Greatest Hits: The Public Woman

Originally posted on May 3, 2007 at Blogging Feminism: (Web)Sites of Resistance.

Over the past few months, much ado has been made about the harassment of female bloggers, and the online harassment of women in general. The Kathy Sierra incident — wherein a female technology blogger was threatened so badly that she canceled speaking engagements and was afraid to leave her house — was the final straw for a lot of women, and more of us are speaking out about the harassment, threats and intimidation tactics that are leveled at us on a daily basis. Even The Washington Post is covering it.

It’s no secret that women face sexualized threats online. Female bloggers who speak with other female bloggers know that we all get it — and research backs us up:

A 2006 University of Maryland study on chat rooms found that female participants received 25 times as many sexually explicit and malicious messages as males. A 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005, entirely because of the exodus of women. The study attributed the trend to “sensitivity to worrisome behavior in chat rooms.”

Women are harassed in a particular way — it’s about what you look like, and what’s between your legs. Feminist bloggers in particular seem to garner attention for their physical appearance. Either we’re too ugly to get a man and so we turn to feminism (and cats), or we’re too pretty to be taken seriously. Often it’s some combination of both.

And then there are the rape comments. On one website where commenters are routinely racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic — and where I’m not particularly popular — there are threads and comments with titles like “Official Jill Filipovic RAPE thread,” “I want to brutally rape that Jill slut,” and “I’m 98% sure that she should be raped.”

I don’t know a single feminist blogger who hasn’t had similar comments made about her.

As the WaPo article points out, this kind of harassment has driven many women out of chat rooms and off of blogs. It’s encouraged others to blog under gender-neutral or male pseudonyms. Conservative female bloggers like Michelle Malkin and even progressive male bloggers like Markos Mousilitas (Daily Kos) have basically told women to get thicker skin and expect these kinds of comments if we go online.

The news media is covering this issue as if it’s a new story. It isn’t. It’s been the narrative for hundreds of years.

The original “public woman” was the prostitute. Men have traditionally occupied the public space (including the political), while women were relegated to the domestic — or at least, certain kinds of women were relegated to the domestic. Cloistering women away or at least keeping them tied to domestic duties has long been a sign of socioeconomic class, from ancient Greece through Victorian England through the 1950s and The Feminine Mystique. “Other” women — poor women, women of color — worked outside the home. The lowest class of women were the publicly available ones. And public availability was tied to sexual availability.

This mentality thrives anywhere and anytime women transgress traditional roles and enter into the public discourse — and especially when they want to play with the boys. Second-wave feminists were routinely sexualized or deemed to ugly to be taken seriously, whether the topic of conversation was Gloria Steinem’s miniskirt and Kate Millet’s breasts, or Andrea Dworkin’s overalls and Kate Millet’s face on the cover of Time Magazine. The Riot Grrls of the 1990s tried to give girls a place in the mosh pit and owned sexual slurs by scrawling words like SLUT across their stomachs — and were still met with calls to “take it off!” during their shows. And do I even need to mention the treatment of female politicians (see: Hillary Clinton)?

Street harassment is still a major issue for women. It isn’t unusual for a man to feel he has the right to comment on your body, your clothes or your demeanor (“Smile, honey!”) when you’re female and doing little more than walking down the street. The message is that you have less of a right to that space than he does — his presence in public is assumed to be right and natural, whereas yours is a privilege and something that he can take ownership of or exert power over.

Harassment of female bloggers, then — and sexualized insults and threats in particular — is not new, and it’s not surprising. Short of obliterating patriarchal social norms, there isn’t much we can do to completely end it.

But there’s a lot we can do to control it — and the answer isn’t just to “get thicker skin.”

First, blogs can moderate comments. I’m not a fan of universal moderation pledges or censorship, but a responsible moderation policy will at least come down on users who level threats at others. Rape threats aren’t protected speech any more than yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is, so this isn’t a First Amendment issue (and besides, bloggers aren’t the government, and we can control our sites as we see fit). Second, feminist and progressive bloggers should watch out for each other — if someone makes a threatening comment on my site about another blogger, I have no qualms about sending her that person’s IP address. Outing anonymous bloggers or commenters because you disagree with them is completely out of line and unacceptable; outing people who make threats is a pretty good way to make others think twice before posting similar comments. And if the threats come over email, all the better — post the harasser’s email address. Sort of like Holla Back, but in internet-land. Finally, name it. Point out harassment when it happens. The reaction to the Kathy Sierra story has been so strong in part because so many women had experienced similar things and had simply chosen to quietly leave, or just ignore it. Ignoring it doesn’t work — or at least, it hasn’t worked for me. The website that has allowed commenters to post sexual-assault-related comments about me has somewhere around 100 threads where my name comes up, and they’ve been commenting, posting pictures, and filing “Jill sightings” for more than a year and a half. I don’t comment on their site and I’ve avoided writing about them, but they aren’t going away. The more we talk about it, the more we emphasize the fact that this is common, that we aren’t doing anything to incite it, that it is gendered and that it is unacceptable — and the more we can share strategies for how to stop it.

It’s high time women were able to be publicly present without being considered publicly consumable. Blogs have been at the forefront of progressive activism, bringing together people of all backgrounds and locations to discuss issues of interest, take action, or simply share stories. Now, we should be at the forefront of taking a collective stand against harassment and in support of the “public woman.”

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14 comments for “Greatest Hits: The Public Woman

  1. Nymphalidae
    August 8, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    Massively multi-player online games like World of Warcraft have similar issues. Sexism, racism, all the -isms are amplified in MMOs. I was in a guild recently that broke up due to poor leadership – unfortunately the crappy guildmaster in question was female. Sure, she was terrible. But that’s no excuse for the stuff people posted on the forums about how she’s ugly and how all women are crappy gamers. I don’t even like the woman, but she doesn’t deserve that. None of us do.

    After the guild broke up I applied to Templar Knights, which is the top Alliance guild on the server I play on. It’s a difficult guild to get into, but they liked my application and it was suggested that they have a spot for me. But I’m a woman. They don’t recruit women because we create drama. They then proceeded to post porn on the thread. Unfortunately, while Blizzard (the video game company) has mechanisms for in-game harassment, they can’t do anything about who is or is not allowed into guilds or what goes on at guild websites.

  2. Miller
    August 8, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Until we fundamentally challenge the idea that misogyny is nothing more than “disrespect” (bad manners) or “sexual explicitness” I fear it will just get worse–exponentially so. We need to call it out as intolerance, hate…bigotry. If we keep on treating this issue as a case of impoliteness, no one will take the overt incitement of hate seriously. Draping such extremism in sexual overtones does not mitigate–let alone excuse–the effect.

    The “rape” thread disturbs me to no end. I dared to look (once) at the AutoAdmit site and all the posters were howling about how “stupid” we must be to take them seriously, because of course rape is just a joke–trivial. Yet, whenever such bigots are questioned on their hyper-sensitivity (flipping out because Jill or others merely express their opinion about the status of women and girls in society) they just become rabid.

  3. Miller
    August 8, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    Okay, just to make sure my first post isn’t misread: I meant to say that we shouldn’t allow the public to continue to define blatant hate speech as just rudeness.

  4. August 8, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    I’ve been thinking that there’s a need for a support system for harassed bloggers. What I mean is a group of people dedicated to offering help and support when feminist (and other) bloggers are harassed and threatened. I think a lot of people who are harassed are effectively silenced because they feel alone and don’t know what to do. I want that to stop.

  5. August 8, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    Yeah, even on a little nobody blog like mine I get threats and sexulized comments. One that always sticks out in my mind is on an anti-war thread I got someone saying I needed to be “raped by a marine”. But what threw me, is that people saw these comments, and then saw me delete them, and they had the audacity to bith at me for “stiffling free speach”. Some of the more “liberal” commenters said that I should have kept it up, to show what some people are like. No one supported me, and no one commented on how awful those comments were, and I still say that I shouldn’t host assholery.

  6. Gayle
    August 8, 2007 at 6:39 pm

    Speaking of misogyny,

    The IBTP board and the Womensspace board are both down due to hacker attacks. They stole e-mail addresses off the later and they’re using the address to send masked pron messages, rape threats, really vile shit in general, to the others.

    It looks like the IBTP attack is very recent so if anyone registered their email other there, you may want to take precautions.

    Reclusive Leftist had to shut off her comments as she’s under attack at the moment, too. I don’t know who else is affected although it looks like message boards are particularly vulnerable.

    Losers have nothing better to do, i suppose. Anyway Jill, you may want to step up the moderation for the time being.

  7. Gayle
    August 8, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    The website that has allowed commenters to post sexual-assault-related comments about me has somewhere around 100 threads where my name comes up, and they’ve been commenting, posting pictures, and filing “Jill sightings” for more than a year and a half. I don’t comment on their site and I’ve avoided writing about them, but they aren’t going away.

    Wow. I’m really sorry to hear this. I had mistakenly thought they had gone away.

    You’re right. We need to stand up against this.

  8. August 8, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    I had the privilege to attend the panel “Blogging While Female” at YearlyKos. I was shocked at the level of hate sent to bloggers who were identified as female on line. I even asked Digby if she noticed a change in comments directed toward her now that she was out as a woman.
    I agree that there should be a support group for harassed bloggers so that we can help them. I have some specific ideas that I shared with a few of the panel members at the session. When I get back home I’ll be sending an email with the details. One is a technical solution one is a detective solution.

    When I heard the comments they were getting remember thinking, “What is WRONG with people who say this?”

    I remember one time reading some vile comments and asking after they posted. “Are you a Christian?” It threw them for a loop because a huge number of people self identify themselves as Christian and yet they were clearly not being very Christian.

  9. Amanda
    August 8, 2007 at 8:58 pm


    This is so important. Thank you for raising this issue. I think many people agree with you – the hatred and the violent commentary spewed by “anonymous” commenters makes me sick sometimes – they need to be called out – it’d be great if there was a hollaback-like site where we could post their photo, name, email address & their words – let the whole world see their name, their face & their hatred.

    These commenters use the fact that they are “anonymous” to throw out violent threats. If we removed their anonymity, they would be discouraged from posing their threats.

    Also, I know you’re a law student – is there any legal action that can be taken for posting violent threats again and again and again? If someone called you and threatened to rape you repeatedly, I would think that you could take legal action.

    Lastly, AutoAdmit is a blog for law students, correct? I would love to have those posting these threats to be outed to the major law firms. They would probably get a job somewhere eventually, but it would be a positive step forward if the major international firms rejected this kind of behavior.

  10. August 9, 2007 at 1:37 am

    Some tactics to consider.

    What Amanda said can be taken to the next step for the AutoAdmit crowd – law licenses, both to block them and to strip them. In Maryland, at least, there are a number of definitions of misconduct, including violating the specific regulations of the legal profession but also more general things. To quote Maryland Rule 8.4 in pertinent part:

    Rule 8.4. Misconduct.

    It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

    (a) violate or attempt to violate the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another;

    (b) commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects;

    (c ) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation;

    (d) engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice;

    (e) knowingly manifest by words or conduct when acting in a professional capacity bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status when such action is prejudicial to the administration of justice, provided, however, that legitimate advocacy is not a violation of this paragraph;

    However, for applicants to the bar as opposed to licensed attorneys, the burden is on the applicant to prove good character. I think that all forms of harassment are inconsistent with good character and are prejudicial to the administration of justice by bringing the legal profession into disrepute – the same way that willful failure to file taxes has been held similarly prejudicial. I bet at least 26 out of 51 Bar Counsel would agree. Most states have a version of 8.4 which is pretty similar.

    The word needs to come down either from Zion or from the glitteriest dime-sized mirror on the Disco Ball that bloggers are committed to packaging a flaming (and factually accurate) bag of sh** on sexual harassers and sending it to Bar Counsel, the Chief Judges of courts where the harassers practice, local mandatory or voluntary bar associations. Local Women’s Bar Associations and Women’s Law Centers should have access to this information and can help aim the shiv into the proper ventricle. Is taken? Using may help too.

    Harassers should do the right thing for the right reason – cease out of conscience, make amends in full to the harmed, commit to supporting anti-harassment efforts. But in the real world, what will make some stop is when others start losing job contacts, offers, mentors, paychecks. As for non-lawyer harassers, I have two law licenses and would love to fulfill a little of my pro bono duties by doing something useful on this issue.

  11. Nick
    August 9, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Something that’s interesting is that one can trigger this reaction just by having a name that sort of signifies “female”, e.g., ends in a vowel. I ended up going by “Aza”–a shortened form of an eaarlier handle–for a while in an online game, and would receive messages like this out of the blue from people I just happened to wander past. It was mildly eye-opening. The game was text-based, so the only gender-presentation possible was through speech tics and name-based assumptions; I just naturally tend to avoid gendered pronouns, so a lot of players assumed I was a woman.

  12. Filth
    August 9, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    I play Magic:The Gathering online, and while checking a player’s rating, (he was named something like Kelly Ann), I saw that he had put on his info page that he was a man, and that was the name of his boat, and “Calm down, boys.” The thing was, he didn’t seem upset by being mistaken for a woman, he was just tired of being propositioned simply because he might have been female.

    Filth normally doesn’t get hit on all that much, but the next time I create an alias for an online game like that, I’m going to be Kristi14_ana, to see what it’s like.

  13. HK
    August 15, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Hi Jill –
    You raise lots of really good points. I’m sorry that people are still personally attacking and threatening you online. I can’t imagine how horrible that must be to see those kinds of things written about you.

    I wrote my master’s thesis on street harassment and in a section about using the internet to combat street harassment (via blogs like hollaback), I looked at a lot of those studies about how people with female-sounding names stand a good chance of dealing with sexist comments etc. However, it wasn’t until I got mentioned in a CNN article in May for my research on street harassment that I got to experience this first hand (until then, I had no blog, rarely left comments on blogs, don’t play online games, etc). I was absolutely shocked by how many people started personally attacking me, calling me ugly, saying I must be jealous of the harassing attention of other women get, that i must be single, that i must emasculate the men around me, that i am pathetic, etc. Thankfully I never came across anything that was an out right threat or that was as vicious as suggesting I should be raped, but having never been in the online public eye before, I was just floored. I couldn’t sleep or concentrate for days because I was so distraught – these people didn’t even know me and they were saying all this stuff about me and anyone who googled my name could read it.

    One of the facilitators of HollaBack Boston was so great and defended me on their blog HollaBackTalk and also wrote me e-mails to make sure I was okay. She has been attacked online many times and knew how it felt. it was amazing to have her support. a few friends/relatives also wrote on blogs to defend me and wrote me to offer support too and it did make a big difference and make me feel less alone and less crazy – if you see that shit frequently enough it can cause self doubt! so i’m definitely with you on supporting each other with this.

    it’d be great to know how to stop such hateful comments. i’d also like to stop street harassment, violence against women, pay inequity, sexual harassment, etc!!

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