On Blogging, Threats, and Silence
Cross-posted from Tiger Beatdown
Content note: This post includes excerpts of threats and abusive language.
I got my first rape threat as a blogger when I was on Blogspot, so new that I still had the default theme up and hadn’t even added anything to the sidebar. I can’t even remember the pseudonym I was using then, and I probably had about 10 hits on a good day, seven of which were me compulsively loading the page just to make sure it still existed, and the other two of which were probably my friends. I wrote a post about some local political issue or another, expressing my misgivings, and a reader kindly took time out of his day to email me.
‘You stupid cunt,’ he said, ‘all you need is a good fucking and then you’d be less uptight.’
I stared at it for a couple of minutes, too shocked to move. There it was on my screen, not going away. Someone really had thought it was appropriate not just to write this email to a complete stranger, a totally unknown person, but to send it. I deleted it, and spent another few minutes staring at the blank hole in my inbox where it had been before shaking it off and moving on.
It was harder with the next one, and the next, and the next, but by the time I’d clocked around 20 threats, and was up to around 30 readers, I’d learned the art of triage. The quick skim to find out if there was any actually personal threatening information, like identifying details, or if it was just your garden variety threat with no teeth behind it. I kept them all in a little file in case I needed them later, and forwarded the worst to the police department, not in the belief they would actually do anything, but in the hopes that information would be there, somewhere, in case it was needed someday.
‘I hope you get raped to death with a gorsebush,’ one email memorably began. I gave the letter writer some style points for creativity, but quickly deducted them when I noted he’d sent it from his work email, at a progressive organisation. I helpfully forwarded it to his supervisor, since I thought she might be interested to know what he was doing on company time. ‘Thanks,’ she wrote back, and I didn’t hear anything more about it. Several months later I attended a gala event the organisation was participating in and watched him sitting there on stage, confident and smug.
I thanked my stars that he had no idea who I was, that he didn’t know that the ‘stupid, fat bitch’ he’d emailed was sitting there in the audience, calmly staring back at him. Later, I wondered why I didn’t just turn around and walk out the minute I saw him. I certainly stopped donating and supporting, and I happily told people why.
He’s still there, and people tell me I’m not the only one who has received alarmingly graphic communiques from him for speaking my mind. His was the first of many emails so meticulously detailed that it felt like the uncomfortable realisation of a fantasy, and it only got worse when I changed platforms, to TypePad and then WordPress, accumulating more and more readers along the way, being more and more outspoken, being more and more open about who I was, finally writing under my own name, a calculated decision that exposes me to considerable risk, every day, a decision I cannot come back from. It is not a decision I regret, but it did bring home a new risk for me, that I had made it a lot easier for those electronic threats to become a reality.
I was careful in all the ways they tell you to be, to make it difficult to find my house, for example, and most of the rape threats, and the death threats, the casual verbal abuse from people who disagreed with my stances on subjects like rape being bad and abortion being a personal matter, weren’t really that threatening in that they didn’t pose a personal danger to me, and I was rarely concerned for my safety. That wasn’t the point, though, which is what I told a friend when she got her first rape threat and called me, sobbing. I wished she’d been spared that particular blogging rite of passage, but unfortunately she hadn’t been.
‘They want you to shut up,’ I explained. ‘That’s the point of a rape threat. They want to silence you. They want you to shrink down very small inside a box where you think they can’t find you.’
And it works. I see it happening all the time; blogs go dark, or disappear entirely, or stop covering certain subjects. People hop pseudonyms and addresses, trusting that regular readers can find and follow them, trying to stay one step ahead. Very few people openly discuss it because they feel like it’s feeding the trolls, giving them the attention they want. Some prominent bloggers and members of the tech community have been bold enough; Kathy Sierra, for example, spoke out about the threats that made her afraid to leave her own home. She’s not the only blogger who’s been presented not just with vicious, hateful verbal abuse, but very real evidence that people want to physically hurt her, a double-edged silencing tactic, a sustained campaign of terrorism that is, often, highly effective.
It took a few years to reach this point, but I finally have, the point where I do have concerns about my physical safety, and have had to reevaluate certain aspects of my life and work. I’ve gotten those emails that send a long chill down my spine and create a surging feeling of rage, mixed with helplessness. People have sent me my social security number, information about my family members, identifying details that make it very clear they know exactly how to find me. They have politely provided details of exactly what they’d like to do to me and my family, they send me creepy things in the mail.
‘I’m glad your stupid cat died,’ someone wrote me last October. ‘You’re next, bitch,’ and followed up with my street address.
‘I’m in the process of moving,’ I told the officer who responded, ‘but it concerns me and I wanted you to know.’
I spent the remaining week almost entirely at the new house, working on the house during the day and slinking home late at night, leaving the lights off to make it look like I wasn’t home, leaving my distinctive and highly identifiable car parked at a distant location. My neighbours left their porch light on for me, illuminating the backyard in a wash of harsh, white light. I’d spent years seething about how it kept me up at night, but those nights, I was grateful for it, reading my book under the covers in the dim glow of a flashlight.
‘You must be worried about fans finding you,’ my landlords say, and I want to laugh it off, the idea that I have ‘fans’ who would be dedicated enough to come this far to find me.
‘It’s not the fans I worry about,’ I say, darkly.
It’s a good week, these days, if I only get 15-20 emails from people telling me how much they think I should die, or how much they hope I get raped, or how much they hope my cat dies or I lose my job or fall in a hole or get shot by police or any number of things people seem to think it’s urgently important to tell me in their quest to get me to shut up. We are not talking about disagreements, about calls for intersectionality, about differing approaches, about political variance, about lively debate and discussion that sometimes turns acrimonious and damaging. We are talking about sustained campaigns of hate from people who believe that we are inhuman and should be silenced; the misogynists, the ‘men’s rights activists,’ the anti-reproductive rights movement, the extreme conservatives, the fundamentalists. The haters.
Joss Whedon fans in particular seem to be especially creative, although Glee fans are running a close second; Glee fans tend to be more fond of sending me photoshopped pictures of myself covered in what I think is supposed to be cum, although it looks more like mashed potatoes, or possibly whipped cream. Joss fans prefer to say it in text, intimately, lingering over the details. And of course there’s the usual abuse from people who think that people like me are not human beings, and thus feel it’s entirely reasonable, even necessary, to assault us, the people who write about topics like reproductive justice, domestic violence, intersections between race and class and disability and gender and the social structures that contribute to continued oppression.
I don’t talk about it very often because I don’t really know what to say. I get rape and death threats. I get emails calling me cunt, r#tard, all the other epithets you can think of and then some. I get abusive phone calls, and sometimes have to unplug my landline for a few days. So do a lot of other bloggers. It never really stops, unless you stop, which means that every day you need to make a conscious decision. Do I keep doing this? Do I keep going? Or is this the day where I throw in the towel and decide it’s not worth it anymore?
Like a lot of bloggers in the same position, I have tried to balance a desire to not remain silent with the need for increasing caution; not, for example, making information about where I stay when on trips available, making it clear that the only place people will find me is at public events in locations where there’s a security presence, being careful about pictures I post of my house and neighbourhood to make it harder to find, making sure close friends have contact information for me and my neighbours in case of emergencies. Thinking carefully about the kinds of events I want to attend. Things that are second nature to me seem to disturb other people, but I’ve learned the hard way that this is what I need to do to be safe.
But I’m still not going to shut up, and not just because I am bullheaded and don’t take kindly to being told to be silent or die. I don’t shut up for all the people who were forced to shut up, for the ghosts who drift through the Internet, for the people too terrified to leave their homes at all, let alone try to coordinate safety concerns to attend events, for the people who ask friends to open and sort their email because they can’t handle the daily vitriol. I don’t shut up for all the people who have been silenced, who did throw in the towel because they just couldn’t take it anymore. Not because they were weak or not committed to the cause, but because they, and their families, were in danger.
When it became evident that I wasn’t going to shut up, that I wasn’t going to let threats from hateful assholes dictate what I chose to cover and not cover, the campaigns shifted; I still got rape and death threats, but then came the websites dedicated to hate and speculation, the harassing phone calls. Then came the commenters sowing insidious trails at sites that linked me or discussed my work, the emails to friends and colleagues, the attempts to discredit me.
And, of course, the attacks on my readers. One of the reasons I was forced to close comments on my personal site was because people would stalk my readers to their own sites and harass them, and we had similar problems at FWD/Forward, and I see them here at Tiger Beatdown as well. Puzzled and upset readers sometimes forward the email they’re sent after they comment, or talk about something in a post, or attempt to participate in discussions; anti-abortion activists, for example, sending them hate screeds for being open about their abortions in what they thought was a safe space. Hateful people pick on people they assume are small and helpless, simply for voicing their opinions, or being present in a space, or being associated with the target of their hatred.
Then came the hackings, the repeated attempts to silence me in the crudest way possible.
This is something else people don’t talk about, very often; the fact of the matter is that if you run a feminist or social justice site, you will be hacked. Probably on multiple occasions, especially if you start to grow a large audience. Some of these hackings are just your usual cases of vandalism, people testing servers to see if they can do it, not with any specific malice directed at you. Others are more deliberate, more calculated, and they come with taunting and abuse.
Many feminist sites stay on services like Blogspot because of the higher security they may offer; people who host their own sites do so in awareness that if they aren’t very knowledgeable about technology, they need someone who is for when they get hacked, and it’s not if, but when. Readers often don’t notice because it flashes by, or it causes problems with the backend, the site management, not the front end. Sometimes they do, when hackers inject malicious code that changes the appearance of the front page, or attempts to load malware on the computers of visitors, or just takes the site down altogether, sometimes with a message making it clear that it’s personal.
Then your readers start screaming at you because the site isn’t working, and when you wade through your inbox it’s an even split between taunting messages from the hacker and readers demanding to know why the front page looks funny, yelling at you if you were asleep when it happened and didn’t have time to post an update somewhere to let people know what was going on for several hours.
You wake up every day wondering if your server is still up, and how much cleanup you may need to do to keep the site operational. That’s the reality. You wake up wondering what will be in your inbox, your moderation queue, your Twitter stream, and sometimes you lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering if you really want to keep doing this. The reality is that when people recognise you in public spaces and shout your name, you tense; is this person going to harm you? You spend the first five minutes of your interaction fighting the flight instinct, not paying attention to a single word the person is saying. When someone emails to ask to meet you when you’re traveling, your first reaction is not ‘oh, it would be lovely to meet readers, yes, please, let’s hook up at that dark shady bar in a city I don’t know.’
It’s concerted, focused, and deliberate, the effort to silence people, especially women, but not always, as I can attest, and particularly feminists, though again, not always, as I can attest, online. The readers, the consumers, the fans, may not always notice it because people are silent about it. Because this is the strategy that has been adopted, to not feed the trolls, to grin and bear it, to shut up, to put your best foot forward and rise above it. To open your email, take note of the morning’s contents, and then quickly shuttle them to the appropriate files for future reference or forwarding to the authorities. To check on the server, fix what needs fixing, and move on with your day. To skim the comments to see what needs to be deleted, to know that when you write a post like this one, you will have to delete a lot of heinous and ugly comments, because you want to protect your readers from the sheer, naked, hate that people carry for you. To weigh, carefully, the decision to approve a comment not because there’s a problem with the content, but because you worry that the reader may be stalked by someone who will tell her that she should die for having an opinion. And when it happens to people for the first time, they think they are alone, because they don’t realise how widespread and insidious it is.
All of the bloggers at Tiger Beatdown have received threats, not just in email but in comments, on Twitter, and in other media, and the site itself has been subject to hacking attempts as well. It’s grinding and relentless and we’re told collectively, as a community, to stay silent about it, but I’m not sure that’s the right answer, to remain silent in the face of silencing campaigns designed and calculated to drive us from not just the Internet, but public spaces in general. To compress us into small boxes somewhere and leave us there, to underscore that our kind are not wanted here, there, or anywhere.
*GAG GAG GLUCK* You have discovered the only vocables worth hearing from Sady’s cock-stuffed maw…die tr*nny whore…[slut walk] is a parade for people who suffer from Histrionic Personality Disorder aka Attention Whores…I know where you live, r#tard…why don’t you do the world a favour and jump off a bridge…Feminazi…
A small sampling of the kinds of things that show up in our inboxes, in comment threads, on attack websites, in things sent to our readers.
Rape threats happen. Death threats happen. People threaten friends, families, jobs, household pets. Stalkers go to considerable lengths to collect and exploit information. People who are open about this, who do talk about threats and stalking and danger, and they are out there, are punished for it. They get more abuse, they’re told that they’re making it all up, that it’s all in their heads, that they are exaggerating, entirely new hate sites spring up to speculate about them and talk about their ‘desperate ploys for attention.’ That’s what I have to look forward to for writing this piece, for laying out some of the costs of social participation for you, for openly discussing the thing which dare not speak its name, the brash, open hostility reserved for people who do not shut up.
This is a reality, and it doesn’t go away if we don’t talk about it.