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10 November 2011

What about the men?

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

By Helen Lewis

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.

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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.

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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.)