This week's entry in the ongoing Kathy Sierra Wars was a benign effort by the Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima, who observed, unsurprisingly, that "Sexual Threats Stifle Some Female Bloggers."
Sierra was a powerhouse blogger who in March shut down her blog, Creating Passionate Users, about the highly gender-charged subject of metacognition and computers. Sierra stopped bloging after anonymous critics posted graphic and sexually threatening material about her, both in the comments section of her Web site and on other blogs. The posters (read them here) somehow confused death threats with debate on the merits of Sierra's views and policies. Some suggested that Sierra deserved to have her throat slit and to be suffocated, sexually violated, and hanged. Among the things Sierra wrote as she folded up her blogging tent: "I have cancelled all speaking engagements. I am afraid to leave my yard. I will never feel the same. I will never be the same."
Nakashima's piece is more interesting for the questions it doesn't raise than those it does. Violent sexual threats against women writers and bloggers have become something of an issue du jour these days, garnering big stories in the Guardian, Salon,and now the Washington Post.But it's a little bit depressing to hear it framed so often in the same tired old discussions of "are women tough enough?" or "are women playing victim?" Of course women are tough enough for the blogosphere, and of course graphic and violent sexual threats against women are serious. What interests me isn't so much why some people choose to behave like livestock toward women in the blogosphere (answer: because they can), or even what can formally or legally be done to regulate it (answer: not much). What interests me is whether the blogosphere is different for women, and if it is, why.
E.J. Graff, writing recently at TPM Cafe, took a crack at this, suggesting that there is actually little difference between the harassment women face on the Internet and in the workplace. The comments made by her readers, and those of Lynn Harris at Salon, are illuminating in that some posters appear to be angrier at frightened women than they are at strong ones. In that spirit, Nick Denton accused Sierra of playing victim, claiming, "A cry of misogynism [sic] pretty much shuts off debate." And Michelle Malkin told women bloggers to stop whining and keep writing (right before submitting her own prizewinning entry from someone threatening to rape her entire family). Joan Walsh, also writing at Salon, tried to slice up this salami, without, well, slicing it right off: Walsh found herself "cringing" at Sierra's over-the-top fearfulness ("I don't think we can be fragile flowers about workplace sexism. Fight it, but don't take to your bed over it.") then concluded that "I've grown a thicker skin. I didn't want skin this thick."
The sniping between the women who insist that men just don't realize how awful this is and the men who feel silenced and attacked by those women is as pointless as it was when we bickered over the numbers ofwomen columnists, the online objectification of female law students, and pretty much every other tired old argument we have about whether women should run with the bulls or get out of Pamplona. Might we try, instead, to think through the question of why Internet threats feel different to some people, perhaps women more so, and at least discuss whether that fear seems reasonable? It's not a gender fight unless we reduce it to one. If we can't ultimately control for the hypersexualized criticism of women on the Web—and I doubt that we can—let's at least try to understand why an otherwise-tough woman might be terrified by it.
With all due respect to Graff, it seems to me that there are important differences between threats received over the Internet and sexual harassment at work. It starts, obviously, with a total lack of context. Women have accumulated at least some skills in figuring out when face-to-face sexual innuendo or threats are serious, joking, or pathological. True, we are sometimes tragically wrong. But for the most part, we can tell whether Jeff from accounting needs a restraining order or just a stern "no." An anonymous sexual threat on a blog could come from anywhere, and it's virtually impossible to determine whether or not the poster is serious. For the recipient, it's a bit like walking blindfolded through what might be a construction site, a retirement home, or a pick-up basketball game between two teams of recovering rapists.
Saying that all women should treat all anonymous violent threats as though they came from an old folks' home is neither smart nor rational. If it's true, as Denton suggests, that treating every threat as legitimate stifles real dialogue, then maybe we need to rethink how we talk to each other. But none of that makes death threats less scary, for men or for women. As Sierra herself later explained, in a "coordinated statement" with one for her detractors: "Are we willing to stake our mother/sister/daughter's life on a sexually and physically threatening photo or comment, simply because it appeared on the internet and therefore must be harmless?" Until there is some metric to sort the truly dangerous threats from the empty ones, women are not wrong to treat both with real caution. The Virginia Tech shootings are only the latest sobering reminder that violent writing can become violent action, and sometimes the difference is only obvious in hindsight.
The Internet simultaneously fosters both false intimacy and false isolation. That intimacy can be a good thing: It's why we feel that we "know" the writers we read frequently on the Web, but it's also why people leave their spouses for the beautiful Russian "supermodel" they met online last month. At the same time, the Web allows you to say things you've only dreamed of and threaten things you might never really dream of doing. It's that combination of factors that can be so fraught when it comes to sexual threats against women. Posters felt both that they knew Kathy Sierra or Jessica Valenti and rejoiced in the freedom to say things they would never have said face-to-face.
There's another aspect of sexualized Web threats that makes them particularly frightening for women: These are not just communications between the poster and the target. They can also serve as calls to action for truly crazy third parties. The threats against Sierra were frightening not just as threats but because, in combination with postings of her Social Security number and home address, they could be seen as incitement. And in a community that reaches the entire world, it's useful to recall that—male or female—you are only as safe as your most deranged critic.
Finally, Web threats are different because they collapse distinctions between the personal and the professional. If I receive a threatening letter at my office in D.C., I can send it through the shredder or forward it along to human resources, if not security. But it's hardly "crying victim" to say that something graphically violent that I can read in my home, with my children asleep upstairs, lands differently. My colleague Michael Agger wrote powerfully this week about the ways in which the line between personal and professional e-mails have become blurred. A violent sexual threat, even if sent to a journalist purely in response to something she wrote in her professional capacity, can become a very personal threat when it enters her home at 3 a.m.
By that same token, we need to recognize that the Internet has blurred the distinction between a new mom's whimsical blog about the new baby and Malkin or Ann Althouse blogging about politics. The intent of these writers is totally different, but on the Internet, that difference evaporates. Not every woman who starts a blog for the grandparents in Montana or poses for a snapshot has chosen to make herself (or her sexual attractiveness) the "issue," any more than the Rutgers women's basketball team did. Readers may certainly choose to treat all women as though they've agreed to be as public as Maureen Dowd, but it's not quite fair to hold every woman who blogs to that bargain. Dowd has some real institutional heft behind her. A law student who blogs from her dorm room didn't sign up for that plan.
No woman should have to choose between writing—either personally or professionally—and being told that her family will be raped. Sadly, that appears to be the current choice. But the important inquiry isn't whether she should drop out or not. Nor is it whether she should stop whining or keep screaming. Those questions are personal and subjective, and the answers will be as different as the writers who consider them. The better questions are: Are these threats serious? Why do they feel so serious? How often do they result in something serious? And what might we do about it? Gender differences are only the beginning of the important discussions—not the end of them.