The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What online harassment does to women writers and their partners

Placeholder while article actions load

On Monday, staff members of the feminist Web site Jezebel publicly appealed to Gawker Media, which owns and operates Jezebel, to help them deal with ongoing sexual harassment in the site’s comments section. Gawker Media editorial director Joel Johnson gave a revealing comment to Slate correspondent Amanda Hess.

“We hadn’t completely brushed the problem aside,” Johnson wrote to Hess, “on the other hand, the people making the decisions about prioritizing a fix weren’t having to deal with the reality of the terrible trolling every day, either.”

This is a succinct statement of the difficulty many publications (and many people) find themselves in. They see the positive traffic results of publishing feminist stories, be it reporting, criticism or first-person narratives, but not the full range of negative responses that authors can get barraged with on private and public Facebook pages, on Twitter and in article comments as they try to continue doing their work.

Hess herself helped make that reaction more visible this year with her blockbuster feature “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” in Pacific Standard. The day before the Jezebel staffers made their plea public, Chris Elliot, the readers’ editor at the Guardian, spoke with a number of his colleagues about the response to that publication’s stories about women and women’s issues and concluded that “Most editors agree that early, constructive intervention in the thread by the authors is a way of defusing tension ordinarily but I don’t think is likely to put off those with a disruptive agenda.” The impacts of these sorts of comments are not cleanly contained to the writers they are directed at, or even the editors and community managers who help writers manage their relationships with their audiences.

Earlier this summer, after experiencing a wave of ugly online comments, I reached out to a number of other women who write about feminist issues on the Internet to ask about another aspect of this issue. How, I wanted to know, does doing a job that requires coping with sexual harassment affect not just women writers, but also their private lives?

All the women I talked to say that their partners have helped to throw up barriers between them and their harassers.

Jessica Valenti, the founder of the Web site Feministing and one of the columnists for the Guardian whom Elliott mentioned in his column, periodically hands over the role of administering her public Facebook page to her husband, the Atlantic’s Andrew Golis. Taking a break from deleting comments and banning users also means she has a break from reading through harassing remarks to decide which ones to eliminate, the very problem the Jezebel staffers described in their post to their superiors.

The most recent outraged reaction to her work? Valenti wondered whether feminine hygiene products should be free or subsidized, given that lack of access to them can hamper girls’ ability to attend school or women’s attendance at their jobs. The responses were voluminous and intensely nasty, full of crude references to Valenti’s body and unprintable slurs, not to mention ignoring the real-world impact that menstruation has on women’s access to public life.

Janelle Asselin, a former comics editor who now writes at Comics Alliance and other outlets, has received death threats in response to her criticism. Fans of nerd culture, such as the books Asselin has both helped produce and written about, may claim outsider status, but they have often resorted quickly to sexism and hyperbole when faced with criticism of that culture. She says her husband, Paul, is not particularly active on social media (through Asselin, he declined to speak with me for this piece), but that he helps her figure out when it will be productive for her to engage with people who are criticizing her work.

“He is really familiar with the comics industry and the people within it so we often talk about the issues at play before I get too involved with responding to trolls,” Asselin explains. “It also helps just to hear someone who is a straight white dude say ‘no, the point you made is totally reasonable and those people are trolls’ because so often those very trolls want to claim that they represent all men, that what I’ve said is the worst, most stupid thing ever, and that all men think women should be beaten or raped or kept in the kitchen or whatever.”

Within their relationships, the women I spoke to say they are careful not to let the harassment they experience dominate their conversations.

“I get so much of it that if I told him about every time I was subject to harassment, that’s all we’d talk about it,” Amanda Marcotte, who writes about politics and women’s issues for Slate’s Double X and Raw Story, tells me. “I find the topic kind of boring a lot of the time…I’ve had a couple of occasions where he and I talked about all sorts of stuff and then I mention in passing, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve had to block like 200 people today for harassing me because Michelle Malkin sent her goons after me on Twitter.’ It’s actually kind of disturbing how it’s just wallpaper to me now.”

Marcotte’s partner, Marc Faletti, says that while he feels no particular need to defend her, the harassment she has experienced has changed his opinion of social media. “Over time,” he said, “Twitter has come to feel like a convenient avenue for people to be their worst selves.”

Asselin echoes that idea, saying that her husband’s experiences with the harassment directed at her have been disillusioning.

“I remember early on in our relationship there was some article about my work at DC Comics and a commenter said something about my ‘nice feeders,’ ” she recalls. “A friend sent the comment to Paul and he was just stunned–he still mentions that to this day, the weirdness of some random internet guy talking about my breasts on the comments thread of an article about my work. And of course that was one of the most harmless comments that have been made about me now.”

All the women I spoke with said that online harassment has affected the way they conduct the private aspect of their lives on the Internet, making them more circumspect about their relationships.

“We don’t hide that we’re married or anything like that and we interact with each other in online spaces, but outside of places like Instagram — which feels a little more personal and Andrew has a private account — and Facebook (where we only have friends, not ‘internet people’) we don’t post a lot of ‘here’s us at a restaurant!’ sort of stuff,” Valenti tells me. “We almost never discuss our relationship in detail online (outside of this I guess!). But that hasn’t stopped people from attacking Andrew as a way to get to me.”

Asselin says that when she received a number of death threats shortly before her wedding, she was relieved that she and Paul had already made a decision to password-protect their wedding Web site and to have dedicated private social media accounts to record the day. Now, she practices a kind of Internet code-switching.

“I did change my name legally but am not changing it professionally so that offers some separation between the two,” she explains. “On Facebook, for instance, I’m married Janelle talking to friends, but on Twitter I’m professional Janelle talking to colleagues.”

Marcotte says she finds the need for such circumspection frustrating.

“I’m not overly cautious, since he and I do video podcasting together and so anyone who wants to know his name and face an other pertinent details is going to find out,” she says. “Also, it’s unfair to feel like I can’t be a normal person who makes jokes with ‘@YOURPARTNER’ on Twitter if it pertains to them. But I do it rarely.”

Faletti tells me that even though it is possible for Marcotte’s harassers to follow a trail of digital breadcrumbs back to him, he rarely experiences any spillover nastiness. He suggests that this is the case because acknowledging he exists would make some of the charges they fling at Marcotte look foolish.

“Part of hating someone on the internet is avoiding thinking of them as a real person who is loved by others and has a full life,” he says. “If her trolls started to think of me as real, and our relationship as real, then how could she be a disgusting harpy who could never get laid? How could she be a wanton slut addicted to the free birth control that keeps her from constantly being impregnated by random dudes?”

And both Marcotte and Valenti say that they take occasional perverse pleasure in sharing their responses to their harassers with Faletti and Golis. ” I definitely send him Twitter threads where I make someone look ridiculous because that feels sort of cathartic and awesome and he thinks it’s hilarious,” Valenti says.

Marcotte says she and Faletti commiserate over the poor quality of discourse online, though not always in the way outsiders might expect.

“Sometimes, when I’m feeling like messing with the trolls, I do read aloud some of the ways I trash talk them and Marc laughs. We both enjoy good trash talk, so that’s fun,” she mused. “One of the saddest things about the online harassment I receive is how it’s basically never funny or clever. You’d think at least one person who knows how to trash talk would do it, but no.”