What To Do If Someone Is Being Abusive In Your Online Community

I’m up in the middle of the night, debating whether I should make myself a cup of tea, and I’ve been wondering about what it is, exactly, someone is supposed to do when another person is being abusive in their online community. I took to Google and typed in this article’s title, expecting advice and ideas to come raining down on me. When they didn’t, I thought I would take the meagre things I know about this and cobble something together. Even if it can’t offer any complete answers.

A lot of people can be difficult, combative, infuriating and a whole bouquet of other adjectives with thorns in them, but abusive is something different. One of the definitions of abuse is “to treat with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly”. This mirrors my understanding of it, which is that, although it can be a one-off incident, a lot of very insidious abuse is repeated over time. It’s a persistent pattern of damaging behaviour.

Online, of course, it can be a little different because you’re dealing with a person from physical remove, but, if you care about them, not from emotional remove. Sometimes people will threaten or target you in a way that warrants the police, but when it doesn’t escalate that far, it can still become an abusive dynamic that you are having to cope with.

In a community, your friends are often their friends, as well, even if the overlap is not a perfect circle. So not only do you have to deal with the behaviour being imposed on you, but you also have to deal with the social consequences of telling people about that behaviour, such as them not believing you or them not wanting to do anything about it. There are also social consequences if you decide not to tell people, such as the possibility that others will be subjected to the same things that are now hurting you.

I have had two particular experiences of this. One where I was the person several friends came to when they were experiencing abuse, the other where I was the person who had a friendship that turned abusive. Those experiences had some surprising similarities. The most glaring was that there were males in both those communities who were told and who didn’t really want to do or know anything about it. Many of them set the benefit of the doubt for the accused much higher than for the accuser. It felt as though almost nothing the accused person did would register as serious enough to warrant proper concern.

Another similarity was that, in both communities, it was mainly other women who agitated most for something to be done before someone else got hurt. That was the consistent motive expressed by women, and something I felt viscerally as well. A deep, gnawing knowledge that if I did nothing, someone else would be as distressed as the women who came to me. Or would be as distressed as I was.

In the first case, what I did was fight to get the women listened to. All of them were fairly young, and they were being sexually harassed by an older man who was an authority figure in our community. It took months to get our male friends, who were mainly also in positions of authority, to be willing to take steps to help protect the young women. I can only begin to imagine what they went through during that time. For me, trying to address it was like constantly slamming into a wall. The facts were egregious, the harm was clear, and the only solution, surely, was to take necessary safeguarding steps. If the men wanted to be friends with him in their own time that was their personal decision, no matter what I might think about it, but in our collective spaces I couldn’t accept their willingness to leave women to deal with that behaviour alone. Even his behaviour in public spaces was concerning enough. At times, it was overtly sexual and jarringly sexist, in equal measure.

Back then, I was dating one of the men who wouldn’t get involved. Who tried to find, every time we spoke about it, a glimmer of a reason why the problem was smaller, or less important than I was telling him it was. It was the first time we had argued. It was the first time, also, that I think I’d really seen the wider patriarchal system condensed so purely into the situation around me that I could see its cogs whirring and its wheels turning. It was a shock. All these things I’d read about theoretically, and had learnt about in history, and knew were still happening on a global scale, were there in even those relatively small interactions between the sexes. I’d never quite understood how it could really happen like it does. How women could be treated the way they are. I hadn’t realised how it all connects together through the actions and inactions of men I would have told you, individually, were good people. The men supported men. They diminished the women. They were holding power over women and not being ethical about it. They sat in state, like Solomon, but with no reference to wisdom. They did not treat women as equally important and even when it was one bad man vs many good women, the value of the man was always greater. The deck was stacked against women and good men played their part in it.

They had a selective blindness that meant they were incapable of seeing what was right in front of them.

Not all, of course. Never all.

Two of the men stood out particularly. One shared in every emotion the women did. He felt the powerlessness and the anger that we felt, and for his troubles he was dismissed as over emotional by many of the others. By the men who “just wanted proof” yet ignored the proof they were given and continually raised the bar on required evidence until, one felt, they would have to witness an actual assault to accept there was a problem. The other was a close friend of mine. I talked to him about it, and he was instantly right there by my side. We fought the fight together. We didn’t let it go until the abusive man was removed from our communal spaces. It took us several months. In that time, he goaded and maligned his victims out in the open, posted the intimate secrets of people he thought doubted him, managed to weather the revelation he was a fraudster and a proven liar with no more than a scratch on his reputation and used his power ill. A man’s good reputation, even when it is utterly undeserved, is made of diamond.

Conversely, the women were accused by the good men of making drama, being hysterical, spiteful, malicious, easy, divisive, and ungrateful for all the help people knew that man had given them. They were chided and reminded these were Serious Accusations, and asked if they’d really bring a man into disrepute over some personal “misunderstandings”. A woman’s good reputation, even when it is utterly deserved, is made of glass. All women are a kind of Cassandra who may speak the truth instead of prophecy and to no avail.

It was exhausting and disillusioning to deal with, and my biggest fear for those months was that I would let those women down and he would get away with behaving like that. It seemed impossible there could be any other outcome. Then, one day, we woke up ready to fight the good fight again and the man who had the most power to deal with the situation just rolled over. He did it grudgingly and mean-spiritedly but he did it, and the women had all of their communal spaces back within hours.

Except, of course, when the dust had settled and we had begun to be frivolous and light together again, I realised that the group dynamics had been irrevocably changed for the young women. Not by the abusive man, who could be removed and recovered from, but by the betrayal of their friends. It meant there were fractures that did not heal. It began to create a rift for them that could only widen over time because so few of the men were willing or able to offer amends. Even the ones who now saw clearly that the man was the problem still considered the whole matter settled and over with. There was no comprehension of the hurt their own responses might have caused.

We don’t have to castigate and decry people, but we do have to hold them accountable. When women are not allowed to hold those who harm them accountable it necessarily becomes a toxic environment. Particularly when others become complicit in protecting the person who is doing the harm.

It was perhaps two years after this that I found myself in a friendship with a transwoman who I met after realising the extent of the problem in the gender discussions. I admired her creativity and her intelligence. I liked what I saw as her absolute sincerity. She was one of the first true friends I made in the community of people fighting to protect women’s rights. All the subsequent friends I made in the next few months were because of her. (A perfect circle.)

At first, it was delightful to know her. We became as thick as thieves and with the closeness came her confidences. Some of them were incredibly dark. Some of them were movingly sad. She had experienced huge amounts of pain and I felt immense sympathy for that. Over time, as my concerns increasingly began to try to get me to pay attention to them, I still had that sympathy. Even when I began to feel like I was in too deep, in the quicksand of discomfort, as certain behaviours emerged. She needed compassion, care, attention, and kindness, and I had enough of those to spare. She could be insightful, supportive and fun. She did unexpected and gorgeous things to make me feel better when I was ill. Sometimes, she said shockingly hurtful or thoughtless things about women as a whole group, but I would guide her through it and talk it out and she would always see the problem.

Except, again and again we came back to the deep root, the gnarled root that, if she had told me she was a man and not a transwoman, I would have identified as misogyny. Some men have a way of viewing women as only existing in relation to them, and as always owing them something. She did both.

I don’t know when it turned though. I don’t know when it went from being a friendship into something that riddled me with worry and even, on occasion, panic. I don’t think she ever, not even once, said a bad word about me. She loved me. She held me in high esteem. She told me so. Instead, the problem was that she said viciously bad things to me about every other woman who ever typed a word at her she didn’t like. It was intense, it was nasty, and it felt overwhelming. My friend, who I thought was a decent person, disappeared into these vitriolic, cruel rants about women. About self-harming to teach them a lesson, about how none of them were clever enough to be allowed to talk about sexism, about how it would be so easy to ruin their lives, about how she’d make them pay, about how they didn’t deserve her, about how they just wanted to believe they were oppressed, about what bitches they were. On and on it went, and I soothed and placated and tried to explain to her that they were lovely people and she had misunderstood their meaning. Then, things would be peaceful until it happened again.

She focused a great deal on what people thought about her, so it was perhaps inevitable that these outbursts of rage would get closer together. The closer together they got, the harder I found it to cope with. Her anger seemed out of control. She concealed a devastating piece of information from many of the people who trusted her, her moods were all over the map, and it got harder to reach her to reason with her.

The situation was a mess and I sat in the centre of it and worried and fretted and didn’t know what to do. I treated myself like those male friends of mine had treated the young women. I didn’t believe it was as bad as I thought it was. I demanded ever increasing amounts of proof from myself that this was something I had a right to be upset about. I found reason after reason to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Even writing this, I have found myself doing the same.

On the days I trusted my own instincts, I went to other people to talk about it and get advice. Firstly, to a couple of the people she had told me were awful. I chose them because I was now working on a project they had once been part of, too, and I quickly discovered they weren’t awful at all. They told me they had gone through the same experience with her.

They comforted me, they told me how deeply they had been hurt, and even after what they had experienced, they still had compassion for her pain. I had compassion, too, and I tried to cope with what was happening far longer than I otherwise would have done because of it.

None of us want to see people we care about going through so much, and many of us know what it is to suffer because it is so often a part of being human. We don’t always get to choose much about that but we do get to choose how we respond to our own pain. Some people choose to suffer outwards, and if you are in the vicinity you will get hurt by that as well.

I finally drew the line when there was an implied threat of exposing another woman’s real identity. We all know how dangerous that can be in this debate. It made me feel afraid of stepping away from her, in case she did that to me and, conversely, it was the fear that made me suddenly realise I should start running. That, and the reaction of one of my closest friends of many years, who saw only a couple of screenshots of the things she’d been saying to me, and told me to “block her on everything and do it NOW”.

When you leave a situation like that, even online, it is emotionally draining. It takes time to put yourself back together again. You’re left a little fragile, and with a large worry, as well. A question that you hold like a pebble in your heart: “Should I tell people?” “Should I tell them that if they get too close to this person their Icarus wings will fall away and they will get burnt?”

As soon as it became obvious I had stepped away from her, people kept coming to find me. People who had been her friend long before I even knew her, and who described similar things. Other women and trans people confided stories that were varying degrees of concerning. Listening to them was like putting together the pieces of the puzzle, and the bigger the picture grew, the clearer it became how much of a pattern this was.

It made me aware that many of us are silenced by unexpectedly bad behaviour because we are utterly out of our depth with it. We think we are the only ones they’ve treated that way. We aren’t sure what it is we should do or what alarm, if any, to raise. We don’t know how to protect the village, and we carry that too, as though we have let other people down.

I weighed what it was I ought to do, could do, should do, every day for several weeks.

I kept imagining another woman, new to the community, with no friends in it to confide in, who might get sucked in and hurt and I kept thinking that maybe I could prevent it.

A group of us (women, transwomen and men) all sharing these concerns, huddled together over the phone and talked about it for several hours. We resolved, in the end, to try to warn every woman who looked like they were getting close enough to be at risk of getting hurt. Then, whatever they might choose to do, they could do it with enough knowledge and that alone would protect them a little.

It also seemed like the most graceful response because it gave her space to change, as well.

We spoke to a man we all knew about it, too. Not to protect him from harm, exactly, because he didn’t seem to be at risk in the same way as women were, but because he was fanfaring in her honour, without knowing what had occurred. We knew the inevitable trajectory of any endorsement would lead to more people having similar experiences to the ones we had all dealt with. He is a genuinely decent man. A good man, who spoke very sincerely to me about it, but then made it clear to others that he couldn’t respond to “drama” and “gossip”. He was an ocean away from the first situation I encountered, yet he was reading from part of the same script I remembered from back then because it is the script we teach men.

It made me think about all of this again, very seriously, because if it escalated once more, I knew women would likely have to fight to be believed and to have any issues addressed. I don’t begin to know what we do about that.

Men may not be the main power in our community like they are outside of feminist circles but those who have important standing will likely work from that script, and, worse, we may work from it as well whenever these kinds of dynamics arise. We have been so inculcated by a world that disrespects women that we sometimes treat ourselves as men would. It may be easier for us to support other women than it is to give proper weight to our own concerns but it may be easier, still, for us to offer grace to anyone male. However unintentionally.

It made me think about loyalty, too. We protect people out of loyalty to them, whether that is the loyalty of friendship or some other form of emotional obligation (like the kind men seem to feel for other men). Sometimes we even protect them from themselves. I wonder at our loyalty to even the men who hurt us. I don’t want to protect any male from themselves, if it is at the expense of women. I don’t want to be part of the deck that stacks against us.

Our female socialisation means many of us accept far more than we can cope with from others. Our own pain, our own distress and our own worries do not count with us quite as much as someone else’s. In a kind light, it is an example of the towering strength women have, that we stand firm like a fixed star and are not destroyed by this, or the various treatments we are subjected to. In the colder light of reason though, it seems that we must teach ourselves to be more like Halley’s Comet instead, and to know when to move right out of the way, at once, shining as we go.

A transwoman I care about said something to me recently about not wanting to be the gate that abusive males use to get through to reach women. I won’t be the gate either.

I think the only way to not be the gate is to talk to each other; to encounter these kinds of problems and to reach out to other women and to other people we can trust. Words are like light. They scare away the shadows, and they make it impossible for darkness to flourish.

A person can’t be a darkness, but they can bring a darkness to us. We are each other’s greatest, and only, protection against that.

So, for anyone who turns to Google, like me, with the question of what to do in such a situation and finds no answers, these are all the things I can think of that I believe you should do, though the list is incomplete:

-Stop second guessing yourself. Imagine your dearest friend being treated the way you are being treated, get suitably outraged and let yourself walk away.

-Go to people you trust in your community and make them aware. If you are a woman, particularly, consider choosing to go to other women. Let them share the burden of deciding what it is that should be done, if they want to share it and if they can. A community problem should have as much of a community response as possible.

-When you’re first having interactions with someone you are unsure about, go to people you trust outside of your community, too. They have a perspective no one who knows the person will have.

-If you have no one to go to, come to me. I may not be able to storm the Bastille for you but I will listen, and you will need someone to do that.

-Don’t minimise their behaviour. It doesn’t have to be criminal, or physically dangerous, for it to be wrong. You don’t have to put up with something, or forgive someone just because it isn’t worse.

-Protect other women. You don’t owe anyone your silence about something like this.

-Protect yourself.

-Be glad of your kindness, too, but don’t choose it over your peace.

As to the rest, as to all the other answers to crucial questions, I can’t tell you because I’m still figuring them out for myself. All I know is you deserve better than any relationship that does you damage. It’s also OK to go on caring about the person even after you’ve stepped away and to still hope for them, too, that they really can become the person you believed them to be. You just have to recognise it is their job, and not yours, to get them there.

You can only focus on setting your own boundaries while looking after yourself and those around you.

The most redeeming thing I know, perhaps, is that women are stronger together. We are safer together, too, and most wonderfully of all, we are far more joyful when we are standing side by side.

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