I have experienced a fair amount of trolling in my day. The trolling has occurred in my Twitter mentions, on Facebook, by email, in comment boxes, in paper mail, in voicemails, on blogs, and by call-ins to television and radio programs on which I have been a guest. It has been directed at me personally and organizations I’ve been affiliated with. Garbage like this can come with the territory when you’re a feminist, and especially when you’re a woman on the Internet.
At its most garden variety, the trolling is a never-ending stream of comments on my sluttiness, my stupidity, and my appearance. The trolls can’t decide if I’m super ugly, or hot and have good “jugs.” The focus is never my actual appearance so much as baldly sexist attempts to reduce my worth to my appearance. Ah, and how could I forget — I am an advocate for reproductive health, rights, and justice — therefore I am a murderer!
Most of the time I ignore this stuff, but on occasion I will share a few of the Tweets I get because opponents of equality and justice for women need to be revealed for exactly who they are.
On the ground, the trolling can take the form of anti-abortion activists getting in your face and taking your picture. Here I am with one such man who I distinctly remember taking photographs of everyone’s faces outside the Supreme Court during a Roe anniversary:
Logic does not apply to trolling. Twitchy decided I should be the person to pay when Hustler, a magazine that does not have my support, created an horrific Photoshopped image of S.E. Cupp that I denounced. (Incidentally, trolling against feminists often takes the form of arguing that we need drop everything we are doing and spend the rest of our efforts applauding the personal lives and policy positions of right-wing women.)
Trolling is often, by nature, obscene, although sometimes it seems like the obscene goes beyond imagination. Horrible things have happened to some people I care very much about. Adria Richards was targeted by 4chan with the express purpose of destroying her life. Imani Gandy has been the target of racist stalking on Twitter. Andrea Grimes continues to receive rape threats in the aftermath of making a joke about vaporizing guns. These women have all spoken up bravely about their stories, and they inspire me. (And while I don’t know her, I’m also greatly moved and inspired by Lindy West speaking up about a troll who took on the identity of her deceased father.)
It is because of the bravery of these four women that I’m going to share a trolling story I have never publicly acknowledged before. It deeply hurt me and I didn’t want to reward the trolls. Now, however, I am beginning to see the power in pulling back the curtain. Here goes.
After my daughter was born, I did what a lot of new moms do: I sat in a hospital room in the dark, holding and nursing a baby all night long. To keep myself awake, I sat on my phone and sifted through congratulations and well wishes on email, Facebook, and Twitter.
An individual with more than 40,000 followers on Twitter took a photograph I had shared when my daughter was first born and put up a blog post about me, encouraging his followers to give me hell. Even pasting this partial screenshot makes me angry — the violation of my privacy, the most private and joyous and significant of moments, the appropriation of the first photograph of my beautiful daughter’s life.
His followers began to deluge me with “pro-life” hate in my Twitter mentions, telling me that she should die, telling me that it would have been better if she had never been born, telling me that I didn’t deserve her. I held this new life in my hands in the dark — this great love of my life, this daughter who needed to be brought to me because I’d just had a C-section and could not stand up myself, and I wept as quietly as I could.
It was terrible.
I couldn’t just turn off Twitter; I’d just had a baby and I didn’t want to be alone. Tons of legitimate friends were sending me congratulations and encouragement, and I wanted to share this moment with them. So I saw the terrible messages, too, and I blocked every individual who sent them to me. I estimate that I received hundreds of hate tweets in a series of a few days, and my guess is that I received many more that I didn’t see because I’d blocked the senders.
I wanted to share this story now to illustrate one of the ways that we can deal with online abusers and stalkers: we can acknowledge them. While it doesn’t always make sense to engage at the time, I think it’s important for people to realize exactly how low trolling can go. This is not a question of whether people are “tough” enough to participate in public dialogue. There are people out there who are working very hard to silence feminists. I can speak to this especially from my perspective as a feminist who dares to call proudly and with enthusiasm for a world where, without exception, everyone has access to abortion as a matter of human dignity.
I’m okay, guys. The story I shared was really tough for me, but I got through it and I am still fighting without fear for that better world we all deserve. I’ve heard others, especially feminists who aren’t active on the Internet, or those who are but may be earlier in their careers, express doubts about taking up public space for fear of the trolls. We are all best qualified to know what our personal needs and limits are, and I respect that, but I don’t want anyone to believe I’m saying the best way to beat the trolls is to give up. That is, after all, what they want.
I’m going to conclude this post by sharing a response I once gave to a young woman who was receiving hateful emails and asked for my self-care tips. Here’s what I said:
I’m sorry to hear you are receiving bad emails. That can get pretty demotivating and demoralizing. Here are some things I’ve done to take care of myself in the past, although not all at the same time and some tips may even be contradictory. Use your judgement of what works for you now, in this situation:
– Delete — without reading. I will delete some things without reading them, especially when I’m getting deluged with hate. If I start reading something and realize it’s hate, I stop mid-way through and delete.
– Share. Read the bad things and then share them (without sharing the identity of the person, as they really want the attention and I’d hate to give them that). This is not something I really consider self-care, so put yourself first.
– Block. I used to be slow to block people on Twitter, for example. No more. I block assholes right away. They do not deserve my mental space nor does anyone deserve an explanation from me about why I block them.
– Be more guarded. While I’m still pretty free with my personal information, there are things I work hard to keep private and that varies depending on where I am in my life. I used to be really secretive about where I lived, especially when I was living alone.
– Most of all, just walk away. Life is too short to accept other people’s pain unless you have freely chosen to do so. Abuse is ridiculous and doesn’t deserve your time. Even without the abuse, carve out time for yourself. I have gotten much better about not checking email and social media as constantly as I used to — and it is relaxing!