The lasting damage of online harassment

We already posted this fantastic piece on internet harassment by Amanda Hess, and over at TPM I’ve riffed off of it to discuss some of my own experiences, and how being targeted with rape and death threats online shaped my “real world” interactions and relationships. I hunted around but couldn’t find any studies on the real-world impact of internet abuse, other than a few documenting the impact of self-harm forums on the people who seek them out. But years after I was the subject of ongoing abuse by fellow law students, I’m wondering just how much it’s changed me — and coming to terms with the fact that it has, significantly, in ways I don’t like. The internet isn’t just a virtual space; it’s real, for most of us. It’s how many of us spend large chunks of our days. There isn’t a clear dividing line between the online world and the offline. And when so many women face so much abuse online, it has to have an impact on our offline lives. How, and how much, is something I would love to see studied and documented. You can read the whole piece at TPM here [content warning: misogynist abuse].

Author: has written 5265 posts for this blog.

Jill has been blogging for Feministe since 2005.
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45 Responses

  1. Drahill
    Drahill January 10, 2014 at 11:07 am |

    That was an excellent piece, Jill. I had a friend who experienced online harassment and actually felt strongly that the main person behind it should go to jail for it. I was surprised to learn that a great many of her friends and family actually thought that would be a terrible idea. They rationalized it as “do you really want to take away his freedom for some dumb things said online?” My reaction was to think that “her freedom is already taken away!” I’ve learned to see this stuff as a form of incarceration – both physically (when the victims limit their freedom of movement or ability to go where they wish), but it’s largely imprisonment of the mind and psyche. The constant stress, the fear, the anxiety – it’s a prison, and I’m loathe to say it’s self-imposed. My friend reached a point where she debated whether to violate her own probation (which she was on at the time) to actually get sent to jail, because in her words “at least you’re in a cell, at least there’s guards.” I can’t imagine getting to a point where an actual prison offers some semblance of safety to you in the fact of such harassment.

    I have to wonder about why society seems so vested in maintaining a distinction between “online” and “actual” harassment. As your article shows, it wasn’t a very real distinction to you. It’s not to most people, I think. The whole point of it seems to be the ability to imply that the victim is in actual danger. I know why you used the term – because it shows how the harassment started and the methods it used. My peeve is with people who use the term “online harassment” to suggest something “less than” or not as severe as harassment that happens in person.

    1. EG
      EG January 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm |

      I suspect the mental distinction stems from an outdated idea of what it means to be on-line. So, 15 years ago, I got one email a week and it was a red-letter day when it happened and I’d tell all my friends about it. It was easy to think “Hey, if I got harassed on-line, I’d just shut the damn computer down and walk away.”

      That’s just not a reasonable option for many–even most–people on-line any more, and the mentality needs to catch up.

    2. tinfoil hattie
      tinfoil hattie January 10, 2014 at 2:55 pm |

      “do you really want to take away his freedom for some dumb things said online?”

      Ha. No, I really want to take away his freedom for THREATS AND HARASSMENT, not “dumb things.” Why is it so hard for people to understand that difference?

  2. Athenia
    Athenia January 10, 2014 at 1:26 pm |

    I’m so sorry you experienced that Jill. :(

  3. tinfoil hattie
    tinfoil hattie January 10, 2014 at 2:54 pm |

    I remember reading about your terrible experience after it happened, and I am still just as outraged. Thank you for braving the PTSD to write about it again.

    1. macavitykitsune
      macavitykitsune January 11, 2014 at 12:01 am |

      Seconded entirely. Jill, I’m so sorry you went through this. I can’t even imagine how horrible that must have been.

  4. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin January 10, 2014 at 4:10 pm |

    I wish there were better ways of managing abusive people. Many men inclined to this sort of behavior are threatened by what they think feminism entails. Emasculation fears lead to some of this conduct, but not all of it.

    A fellow Quaker who I love taught women’s studies at a conservative Christian school and got tons of unwarranted criticism. Some called her a Feminazi and a liberal, but if she ever got death threats, that’s news to me. Maybe I should ask her about it.

  5. eilish
    eilish January 10, 2014 at 7:52 pm |

    A commenter on that TPM post is very concerned that people’s freedom of speech will be censored if we attempt to stop people from harassing women on-line.
    Women have to tolerate rape threats in order to protect freedom of speech.
    Oh.

    1. EG
      EG January 10, 2014 at 8:02 pm |

      Sure, just like existing laws against verbal harassment have destroyed real-world freedom of speech.

  6. yazikus
    yazikus January 10, 2014 at 8:20 pm |

    Jill, thanks for sharing this, it was hard to read (I’m so sorry for what you went – what you are going through!), but it was really powerful.

  7. Andrew H.
    Andrew H. January 10, 2014 at 10:57 pm |

    I actually just got done reading the piece on TPM and I’m going to give the other link a look after this, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about how taken aback I was by the horrors you’ve had to suffer at the hands of assholes and cowards who use the internet as a social blindfold.
    But I thought if one random dude saying something awful can ruin your day, maybe some random dude saying something nice can make it. So if you write to enlighten people and change the way they view women, the internet, or the world, consider yourself as having succeeded. Your piece really shook me, and I can’t imagine having to listen to those kinds of horrible things about me or someone I love. I’m glad you developed skin thick enough to ignore it, but it makes me sad that another beautiful soul was turned even a little more cynical by the actions of malicious shitheads. It makes me ashamed of my fellow man.
    Anyway, keep up the good work, beautiful.

    1. tinfoil hattie
      tinfoil hattie January 11, 2014 at 8:25 pm |

      Anyway, keep up the good work, beautiful.

      The point: you’ve missed it.

      1. theLaplaceDemon
        theLaplaceDemon January 12, 2014 at 2:40 pm |

        Yep, pretty much.

        1. Andrew H.
          Andrew H. January 12, 2014 at 2:46 pm |

          I had considered how the last line may seem like it negates the rest of the comment, but I don’t think so. That’s how I talk in the real world, and it’s usually in an effort to be complimentary or flattering; on my very best day, charming. I don’t use it as a demeaning term or in any way to objectify it’s target, more to counteract the growing misconception that the only time a man can talk about a woman’s physical appearance is when he’s being critical of it.
          That, and I’m from the south. It’s how we roll down here.

        2. Andrew H.
          Andrew H. January 12, 2014 at 2:51 pm |

          Furthermore, if trying to be sweet makes me a chauvinist, then I suppose there’s worse things to be.

        3. Fat Steve
          Fat Steve January 12, 2014 at 3:20 pm |

          I had considered how the last line may seem like it negates the rest of the comment, but I don’t think so. That’s how I talk in the real world, and it’s usually in an effort to be complimentary or flattering; on my very best day, charming. I don’t use it as a demeaning term or in any way to objectify it’s target, more to counteract the growing misconception that the only time a man can talk about a woman’s physical appearance is when he’s being critical of it.
          That, and I’m from the south. It’s how we roll down here.

          It just isn’t particularly relevant, sweet cheeks.

        4. macavitykitsune
          macavitykitsune January 12, 2014 at 3:58 pm |

          Andrew, honey, your comment was in fact quite nice, and there wasn’t any problem with it. The issue most people take with the compliment, sweet boy, is that, darling, when people use compliments that hinge on physical appearance, cutie, they’re often perceived as being condescending and/or patronising, particularly when, as in now, sugarpie, the whole article is about not immediately and always relating to women as sexual objects. You understand, right, honeybear?

          (Joking aside: I didn’t take issue with your earlier comment because I see the sincerity of it. But you really should take into the account the fact that you yourself thought that pattern of speech was potentially an issue. So, you know, I’d go with “don’t beat yourself up, but certainly don’t do it again”.)

        5. pheenobarbidoll
          pheenobarbidoll January 12, 2014 at 7:34 pm |

          Is also Southern and knows you’re damn well aware there is an appropriate and inappropriate use , so don’t even act like you don’t.

        6. rain
          rain January 12, 2014 at 9:48 pm |

          I don’t use it as a demeaning term or in any way to objectify it’s target,

          Intent isn’t magic.

          more to counteract the growing misconception that the only time a man can talk about a woman’s physical appearance is when he’s being critical of it.

          This feministe post may help you realize that the misconception is yours.

        7. Fat Steve
          Fat Steve January 12, 2014 at 11:46 pm |

          Furthermore, if trying to be sweet makes me a chauvinist, then I suppose there’s worse things to be.

          Except it’s not sweet. It’s creepy. And it is, to quote tinfoil hattie, completely ‘missing the point.’ Jill’s post at TPM specifically describes how horrible it was to have people bringing up personal stuff on the message board she was a contributor to. She writes a piece here and at TPM, neither of which contain a photo of her, and you choose to compliment her looks. And that’s being ‘nice’? or ‘sweet’? or ‘Southern’?!?!?!?!

          No, it’s being exactly the sort of person Jill refers to in the TPM piece. Maybe you ought to read it.

  8. Ally S
    Ally S January 11, 2014 at 1:09 am |

    That sounds fucking terrifying, Jill. I’m sorry you went through that.

  9. Kerandria
    Kerandria January 11, 2014 at 4:20 am |

    Thank you, Jill. I am so sorry that happened to you and I appreciate that you were willing to go back to that place in order to write about it.

  10. Angie unduplicated
    Angie unduplicated January 11, 2014 at 10:07 am |

    The commenter on TPM said it well-if it’s illegal for (terroristic threats) to be made in your face, it should be illegal online. Your emotional responses and blocking are common to many abuse survivors: dissociating during boss-rants and forgetting content, though, is dangerous to employability. The two posts and Daisy Coleman’s recent suicide attempt have me physically sore with rage and anguish. To be a woman is to live in a war zone; traversing human relationships is walking barefoot through a minefield. You can’t dance this shit away.

  11. Dave W.
    Dave W. January 11, 2014 at 2:18 pm |

    Jill – I’ve been reading your work here for several years (since before all the Auto-Admit crap happened), and I appreciate all the thoughtful stuff you’ve shared over the years. I’m so sorry you had to go through this crap.

    I appreciate your willingness to share this side of your experience. While I’m sure that many people who are the targets of harassment don’t want to give the harassers the satisfaction of knowing that they hurt their target, I think there is real value in women being willing to call this stuff out publically and show how harmful it is. Perhaps this way we can build a true social consensus of how unacceptable this stuff is, and deny the harassers their social license to operate as they do.

  12. Ed
    Ed January 11, 2014 at 9:11 pm |

    Great piece at TPM. It’s a message that more people need to receive.

  13. birdie
    birdie January 12, 2014 at 3:15 pm |

    My problem was not the online harassment so much as the real world consequences – now everyone in the real world interprets my PTSD (etc.) as some kind of social disease and they refuse to listen to anything I say. I am bullied, but nobody believes me. I cannot keep to my budget because I need to spend my meat money on coffee, and my physical health is deteriorating. I have nowhere to live because I am forced to keep moving, on a low budget without help. The doctor won’t give me anything to help me sleep.

  14. Jay
    Jay January 13, 2014 at 1:04 am |

    I post here hardly at all, but I certainly know of your work, Jill. All I can offer in the way of support is a vote of confidence, as in: you know what the Hell you’re doing, and the best way to put it to the monsters who’ve done you wrong is to keep doing it.

    For me, it was the little stuff. This blog (THIS blog!) explained to me that a “trigger” is, in fact, an actual thing with a name and more than one way around it. This blog (THIS blog!) put “self-care” into my mental-health vocabulary. I’ll always be thankful I came across Feministe’s explanation, and exploration, of both.

  15. Natalia
    Natalia January 13, 2014 at 10:18 am |

    I’m so sorry that you went through that, Jill. And thank you for a great piece.

  16. Jeff
    Jeff January 13, 2014 at 12:31 pm |

    If we are going to step into the world of online harassment then we need to take a step back as well and view abuse as a whole. When we think of abuse, the most notorious is physical. Physical abuse is the most criminalized. Why? Because physical scars show. They become evidence. Men are most often the physical abusers.

    I am of a victim of verbal abuse. All by women. None of these scars show but they are ever so there, and they bleed deep. For years I have helped mentor young men who come from abusive families. Often their fathers were in out and out of jail or non-existent, while their mothers who are just as bad in their own way, were free to live their life as is.

    If we are going to tackle online abuse, then we have to tackle abuse as a whole and understand how it differs from men and women and how it affects the psyche. Women are just as abusive as men, they just often dish it out in totally different ways. Jill lets not attack the men who send threats online, for all you know they are victims themselves and lashing out. Equality is not focusing on how one gender abuses. Equality is not focusing on how one gender is abused. Lets not forget who the real enemy is, hate and abuse. Lets take a step back and tackle them as a whole.

    1. tinfoil hattie
      tinfoil hattie January 13, 2014 at 11:55 pm |

      “We” can “tackle” other kinds of abuse on our own blogs, can’t “we”? THIS article is about WOMEN being abused, bullied, harassed, and threatened online.

      But you’re right: “Dear God, what about the MEN?” to quote my favorite feminist ever. Thank goodness you’re here to mansplain how a woman writing about her experience is doing it wrong.

    2. macavitykitsune
      macavitykitsune January 14, 2014 at 12:01 am |

      Hey you know, I’ve been verbally abused by men AND women and it’s AMAZING how I’ve never sent a rape or death threat over the internet!

      If I take your argument that so many men have so little self-control that they just can’t help sending graphic threats of rape and death to women on the internet and stalking and harassing and abusing them seriously, this isn’t an issue that calls for women being more understanding of men. This is an issue that calls for restricting access to technology and public spaces for a gender that is OBVIOUSLY so completely HELPLESS before its own unshakeable, inherent, compulsive need to be as big a fucking asshole as possible.

    3. Fat Steve
      Fat Steve January 14, 2014 at 12:23 am |

      Why is this even being responded to? It’s not a serious comment, it’s just some dickhead spouting foolishness.

      1. tinfoil hattie
        tinfoil hattie January 14, 2014 at 8:50 am |

        Thank you for the mansplanation! Can you let me know which comments are ok for me to respond to? I can’t decide for myself, and I know you are tired of my holding your head tightly facing each comment I write, making you read them.

        1. rain
          rain January 14, 2014 at 10:09 am |

          Why did you even respond to Fat Steve? It’s just some dickhead spouting foolishness. :-)

          But seriously, Steve, did you miss the whole spate of why we should feed the trolls writings this past summer? Here’s another one.

        2. Fat Steve
          Fat Steve January 14, 2014 at 11:37 am |

          Thank you for the mansplanation! Can you let me know which comments are ok for me to respond to? I can’t decide for myself, and I know you are tired of my holding your head tightly facing each comment I write, making you read them.

          I asked ‘why’ the comment was being responded to. Feel free to explain it to me. Why accuse me of mansplaining? Tell me why you thought it was a serious enough comment to respond to…

        3. PrettyAmiable
          PrettyAmiable January 14, 2014 at 12:22 pm |

          Fat Steve – you’re getting tinfoil hattie’s response because Jeff’s comment boils down to “shut up and take it, because abuse survivors get a free pass.” Your comment boils down to “shut up and take it, because Jeff is stupid.”

          Just don’t tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t do. Jerk says jerky thing for whatever reason, and you should be able to do what you want (ideally, if it’s legal).

        4. Fat Steve
          Fat Steve January 14, 2014 at 12:35 pm |

          Fat Steve – you’re getting tinfoil hattie’s response because Jeff’s comment boils down to “shut up and take it, because abuse survivors get a free pass.” Your comment boils down to “shut up and take it, because Jeff is stupid.”

          Sorry, I should have just stuck to the end part of that sentence, because I don’t think she should have taken it. In my mind, I was thinking that tinfoil and mac were dignifying his response, because they have a dignity that he lacks, but I see how my comment came off just like a man telling them (women) to ignore him (another man.)

        5. pheenobarbidoll
          pheenobarbidoll January 15, 2014 at 11:47 am |

          Your mansplaination also means you’re the only one who could figure out the comment was from a dickhead spouting foolishness. How about you just stop making comments asking why women respond to comments and drop asking they explain to you what you’ve said that was mansplaining. I for one don’t care what you say your comment meant. Intent isn’t magic and you make a great deal of comments that you end up explaining later on. Most of the time your explanation doesn’t even fit the original comment and sounds like complete bs. Its obnoxious. Stop it.

      2. PrettyAmiable
        PrettyAmiable January 14, 2014 at 12:44 pm |

        Hah, definitely agree.

        1. PrettyAmiable
          PrettyAmiable January 14, 2014 at 12:45 pm |

          Sorry, to Fat Steve @ here.

    4. PrettyAmiable
      PrettyAmiable January 14, 2014 at 11:35 am |

      Jill lets not attack the men who send threats online, for all you know they are victims themselves and lashing out.

      I am literally stupider for reading this.

      1. ldouglas
        ldouglas January 14, 2014 at 12:38 pm |

        I… wait. But. Bwuffle?

      2. EG
        EG January 14, 2014 at 1:45 pm |

        Lets not forget who the real enemy is, hate and abuse.

        I’m definitely stupider for reading this sentence. Does this dude actually think that hate and abuse are free-floating entities with agency?

    5. Natalia
      Natalia January 15, 2014 at 9:34 am |

      ” Jill lets not attack the men who send threats online, for all you know they are victims themselves and lashing out.”

      I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

      1. Radfem
        Radfem January 20, 2014 at 11:41 am |

        Jill lets not attack the men who send threats online, for all you know they are victims themselves and lashing out. Equality is not focusing on how one gender abuses. Equality is not focusing on how one gender is abused. Lets not forget who the real enemy is, hate and abuse. Lets take a step back and tackle them as a whole.

        Gee thanks, I’ll remember that if I’m physically attacked by a man and not defend myself lest I hurt him without going through my head of his *reasons* for doing it. I’m glad I didn’t do like when I’ve faced online harassment. When someone’s posting my address or what I’m wearing a specific day or that my uterus needs to be sewn shut or posting violent porn, I don’t feel the need to try to understand why they do it nor at the moment do I really care, I feel the need to protect myself because no one else will do that.

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