#Mencallmethings: Twitter Trend Highlights Sexist Abuse Online

What is it about the Internet that makes these abusive comments so prevalent?

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On Monday, the hashtag #mencallmethings cropped up on Twitter. Started by feminist blogger Sady Doyle, the hashtag was a way to further the discussion of the sexist (and, often, sexually threatening) abuse that many women who write on the internet face at one point or another.

This discussion, of course, isn’t new. Lately, however, it has gained momentum as increasingly more women writers, bloggers and commentators have started sharing the insults and threats they’ve received in response to their online work. Last week in the New Statesman, Helen Lewis-Hasteley described the abuse she’d personally heard over the years as a writer and pointed out that while the Internet is notorious for trolls who are looking to offend, many of the negative comments that women receive are rife with misogyny. As an example of this, Lewis-Hasteley asked nine female bloggers to share their experiences with internet commentary. Their stories are, to be honest, grim. From the dismissive (“typical feminist”) to the condescending (“silly little girl”) to the violent (“[you] deserve to die at the rusty scissors of a backstreet abortionist”), each of the women had received spiteful comments and emails that were unequivocally sexist.

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Again, no one is arguing that online nastiness is exclusively aimed at women. Just as haters are going to hate, trolls are going to troll, and many male writers have shared the rude, abusive and irrelevant comments they’ve received. Yet there seems to be a difference in both degree and kind.

This week, several more women writers chimed in about their personal experiences at the Guardian, reaffirming that sexist vitriol has become commonplace, often masquerading as worthwhile debate. Women who wrote about politics, religion, feminist issues and other hot-button topics reported some of the most over-the-top abuse such as threats of rape and murder, threats that were occasionally accompanied by the writer’s home address or other personal details. Yet even women who describe themselves as not particularly “high-profile” or who cover typically less controversial topics such as health, culture and society, detailed the insults they’ve endured. Neither the subject nor the website, it would seem, makes a difference in whether or not a woman writer will be the target for hateful speech. I write chiefly about pop culture and the Internet, but I’ve still been called a “bitch” and a “hoe.” And though I’ve been spared sexually explicit insults, one particularly irate commenter told me he hoped I would be run over by a truck. It seems no one’s immune.

So it wasn’t all that surprising when the discussion made the leap from blogs to Twitter.

Following the extensive #mencallmethings timeline is both depressing and encouraging, as countless women have shared (and continue to share) the online threats and insults hurled at them at some point. It’s depressing because of the toxicity of some of the comments and because of the trolls chiming in to criticize the contributors; it’s encouraging because of the number of women (and men!) offering support.

So what is it about the Internet that makes this kind of response so prevalent? Jezebel‘s Anna North detailed how she’s been called evil, ugly and sexless by internet commenters, before noting that she doesn’t receive that kind of abuse away from her computer. She writes:

There’s a semi-hopeful way to interpret this: that people actually do recognize one another as human beings when confronted in person, and only forget about this shared humanity when separated by a computer screen and miles of fiber-optic cable. And then there’s a darker interpretation: lots of people are walking around filled with barely contained rage — against women, against people of color, against anyone who disagrees with them — and are eager to take advantage of consequence-free ways to let it out.

Unfortunately, however, these comments aren’t “consequence-free” no matter what the trolls and rage-filled commenters may think. Many have chimed into the debate (interestingly enough, in the comments on articles such as this) to point out that “it’s just the Internet,” as if this will be a comfort to the writers and bloggers who are being belittled or threatened with physical harm. This is 2011. It’s not “just” the Internet. It’s our culture. At this moment in time, you can work, socialize, date, learn, communicate and debate online. There is no longer a divide. What is happening online is happening in real life. This type of abuse reflects real-life attitudes, real-life misogyny and it’s prolific. It’s about time we started discussing it.

Megan Gibson is a Writer-Reporter at the London bureau of TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeganJGibson. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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