Targets and Perpetrators: Hate-Reading Women on the Internet


She Deserved It

As we observe these constant aggressions toward women in the public eye, we try to convince ourselves that no one would ever say those things about us because we aren't like those women. We aren't famous. We aren't rich. We aren't well known. We haven't made it big. Not us! We still struggle. We are humble. We know better. But eventually, after we've spent enough time immersed in a culture where the things we once considered to be the good (or simply harmless) parts of life are just more fodder for some caustic blogger, commenter, or Facebook "friend," we realize, no, we're not safe. So we put up our asterisks, online and off, because we don't want anyone to mistakenly believe that we deserve that kind of negative attention.

"She deserved it." It's the exact excuse used by the people who hate-read when they rip apart successful women of all stripes. They defend their behavior by saying that the subject is the one to blame. They say, "She put herself out there." And you know who would agree with that statement? The guys who take "creepshots" (sexualized photos that are taken of unsuspecting women's bodies—mostly their butts, legs, and breasts—while they are out in public) and then post them on Reddit. Or your friendly neighborhood street harasser. "Why would you put it on the internet if you didn't want attention?" sounds a hell of a lot like, "Why would you dress like that if you didn't want attention?" to me.

Defenders of creepshots believe that by being attractive and in public, a woman is asking for attention, and therefore she has no right to be upset about what kind of attention she gets. And similarly, we believe that when a woman shares her good news or talks about her life in a positive way that she's doing it for attention, to show off, or because she wants commentary from everyone. But women don't post on social media for attention; we post because we have something to say. Because in so many other areas of our lives, we're denied a platform. The internet feels like a godsend for those who can't get past the gatekeepers and be heard in real life. But we can't believe a woman would be posting for herself, or for the attention of a select audience. And even if we can believe it, we don't care; we buy into the idea that she's a woman, so merely existing in public is enough to make her public property.

And it really is "we" who buy into that idea. Women are the biggest users of social media, which means we are the most likely targets... but we're also the most likely perpetrators. While much has been written about the way misogynistic men harass women who write about feminism or social justice online, most of the vitriol that is directed at lifestyle bloggers (those who write about fashion, food, family, healthy living, or weddings) comes from other women.

If we see men harassing women online, we're disgusted; if we see women doing it, we shrug and move on. We say, "Just ignore it," and, "Don't feed the trolls," putting all of the responsibility on the person being attacked, and none on the attacker. And we say nothing to our friends who are proud of their hate-reading habits. But why would we? Both men and women have been conditioned to believe that women are objects, so both men and women are going to treat them as such. 

Much of the time, when a woman is harassed in a public forum, her "crime" or the thing for which "she should accept some responsibility" (another go-to defense) is simply doing something that women aren't supposed to do: wearing a short skirt, enjoying sex, putting her work out there, talking about herself, or being proud of her life. Just like street harassment isn't really about the way she's wearing that dress, complaining about the way women talk about their success isn't really about the way she said it. It's about power.

Don't Be An Asterisk

This isn't just hurting celebrities or bloggers; it's sending a clear message to other women who are reading, commenting, and observing these toxic messages. The number of newer bloggers who ask me how I deal with criticism is really upsetting; their expression always says, "I'm afraid if I share my life or my opinions online that will happen to me too."

I've watched all my blogging friends water down their content, and everyone reading knows the reason why. And so it's no longer bloggers who hesitate to be heard; now we see it on other sites. On Facebook or the comment section of websites, women put up their asterisks promising their life isn't that good, or just lurk in the shadows, not saying anything at all out of fear of being torn apart. Considering the number of privately shared emails or photos or videos that go viral after being taken without permission, we have good reason to believe our safe zone is shrinking.

If we speak publicly against this kind of negative attention, we're told we should get over it, that it's a compliment. It's not a fucking compliment. Having people you've never met rip apart your life is no more a compliment than having a stranger say filthy things to you while you're walking down the street. Having vitriol spewed at you and those you love isn't a sign you've "made it." It's a sign that our culture is toxic toward women.

Telling women that they should be flattered is just another way of saying that we only exist for attention and therefore should appreciate any attention that we get.

So we put on a longer skirt, we don't send the status update, we don't start the blog, we don't leave the comment, we don't ask for the promotion, we don't stand up for ourselves. Instead, we put up the asterisk in conversations and hope that it will protect us from those who are bothered by our audacity to exist—to have bodies and voices and the courage to aim for contentment or success or a happy life. We apologize in advance.

Let's do something radical. Let's stop putting up asterisks, and let's stop expecting other women to do it and getting pissed off when they don't. If you tell me you had a great day, or only post good things on Facebook, (no asterisk), I'm not going to assume your intention is to trick me into thinking your life is perfect.

I don't need you to tell me all the reasons your life isn't perfect; I'm just going to think that you, like everyone, deal with enough shit in your life and that today you wanted to celebrate the good things. I'm not going to tell all my friends, "OMG SHE NEEDS TO STOP ACTING LIKE HER LIFE IS SO PERFECT BECAUSE I KNOW IT'S NOT." Because, well...duh. Of course it's not perfect. It should go without saying. So let's stop saying it.

Because overall, my life is good.

Rachel Wilkerson is one of A Practical Wedding's 2013 writing interns, and blogs at The House Always Wins. This post originally appeared on A Practical Wedding.


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