Would you react differently to anything I write if my name were Patrick?
For a few men out there, the answer is "yes."
Women with high profiles online are finding that some men who disagree with them — about politics, movies, tech issues, sports or pretty much anything — can't confine their criticism to the substance of the issue. They get sexual, or violent, or sexually violent. And it's happening so often that it may be driving women off the Internet.
All of my journo colleagues have been on the receiving end of emails, letters or tweets that call them fascists or commies or morons or all three. Fair enough. The name-calling may have no logic, but at least it's more or less gender-neutral and in some way relevant to the story or column that attracted the readers' attention.
But the men don't have stories like this. A female colleague recently heard from a man who disagreed with something she had written. His idea of debating her point? If she didn't take down the blogpost, he said he would kill her and "rape your corpse."
This problem is front and center now because well-regarded writer Amanda Hess has written in Pacific Standard about her online stalker, "headlessfemalepig," and the astounding threats of sexual violence directed at her on Twitter: "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."
And it went on in that vein.
Police who are accustomed to men threatening women in person with guns and knives have a harder time figuring out what to do about online threats, wrote Hess. Time reporter Catherine Mayer, who got an online bomb threat, was told by police to just stay offline — hardly plausible for a professional whose work requires an online presence.
A few years ago, Hess notes, University of Maryland researchers crafted fake online accounts for chatrooms and found that female-sounding user names drew about 100 threatening or sexually explicit messages each day; male-sounding names got 3.7.
And Pew researchers learned that online chat participation dropped as much as 28% from 2000 to 2005 "entirely because of women's fall-off in participation."
Sexual comments and insults — about our looks, our brains, our sexual orientation — turn out to be run-of-the-mill even where you'd expect them not to be.
Emily Graslie, a Chicago scientist who talks about science on YouTube, was taken aback by how many comments have nothing to do with science but harp on her looks, and sex. Her nose makes her look like "a nerdy pig." She needs "sexier glasses." She looks "like you might be pretty hot" under those clothes.
Last month, a man used a friend's picture to pose as a woman on an online dating site, to prove women have an easier time getting dates. Almost any woman who's active online could have told him what was going to happen. He gave up after two hours because of the explicit and sexually aggressive messages he was getting.
"One of the guys becomes super aggressive saying he is competitive and he will treat me right, the other is asking for my phone number telling me he is lying in bed and the conversation (without me steering it) is turning increasingly sexual in nature though I tell him I'm not comfortable with it….
"Guys would become hostile when I told them I wasn't interested in NoStringsAttached sex, or guys that had started normal and nice quickly turned the conversation into something explicitly sexual in nature," the man wrote. "I would be lying if I said it didn't get to me. I ended up deleting my profile at the end of two hours and kind of went about the rest of my night with a very bad taste in my mouth."
I'd bet that every woman professional has gotten emails with sexual content. Whether it's flattering or threatening doesn't matter; they are inappropriate, and they are from men who evidently cannot manage a logical exchange with a woman and so resort to sexual insult and threats.
A column I wrote about the potential dangers of overusing the word "terrorist" drew this response:
"what a slut you are. Please, go ---- your dog or your son or whatever it is skank LA Slime whores do. And if you are in [his city name], bitch, email me — I have some spit that belongs on your face. Given you spend your time on your knees ------- off your favorite Muslim, a little more spit shouldn't make a bit of difference. Now go pick the fetal tissue from between your teeth."
And then, I kid you not, it got worse.
How, I have to wonder, does someone feel free to write such a thing to an absolute stranger and then send it under an easily findable Web name?
Hess sampled other writers for the kind of responses they've gotten. Tech writer Kathy Sierra was once told, "I hope someone slits your throat" and then things that we cannot put on a family newspaper's website. A Jezebel writer's critique of a comedian's rape joke drew this comment: "I just want to rape her with a traffic cone."
Shooting, knifing, raping, bombing — understandably, there's only so much of this abuse that women can put up with, and it may be driving some of them off the Internet.
Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic told Hess that he was appalled at comments he saw when he subbed for a female blogger years ago. “One wonders,” he said, “how many equally talented women we missed out on reading due to misogynists hurling vile invective at rising female journalists?”
As Hess discovered, a Pew Research Center poll found that over five years of its research, 72.5% of the ugly online incidents reported to the group Working to Halt Online Abuse came from women.
The Internet is idealized as an equal-opportunity online community, but it can't be much of one if such savagery can't be kept in check.
I wonder what kind of comments this post will generate?