When Sex Bloggers Get Slut Shamed

It probably shouldn’t surprise to anyone that, in general, women in the blogosphere get a lot more harassment than men. After all, just walking down the street, women get a lot more harassment than men.

While I’ve been aware of this for a long time, it returned to the foreground of my thinking when John Scalzi wrote The Sort of Crap I Don’t Get, which is a nice overview of the issue from the perspective of a man who understands this. He’s been blogging for 13 years and has had a very strong online presence for 20, so he’s seen the development of the interwebs for a while. It doesn’t even matter what the topic is- knitting bloggers get vitriol, too.  As he says,

Why do women bloggers get more abuse than male bloggers? Oh, I think for all the stereotypical reasons, up to and including the fact that for a certain sort of passive-aggressive internet jackass, it’s just psychologically easier to erupt at a woman than a man because even online, there’s the cultural subtext that a guy will be confrontational and in your face, while a woman will just take it (and if she doesn’t, why, then she’s just a bitch and deserves even more abuse). Cowards pick what they consider soft targets and use anonymity and/or the distancing effect of the Internet to avoid the actual and humiliating judgment of real live humans that they’d have to receive out in the world.

Scalzi’s post is worth reading because he points out that he can write about food, traveling for weeks at a time for work, or his weight without being attacked over it. Compare that with Naomi Dunford’s post Death Threats and Hate Crimes, Attacks On Women Bloggers Escalating, in which she describes how women bloggers are sometimes threatened, even to the point of death threats. Some of them withdraw from the publicity of the internet out of fear that it’s not just a bluff.

A few years ago, a wonderful woman and prominent tech blogger named Kathy Sierra was driven offline because the the readers of a hate website called MeanKids decided SHE had to die. In a substantial media circus, it was determined that the primary reason the MeanKids site targeted her was because she was too nice. It annoyed them. They threatened to kill her. They posted pictures of her with a noose. They said they were waiting for her at her next conference.

Given that this happens for women bloggers, regardless of their topics of focus, I figured it was likely to be even more common among women who blog about sex. I asked some of my colleagues about their experiences with this. Here’s what they said:

There isn’t a kind of threat or harassment I haven’t suffered through. It’s not just women WRITING in these areas. It’s women working in them, period. Though obviously how visible you are is going to make a difference.

[One of my posts on sex & parenting] was super popular, being cross-posted on other blogs, shared on facebook thousands of times and got the attention of a forum full of some really scared straight white men. I’m calling them out as straight white men because that is what they value most about themselves. This pride, they feel entitles to send me emails that say “You deserve to be raped” and “Your sons are going to be raped by black men.” By writing about sexuality, parenting, racism and sexism, I crossed the line and these men decided I needed to be put in place. Which means to me, they are scared. They are absolutely terrified of people like me.

From a sex-worker and body-positive blogger:

I’ve been told I’m a fat cunt who doesn’t deserve to get sex for free, much less be paid for it. I’ve been told that it’s funny how many hookers  disappear every year in the Bay Area, isn’t it? I’ve been told that it’s not like I’m a real writer, anyway. I’ve been asked who wants to see erotic images of a fat woman.

Generally, I think when people say things like that, it’s because my voice is threatening and they want to try to take my power away. Unfortunately for them, I’m pretty clever and love debate. They tend to lose.

I personally experience this far more from men in the States and from radical feminists in the UK. Men in the UK think I’m hot and respect my profession, and women in the US generally are more respectful to me. Well, except some bloggers.

Some bloggers disable comments on their sites:

Blog comments act as a living document chronicling the ways that women are still sought to be silenced, our observations to be disavowed, and our lives and sexual choices to be discounted. As a fat activist who is also a woman of color, a way that I try to protect my readers (or viewers of my vodcasts) from the hate that some of them experience every single day is by disabling comments. I have consistently disabled comments for about two years because the blogosphere houses an incredible amount of freely expressed hate, especially toward women.

And then, there’s the stalker who went after Violet Blue.

Not all of the women I asked have had this kind of thing leveled at them to that degree, but even they have had plenty creepy or harassing emails or comments, and a few have had to get protective orders from the police. And when some of them have blogged about that, they’ve been attacked even more, called neurotic and pathetic, or told that they were projecting their insecurities onto men.

One of my colleagues said that her experience varies, depending on what she writes:

The few times I’ve been slut-shamed were when I wrote confessional-style posts about my sex life as an intro to larger topic. My experience instead of my commentary became the focus and trolls came out to attack.

Yet, most men who write about their sexual experiences don’t get the same level of anger and shaming, at least as far as I’ve seen, just as Scalzi can write about his traveling for work or his diet without receiving anything like the negativity that most women would get for writing the same stuff.

Further, simply taking the personal out of the writing doesn’t really avoid the negativity:

Most of the time, though, I write about abstract concepts of sex and I keep my commentary objective. The worst comments left on those posts are from moral crusaders trying to de-legitimize what I have to say by calling me a lowly blogger and ignore my training and education. I often wonder if this happens to cis-men making the same statements as me. There seems to be more of a willingness to attack women’s credibility and I carry the sense that I must always provide as many links as possible to justify my statements, as if my education and experience alone can never be enough. I’ve been tempted before to write anonymously and gender neutral in order to see how people react.

As Dunford points out, “Hate bloggers claim innocence because they are acting within their First Amendment rights. But their mobs look up to them, and the mob mentality that they are stoking is escalating.” This is the kind of thing that lets them claim deniability while encouraging the truly wingnutty fringe to commit violence.

In a follow-up post, Scalzi talked about his very firm policy of comment moderation (aka The Mallet of Loving Correction) because any response to trolls just engages them. But what about unsolicited emails? Or blog posts written to threaten someone with assault, rape, or murder? Or websites that allow unmoderated comments, often with the justification that controversy brings traffic? (One good take on that last one is  Anil Dash’s If Your Website’s Full Of Assholes, It’s Your Fault.) And how is someone supposed to tell the difference between a hateful comment with nothing behind it and an actual threat? It’s pretty common for men to say something like “grow a thicker skin,” as Richard Dawkins did in the recent kerfluffle around sexism in the atheist community. But I see that as a position of privilege. If you’ve never been on the receiving end of the almost-incessant catcalls, harassment and jokes that most women get, it’s hard to understand how scary words can be.

As an aside, my observation is that many of the men who tell women to toughen up get seriously freaked out if a man cruises them. It’s a pretty clear double standard: it’s ok when it happens to a woman. Not that I’m suggesting that Dawkins would react in that way. I don’t know him, so I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to draw that conclusion. But I’ve seen enough guys do exactly that to be able to say that there’s a pattern of behavior among men in general.

One thing that anyone can do if they receive threatening comments on their site is to document everything because it can be hard to get the police to understand what’s going on. From one blogger:

Before it escalated to death threats on my end from my attacker, it was just harassment, typical online trolling that was making me very uncomfortable. But you need to document everything, even if you don’t think it crosses the line. Document it. Keep it in a folder and when you get really uncomfortable, you take it to your local authorities. They may not be able to do anything about it, but they need to start a file. You must start a file and you must have them at least document it.

And then when the day comes where they do cross a line in your state that is considered a threat, you already have this nice big documented folder at either your sheriff’s station or local police station and on your computer with all of your screen shots and everything else. They are ready to move on it. The detective has a little less work to do because in a way you have done it for him or her. So make sure you document absolutely everything. Even if you don’t think it crosses the line. If it’s just that troll that comes to your blog all the time and you don’t even let those comments go through, screen shot it. Keep them any way and keep them in a folder.

You would be surprised, you do need those screen shots. Those detectives may not be taking all those screen shots you think they are taking. You need them all. You have to back yourself up. Don’t think the police are going to do all that work for you.

Of course, that’s after the fact. There may not be any way to get this to stop. Some men are simply trolls looking for any reaction (yes, I know that there are female trolls, but not nearly as many and that’s a topic for a different post). Others are trying to scare and silence women who speak up. Plenty of men fall into the trap of mansplaining and thinking that all they need to do to get out of the moderation queue is to whine and/or insult the moderator. Scalzi has another excellent post on how to be less ass-tastic (his word) when you’re doing that, btw.

There may not be any way to know which comments are coming from someone who genuinely wants to harm you versus someone who wants to mess with you. But would you really want to take the chance, if it happened to you? And do you really want to live in a world in which people go around saying “you should get raped and die”? Wouldn’t it be great if we could change that?

I don’t have any answers for what to do about this. When it happens in real life, I step up and speak out against it, though it doesn’t happen too much, mostly because the men I run with don’t usually do this kind of thing, as far as I’ve seen. And I’m glad that I haven’t had to deal with this much on my blog, even as I recognize the privilege inherent in being able to say that. (And no, that isn’t an invitation for anyone to start harassing me. If you took that as an inspiration, you’re exactly the person I’m talking about. Go get some therapy.)

But at least as a first step, I think things would be better if more websites either had tight moderation of comments or disabled comments entirely. Having a clear and easily-found comments policy can help, too. So can knowing how to track an IP address since many blog platforms let you direct specific IP addresses directly to the spam folder, so you don’t even need to see them.

Ultimately, though, I see this as a symptom of a larger problem. Verbal and physical threats and violence against women aren’t anything new, of course. And the anonymity of the internet makes it easier for people to say things that they wouldn’t dare say to someone’s face. While I’m generally against Google’s recent attempts to de-anonymize the internet, I also understand their point that anonymity enables this kind of thing. For that matter, we’ve let folks like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly push the envelope of acceptable communication past the line of genuine dialogue and into the realm of vitriol, personal attack, and shaming. A culture that valorizes that kind of thing lets the trolls out to play. And while we see this more often along gender lines, I’ve seen quite a few women make comments about how a blogger they disagree with should die, too. Although there are good reasons to take statements like that more seriously when they come from men, they’re never ok, no matter how angry you are.

It’s a cliche to quote Ghandi’s line about being the change we want to see in the world, but that’s really the only thing I can think of doing, besides using the Mallet of Loving Correction. I’d like some other options, though. Any thoughts, anyone?

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4 Responses so far.

  1. Sherri says:

    I think I’m for the Mallet of Loving Correction. I can’t believe Violet had to endure that crap. I know a stalker that would have that man living under his bed for the rest of his life :)

  2. […] When Sex Bloggers Get Slut Shamed | Charlie Glickman – It probably shouldn’t surprise to anyone that, in general, women in the blogosphere get a lot more harassment than men. After all, just walking down the street, women get a lot more harassment than men. […]

  3. Mi2CaMatt says:

    Great post. Informative.

  4. Burke says:

    Great post, very thorough, and I love the “Mallet of Loving Correction.” I hadn’t heard the term “slut-shaming” before now, but it’s a very appropriate description of exactly what’s going on.

    I was about to write that “luckily, I’ve only had to deal with this sort of harassment in real life,” but now I’m not sure if that “luckily” is an appropriate descriptor or not. In a way, it’s nice to be able to see your attacker and be able to size them up, and see who/what you’re actually dealing with, rather than having to live with the threat of their presence in your imagination, but I guess it’s fear of a real-life confrontation that keeps harassed sex bloggers awake at night. There’s no point in comparing who suffers more, though.

    Great food for thought, Charlie.

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