If the web is an online journalist’s workplace, is tweeting “Die bitch” or “I’m going to rape your ass” to a woman sexual harassment?
A Good Men Project reader directed our attention to an article by Amanda Hess published in Pacific Standard titled “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Hess is a self-described “freelance writer reporting on sex, Hollywood, teenagers, and technology for places like Slate, WIRED, ESPN The Magazine, NYMag.com, NYTimes.com, Elle.com, the Los Angeles Times, NYLON, DETAILS, and the Village Voice,” so most of her work appears online. Her professional website is called “Sex with Amanda Hess,” and she has over 18,000 followers on Twitter. She’s also been harassed and received death threats on Twitter, and her opening paragraphs are enough to make anyone shudder.
I was 12 hours into a summer vacation in Palm Springs when my phone hummed to life, buzzing twice next to me in the dark of my hotel room. I squinted at the screen. It was 5:30 a.m., and a friend was texting me from the opposite coast. “Amanda, this twitter account. Freaking out over here,” she wrote. “There is a twitter account that seems to have been set up for the purpose of making death threats to you.”
I dragged myself out of bed and opened my laptop. A few hours earlier, someone going by the username “headlessfemalepig” had sent me seven tweets. “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured,” the first said. Then: “You suck a lot of drunk and drug fucked guys cocks.” As a female journalist who writes about sex (among other things), none of this feedback was particularly out of the ordinary. But this guy took it to another level: “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.” And then: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” There was more, but the final tweet summed it up: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”
If a male CEO, celebrity, or online journalist received a similar communication, you can bet the police would take it seriously and investigate. If these words were conveyed to a woman working in an office through email or IM, the lawsuit would already be filed. But here’s a disconcerting truth: it seems there is something about talking dirty to women and threatening them online that draws nonchalant dismissiveness from law enforcement, the tech companies that maintain the platforms, and the media.
Hess’s description of the cop who came in response to her 911 call is sadly brilliant. After she gave him the relevant background on her writing career, he “anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘What is Twitter?'”
Her colleague at Slate, Jim Pagels, wrote, “anyone who’s spent 10 minutes online knows that these assertions are entirely toothless.”
And Twitter “doesn’t require people to register accounts under their real names. Users are free to enjoy the frivolity—and the protection—that anonymous speech provides. If a user runs afoul of Twitter’s terms of service, he’s free to create a new account under a fresh handle.”
Even traditionally liberal NPR aired a show in which “journalist David Margolick called such threats ‘juvenile, immature, and obnoxious, but that is all they are … frivolous frat-boy rants.'”
Hess cites examples of the same thing happening to other women, including Lindy West at Jezebel, Catherine Mayer at Time, and Alyssa Royse, who writes for The Good Men Project, and cites some disturbing statistics:
Of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organizationWorking to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female.
Feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.
Hess theorizes that the predominance of men in both law enforcement and the executive offices of tech companies is a strong factor in the tendency to dismiss online harassment of women as annoying but harmless. She quotes Nathan Jurgenson, a social media sociologist at the University of Maryland, as asking “But why are engineers in California getting to decide what constitutes harassment for people all around the world?” Women are often advised to ignore it, but this ignores the real problem and the real cost of dealing with it. Hess explains that “Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.” This hardly sounds any different from the effect of sexual harassment or a hostile climate in the workplace. Catherine Mayer of Time, who received a bomb threat tweet, said that “The officers were unanimous in advising me to take a break from Twitter, assuming, as many people do, that Twitter is at best a time-wasting narcotic.” But Twitter is an essential tool of an online journalist’s livelihood. Imagine a telemarketer being asked to take a break from the telephone, or a researcher being told, “just turn off your computer for a while.”
The line that stood out for me in the article was by Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland who published a paper in the Michigan Law Review on the prevailing response to Internet death and rape threats. Citron concluded that “Internet harassment is routinely dismissed as ‘harmless locker-room talk,’ perpetrators as ‘juvenile pranksters,’ and victims as ‘overly sensitive complainers.'” Jurgenson elucidates the reason for Internet harassment being framed this way: “It’s a lot easier for the person who made the threat—and the person who is investigating the threat—to believe that what’s happening on the Internet isn’t real.”
He didn’t mean it.
Boys will be boys.
It’s just the culture there.
If you want to work with the big boys, you have to put up with their little boy pranks.
We may be behind the curve in the online workplace, but things change online in a nanosecond. Justice is coming, and when it does, it will be swift.