opinion

Writer forced off social media after rape threats against her 5-year-old daughter.

On Wednesday, feminist writer and founder of Feministing.com Jessica Valenti told the world she’s taking a break from social media after receiving a rape and death threat directed at her five-year-old daughter.

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The scariest part of this story is that it took someone threatening to rape Valenti’s five-year-old daughter, for the abuse to be considered a ‘step too far’.

I can deal with a lot of things, I’ve taken a lot of abuse over the years. But my child? No.

It makes me wonder how many other ‘steps’ Valenti had to stomach before her daughter was mentioned.

Surely there were thousands of abusive, violent, hurtful, damaging messages, that came before the threat to rape her child that we should also consider steps too far?

According to a study by the organisation Working to Halt Online Abuseof the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012, 72.5 percent were female.

An article entitled Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet, written by Amanda Hess and published in 2014, was one of the first acknowledgements of cyber-misogyny.

The article showed how female writers are targeted relentlessly, as if it’s just part of the job description.

“Amanda, I’ll fucking rape you. How does that feel?” – in response to one of Hess’ articles.

“I hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” –  to technology writer Kathy Sierra because she blogs about software, coding, and design.

“If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.” – to atheist commentator Rebecca Watson, for calling out about sexism in the skeptic community

But you don’t have to be a feminist, or a writer, to face abuse online. Just being a woman is enough.

“I couldn’t go home for five days. I couldn’t be alone, and I was really scared. I was getting all these messages from people, and that was the most frightening thing — people were just bombarding me, abusing me, and saying I was in the wrong.” – Olivia Melville was a victim of online abuse through Tinder. Her photograph was shared around the internet (not by her) and she received messages calling her fat, a slut, and threatening rape.

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Online harassment is an enormous issue for all women. Post continues below video. 

It’s as if online abuse is an unfortunate but accepted ‘risk factor’ of being female and having a social profile. Like sunburn is the painful side effect of a tropical holiday.

Its prevalence means it’s too often ignored or disregarded. This, in turn, makes it seem ‘accepted’.

There’s also the fact that it’s so easy to do, and so easy to do anonymously.

No one knows if the perpetrator of this abuse is sitting thousands of miles away in a basement, or living right next door.

And it is abuse. Just like physical abuse, online threats and harassment can cause extreme damage. The only difference being, the wounds are emotional.

If a man threatened to rape a 5-year-old girl in a playground, or as she was walking down the street with her mother, he would be charged. He would be arrested for stalking or abuse. Maybe he’d be put on a watch list, of people dangerous to young children.

His defence? That her mum said or wrote something he didn’t agree with? It would be laughed at. At the very least, he would be named and shamed.

But not online. Online, a man can threaten to rape and murder while hiding behind the interface.

How many ‘steps too far’ do there need to be before something is changed? Before online abuse is seen as hateful and as damaging as physical abuse? And law enforcement, and operators of social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, make real progress in preventing and punishing the perpetrators of this abuse, just like they do to perpetrators of physical abuse?

The onus should not be on Jessica Valenti to take some time off of social media.

Women should not be expected to ignore, or accept, threats of violence and rape as a ‘consequence’ for having a social profile.

The consequences should be felt by the cowards hiding behind the keyboards. They are the ones inflicting real pain and causing real fear. And they wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it if they weren’t hiding behind their computer screens.

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