Is That a Threat?
The Slippery Slope From Disagreement to Harassment
I am a woman and I am on the Internet. It’s brave. It’s not “eat a burger in public” brave, but it’s still pretty admirable.
It shouldn’t be.
Last month I wrote a joke on Twitter. That’s not notable because I’ve done it literally fifteen thousand times. I spend all day every day writing jokes on Twitter. I like doing it, and it’s part of my job. What made this tweet different than all my other tweets (and please read that in your best Passover Seder voice), is that in the last few weeks I’ve received hundreds of negative replies from men ranging from from the tame “You’re not funny” comments to the harder to ignore threats suggesting they should rape me with a toothbrush.
If you’re wondering what kind of controversial, incendiary joke could possibly elicit so many aggressive responses, here it is:
I know — snoozefest. It’s not a particularly exciting joke. It’s not even that original, really (a fact which is upsetting in and of itself). It’s just a joke I thought of and tweeted one night before I went back to falling asleep during a rerun of Shark Tank.
Somewhere along the way an account with a large and conservative following retweeted it, an action that flooded my notifications page with people calling me “stupid” or a “moron” or, one of my personal favorites, a “retarded liberal.” Fine.
Last Monday evening, however, the replies went from annoying and insulting to violent and threatening. Men were replying to me and taking my joke to a horrific, new place. Some said they wanted to ban me from public places and silence me. Others said they wanted to lock me in their closet when they’re done with me. A few choice gentlemen suggested I, like their gun, have a “rough brush clean my holes.” If you want a tour of how hateful and negative humanity can be about women, just scroll through the replies to my original joke. It’s kind of like the It’s A Small World ride, but instead of different countries you just see different expressions of misogyny.
One complete stranger even found me on Facebook and sent an unsolicited message saying, “I hope you lose ALL of your rights. Dirty feminist.” He searched me out on a social media platform that isn’t even where the original joke appears. A group of men harassed a young woman who agreed with my tweet, celebrating each time she blocked one of them. One truly stand-out nightmare found the Twitter handle of my writing partner and harassed her just for being associated with me. I started getting legitimately nervous. Did I really think that any of these guys were actually going to come find me and hurt me? No. Did I double check that my address and phone number aren’t visible on social media? Absolutely.
Beyond the violent and grotesque comments were the ones that prove many men feel the need to put a woman in her place and teach her a lesson. The average responder didn’t just call me a dumb bitch and move on. They repeatedly replied to me like a broken record until finally I blocked them. Several men, once blocked, took a screenshot of that action and began spreading that I could not take a joke. I can take a joke. I love taking jokes, that’s why I do comedy. What I can’t take is being called a “worthless cunt” five times by the same person and then admonished for not being “grateful” that another man respected me enough to call me “sweetheart.”
I tried not to take any of these new aggressive replies to my joke personally. You just can’t take every angry reaction from a stranger to heart. I have the thick skin of a comic and someone who doesn’t moisturize nearly enough, but I’m still a human being. It wore me down, seeing tweet after tweet tell me that women are objects, that we’re valueless, that we don’t even deserve the care and respect that people give lethal, inanimate objects. Try not internalizing that a bit. Try not letting those words start to get to you.
One friend of mine, after I told him what was going on and sent him a few gleaming examples, said to just turn it off for a while, to not look at it. I agree that’s excellent advice most of the time. It’s the old “Doctor, it hurts when I do this”/”Then don’t do that” approach. Don’t look at it and it won’t bother you. Unfortunately, this wasn’t some horrific hate forum I found while spiraling down an Internet k-hole of my own creation. These were pointed, gross comments being sent directly to me. If I wanted to avoid them I had to just log off Twitter all together. And they’d still be there waiting for me whenever I came back.
I’ve never understood the inclination to engage with something I don’t like — on social media or otherwise. That’s the beauty of Twitter. If you don’t agree with someone, you can unfollow them. If something upsets you, you can block it. We all have that luxury. If you don’t like the taste of fish, you wouldn’t go to a restaurant, order the trout, and then call the chef a stupid bitch for serving it to you. So why do people do it on the Internet?
Reading a barrage of violent comments and threats doesn’t make me want to retaliate. It doesn’t make me want to fire back at those guys with the same hate and rage that they spewed my direction about me and the rest of my gender. It makes me want to censor myself. It makes me hesitant to write certain jokes. Could this tweet make hundreds of men tell me I belong locked in their closet? Will this idea I’m putting out there also end in threats of rape or murder?
Women are taught from an early age to — in all aspects of life — try not to cause a scene. We’re not supposed to garner attention or make waves or do anything that might upset anyone. You know what happens when women don’t want to make a scene? They stop talking. And writing. And performing. And creating.
I want to make incisive, sharp comedy. That’s the goal. It’s really hard to generate that material when you start second guessing jokes because you’re scared of being harassed for your stupid female opinions.
Women are not the sole focus of internet hate and threats, but we certainly see the majority of them. It’s so much a part of our experience, that the conversations I had with my female comic friends regarding this particular instance felt almost funny in how casually we all talked about it. I kept texting screen grabs of the more horrific replies and saying, “lol, another one,” and “haha look this nightmare’s grammar” when one man told me I deserved to be bought and sold for his own use. Hate from men online just because you’re a woman with an opinion is par for the course these days. You learn to expect it. Part of me even thought that I should have known this would be the reaction when I wrote the joke. We start to believe that it’s our fault men are grossly harassing us because we’re the ones who put ourselves out there to begin with.
I don’t want to get caught up in the specifics of this joke and the horrible responses it got. It’s kind of pedestrian and obvious and stems from the unfortunately true fact that many women feel like guns are more valued than they are in society right now. What’s upsetting is that so many men took that statement as a springboard to making me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. And they felt fine doing this because I’m a woman. Two male friends of mine with much larger followings had tweeted similar jokes and didn’t see a fraction of the hateful responses that I did. And I’m sure they saw none of the same threats.
This isn’t the first time that a woman has been harassed online. It’s definitely not the last time, either. That’s really the problem. This is one small instance in an unending series of events. We need to stop accepting this behavior as an unavoidable consequence to writing on the Internet. Harassment doesn’t need to be just the cost of doing business.
I was even hesitant to write this essay at all. I thought about all of the cruel and crude things men felt comfortable saying to me and thought, “Well, they’re just going to say more, worse things if I complain about it.” Then I realized that I was afraid to sound “whiny” in writing about strangers physically threatening me. That’s how deeply ingrained these ideas are. That calling attention to a legitimate issue doesn’t seem worth it for what might follow.
It feels like this should end with an encouraging message to women to stand up for ourselves, to take to the internet and say what we want regardless of the consequences. To know that whatever horrible nightmares come our way we can persevere and continue to write great things. That we are an unstoppable force that will not be discouraged from creating in the face of disturbing physical threats.
That’s not my point.
My point is for men: Stop doing this. The only thing gained from you saying disgusting, aggressive, sexual, violent, and threatening things on the internet is that we now know that you’re part of the problem.