Trigger Warning – Gendered violence, sexual assault, rape, threats, harassment.
I’ve only ever gotten one death threat because of this blog.
For the most part, even on those few posts that have gone viral and have traveled around the world and picked up a few of you on the way, people have generally been civil here. Or at least non-threatening. I rarely have to take out The Mallet.
And that is a HUGE relief.
This threat happened a long time ago, I barely even remember what it was about – just that I annoyed someone and they felt that threatening me with death was an acceptable response.
I remember the first fellow blogger I told said something like, “Welcome to the club. You must be getting an audience.” Then she told me her stories.
That is the most common response when I talk to other women who are active online. Nearly every one of them has a story of violent threats, many of them have stories of people actually attempting to carry out those threats.
Almost every woman I know who is successful online must accept not just daily, but hourly, minutely, near constant threats of violence including rape threats, death threats and threats against their families depending on her level of success.
“Welcome to the club.”
This creates a reality where almost every woman I know who is present and successful online must pay a very specific price for that – the price of peace of mind. It is a reality that silences many voices, some of them before they even dare to speak.
Many successful women I know have gone so far as to hire someone to read their mentions and the comments on their posts and delete, report and block violent messages. It is a full-time job. One that if the woman herself were to do it would take away all the time she had to produce new work, not to mention the emotional and psychological toll it would take.
When they raise their voices about this they are often told to grow a thicker skin. Or they are told to ignore the trolls. Or they are told they are overreacting – it’s just the internet. No one is really going to hurt them… Or they are told that by talking about it they are “feeding the trolls” and encouraging more abuse.
Even after they are doxxed (Which means someone posts all of their personal information including home and work addresses, real names, phone numbers, email addresses, social security numbers, passwords, etc.) and laid bare, even after someone is caught driving to their house with weapons and a stated intent to kill them – they are told to calm down, relax, it’s just the internet – grow a thicker skin. Even after the threats escalate enough to get the FBI and other law enforcement agencies involved. “Stop whining. You’re blowing it out of proportion. It’s just twitter…”
There is no winning.
There is no escape.
There is no acceptable, allowable response other than to ignore it and move on – or just quit. It’s amazing how often women are told to quit what they love if they can’t take the abuse.
As if violence is the price we must all pay for the freedom to work, to socialize, to succeed…
“Calm down, it happens to everyone.”
But it doesn’t happen to everyone. It happens to very specific types of people – vocal women – especially vocal women of color, gay people, trans* people, in other words, it happens primarily to people who are not male and cisgendered and straight and white.
I haven’t waded into this for many reasons, but today I realized that there is a commonality between this and something I experienced as a teenager and young woman beginning to make my way in the world. Something super fucked up and totally not okay.
It’s the acceptance of the idea that violence is the price women (and gay people and trans* people who don’t want to live in closets) must pay for success, for inclusion, for the right to exist. Worse, there is an idea that perhaps beyond being a price to be paid violence might actually be a symbol of success, a sign that you have made it to the next level.
“Welcome to the club.”
I remember the first time I was sexually assaulted. I was in a foreign country as an exchange student and an older man who was supposed to be taking care of me while my host parent was on vacation groped me and kissed me – while his wife was one room away! He knew I was alone and isolated and had no one to call and he took advantage of that. Eventually his actions combined with other circumstances forced me to return home early. It screwed me up pretty bad, and set the stage for how I would deal with future assaults.
I remember telling my sister about what happened. I remember her hugging me and saying something along the lines of, “Welcome to the club. It sucks, but it happens to all of us.” Then she told me her story.
This was my introduction to being a teenager, this was how I crossed the line from kid to teen, from “innocent” to “worldly” and “experienced.”
I was no longer a little girl. I was part of a new group. This act of violence somehow made me mature in a way that having boyfriends, traveling to foreign countries, having a job and taking other steps toward adulthood had not.
At the same time, this new maturity came with its own code of silence. I was assured by everyone I spoke to in those first few days back that no one wanted to hear about what had happened, no one wanted to know the real reason I was home early, no one wanted to validate my feeling that I had been punished for this man’s crime – it made them uncomfortable, they couldn’t help, they couldn’t change it, so why not just focus on the good stuff that had happened – no matter that for me, focusing on the good things meant focusing on what I had lost, what this man had taken from me – the opportunity to live in a foreign country and build my independence and confidence – the chance to grow my new friendships and finish the new courses I was taking. The chance to pursue a dream.
What I heard time and time again was, “Welcome to the club, it happens, move on. Don’t talk about it, if you talk about it, then it defines you. If you acknowledge it, you are weak.”
And so I moved on – but I moved on thinking that this type of violence was normal, and while not exactly acceptable, it was to be expected and that there was nothing I or anyone else could, or would, do about it because it made people uncomfortable.
“Welcome to the club.”
When I type it out that way, it becomes somehow much less surprising that I was raped on my 18th birthday.
Not because I asked for it, or deserved it, or should have seen it coming, or because I wasn’t strong enough – though I have been told all of those things, and told myself all of those things a bajillion times – but because like so many women I had learned to accept a certain level of violence as the price I must pay for existing.
There were warning signs – those warning signs were the reason I went to break up with my boyfriend that night. I saw the violence in him and had experienced enough of it to know that it was escalating. To know that it was reaching a dangerous plateau, one that I did not want to reach. Unfortunately I hadn’t read the literature yet that discusses time and time and time again that THE MOST DANGEROUS moment in an abusive relationship is when the victim tries to leave.
A couple of years after I was raped, I wrote a poem about it, trying to process what had happened, and why I still hadn’t been able to get all the way over it. In the poem there’s a stanza,
I’ll never forget
the night I became an adult
was the night you made me a woman.
Think about that for a minute.
That was how I processed my rape – that that act of violence, of having my basic humanity denied and taken from me – THAT was what made me a woman!
“Welcome to the club.”
It wasn’t a badge of honor in any way. It was a badge of shame. But at the same time, it was a rite of passage – a common one, and I eventually came to accept it as such. (Looking back now as an adult and as a mother – there are simply no words for how fucked up that is. I cannot imagine my daughters accepting rape as the price of admission to womanhood – but we have a hard fight ahead of us if we’re going to change this culture in time for them.)
I remember telling my college roommate about it one night, after another terrifying phone call from my rapist turned stalker left me shaking.
“Welcome to the club,” she said, “at least it wasn’t as bad as what happened to me.” And then she told me her story.
Nearly every woman I have ever opened up to about any of my experiences has come back with one of her own.
“Welcome to the club.”
And while we all know that this violence isn’t acceptable, isn’t okay, isn’t deserved or asked for… We have also all on various levels come to terms with its existence. We have all in some way come to accept that it is inevitable, that there is nothing we can do about it but pick up the pieces and move on. We have learned to see it as some sort of sick rite of passage that takes us to the next level of womanhood.
And that is truly distressing, because there are new generations of girls and boys being brought up into the culture we are creating – and we must, all of us, work to create a culture where violence is not the price anyone must pay for simply existing, where sexual violence and gendered violence aren’t the ways we “level up.”
This same mentality, that violence is the cost of, perhaps even the measure of, success if you are female has taken over the internet. Being harassed and threatened until you feel so unsafe that you leave your home, or quit your job (or are fired from your job because your harassers are causing a disturbance to the company), or go dark, or… This is the new rite of passage.
It’s not a badge of honor, it is not a status anyone covets – but at the same time… There is this idea that you must be making progress, you must be doing something right, you must be successful – or they wouldn’t try so hard to push you back down.
I see this mentality taking its toll – there are voices going dark, there are women disappearing from public life, there are people being chased out of their homes and jobs and careers and leaving their passions because daily, hourly, minutely threats of violence are simply more than they can carry – and quite frankly, that is more than we should be asking anyone to carry in order to do their job or exist in public spaces.
Violence, or the threat of violence is not an acceptable rite of passage. Not here, not anywhere.
And if you think that online threats are small potatoes, or there are bigger problems we should be dealing with first, or that this is a first world problem – let me be the one to tell you, you are wrong.
Violence does not exist in isolation, it exists on a continuum. If you wonder why so many women take online threats more seriously than many men think we should – it’s because most of us have been on the receiving end of actual violence, we have already lived through that, we know how it feels to have those threats carried out – and we’d like to not have to go through it again.
We’d like to not have to remember and relive and reprocess that violence every day.
These threats that people see as jokes, or banter, or a rebuttal to an opinion (really, a threat of rape is an acceptable rebuttal to, “that shirt is tacky.” Are you sure?) exist in a context of routine, physical violence against women. Street harassment that so many people see as “a compliment” exists inside the context of routine, physical assaults against women.
We cannot separate the words from the potential reality because all too many of us have LIVED the reality of violence. We do not have a sense of humor about this because we are still healing from the last physical assault. We are still recovering from the last threat that became reality in a flash too fast for us to run from.
We have to treat all threats as real threats – because enough of them have been.
You might know you’re just joking – we do not, and we cannot take that chance with our safety. No one should be asking us to.
I am so very appreciative of the many women right now who are taking a stand, from the victims of Gamer Gate to Ashley Judd and saying, enough, this is NOT acceptable, this is not okay, this is not a fair price to pay for being female with an opinion and the “audacity” to express it in public.
I am even more appreciative of the men who have come out to say, “Enough, this is not acceptable.” because the violence is largely coming from men, and it will take the courage of other men standing up and saying “enough” to make them listen.
Men who threaten and carry out violence against women tend not to be the type who listen when women ask them to stop! They tend to be the type of men who defer only to other men, which is why we need more men willing to take this seriously, willing to stand up and say, this is not what masculinity looks like, this is not what manhood looks like, violence is not an acceptable way to get what you want.
We must, all of us with the power to do so, move forward together on this. We must stop welcoming people to the club and start helping each other burn this club to the ground. It’s a terrible club and I don’t want the next generation to have to join us here. I don’t want the next generation to grow up believing violence is normal or to be expected – because once we learn to expect it, we come to accept it.
And violence is not an acceptable price to pay for existing.
If women must take responsibility for what they say and do in public, then shouldn’t people who attack them also be asked to take responsibility for those attacks?
Not everyone who is threatened with violence has the voice and the resources and the power to call it out, fight back and bring it to the attention of people with the power to shut it down. But for those of us who do – we should. We should be standing up for all of the victims of violence who are powerless against their abusers. We should not be tolerating threats online, or in person. We should not be tolerating violence directed toward ourselves or others.
We should not be brushing off violent threats as jokes, or banter or rebuttals. Threats of violence exist to silence opposition, not to brighten anyone’s day. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from dissent, but it shouldn’t mean that we have to accept violence in order to be heard.
I am taking my inspiration from the women and men who are using their voice and their power to say, “No more.” and joining them.
“Welcome to the club.”
And in one of those fortuitous moments of synchronicity, just as I was about to hit publish on this post, this video from Anita Sarkeesian popped up in my feed.