nearest trash can.

(Incidentally, Jeff later tracked down the man who trolled him, and he apologised whole-heartedly.)


I've written before about how commenting and forums leeched my will to exist as a videogames journalist. The effort of writing interestingly about toys for a website wasn't worth the negative, self-aggrandising comments I couldn't ignore. . . I am, I find myself forced to admit, lucky. The only insult directed at me was 'liar'. The only thing assaulted was my knowledge, and the only thing questioned was the judgement of my employers in repeatedly paying me a salary. But that doesn't mean I wasn't upset.

Brendan O'Neill

If I had a penny for every time I was crudely insulted on the internet, labelled a prick, a toad, a shit, a moron, a wide-eyed member of a crazy communist cult, I'd be relatively well-off. For better or worse, crudeness is part of the internet experience, and if you don't like it you can always read The Lady instead.

Kaimipono D. Wenger

The fact that as a man I don't have to spend mental energy thinking about protecting myself from sexual assault is itself part of male privilege. One part of male privilege is that you never have to notice the ways in which you benefit from male privilege.

The same goes for statements about violence in general. In a male-dominated discursive space, it may be viewed as normal to make aggressive, threatening statements. However, men's and women's experiences with violence are also vastly different. One in four women in the United States has been a victim of domestic violence. Suddenly, the joke about wanting to punch somebody else isn't so funny.

... And then when someone (almost always female) stands up against the male-constructed discursive norms in which threats of violence and sexual violence can be characterized as merely a joke, she is attacked for being oversensitive. These attacks are another instance of denying of the reality of women's experiences. Male commenters discount women's experiences as irrelevant if when those experiences don't conform to male discussion norms.

James Ball:

Do women get more personal abuse from online commenters? Maybe, but I'm not so sure. When netizens want to get personal, they hone in on any easy target: race, age, class or - of course - gender, that might get them a rise. Even middle-aged white men (debatably the least persecuted minority out there) are susceptible to abuse - "what do you know about anything, in your ivory tower?"

The most reliably unpleasant commentators are always obsessives: whether the subject's fandoms (Beliebers and Potter fans especially), activists or those caught up in Israel/Palestine seems to make very little difference.

My first paid comment commission for a national was on Harry Potter - highbrow, I know. The first 30 comments included suggestions I was an "acne-ridden pussball", not to mention "a smarmy 12-year-old", who "wants to bum Ron Weasley", which made for lovely reading for previously-pleased family and friends. Since then I've had pretty much every epithet in the book, from "cannibal paedophile" to "opportunistic slimeball". The second one is maybe debatable, but I'd hope most people would agree the first's pretty much untrue.

Less fun still are death threats: one "human rights activists" hoped I was mown down by a car driving at 3mph below the speeding limit, while others skipped hoping to make more direct threats.

No-one ever gets totally immune to abuse, but it's surprising how quickly most trolls reduce themselves to irrelevance: a mild rebuke from a frequent online conversationalist stings far more than vile material from a known troll.

The saddest thought is that of the abusers themselves; sitting at home making, at best, strangers' days around the world slightly unhappier, and at worse leaving people with weeks of upset, or in the case of threats, fear - all the while destroying their own ability to have a credible voice in the online conversations on which they so frequently intrude.

Willard Foxton:

I've had some pretty upsetting experiences of being trolled. In particular, after I made a film which touched on my father's suicide in the wake of the Madoff Scandal, I received a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse - particularly amusing as I'm not Jewish. I received 20-30 screeds which attacked my father, calling him stupid, calling him a coward, after my details were posted on (interestingly) Neo-Nazi and far-left websites. I rolled with the punches, but obviously, some of the comments being posted online were seen by members of my family and upset them enormously.

Actually, that's not the worst experience I've ever had though. I wrote a post on Libel reform, describing a particularly nasty brush with Libel I had as Magazine Editor. This raised the ire of one of those absolutely fabled totally mental trolls you hear about - there was a compulsive trawl through and trashing of everything I have ever written, quotes from stand-up comedy routines I'd done posted out of context on public sites as fact, defacement of my blogs, phone calls to every employer I'd ever had (often late night). It was a total nightmare, and it absolutely stopped me blogging. It simply wasn't worth the trouble.

It does absolutely get you down & prey on your mind when you receive horrible, ugly threats. I know I lay awake, upset, worrying about these things - and my experiences pale in comparison to the sort of really terrifying things female journalist friends have told me they have received; some of it is absolutely jaw-dropping. I respect these women's writing all the more for knowing the kind of mental torture having a persistent troll - they seem to be totally ubiquitous for female writers.

PS. In case you think I'm biased against those "below the line", one of the best things I read came from an anonymous commenter on John Scalzi's blog, who told the story of how he changed his mind on women's "over-sensitivity" after hearing the story of a female co-worker:

I'm a 6 foot tall 280 pound guy -- I'm overweight, but it's the kind of overweight that lots of people might interpret as 'linebacker gone to seed.' Plus, white. My perception of the world is not reality -- but the fact is that I really am safer simply because of how I look.

Clementine, on the other hand was about 5 foot, maybe 100 - 120 pounds, and Asian. The world is actually more dangerous for her than it is for me.

This sucks, on many, many levels.

Then there's this, from Christopher Bird:

Look, I get plenty of criticism online: I'm a pie-in-the-sky liberal, I'm naive, I'm stupid, whatever. I've even gotten one or two threats, but honestly, they're massively few and far between, especially when I have a pretty long track record of political commentary that's been fairly widely read due to my work in freelance journalism.

Women on the internet who express opinions get criticism that isn't about their ideas. It's about them as women. They get called bitches or sluts or cunts, they get told they just need a good lay, they get told they should shut up and suck some dick - most of it is sexualized, most of it is violent in tone (and usually in content), most of it is disgusting and shocking, and most of it is all three. It is, purely and simply, misogyny - and I say that as someone who thinks the term can be overused.

(And I know for a fact that the women who wrote for the same publications I have - they got it much, much worse than I did, and with the exact same distinction. Every woman I know who writes online gets this. All of them.)


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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.


Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  


India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.