In the eighth century BCE, Telemachus, Penelope’s son, told his mother:
Mother, go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.
Penelope obeyed him.
There is a long historical precedent in English-speaking countries of inhibiting or even prohibiting women’s speech in public venues or writing for public consumption. The Bible admonishes women against speaking in church, which was a prominent public arena in the first century. During the 17th century, in England, Mary Astell made the observation that men were trying to prevent women from writing. In 1833, Maria W. Stewart, the first African-American woman to make public lectures and thought to be the first woman to speak to audiences of men and women, was greeted with “hoots, jeers, and a barrage of rotten tomatoes.” Similarly, anti-slavery activists Angelina and Sarah Grimke were condemned for their public speaking before audiences of both men and women, known as “promiscuous” audiences. Mary Wollstonecraft was called a “hyena in petticoats” when she tried to speak in public. In 1840, at the World’s Anti-slavery Convention held in London, the credentials committee decided that women were “constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings.” Lucy Stone, U.S. abolitionist and suffragist, was asked to write a commencement speech at Oberlin College, but was barred from reading it at her own graduation ceremony.
The current online harassment campaigns against women, especially prominent and successful women, is a continuation of this tradition of silencing women’s speech and writing through intimidation and harassment. Like the historical campaigns against women’s public speaking or writing, those who attack women online seek to stop women from fully participating in the new public venue that is the Internet. This relatively new pattern of harassment of women online merely reflects the shift from offline to online of long-standing patterns.
Generic Trolling vs. Gendertrolling
While generic trolling ranges from annoying to upsetting to sometimes maliciously destructive and criminal, there is a very different pattern of harassing, abusive, and threatening behaviors that is specifically targeted to women online. It is important to make a clear distinction between the kind of systematic harassment, abuse, and threats that women have been receiving online, which I am calling “gendertrolling,” and generic trolling.
For one thing, the motivations of the perpetrators of each are entirely different. Generic trolls engage in their activities for what they call the “lulz,” that is, the enjoyment and amusement that the trolls derive out of having annoyed, upset, angered, or hurt others. Because their primary motive is lulz, despite any appearances to the contrary, generic trolls generally are not trying to make a sincere point or seriously engage on a topic.
In contrast, gendertrolls, more often than not, believe ardently, even obsessively, in the stances they take and act against their targets out of their sincerely held convictions. Like generic trolls, they often try to provoke their targets, but, more often, they hope to inspire fear in their targets, and to win the battle they believe they are waging, which is to drive the target, along with her objectionable opinions (usually that women deserve social, political, and economic equality with men), out of public discourse online.
One generic troll succinctly points out how behaviors that are typical of gendertrolling do not qualify as trolling: “Threatening to rape someone on Twitter isn’t trolling. … That’s just threatening to rape someone. On Twitter.”
Characteristics of Gendertrolling
Compared with generic trolling, gendertrolling is exponentially more vicious, virulent, aggressive, threatening, pervasive, and enduring than generic trolling. The following seven characteristics are features that these online attack campaigns against women have in common.
- Gendertrolling attacks are precipitated by women asserting their opinions online.
Women are targeted online for such things as having achieved some prominence or notoriety, for writing about women’s rights, for supporting other women who are being harassed, or for their race or ethnicity. Yet, in addition to these reasons, women have also been targeted for speaking or writing about an incredibly wide range of topics—from video gaming to women in technology, from comedy to comics, from atheism to gun control, even bicycling, sports, cooking, or breastfeeding—the common thread that precipitates a gendertrolling attack is that some woman somewhere on the Internet takes it upon herself to speak out publicly on a topic.
- They feature graphic sexualized and gender-based insults.
An overwhelming number of harassing comments toward women online relate to women’s physical appearance and sexuality. In gendertrolling attacks, women are typically called “cunts,” “sluts,” “whores,” and the like; their appearance is insulted by calling them “ugly,” “fat,” and much worse. Some women are targeted and disparaged for being old and therefore presumably less attractive to men. Gendered and sexualized threats and commentary are, additionally for Black, Asian, Native and Hispanic women, almost inevitably compounded by racialized threats and commentary. Gendertrolls use graphic insults to demean women as sexual objects and to insult them for being women. They often include explicit insults about women’s genitalia and graphic pornographic depictions are made of images of targeted women. A defining feature of gendertrolling is that women are insulted for ways that are specific to their gender or to their gender and race.
- They include rape and death threats—often credible ones—and frequently involve real-life targeting, which adds to the credibility of the threats.
Women who have been harassed online report that explicit and graphic rape and death threats are by far the most common type of threats or abuse that they receive. Many of these threats are perceived by the women being targeted as particularly credible; that is, threats are made in such a way that the recipients cannot feel certain that they are simply idle talk that will not result in their actually being physically harmed. Indeed, threats are often worded in such a way as to most effectively scare, intimidate, upset, or worry the targeted woman so that she will be induced to cease doing what the behavior is that the gendertrolls are upset about in order to protect her health and safety, including silencing her opinions. Harassers may post information that reveals that they have seen or stalked the woman in real life, such as what she was wearing while out on an errand. Rape and death threats seem particularly alarming when a gendertroll doxes a woman, that is, posts her address and other personal information online for others to view. Some gendertrolls have even initiated real-life encounters with their targets. The fear of many women who are targets of online harassment campaigns is that the mob mentality and the amped-up rhetoric of gendertrolls might precipitate offline real-life violence.
- They cross multiple social media or online platforms.
While generic trolling tends to remain on the online forum, discussion board, comments section, or blog post on which it originated, gendertrolls launch a more aggressive and proactive campaign that branches out to and involves multiple online sites, social media, and forums. Although the initial remark or opinion that gendertrolls object to may appear, for example, on a particular blog, gendertrolls then use Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, Storify, email, and discussion boards simultaneously to carry out multifaceted attacks. Gendertrolls employ a variety of tactics concurrently, such as hacking a Wikipedia page about the target or impersonating a woman in order to espouse horrendous views that are then attributed to her. They may also post and repost graphic Photoshopped pornographic images involving the target or seek out the target’s family members, friends, and supporters to harass them as well. Gendertrolls are so committed to their campaigns that they become quite creative and inventive in using a wide variety of means to achieve their ends.
- They occur at unusually high levels of intensity and frequency (numerous threats or messages per day or even per hour).
The sheer intensity of gendertrolling attacks can be overwhelming to their target, with women reporting 50 or more threatening and harassing messages per hour over a variety of media. Typically, many thousands of these harassing, graphic, and threatening messages are delivered to the target over various social media and Internet platforms.
- They are perpetuated for an unusual duration (months or even years).
Gendertrolls tend to keep up their attack campaigns for an extended period of time—for months and, not atypically, even for years. This is a dramatic departure from instances of more generic trolling where trolling incidents tend to last a matter of days to weeks, to—in extreme cases—months. The typically long duration of gendertrolling attacks is one of the reasons that targeted women find it so difficult to retain equanimity.
- They involve many attackers in a concerted and often coordinated campaign.
Perhaps because gendertrolls, as opposed to generic trolls, ardently believe in their rationalizations for their attack campaigns, they are able to rally many others who share in their convictions to take up the cause alongside them, resulting in a large numbers of gendertrolls who devote themselves to targeting the designated person. These hoards often spend their apparently too-abundant amount of time going out of their way to search out assertiveness on the part of women online and then rally their too-numerous troops to wage an all-out campaign on the targeted women in whatever ways they can.
Even women who can find a way to shrug off or inure themselves to the violent and graphic sexualized images and the rape and death threats can find themselves worn down by the sheer volume, intensity, and relentlessness of gendertrolling attacks.
Gendertrolling has the same effect as other historical patterns of silencing women’s public speech—it has a powerful inhibitory effect on women voicing their opinions online about a wide variety of topics, but especially when advocating for women’s full equality. It stops women from pursuing interests, and even careers, in what have been male-dominated arenas, many of which have now moved online. Its effects culminate in preventing women from being seen as experts, from being looked to as authorities on traditionally male-dominated topics, and even from gaining equal access to jobs in male-dominated fields.
Finally, gendertrolling hinders women from receiving recognition and respect in the public sphere. The fact that women’s opinions and arguments are not taken on, challenged, or discussed by others, but rather, women are insulted for their looks or for simply being women has a greater effect than simply offending the women involved.
Through this practice, women’s ideas are not taken seriously or are sidelined and ignored, with the result that women’s intellectual contributions to public discourse are disregarded, dismissed, and erased.
The overall commonalities that gendertrolling shares with other kinds of misogynistic behaviors, both on- and offline, is that they manifest as a systematic pattern of harassment that works in an overly coincidentally singular direction to discourage, shame, and intimidate women from fully participating in public spaces. The net effect of this relatively new pattern of harassment (similar to the effects of other historical and contemporary patterns of harassment of women) is to contribute to the social, political, and economic subordination of women.
Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.