The year is new, but we already have a candidate for the most troubling magazine essay of 2014: Amanda Hess on “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” in the latest issue of Pacific Standard.
Hess takes a reality many people may be only dimly aware of — that female writers come in for an extraordinary amount of abuse online — and fleshes it out with detail, data and personal experience. The anecdotes, her own and others, range from the offensive to the terrifying, but there’s also a thudding, soul-crushing sameness to them: graphic threats of sexual violence, rape and murder, intertwining and repeating.
Everyone who writes online comes in for abuse, but Hess’ essay describes a form of intimate attack that few male journalists experience. We hear about it over drinks, we catch glimpses of it on Twitter, but it’s easy for us to miss how radically different it makes our female peers’ experience.
Hess’ essay is mostly interested in solutions and responses: how women should deal with their harassers; how online forums should police abuse; how the laws surrounding stalking and discrimination might adapt to deal with online threats.
It’s also useful to think about root causes, and where all the hate and twisted fantasies are coming from. Is this misogyny always latent in a subset of the male population? Or are there magnifying forces at work?
One potential magnifier, of course, is the Internet itself, which by its nature is a kind of unreal space for many users — a place where a range of impulses can be discussed, explored and acted out in what feels like a consequence-free zone.
There is some evidence that the emergence of this fantasy space actually has made the real world slightly safer for women: Studies have shown correlations between access to online pornography and lower rates of sexual assault. But the flip side is that many men who might have successfully regulated their darker impulses now have what seems like a green light to be “virtually” abusive … because they’re just trying out a role or because the woman on the receiving end seems no more real to them than a character in a pornographic film.
Another magnifier is ideology. Hess is a feminist who works in culture-war terrain, and there’s no question that women writing from that perspective come in for more personal, sexualized abuse than women writing about, say, monetary policy. Where the personal is political, the political becomes personal more quickly, and the grotesque abuse that liberal, feminist writers can receive for being liberal feminists is a scandal that conservatives, especially, need to acknowledge and deplore.
But many conservative and libertarian women also take a remarkable amount of sexual-political abuse. So it may be that the culture war cuts both ways, and a certain kind of left-wing narrative about gender — in which women are expected to hold liberal views just by virtue of being female — can become a license for allegedly progressive men to demean and dehumanize women who decline to play that part.
To further complicate matters, there is the phenomenon of intraliberal misogyny — like the flood of abuse, cited by Hess, that greeted the atheist writer Rebecca Watson when she wrote about sexism and harassment at a skeptics’ convention.
Cases like Watson’s suggest that there’s a chauvinist attitude in play here, a kind of crypto-ideology of sex and gender, which doesn’t map neatly onto what we usually think of as culture-war divides. This attitude is “liberal” in that it regards sexual license as an unalloyed good, and it treats any kind of social or religious conservatism as a dead letter. At the same time, it wants to rebel and lash out against the strictures it feels that feminism and political correctness have placed on male liberty, male rights.
Sometimes this rebellion is just coarse and libertine: Think of lad magazines, the world of pickup artists or Seth MacFarlane on Oscar night. But where it intersects with status anxieties, personal failure and sexual frustration, it can turn vicious — in effect, scapegoating women (those frigid castrators, those promiscuous teases) for the culture’s failure to deliver a beer-commercial vision of male happiness.
I don’t think either the left or the right quite understands this worldview: Feminists tend to see it simply as a species of reaction and social conservatives as the dark fruit of sexual liberation, when it’s really a combination of the two. And because it channels some legitimate male anxieties alongside its chauvinism and resentment, it probably can’t be shamed or driven underground — or not, at least, without making its side effects for women that much more toxic.
Instead, it needs to be answered, somehow, with a more compelling vision of masculine goals, obligations and aspirations. Forging this vision is a project for both sexes. Living up to it, and cleansing the Internet of the worst misogyny, is ultimately a task for men.
Ross Douthat’s column is distributed by the New York Times News Service.