That’s How It Works When You’re a Woman on the Internet
Aubrey Hirsch on harassment and existing as a woman online
This is the midweek edition of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about the places where our politics and our personhood collide. This week’s essay is by Aubrey Hirsch, author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Aubrey’s stories, essays, and comics have appeared in Vox, TIME, The Nib, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She is a current NEA fellow, and you can find her on twitter: @aubreyhirsch.
Content Advisory: This essay contains images of graphic language, racial and homophobic and transphobic slurs, and references to sexual violence.
Here’s a funny story:
Once I attended a birthday dinner for a guy who I went on a couple of dates with and then converted into an actual friend. I didn’t know anyone there, so I was doing the little chit-chat that one does with the people seated around me. What’s your name, What do you do, How do you know the birthday boy—that sort of thing.
I got interested when the guy sitting to my right told me he worked for a nonprofit that did security for journalists.
“Really?” I said.
“Really. I specialize in white supremacy.”
“Pro or con?” I asked. You can never be too careful.
“Con,” he confirmed.
I told him that was really interesting to me because I, myself, was a writer and that only a few weeks ago, the founder of the far-right neo-nazi group the Proud Boys had done a whole episode of his YouTube series about a comic I’d made.
“Actually,” he said, sort of softly, “I know. I’ve seen it.”
A few days later, he sent me some 4chan threads about me I hadn’t been aware of, and, even though I knew better, I read them. I’m going to get to some of the actual comments later (content warning for…literally everything), but suffice to say they were stomach-turning. Even for me, and I’ve built up some pretty serious calluses to internet hate.
Case in point: Part of the reason I wasn’t aware of these 4chan threads is that the YouTube video happened to go live right as I was in the midst of a completely unrelated barrage of internet hate because I’d written a tweet in which I acknowledged that I was good-looking (which, for the record, I am). There’s nothing the internet hates more than a woman who doesn’t hate herself.
This is the tweet:
People actually threatened to kill me for tweeting that. For weeks. So many people, in fact, that it never occurred to me that there might be a contemporaneous, but entirely unique, source for some of the threats I was getting. But that’s how it works when you’re a woman on the internet.
Internet hate comes in many flavors. I am very aware that there are whole, fully realized, well-populated universes of internet hate I do not have to live in. But there are plenty that I do.
For example, I have a traditionally Jewish last name. The Hirsches in my family are all Presbyterians, and I was raised Catholic. But of course you can’t tell that by looking at my name. So I get a pretty decent amount of anti-Semitic hate, especially on 4chan, which is a place where Tom Cotton would accidentally internet-rabbit-hole his way to and say, “Holy shit, these guys are racist.” It’s incredibly difficult to read, even for a person who doesn’t carry the scars of intergenerational trauma.
Someone once advised me to just tweet something that would make it clear that I’m not Jewish, that maybe that would make it stop. But the point isn’t that I don’t deserve this kind of dehumanizing vitriol because I’m not Jewish, it’s that NO ONE DESERVES THIS KIND OF DEHUMANIZING VITRIOL! And besides, if any group of people is being attacked with gas chamber memes, I absolutely know which side of that dividing line I want to stand on–and it’s not on the side with the people posting the gas chamber memes, that’s for sure.
Here’s a funny story:
One day, I had just sat my kids down for lunch, put on some dumb podcast they were into at the moment, and went outside to take out the trash. As soon as I opened the gate to the tall, wooden fence that surrounded my building, I heard a very loud sound directly to my left.
Someone had thrown a dinner plate at me and missed by about a foot and a half. I closed the gate. I can’t be sure if all of the objects they threw at my house after that were dinner plates, but they were all ceramics of one kind or another. After they ran off through the park across the street, my upstairs neighbor, who had come out to see what the hell was causing all that noise, helped me clean the shards of broken dinnerware off of the sidewalk.
“Did you know those guys?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I’ve never seen them before.”
Okay, so maybe it’s not funny funny. Maybe it’s more of a riddle than a joke. The riddle is this: If a bunch of people threaten to hurt you on the internet and you only figure out how to remove your address from WhitePages.com after the threats begin, but then again you also live in a city with a decently high rate of property crime and across the street from a fairly well-trafficked park, how confident can you be that the people throwing dinner plates at your head are just some random weirdos and not Nazi scumbags who are going to come back after your children are asleep and set your apartment on fire?
No, really, I’d like an answer, please. It would help me sleep better.
Although I am cisgender, I do get a little sprinkling of trans hate in my mentions. I have my pronouns in my Twitter bio and use inclusive language in my comics, so a certain subset of the population who developed too much intolerance and not enough critical thinking assume I’m trans and offer me a soupçon of trans bigotry just to spice up my internet experience. I can only imagine what it’s like for actual trans people online.
Hatred against trans people is just another way that people, especially cis men, weaponize gender. It’s fruit from the same poison tree as garden-variety misogyny, but it grows taller and wilder and thornier because there are fewer people standing around with hedge clippers to tell them to knock it the fuck off.
So let me say this: If misgendering someone on the internet is the only way you can please-clap-for-Tinkerbell the dying bulb of your own masculinity back to life, please seek therapy. The kids you went to third grade with can’t hurt you anymore. It’s okay to let go of whatever bullshit gender rules you’ve been carrying around with you all this time. If you feel like a man, you are one. You don’t need to misgender me to prove that. I believe you! Clap clap clap. Knock it the fuck off; what you’re doing is actively harmful.
Here’s a funny story:
When the video from the Proud Boys’ founder made its way into my Google alerts, I didn’t know who he was at first. I was so distracted by the strangeness of someone making a takedown video about me that I didn’t think to look into who was actually behind it.
I texted a screenshot to a few friends, “Wow. This guy put on a whole suit and sat down in his little toy room and recorded a whole twenty-minute video about how much he hates me. Congrats, my dude, you are the person on the internet most obsessed with hating me!” Laughing face emoji.
But no one else was laughing.
A friend texted back, “I watched one minute of that video and I got physically sick.”
The guy I was seeing said, “He’s actually a pretty big deal creep and I’m a little worried for your safety.”
Another friend said, “I know this may seem like I’m being over protective, but I want to remind you to be careful with those pieces of shit. The people who usually harass you are nobody and this dude is not that. Those fuckers scare me.”
Someone else: “I think you should tell the police. This is the violent fringe. If they came after me, I wouldn’t sleep at my house for a month.”
I took a closer look at the video. It had 24,000 views already. Some of the commenters were talking about the city I lived in. I was alone in my house, sitting in front of my computer, thinking, Oh no. Maybe this isn’t a funny story. Maybe this is a scary story.
The flavor of hate I get the most basically boils down to “I don’t like women and you are a woman so I don’t like you.”
Oh, is someone calling me a cunt on Twitter? Must be Tuesday. I get called a cunt a lot. It’s fine. I get told to stay in the kitchen a lot. It’s fine. I get told I’m going to die alone a lot. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.
Men on the internet also spend a lot of time debating whether or not I’m good-looking. Despite the volume of discourse, the crowd remains divided! Am I whore who will have sex with basically anyone? Or am I an unfuckable hag who real men wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot tiki torch?
The common foundation in the thinking here is that women’s sexual existence is always controlled by men. Either they want you, or they don’t. What women want really doesn’t matter. And if you can negate a woman’s wants and desires, you can negate her sentience, her personhood.
Once you do that, a woman becomes not a person, but a thing: an animal to be trained or punished, a trophy that can be displayed or discarded, a blow-up doll to absorb your desires without having any of her own. A punching bag. A used condom. A malfunctioning printer. I mean, who among us hasn’t pounded the top of our printer in a moment of frustration because, goddamn it, I can see that there’s no paper jam and the fucking thing just won’t do its fucking job!
Sometimes my boyfriend will say, “I know you’re used to this, but it isn’t even remotely ok that anyone is subjected to this kind of treatment.”
It’s actually helpful every time he says it. I don’t think anyone is fully immune to the brainwashing powers of the internet, even, or especially, people who are frequent targets. It becomes so easy to see this stuff as inevitable, or to not see it at all. You show it to your boyfriend, laughing, and he looks at you like you’ve grown three heads. “That’s really disturbing,” he says.
Hate becomes the water you swim in. After all, if you’re going to post that or write that or draw that or think that or say that, then you better be ready for people to call you a cunt. If you can’t stand the heat, you should shut the fuck up and go back to the kitchen. Or something like that.
Here’s a funny story:
It has to be a funny story because otherwise it’s a really fucking sad story. You have to laugh, to make your little jokes because otherwise you’d be in pain and alone because you grew up too Irish and Midwestern and repressed to see any appeal in sharing your pain with other people, so you turn these awful, scary, dehumanizing things that happen to you into funny little quips.
Like this: Some gross Nazi incel on 4chan said he hopes I die alone, but the joke’s on him because when I do die, I’m pretty sure there will be a gross Nazi incel in the room with me.
Ha ha ha.
Because if it’s not a funny story, it might be a scary story. If you’re not the one in charge of the telling, you might not be the hero. You might be the extra that gets killed in Act 1 instead of the final girl who is chaste enough and smart enough and scrappy enough to get to live.
You might get so overwhelmed by people who don’t see you as a person firing hate at you every day, of every week, of every month, of every year, for so many years in a row that you might lose track of the rules of civilized society. You might start to expect this kind of thing, which is just one rest stop on the highway away from accepting it. It’s helpful to have people around you who can yank you out of it, who can tell you: This is not normal. This is not okay. There’s nothing funny about this.
Sometimes it’s just nice to know that someone sees you there in the water, and that there is, in fact, a whole world of dry land where people understand that it’s not okay to threaten people, or call people horrible names, or openly tell people they wish they were dead. Sometimes I’ll see someone post a photo on Instagram where you can see the name of their kid’s elementary school on a T-shirt and think, “Oh yeah. Not everyone on the internet gets as many death threats as I do.” It’s nice to be reminded.
If you’re looking for a hopeful, uplifting ending, I guess now would be the time to tell you that when I left that birthday dinner, I hugged the security expert. He put his hand on my arm, looked me in the eyes, and said, “We’re keeping an eye on that stuff, okay? There are people who have your back!”
If you like, you could stop reading here. That’s a tidy ending, right? It takes you back to the opening scene, which gives the piece a nice sense of symmetry. Plus, there’s dialogue! People like dialogue in essays. And it shifts the tone away from all the burning trash and toward a hopeful future. It puts the focus on the heroes, rather than the villains. You have that nice image of the embrace, strangers becoming friends.
And that’s a true story; that did happen. But what’s also true is that it didn’t really matter. It didn’t make me feel safer, or better. All it meant was that one more person had to have their brain marinated in that poisonous internet filth.
Remind me to tell you the funny story about the time my internet stalker called my boyfriend’s cell phone. Remind me to tell you about the time I came home and my front door was unlocked and I spent 15 minutes standing in the rain trying to remember if I’d double-checked it before I went out. Remind me to tell you the funny story about the police leafing through pages and pages of threats I’d printed out and sending me away because it was “just people saying stuff online,” as if these people simply cease to exist when you power down your phone. Remind me to remind myself that, actually, none of this is funny.
Not at all.
Because sometimes I forget.
Last year, in an newsletter, Talia Lavin talked about her own experiences with harassment. That interview got so much attention that the data scrubbing site Delete Me (a place that helps people remove their addresses from publicly available databases) offered a discount code: LYZL for 20% off.
Also, Nina Jankowicz’s new book How to Be a Woman Online offers tricks and tips to protect yourself from online harassment.
Subscribing to this newsletter means that I can pay Aubrey and other writers competitive rates to tell stories and engage deeply in topics in ways that other outlets cannot. In a world of shrinking and consolidating media, I think it’s important to keep doing this work. So if you can, please become a paying subscriber. If you can’t, then spread the word by sharing this newsletter with anyone who needs to read it. I will always keep these newsletters free!