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Memo to Amanda “Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” Hess: Grow Some Thicker Skin

January 14, 2014

Yeah, this sounds shocking:

I was 12 hours into a summer vacation in Palm Springs when my phone hummed to life, buzzing twice next to me in the dark of my hotel room. I squinted at the screen. It was 5:30 a.m., and a friend was texting me from the opposite coast. “Amanda, this twitter account. Freaking out over here,” she wrote. “There is a twitter account that seems to have been set up for the purpose of making death threats to you.”

I dragged myself out of bed and opened my laptop. A few hours earlier, someone going by the username “headlessfemalepig” had sent me seven tweets. “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured,” the first said. Then: “You suck a lot of drunk and drug fucked guys cocks.” As a female journalist who writes about sex (among other things), none of this feedback was particularly out of the ordinary. But this guy took it to another level: “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.” And then: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” There was more, but the final tweet summed it up: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”

The only problem: Exactly how likely was this guy (I’m assuming it was a guy) likely to carry out any of these threats–if in fact they were threats and not fantasies? Amanda Hess lives in California, a state with a population of 38 million. Furthermore, the guy’s story sounds improbable–a 24-year-old (or maybe younger) kills a woman and then, after 12 years in prison, vows publicly to do it again and go to prison for life? In fact, Hess promptly dialed 911, and some cops showed up in her hotel room. One of them asked what Twitter was. Another said, “This guy could be sitting in a basement in Nebraska for all we know.”

Sure, the tweeter was a creep and a creep and a weirdo. I’d have freaked out too, although I probably wouldn’t have called the cops. Back in the day, back before there was an Internet, much less Twitter, the main electronic-communications vehicle for that kind of guy was the land-line telephone. Pervs would look up female names in the phone book (or last names plus initials, since those were likely to list females) and make their pervy calls. During my single years, scarcely a week would go by when I’d pick up the receiver after coming home from work, only to hear a detailed summary of the obscene things that an anonymous caller planned to do with me. I was always terrified–what if the caller was also watching me, or stalking me, because my address was listed in the phone book as well? What if it was someone I knew? It was a relief to get married and put the phone account in my husband’s name.

This is the way things are. Men are like that, or rather, some men are like that. I know you’re a big-time feminist, Amanda, and it will hurt to hear this, but men really are different from women. It’s not all “gender roles” and cultural conditioning. Men occupy the extremes of human behavior. Smart men are far smarter than smart women, and stupid men are far stupider than stupid women. Men are physically stronger and far more aggressive than women. This is why most murderers and other violent criminals are men. And when men aren’t–or can’t be–brutally physically aggressive, they are often brutally verbally aggressive. This is why men, knowing full well what they themselves are really like, invented laws, in order to ban and circumscribe their own worst behavior. This is why, in any sane system, men are supposed to be protectors of women, so that the creeps and pervs, the rapists and murderers–and the Internet cyberstalkers–can be stopped in their tracks at least some of the time.

Furthermore, if you are going to write controversial material, you can expect that some of your readers are going to get nasty. We live in an age in which all the old rules of civility are dead. When I wrote this for the Washington Post in 2008, I got more than 700 e-mails, many of them revoltingly scatological, and many of them calling attention to how old and ugly–just like you!–I putatively was. (The senders, incidentally, were largely other women.) When I wrote this about the Newtown massacre in 2012, suggesting that the carnage could have been damped had there been a few men around the thoroughly feminized school premises, I was vilified in nearly every liberal medium. There is only one way to deal with this sort of crudeness: Hold your head high. If you think that a genuine crime has been committed–a genuine threat to your life, person, or property–by all means pursue charges. If not, remember that there really is a First Amendment.

Of course, what Amanda Hess wants to do is create a band-new federal civil-rights offense that would bypass that pesky Constitution:

But no matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment—and the sheer volume of it—has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet. Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages. I’ve spent countless hours over the past four years logging the online activity of one particularly committed cyberstalker, just in case. And as the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day.

***

IN A 2009 PAPER in the Boston University Law Review, [University of Maryland law professor Danielle] Citron proposed a new way of framing the legal problem of harassment on the Internet: She argued that online abuse constitutes “discrimination in women’s employment opportunities” that ought to be better addressed by the U.S. government itself. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, or gender, was swiftly applied to members of the Ku Klux Klan, who hid behind hoods to harass and intimidate black Louisianans from voting and pursuing work. Anonymous online harassment, Citron argued, similarly discourages women from “writing and earning a living online” on the basis of their gender. “It interferes with their professional lives. It raises their vulnerability to offline sexual violence. It brands them as incompetent workers and inferior sexual objects. The harassment causes considerable emotional distress.”

***

Citron admits that passing new civil rights legislation that applies to a new venue—the Internet—is a potentially Sisyphean task. But she says that by expanding existing civil rights laws to recognize the gendered nature of Internet threats, lawmakers could put more pressure on law enforcement agencies to take those crimes seriously. “We have the tools already,” Citron says. “Do we use them? Not really.” Prosecuting online threats as bias-motivated crimes would mean that offenders would face stronger penalties, law enforcement agencies would be better incentivized to investigate these higher-level crimes—and hopefully, the Internet’s legions of anonymous abusers would begin to see the downside of mouthing off.

Our laws have always found a way to address new harms while balancing long-standing rights, even if they do it very slowly. Opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 characterized its workplace protections as unconstitutional and bad for business. Before workplace sexual harassment was reframed as discriminatory under Title VII, it was written off as harmless flirting. When Title IX was first proposed to address gender discrimination in education, a Senate discussion on the issue ended in laughter when one senator cracked a co-ed football joke. Until domestic violence became a national policy priority, abuse was dismissed as a lovers’ quarrel. Today’s harmless jokes and undue burdens are tomorrow’s civil rights agenda.

Well, good luck. Meanwhile, my suggestion to Amanda: Get that boyfriend you’ve mentioned numerous times in your article to do something about those cyberstalkers–such as promising to turn their heads into polenta should they ever approach you. That’s what boyfriends–and husbands, fathers, and brothers–are supposed to be for.

Posted by Charlotte Allen

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One Comment
  1. So, here is a picture of Amanda Hess:

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