Writing while female: the very real threat of online harassment and how it’s held me back, by Chelsea Levinson

Last week, one of my blog entries, “How I’m Learning to Break My Silence and Fight Racism” was picked up to be republished by Thought Catalog. I was thrilled for the exposure and hoped that it would potentially lead to new blog followers. But truthfully, I was also apprehensive — the potential for a hostile comments section terrified me. This would be my first time diving into the world of anonymous commenters. Up until this point, I’ve held a strict publishing policy: I only allow my work on websites where the comments sections have full names attached to each commenter, such as those powered through Facebook.

Why do I have this policy, which holds me back from fully pursuing my writing? Fear. Fear of online harassment. Fear of being ripped to shreds and denigrated. Fear of doxxing, stalking and threats. Fear of being treated like I’ve seen so many of my fellow female writers treated.

Lately, as I find my voice and my writing takes flight, the question of dealing with online harassment seems to be more of a “when,” rather than an “if.” It appears that a woman can only rise so far before she is at risk. From my observations, just about every female writer I follow on Twitter deals with online harassment or abuse in one form or another. Some are subject to truly disgusting and terrifying behavior. Lindy West, who often writes on feminism, was featured on This American Life to share her story of an online harasser who created a Twitter account posing as her deceased father, just to hurt her. He later apologized (the first time West had ever received an apology from a “troll”), but the experience was still distressing. Ragen Chastain, a size-acceptance blogger who writes Dances with Fat recently shared a particularly harrowing account of her online harassers creating hate websites devoted to her demise, trying to sabotage her sponsorships and speaking engagements, and even going so far as to stalk her and her family in-person at an Ironman event she was competing in. Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic who founded Feminist Frequency, became the target of an online harassment campaign over her video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” which examines gender tropes in video games. The harassment has been so disruptive to Sarkeesian that she has had to vacate her home, and even cancel a speaking engagement amidst the threat of a mass shooting.

And it’s not just female writers that dare to write about controversial topics like feminism, body acceptance or racism who are targeted. Mia Matsumiya, a professional violinist, has amassed more than 1,000 lewd and inappropriate messages online, which she’s sharing on Instagram to fight back. Chicago sports anchor Julie Dicaro has spoken out about being harassed and threatened with rape simply for sharing her professional opinions while female. Just look at the Twitter replies of any famous or even noteworthy female and you’ll see a litany of disgusting, graphic and insulting comments. By my observations, social media is a verifiable minefield for women to navigate, no matter what kind of work they do or opinions they share.

So it was with great apprehension that I allowed Thought Catalog to publish my piece. The essay had gotten mostly good feedback from the WordPress community, and my own Facebook friends, but I had no idea what to expect when it came to the anonymous commenting world of Disqus. What awaited me did not disappoint. My piece garnered 45 comments, most of which were racist, some of which were misogynist, and pretty much all of which were downright bizarre. Upon reading them, I felt my heart quicken and a lump rise in my throat, especially as I saw a few commenters using my full name. Thankfully there were no threats or outward insults, yet my impulse was to immediately regret my decision to go against my no-anonymous commenters policy.

After giving myself a few moments to calm down, I was able to talk some sense into myself. I realized that if I allow my voice to be silenced, then I am letting potential harassers win before they’ve even struck. By creating policies around what they might do, I’m giving these pathetic people more power than they deserve. I’m holding myself back both personally and professionally and letting fear be my guide, rather than what feels right to me. Besides, even if I can protect myself from nasty comments sections on my articles, there’s really no stopping anyone from harassing me elsewhere on the internet, so my policy is actually moot. If the only shield I have is my silence, then it’s not one I’m willing to bare any longer. I will not acquiesce that women should be seen and not heard.

I took a few deep breaths, closed the tab on my browser, and vowed to myself to stop obsessing over the words of others. More importantly, I vowed not to let hate win — not today, not tomorrow, not ever again.

chelsea

Chelsea Levinson, J.D., is a Telly Award-winning media content producer who specializes in research and writing. She has helped develop and produce over 500 digital videos, and her writing has been featured on Thought Catalog and HyperVocal. Previously, she was a legal and policy researcher, specializing in labor, gender and reproductive rights. She researched for and contributed to Babygate: How to Survive Pregnancy and Parenting in the Workplace.