Sticks and Stones

Learning a new word can be a powerful experience: a thing or idea that has been lurking at the edge of your awareness suddenly takes shape, called into existence by the solidity of a name. This is captured beautifully in Fun Home, as we follow the young Alison Bechdel’s dictionary discoveries. Masturbation; orgasm; lesbian. There they are in the dictionary: she is not the only one. Unfortunately, the realities revealed are not always so joyous. My new word this week is troll. No, not those beady-eyed, punk-haired, plastic folk from the ’90s – how inoffensive they were. A troll, I have learned, is a person who abuses others online. It’s a verb, too: wikipedia defines trolling as posting “inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages,” while the Urban Dictionary cuts to the chase and calls it “being a prick on the internet because you can.”

[Trigger warning: I’ll quote some of this “trolling” below]

I’d never heard this term 7 days ago, but I’ve spent a lot of reading about them since the New Statesman published a piece by Helen Lewis Hasetely last week about the abuse routinely experienced by women who write online. Misogynist trolls are a special clan, and a rather large one at that. Arguing that “ there is something distinct, identifiable and near-universal about the misogynist hate directed at women online”, Lewis Hasetely recalls some of her own experiences and then offers the floor to 9 other female bloggers, each of whom has a catalogue of incidents to draw from.

Kate Smurthwaite, of cruellablog, quotes from a troll who recently began “IF THIS TRASH TALKING K*NT HAD HER F*CKNG, TONGUE RIPPED OUT OF HER SUCK-HOLE…”, before commenting, in a brilliant aside, “I won’t correct the spelling or grammar, that would seem odd”. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the language that women are commonly subjected to, Smurthwaite links this trolling to the pervasively misogynist nature of internet porn. Cath Elliot recalls “graphic descriptions detailing precisely how certain implements should be shoved into one or more of my various orifices”. Rape threats seem to be the bread-and-butter of the misogynist troll, and several writers have disclosed that they have received such threats in messages that included their home address.

This abuse, almost universally sexualised, seems to descend upon women writers regardless of the content or ideological stance of the blogger: Dawn foster concludes from her experience of threats and harassment that just “being a woman on the internet seem[s] to be enough to anger people.” While many women writers are decried as “sluts” and “slags”, catholic blogger Caroline Farrow, who describes her politics as “right-of-centre”, is condemned as “uptight and sexually repressed”: “I am often told how my mouth would be put to better use giving fellatio or that […] my defence of conservative values stems from a deep-seated need to be anally penetrated.”

I have no first-hand experience of trolling, but reading women’s accounts of being victimised hit a very personal nerve. I toyed with the idea of blogging for a long time before starting Lipstick and Teeth. There were pros and cons, and certainly degree of procrastination, but the main thing holding me back was fear. I was afraid because I’d noticed how vicious people can be to one another online and the hateful, personal attacks that women, in particular, are regularly subject to.

Technology has no morality in and of itself, and I’ve been reluctant to infer that the internet has caused people to be nastier. I was, though, aware that the anonymity afforded by online communication gives carte blanche to those wishing to dispense with the level of civility generally required for face-to-face interaction. Reading comments ranging from the casually rude to those that seem to bubble with a violent energy millimetres below the surface had made me question whether I was thick-skinned enough to blog. There’s been a wealth of articles and posts over the last week, with countless women sharing the regularity and vehemence of the hostility and threats they receive. While I have in the past found posted comments chilling, the fierce abuse and absolute abhorrence of women in this kind of trolling (most of which goes unpublished as it is unapproved, moderated out, or sent in private messages) shocked me to my core.

Realising just what women writers are up against made me feel at first justified in the fear that initially deterred me from blogging: that dark, nebulous force I’d been afraid of has a name, is real, and is scarier than I’d been able to imagine. In the original New Statesman piece, freelance political writer Eleanor O’Hagan argues that “misogynistic abuse is an attempt to silence women” and illustrates that it works – explaining how she has “watered down” her opinions for publication, and now avoids writing about feminism almost entirely in order to reduce the amount of hatred that she suffers. The fact that this terrorising of women works, effectively shuts women up, and almost deterred me from writing at all, fills me with rage and sadness in equal measure.

It’s been a strange week for my relationship with the internet. It feels like a less safe place, but also a more exciting one. The speed with which new pieces on this topic have appeared has been invigorating; writers’ readiness to disclose their personal experiences inspiring. I keep thinking about the Speak-Out movement in the 1970s: rape survivors talking to others about what they had been through. I feel that this week I’ve been witness to individual acts of courage and a collective show of strength. Following links from one blog to another, seeing women bounce off one another’s ideas, debate, encourage, and build, has made the internet feel like a true network, and has brought home a sense of the web’s immense capacity for facilitating constructive, empowering communication.

A blogger who wished to remain anonymous shared that she hasn’t received much abuse, and explains “I think a major factor in my avoidance of such abuse so far is that I am not particularly high-profile”. I have not yet been the victim of a troll, but if I keep writing and keep acquiring readers, it seems that I inevitably will one day. I’d really like to live in a world where receiving rape threats is not the marker of being a high-profile female writer. In the meantime, I’ll draw inspiration from the thousands of women who keep on writing.

One Comment on “Sticks and Stones”

  1. Had a throw away dissing via this week and had to acknowledge, although it seemed targeted and hurtful, that very few people communicate to people they don’t know via the Internet so probably just someone getting something off their chest.I Guess it’s a bit like digging a hole and spewing anonymouslabile – harmful enough? When I was a kid they said that about porn addicts and flashers.

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