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On rape threats and internet trolls

What I've learned about the sexism directed at female bloggers.

On Thursday, I posted a blog about the sexist abuse that female bloggers routinely face online. I'd seen my fellow NS blogger Laurie Penny retweeting some of worst insults and threats that she gets, and remembered that I'd seen other women describe similar experiences.

What I didn't realise was quite how many people weren't aware of the problem. Large news sites filter out the worst abuse, and as one of our contributors pointed out, she doesn't publish insulting comments on her blog because they make it feel "squalid, unsafe and invaded".

The other thing I learned was that it isn't just the rape, death and other threats which affect those writing online. There is also a low-level sledging, based around gender, which wears down many female bloggers. Being described in loaded terms such as "shrill" contributes to the idea that your opinions aren't worth hearing.

Some people didn't want to hear it, of course: regular complaints were that we should "grow a pair" and accept that all internet commenters get abused. I dealt with this in the original piece, but it's worth restating here: the right to free speech is not the same as the right to make threats against another person. Nor does a mainstream news site or personal blog have any "duty" to publish a comment which unnecessarily attacks a writer on personal grounds. You have the right to hold your opinion, no matter how outrageous I find it: you don't have the right to have others pay (which they do, through hosting or advertising) for you to express it.

Others were just flat-out trolling: feminists inflicted far worse abuse on people, they claimed, without offering evidence of widespread rape and death threats to support that assertion. Of course, women are not immune from being nasty: I have no doubt that there are many female commenters posting unpleasantly. But what the bloggers who took part in the post were describing was a particular type of abuse, a combination of belittling comments based around gender, and threats of sexual violence. Jane Fae, a transwoman, observed that she had noticed a distinct difference between the comments she received posting as a woman from what she heard as a man.

Then there was the suggestion that feminists, in fact, liked this kind of abuse because they enjoyed feeling victimised, as it made them feel justified. That's one straight out of the "she was asking for it" playbook.

There were better critiques, though. I had a friendly disagreement with the Guardian's James Ball, who noted that internet commenters will find any perceived weak spot and attack it ruthlessly. "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," he says. "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?'"

When I'd finished drying my tears for the plight of middle-aged white men in our society, I considered what he'd said. I do think that the abuse dished out to all internet writers is something we should talk about: all websites like to have traffic, and engaged audiences. Have they been too ready to publish comments which don't add anything to the debate -- and may discourage writers from returning -- in the pursuit of hits?

Following the post, I was contacted by dozens of women, through Twitter and email, saying they'd had very much the same experiences. Some said it had made them reconsider writing; others that it had made them more determined. I've created a Storify of some of the most interesting early reactions, but first I want to share (with permission) two women's stories.

Petra Davis, a music and sex writer, told me [warning: graphic content ahead]:

I haven't written much for the last year or so (nothing sinister, just busy new day job) but when I was a regular sex blogger, most of my work was pseudonymous, some male, some female, some genderless pseudonyms, and I wrote from a variety of different gender perspectives.

I can state confidently that the abuse and threats, mostly of sexual violence of varying levels of inventiveness and sadism, that I received when writing under a female pseudonym, were misogynist -- it was only when writing as a woman that I was ever threatened that way. The abuse got more intense over time, with some commenters taking a particular interest in finding me on social networking sites and posting details under pieces I'd written.

When I started getting letters at my flat, I reported them to the police, but they advised me to stop writing provocative material. Eventually, I was sent an email directing me to a website advertising my services as a sex worker, with my address on the front page under the legend 'fuck her till she screams, filth whore, rape me all night cut me open', and some images of sexually mutilated women. It was very strange, sitting quietly in front of my screen looking at those images, knowing that the violence done to these other women was intended as a lesson. . .

Of course, it didn't take long to take the site down, but by then I was thoroughly sick of the idea and more or less stopped writing about sex from any perspective.

Nina Power, an academic researcher, was subjected to similar abuse on a blog popular with serving police officers after writing a piece about police violence. One commenter, called "PC Lightyear", opined: "Nina seems quite pretty. After we disband the Police, let's see pretty Nina walk through a sh1tty estate in say Elephant n Castle, Camberwell, Tottenham, Brixton, Lewisham, Wembley . . . and see how well her idea works out when the Gangstas decide they deserve to have her as a toy." [screengrab here]

Another chipped in: "She won't need to go for a walk -- once the Slag realised we weren't coming out of the nick, they'd go looking for her." A third: "Without a big, tough man to protect her, all her idiotic blatherings and demands to be treated as an equal will be for nothing when she is getting used as a ganstas 'toy'."

When one commenter says that such comments are unpleasant, a pious reply is forthcoming: "Lightyear isn't wishing it on her -- simply pointing out the harsh realities of the real world, away from the ivory towers of academia."

Power says: "Note not only the insane misogyny but also the racial/class stereotyping and the fantasy that rape is something that will necessarily happen in a world without police -- and especially, apparently, to women who criticise the police."

I thought Nina's and Petra's experiences were two of the most shocking I've heard, although they do speak to something that came up again and again: the threat of rape. It's made me feel distinctly less ready to shrug off the alleged hilarity of using "rape" to mean anything other than rape. I play computer games online and it's quite regular to hear "Oh, I raped you in that game", often said without any particular venom. Does such casualness lead us to forget how genuinely frightening invoking rape is?

PS. Laurie and I are both quoted in the Observer's news story on the subject today. Laurie also wrote on the subject in Friday's Independent. If you've blogged on this subject, do get in touch: I'm @helenlewis