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Online Harassment and the Cruel Paradox of Being a Woman on Social Media

If you haven’t read Amanda Hess’ “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” yet, please do. The Pacific Standard piece is an essential exploration of what it’s like to be a woman online, describing Hess’ experiences with Internet harassment in chilling detail. From the moment a Palm Springs cop naïvely asks the author, “What’s Twitter?,” she builds a convincing case for women’s right to, and need for, more effective protection against people like Twitter user @headlessfemalepig, the latest of Hess’s many online harassers.

Hess’ story points out a reality for women that’s as pervasive as it is unacknowledged: every time we enter a public space, we’re putting ourselves at risk, and that’s now as true for the internet as the street. We’re taught to brush off creepy OKCupid advances and anonymous Tumblr messages the way we’re taught to inure ourselves to catcalling and other forms of unwanted attention. And when those threats cross a line, women are often told it’s their fault; in Hess’s case, the updated version of “You shouldn’t have been walking alone at night” is telling women to just step away from the smartphone.

As with any other form of harassment, of course, the point isn’t that women can’t avoid it. Women simply shouldn’t have to. Placing the burden of making sure an individual doesn’t feel like her life is in danger on the individual is straight-up irresponsible — and that’s exactly what happens while tech companies and law enforcement agencies continue to pass the buck amongst each other. In order to maintain their presence as authors, advocates, and public figures, women like Feministing co-founder Jessica Valenti are forced to take measures from changing bank accounts to stopping promotion of public appearances on venues like Twitter and Facebook.

That last decision, which no one would fault Valenti for making, points to one of the most sinister effects of online harassment for women: silencing. For those unable or unwilling to jump through hoops in order to protect their personal safety (and again, no one should be expected or required to), few options are left but to stop the activity that made them vulnerable in the first place. This leaves women what Hess, in a term borrowed from sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, calls “vagabonds,” or “disempowered” people who “relocated because they have to.” What’s left is an online landscape that looks a whole lot like the rest of the world, where women and other marginalized groups are underrepresented, their voices shunted to the sidelines in favor of those who can generally speak up without fear of being told, as Hess was, “Im [sic] looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.”

This is the cruel paradox of social media for women on the internet, to say nothing of people of color or queer and trans* persons. On the one hand, the web, and particularly social media, provides a venue for those traditionally denied a platform to share their views with a way to connect with each other and build an audience. For Hess, Twitter is “where I laugh, whine, work, schmooze, procrastinate, and flirt”; for women in general, the Internet is an opportunity “to find supportive communities, make a living, and construct safety nets.” There’s a lot of rhetoric about how social media levels the playing field, but at least some of the hype is deserved. It’s never been easier to tell thousands of people what you think with the push of a button, and that’s invaluable for groups who’ve rarely gotten the chance to make themselves heard on such a wide scale.

On the other, it’s also never been easier to lash out against those voices in increasingly personal ways. Anonymous comment sections are notorious cesspools, but now that same vitriol gets funneled into venues like Twitter messages and Facebook wall posts — which then get shunted to our smartphones, right along with the validation and reasoned debate. Hess isn’t kidding when she describes Twitter as something that “sits in my back pocket wherever I go and lies next to me when I fall asleep.” But that omnipresence is a two-way street, making it just as easy for harassers to access their targets as it is for any social media user to contact their followers or friends. It’s a forum that leaves users vulnerable to threats even as it empowers them to call out their harassers.

And that’s why gender-based online threats are so worrying. When tech companies and the government neglect to make the Internet a safe(r) place for dialogue, they’re doing the opposite of protecting free speech. Instead, there’s a chilling effect on speakers who’d rather not fear for their lives every time they post an article with their Twitter handle attached. That justified reluctance, in turn, puts us right back at square one in terms of who feels entitled to speak and where. We’re left with a restored status quo, where male (and/or white, and/or straight) Internet users have the privilege of sharing their thoughts without fear of attracting stalkers.

Hess has a number of suggestions for curbing online harassment, most of which focus on amending federal law to categorize it as a form of discrimination. If we’d like to preserve the benefits of our ever-increasing connectivity, they’re worth considering. Because if women don’t feel just as secure speaking their minds in forums like Twitter, Tumblr, or regular, old-fashioned blogs and online publications as men, having equal access to those forums means nothing.

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