Online harassment silences women’s voices, and the last thing we need is to hide in a women-only social network

By Amy Guth

VProud, a social network built by Google and YouTube alumna Karen Cahn, designed for women to be able to talk freely without fear of trolling or other online harassment from men, recently celebrated its year anniversary. As recent coverage in the Chicago Tribune notes of troll culture: “It’s a given that they’re filled with vitriol. The debate, then, is whether to expose yourself to it.”

Cahn’s heart is surely in the right place with her year-old site, as indicated by her words to The Cut at time of launch: “I wanted a safe space to talk about my lady issues without somebody trolling my conversation and it simply didn’t exist.” Indeed, women’s voices are being silenced due to the widespread acceptance of and apathy around troll culture, making the debate not about how we will combat such hateful, misogynistic behavior, but rather about whether or not it’s wise to speak up at all, lest we invite such a wave of trolls and harassment upon ourselves.

One way VProud purports to accomplish the utopian troll-free environment is through a system of defense involving positive actions like community self-policing coupled with more troubling stop-gaps such as filters to detect and limit aggressive and potentially abusive language.

Yet, it misses a fundamental point: We all have a right to a harassment-free online experience. Women of every stripe have the right to use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all the others, just the same as men. And to whisk women away and batten down the technology hatches is boldly fleeing from the glaring need for meaningful reformation in the area of online civility.

As a woman who works in print, online and broadcast journalism, I’ve experienced online harassment and abuse boldly, publicly and regularly, and loudly speak against it. I’ve been threatened, harassed, told to kill myself, told to change careers, told I have no right to speak, told my only value is my breasts/vagina/ass, told a listener ejaculates on photos of my face, had my personal information tweeted to me during a broadcast, and more. As President of the Chicago Association for Women Journalists, I’ve publicly responded and launched campaigns against misogyny in the media world, and as a Senior Facilitator at the OpEd Project’s Public Voices fellowship, I’ve seen some of the most credentialed female experts say again and again, I avoid the comments like a plague, or: I would say more if I didn’t think I would get beat up online.

Avoid the comments section. Don’t feed the trolls. Have a thicker skin. Blow it off; it’s from a stranger.

We’ve created a narrative around online harassment that the safest, most intelligent move is to avoid our social feeds and our comments sections when we say something of consequence. In doing so, we’ve taught women (and certainly girls) to flee from confrontation rather than wade in. What’s more, the narrative we’ve chosen to thread around this issue has made it taboo, if not downright contemptuous, for the targeted to admit rude, mean-spirited or intentionally abusive remarks made to us online sometimes legitimately hurt. In relegating ourselves to a separate space, we thin out our troops in the fight to create meaningful change online and we lose equal share of voice in the public dialogue.

Online safety doesn’t deviate in principle from in-person safety and the culture it aims to thwart. Simply, to teach women and girls self-defense, but not teach boys about abuse, consent, and entitlement, we exacerbate the problem. Online culture is no different.

We’ve insisted again and again on the narrative that trolls will be trolls but that smart and strong targets flee and avoid, and as such, we’ve continue to reinforce the notion that women and girls should be afraid to speak up, the threat of an imagined backlash pre-emptively haunting us. In other words, we stoke the fire along the continuum that supports rape culture. She asked for it. Look at what she said/wore.

While I’ve faced online harassment, threats, doxxing, and sexism, I know others have had it far worse and might welcome a social network limited to only women. I also know people have lost their lives over fights that originated online. But, really, these incidents are all the more reason we must take online harassment seriously, and with great urgency. We’ve become unable to speak critically without greeting a firestorm of hostility, unable to speak up and out on the topics that concern us the most as ordinary citizens without at least stopping to consider how the consequences will impact our own mental health and safety. This fear-plague will only gain strength and greater wingspan if we do not make radical shifts in online culture.

Another hitch: according to a Pew Research Center survey, although women are more likely to bear the brunt of sustained harassment, stalking and sexual harassment, men are slightly more likely than women to experience online harassment overall, 44% to 37%, specifically name-calling, embarrassment and physical threats. Yet another reason a social network just for women just doesn’t add up: men and women are both on the receiving end of this social plague.

To run from the problem — either through comment avoidance or through a special women-only social network — instead of confronting it en masse, we feed the very beast we aim to slay. Other efforts, such as a call for more sophisticated ways to block trolls online or stronger privacy controls that only hide our voices more and more, fall short. I propose an alternative — how about men and women alike embrace online civility and help each other loudly confront inappropriate behavior when present. A salient and creative example is Kari Traa, who recently founded Trollfighters and staged a fashion show to give victims of online harassment a venue to very publicly shame their harassers.

Ultimately, we must ask better of ourselves than holding “snark” as a default intellectual setting. Let us go into online conversations gathering information first, not in a ready, fire, aim stance. And let us demand behavior standards of ourselves and others.

The social part of social networking is what makes it effective, and the ability to connect with people around the world is meaningful, the speed of doing so practical. Yet, as we live both online and off, we should not be lulled into complacency by believing freedom of speech and effectively addressing online harassment and abuse are in conflict; indeed one widely documented method of fighting against poor behavior online is the communal power of counter-speech against the attacker. Simply put: just because an online troll may have the right to be offensive, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to take it or witness it quietly.

At a moment when, indeed, we have greater access to information than ever, and enough digital tools in our arsenals to awaken and deflate entire social movements, it is essential that we fully grasp this as the digital rights issue that it is, and the difference between having the right to say something and possessing the sense of civility as to whether or not we should do so.

To relegate women to a special women-only social network rather than address the fundamental issue of enforcing widespread online civility is both putting our heads in the sand and blatantly, purposefully removing women’s voices from public conversations.

Amy Guth is an author, journalist and filmmaker in Chicago. She’s on Twitter as @amyguth.