Experiencing Online Misogyny As A Sexual Assault Survivor
I am a woman, a sexual assault survivor, and a feminist—and I am all of these things publicly, on the Internet. A basic Google search will turn up articles I’ve written related to my activism, photos taken of me at activist events and press conferences, and other evidence of my fight against the deliberate indifference universities across the U.S. display towards sexual assault and sexual harassment. That search will also reveal the onslaught of harassment, rape threats, and death threats I have received as a consequence for speaking out.
Many of the top hits for my name are from years back. Perhaps this would suggest that the public assertion of my political views, my personal lived experiences of trauma, my identity, and the massive backlash of harassment and threats that have resulted from going public with all of this can be discussed using the past tense. The reality is, however, that although years have passed, and I have even since moved to another continent and have almost completely disengaged from almost all internet spaces, this violence does not feel like it’s in my past. Far from it. The Internet in general, and online misogyny in particular, has a way of defying traditional boundaries of space and time. They truly never forget.
Almost every month for the past four years I have received some kind of harassment or threat via the Internet, from personal messages sent to my Facebook account, to mentions of my name in comment pages on forums dedicated to annihilating my person and trivializing my trauma. These comments almost all stem from an open letter I wrote to the president of my university in 2013 for the Feminist Wire. I wrote that I believed the president, Susan Herbst, was prioritizing a rebrand of our school’s athletics program as aggressive, while ignoring sexual assault (a phenomenon that certainly included, but was not limited to, athletes) on campus. The Daily Caller covered this letter with a misleading headline, which led to Rush Limbaugh lambasting me on his show, which led to more coverage and criticism that continues today, four years later. For example, an alt-right Facebook page linked to a screenshot of an incendiary Daily Caller post about the letter in question in recent months, as did a Reddit post. Comments on just these most recent references ranged from “I hope they ignore this stupid cunt and go about their business,” to “please drink some bleach dipshit,” to “Bet if you saw her picture, rape would be the last thing on your mind!”I never know when these attacks will come, I never know where they originate from, and I never know why they happen when they do. They also seem to pop up whenever I finally think I am turning a new page or making progress moving through my traumas.
But while this harassment is in some ways unpredictable, it is also organized in that all forms of it work to accomplish the same goal: to indefinitely terrorize and antagonize me to the point of permanent silence. They make using social media and the Internet in general an activity of extreme anxiety and pain for me, and in doing so they isolate me from using the Internet as a way to communicate with my friends and family while living abroad or receiving support from other survivors who may be having similar experiences.
Those who are women, people of color, and/or LGBTQIA can probably relate, as many members of these groups already know all too well the consequences of simply using their voice on the Internet while inhabiting a marginalized body, and that it often comes at the high personal price of facing online harassment. But those who have never personally experienced harassment of this caliber do not understand what it’s like. They don’t understand what it feels like to face this ongoing, relentless treatment, and seem to have a hard time believing it even occurs unless they come face to face with blatant proof of it.
The same people who are oblivious to this harassment are often the same ones who, over the past few years, have told me how “lucky” I am to live outside of the sexism, racism, xenophobia, and overall violence of Donald Trump’s America. But none of us really live outside of Trump’s America in a world in which technology transcends boundaries of distance and time and America dominates the world stage. The people who threaten and harass those who speak out via the Internet have always existed; they are the same people who made Trump's America a reality. With each passing year, I’ve seen firsthand how they have felt increasingly emboldened to terrorize those who speak, or at one time spoke, or one day will speak, out against them. They tyrannize those they perceive as their enemies, as “different,” into silence.
In today's political climate where sexual harassment and sexual assault are normalized, trivialized, and even condoned by the Trump administration, the perpetrators of online harassment feel not just emboldened, but vindicated. Online misogyny, and its terrorizing, seemingly endless nature, silences those who dissent from what those in power deem the norm, and renders those different from them voiceless and living in fear of their well-being, their safety, and their lives. I have seen the ease with which people who are not affected by online harassment frame this issue as a problem perpetrated by a few extremist individuals, as the work of “trolls,” and dismiss it as an isolated act of violence that those who experience it should simply ignore and accept as a natural side effect of using the Internet.
I wholeheartedly reject that notion and urge these folks to reevaluate that stance. These perpetrators are not nameless, faceless Internet trolls making violent posts and comments just for their own entertainment. They are your Facebook friends; they are real people who post family photos and include their job descriptions in their social media profiles. These are people you know. They are active, enthusiastic participants in the culture of violence that the president of the United States and his administration not only endorse but actively encourage. And they are not ashamed to let you know it.
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