Column: I’ve been called unprintable names online. Now there’s help for cyber-harassment

Abortion supporters hold a rally outside the Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services Center in Missouri
Abortion rights is one of many topics that provoke angry, vulgar, sometimes threatening responses from readers.
(Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images)

Years ago, when Pete Wilson was running for reelection as governor of California, long before gay people won the right to marry, he vetoed a domestic partnership law.

It was nothing more than election-year pandering to the evangelical right, and I called him out at the time.

This was an era when readers, delighted or infuriated, would call you on the phone, or send a letter. There was no email yet, and certainly no Twitter or Facebook. Sometimes readers would cut out a column they found especially offensive, scrawl their objections over it or in the margins, and mail it to me.


Such was the fate of my piece on Wilson’s anti-gay stance. An angry reader drew a mustache on my face, and wrote, over the headline “Satan’s Little Whore.”

That seems like a mild, almost quaint insult today. In recent years, with the rise of social media, I have been called the C-word more times than I can count, I have been invited to kill myself, my IQ has been called into question, someone even published my address in the comments section under my column.

When I defended the right of a white author to publish a novel about a Mexican mom on the run from a drug cartel, I was called a racist. When I wrote that the former Marine who tried to enter Mexico with loaded weapons did not deserve special treatment, an angry deluge flooded my Twitter feed and someone posted vile remarks about me on my daughter’s Facebook page.

The advent of electronic communication and social media has not changed the dark impulse to insult and threaten those with whom we disagree. But technology has made it far easier. Who wants to go to all the trouble of putting pen to paper, finding an envelope and a stamp when hitting the send button is so much faster?

You name the topic: abortion, women’s rights, gay and transgender rights, vaccinations, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, anti-Asian hate, Donald Trump, Adam Schiff, Kobe Bryant. Virtually all the topics I write about inspire some sort of hateful or vulgar response online.

But I have come to accept it with a shrug. Taking flak — no matter how vicious — is part of a journalist’s job. Vilification is the price of having a megaphone like a column. I have been annoyed, irritated and distracted, but never tempted to dial back what I write.


However, when it comes to women who are not public figures, who are not in the business of stirring up conflict, who have not developed a thick skin after years in the arena of verbal combat, the viciousness of online attacks can feel terrifying.

Let’s say, for example, you are professor of gender studies, speaking out against sexism and racism. Internet trolls may trash your work in online reviews, attack you with racist and sexist slurs, and try to discredit you professionally. You may feel depressed, helpless, even traumatized. How can you fight back?

This is where relatively new groups like HeartMob are trying to make a difference. HeartMob is an offshoot of Hollaback!, a nonprofit dedicated to ending harassment in public spaces. Co-founder Emily May told me Tuesday morning the group has built a trained community of vetted “bystanders” who can mobilize on behalf of victims of online attacks.

Anyone caught in the e-mob crosshairs can reach out to HeartMob to report harassment and request help. Bystanders can jump in to report online abuse in large enough numbers that social media companies, often sluggish or resistant to intervening, will actually be moved to take down attacks. Or the bystanders may shower a victim with private messages of support. The actions take place behind the scenes, and work as a kind of invisible safety net.

May is well familiar with the kind of online harassment that occurs when women take a stand. She and her co-founders have been called all sorts of names —“dirty lesbians” is one of the least vulgar — and have received rape and death threats.

HeartMob has just partnered with the International Women’s Media Foundation to figure out how to adapt HeartMob’s tools to support women journalists, who, as it turns out, mostly want to be reassured by other women journalists that they are not alone.


“To have someone validate your experience is low-hanging fruit,” May told me, “but it works.”

In truth, I have always worn the label “Satan’s Little Whore” as an ironic badge of honor.

When that column won a GLAAD Media Award, I told the black-tie crowd at the Beverly Hilton Hotel how proud I was to be an ally of the gay and lesbian community, and how that angry, bigoted reader had tried in vain to insult me.

“If I’m Satan’s little whore,” I said, “then I will see you all in hell.”