Stuck at home and going swiftly down an online rabbit hole, I spent hours reading posts that extended beyond commenting on my rape-ability into users posting dozens of photos of me, commenting on my body, rating my physical attractiveness and listing my contact information. And halfway down one of those threads, I got to this:
“I actually happen to have met her before. She’s extremely pretty in person.”
It was an innocuous comment, even a kind one. But more followed, in other threads – people who claimed to know me in real life, or said they had at least met me, or seen me, or maybe talked to an ex boyfriend of mine. They had details about what I wore to class and what I said. I felt very suddenly like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the room to fill my lungs.
The only thing I really remember when I returned to school a few days later is my head feeling detached from my body. I had a bizarre mental image of myself walking around with my skull in a fishbowl, separated from my shoulders, like a deranged skeletal astronaut. It was partly the painkillers. But it was also a mental shortcut -- a short-circuit -- to protect my own mind from the trauma that quickly ate away at my confidence, my intelligence and my basic sense of safety.
This week, Amanda Hess published an extraordinary piece in Pacific Standard on gender harassment online. She weaves her own experience with a Twitter stalker into a broader narrative of incompetent law enforcement, inadequate laws and dismissive online communities. She quotes feminist bloggers who left their homes to hide from stalkers, and police officers who don’t know what Twitter is. She breathes life into the statistic that some three-quarters of online abuse targets women, and that the very act of going online with a female name often means sexually violent comments are lobbed in your direction. She outlines legal challenges to the status quo. And she points to the psychic cost of living in a world where you are constantly told you’re a target for violence.
“When people say you should be raped and killed for years on end, it takes a toll on your soul,” Hess quotes feminist writer Jessica Valenti as saying.
We want to believe that the Internet is different from “real life,” that “virtual reality” is a separate sphere from reality-reality. But increasingly, virtual space is just as “real” as life off of the computer. We talk to our closest friends all day long on G-Chat. We engage with political allies and enemies on Twitter and in blog comment sections. We email our moms and our boyfriends. We like photos of our cousin’s cute baby on Facebook. And if we’re writers, we research, publish and promote our work online. My office is a corner of my apartment, and my laptop is my portal into my professional world. There’s nothing “virtual” about it.
For me, it has been almost eight years to the day since I sat at that old desktop and read through those AutoAdmit posts. I have since graduated law school. I worked as a corporate lawyer for almost four years, and now I have the privilege of writing full time and pursuing a career and a life that I love. I’ve been running a feminist blog for almost a decade. I’m a 30-year-old woman who has been writing online long enough to be called every name in the book – I get so many insults I’ve even turned it into a contest on my blog (all-time favorite: “lesbian ham-beast”).
And yet writing about AutoAdmit, Googling the old posts to pull up the insults and the comments and the threats — essentially re-living that trauma from years ago — has my stomach in knots.
Imagine going to work and every few days having people in the hallway walk up to you and say things like, “Die, you dumb cunt” and “you deserve to be raped” and, if you’re a woman of color, adding in the n-word and other racial slurs for good measure. Consider how that would impact your performance and your sense of safety. But you still love your job and your co-workers. That’s how the Internet feels for many of us.
I know how quickly the lines between the “real” and the virtual can blur. Before I discovered the AutoAdmit threads, I had already been blogging about feminism for a little while, and rape and murder threats weren’t new. It remains standard for people to leave comments like, “Here, babycakes, let me give you some roofies and fuck you up the ass, in the ear and up your nose until you weep and bleed” on my site. For the first year or two they shook me up. Then I learned how to roll my eyes, copy and paste them into a dedicated folder and hit the delete key. I did what all the male bloggers told me to do: I ignored the bullies, I grew such thick skin that now I worry about my lack of a fight-or-flight fear reflex, my ability to eat whatever shit is put in front of my face, how in real-life arguments with loved ones and moments of trauma I go stone-cold and it’s almost like my heart shuts off. But I bucked up. I knew how to be tough on the Internet.
And then, the summer after I graduated and was studying for the bar exam, one of the AutoAdmit posters showed up at my door.
To be more specific, he showed up at the door of my clinic office, where I was studying on a nearly empty floor at the law school. I’m keeping details spare, but he was there, and he was having a psychological breakdown for which he was later hospitalized, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. He was ranting about AutoAdmit, how I misunderstood him, how I was sending him coded messages and how he knew that I had told the whole Internet he was a bad person. I had no memory of ever seeing this person before, and I couldn’t figure out if he had come in from the street or if he was a student. He was a big dude and he was blocking the doorway, and a friend of mine and I were inside the room, she sitting at her desk, paralyzed, and me standing with him towering over me, his pupils dilated and his fists clenched and his face bright red and sweaty, and I remember very calmly thinking: “This is how it happens. This is what happens right before someone hits you.” I was doing the calculations in my head: No one will hear me if I scream, so how fast can I get to the phone before he grabs me? What number do I even call? It’s an NYU phone – what’s NYU security’s number? Do I have to dial 9 before I call 911?
He didn’t hit me. When he took a breath from yelling, I interrupted him and said I didn’t think we had actually met, and that my name was Jill, and what was his? He was confused, and eventually he backed down and he left. I went home. I became more careful about locking the door.
He showed up again last year, this time in the Feministe comment section and later in my email inbox. This time, he was threatening to kill a variety of people. This time, he threatened the wrong person – not me – and this time, he was arrested.
Of course, he’s not the only one. There was the guy who showed up my law school to tell my professors how terrible I was, and who later emailed my entire law firm at least a dozen times in an attempt to get me fired. The endless anonymous Twitter accounts set up to harass feminist bloggers. The phone calls from strangers. The comments, still, on blogs and the ones I’m sure get left on the sites of bigger publications but that my editors now mercifully delete – because deleting awful comments is someone’s actual job, now.
Most of the time, it’s fine. Delete. Ignore. Retweet for a laugh. But every once in a while, when someone says something a little too personal or that suggests they know too much, I feel like that fishbowl-headed law student again.
Trauma affects the brain in a lot of different ways, and here’s how those AutoAdmit threads affected mine: I don’t remember most of law school, except for the sharp retreat inward. As a college student, I was a self-confident loud-mouth. By that second semester of law school, nothing terrified me more than speaking in class – not only because I knew whatever I said would show up on the message board, although that was true, but because the people on the message board were probably right: I was a fat idiot, a dumb cunt who had no business being here. I wore a lot of hoodies to school because they shielded my face. I skipped classes if I suspected I would be called on. I glared at anyone who made eye contact with me. I made no friends.
As a practicing attorney, the inward turn faded a little, but it never completely went away. I avoided professional events, feeling immediately self-conscious if someone looked at my name tag a little bit too long – the legal world is small, so did they know me from the AutoAdmit boards? I dreaded the thought of clients or other counsel Googling me. I felt like an impostor, too dumb for the job I was given, a stupid interlocutor into the legal world, and someone who any day now would be discovered as a fraud.
It crept into my ability to interact rationally online and off. I knew how to take a fighter’s stance, but not how to back down. I knew how to turn my insides into steel, to weather any blow and keep going without crying or really without thinking. I figured out how to almost entirely disassociate with what was being said to me or about me. And every two or three years, something small would set me off, and it was like I had spent so long turning my entire body into ice that suddenly someone stuck a pick in me and I was cracking and splintering into thousands of little shards.
I’d take a few days off, pledge to do better on the self-care front, drink a lot of wine and put myself back together. I’d be back online with only little time lost.
I’d go to therapy, I’d go to yoga, I’d even go to a spinal surgeon who coolly informed me that law school related stress had pulled two discs in my neck out of place and contributed to a nice case of spinal arthritis, which could be managed but would cause me physical pain for the rest of my life.
I’d go back online.
I know these harassment stories are ubiquitous to the point of being boring. “Women get rape threats” is not news. Amanda Hess helpfully details the actual costs of these threats: The hours of work lost to tracking someone down online, to reporting someone to the police, to developing self-protection mechanisms when the police fail, to, in extreme cases, hiring professional enforcement for speaking gigs. For me, the costs included a law school education, professional contacts, and a robust work life.
But what about the things you can’t put a price on? How many stories weren’t written because the women who could best tell them were too afraid? How many people like me, damaged and lashing out, paid their online cruelties forward? How many women look back at the person they were before their skin thickened, before they learned how to deal, when they were a little more sure-footed, and how many of them grieve a little bit for all the good things that got lost in the process of surviving?
What does an online landscape look like when the women most able to tolerate it are the same ones who are best capable of bucking up and shutting parts of themselves down?
Jill Filipovic is a regular columnist for the Guardian's Comment is free and a blogger at Feministe. She holds a JD and BA from New York University.
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