There's No Such Thing As Digital-Only Torment
Why online harassment feels no different than street harassment for the women who experience it first-hand.
There seem to be only two sides when it comes to Gregory Alan Elliott. Either you believe that the courts failed Steph Guthrie and Heather Reilly when Elliott was found not guilty of harassment after sending them misogynistic tweets. Or, you believe Elliott’s life was ruined after two women accused him of harassing them online, when all he did was express a different opinion.
I’m biased. I’m biased because I’m friends with Guthrie, one of the two Toronto women who made those allegations. But I’m also biased because—and this is a big part of it—I am a human woman who exists on and off the Internet. So much of my work and social life is on the Internet and so, frequently, the impact of that bleeds into my tangible life. It does for most women who exist online and spend half their day working or firing off sick memes for fun into an endless online orbit, and the other half filing abuse reports to Twitter for every half-brained mouth-breather who sends 15 tweets replete with poetry like, “kill urself bitch.”
So I know I’m biased.
There are so many failures in this case, from Twitter’s seeming incapacity to handle reports of abuse, to the judge not understanding the platform, to the response by so many anti-feminists, who flooded Guthrie’s mentions with vicious attacks even though their side won.
Indeed, the judge found Elliott not guilty, despite the fact that he stated that Guthrie and Reilly weren’t lying about their allegations and did indeed feel harassed. The issue, instead, was a lack of reasonable proof to find Elliott guilty.
If the case teaches us anything, it’s that it’s still difficult to explain that for plenty of women, online harassment forces its way into the rest of our lives. It’s far easier to believe that the online and the physical exist in separate universes. For people who feel threatened in one world, it’s likely to feel the same in another. The medium changes, but the message is still the same: I feel like I have the right to make you feel unsafe.
That feeling of online abuse is hardly different from the feeling you get when it happens in the world away from your keyboard. Over the weekend, I went out with my friend Barbo to a bar deep in Toronto’s garbage nightclub district. We were having fun, dancing at a Justin Bieber dance party (don’t judge me, you don’t know my life) until some guy started slowly approaching me from behind. I whipped my hair faster and harder as my universal do-not-touch-me signal, but it didn’t work. He grabbed my hips and pulled me towards him, pressing his pelvis into my admittedly very cute butt. When I turned away and shoved him off of me, he swore at me and stormed off.
This, I think, is possibly how a militant anti-feminist is built: someone who doesn’t know how to approach a woman in public without assuming she is your property, who thinks an unwanted hand on a hip is innocent and not, say, intrusive; someone who then gets irate when you reject him in a tremendous way.
He circled us for the rest of the night, trying to go after another woman and her girlfriend. He didn’t touch me again, but he watched, and frowned, and waited.
When we left a few hours later, we bolted down the street to get poutine and then go home. We passed bar after bar with people spilling out of them after last-call, girls in little dresses smoking and playing with each other’s hair, boys screaming for cabs. We approached an intersection but before we could cross, a man stood in front of us blocking our way. He tried talking but I yelled over him saying , “No, no, no.” We tried to side-step him and instead of moving, he blocked us again and repeated, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I pushed him again and Barbo and I linked arms tighter, walking faster.
What’s striking about this is not that it happened because of course it happened. What’s notable is how similar face-to-face harassment feels to when someone does it online. The immediate threat of physical violence isn’t necessarily there, but it looms all the same. When men threaten women in person, when they stand too close to us on the subway when there are literally 50 seats right over there, Jeremy, or when we feel some guy’s hot breath on our necks in public, it feels so similar to when they send us an email or a tweet saying that we should be raped or murdered. What’s the difference if he says it online, or if he spits it to my face?
Online harassment is so difficult to explain because so much of the Internet feels temporal, distant, and unemotional. So much of it can be boiled down to petty schoolyard name-calling or petulant public fits. Most of it is just videos of sloths and then videos of women watching sloths and crying over sloths. But the Internet is still a beast that follows you around long after you log off: what’s easy for one person to forget immediately can crush another person for far longer. The Internet provides distance, sure, but it also manages to bring people closer than ever, even if that’s the last thing you want.
Because the nature of the Internet is one where you sit at your computer and stare into the void, while someone else in a very different place does the same, there’s a belief that your physical life can’t be altered by something that happens online. That, however, is a belief always held by the most privileged class, people who are so frequently white, male, cis, straight.
It’s easy to use the Internet without feeling threatened if your mere presence rarely puts you at risk. You know why we don’t hear as much from men when it comes to Twitter harassment? Because men, generally speaking, do not live their lives under threat the same way so many women do. Even on a different platform, a lot of the same privileges carry over.
The people who this affects, beyond Guthrie—who seems to be staying off Twitter entirely—and Reilly, are all the people who have felt like the world was closing in on them because someone online wouldn’t leave them alone. The verdict does little more than force people to use their backchannels even more, private routes where we tell each other who to avoid, who isn’t worth trolling, who will attempt to ruin your life if you reply to their harassment with something glib or sarcastic.
Months ago when a few men’s rights activists were harassing me online, I replied to one of them with something barely serious. Mere minutes later, my DMs were flooded with women warning me against saying anything else. “He’s actually dangerous,” one of them said. “Just block him. It’ll get worse if you don’t.” It was the only way out; Twitter had declined my abuse report when I filed it against him. I blocked him, but saw plenty of screengrabs of him continuing to threaten me and my physical presence.
When the verdict was announced last week, some of Elliott’s supporters were claiming the crux of the case was defending freedom of speech, that Elliott was being punished merely for disagreeing with women. What’s lacking in this argument is that there’s a difference between disagreeing with someone and disagreeing on a loop, using veiled threats that target a specific group. A differing opinion is one thing; a sexist remark, or a racial slur, or a warning masked as a different opinion is harassment, and it’s fucking terrifying.
There are some weak differences, at least, between on and offline harassment. Online harassment has an added bonus of leaving a trail, slightly more so than what happens IRL. When a man gropes me at a bar, I can’t show people his name and say, “Stay away from this guy,” and if I go to the bouncer, they can try to kick him out but they can’t keep him out forever. Online, at least, I can take a screengrab and save an email and try to get help from online communities who work against harassment. But isn’t that just the weakest of victories?
The feelings are the same. You’re trapped, you’re worried this will escalate into something you can’t outrun, you don’t want this person to know where you live or who’s in your family. People will blame you for this regardless—Were you wearing a short skirt? vs. Were you trolling him?—and your recourse is limited. People feel bad for you, sure, but no one can really do anything. So, you try to block it out, and move on.
I know what the other side thinks about this because they’ve told me over the last few days, loudly, frequently, in my Twitter mentions. I know they think women are making a big fuss over the mere presence of men online, but surely that’s too simplistic. If women react strongly to online harassment, it’s only because it’s just another mutation of what we already know, another version of something we already steel ourselves against when we go outside. It’s only because the routine is so familiar, so boring, so steady, that there’s nothing left to do but yell as loud as you possibly can, “No, no, no.”