Some of us may occasionally take social media breaks in order to make more productive use of our time or break our technology addictions. But feminist writer Jessica Valenti left social media for another reason: Because of online harassment. And that's an issue facing a disturbing number of women on the internet — particularly those who can't escape the online world because their jobs actually depend on being part of it.
Valenti is the founder of the feminist blog Feministing, a columnist for The Guardian, and the author of several books about feminism. A lot of feminists probably owe their feminist awakenings at least partially to her, and it's thanks to online publications and social media that many of us have heard her ideas. But it's also through these platforms that opponents have been able to attack her without punishment.
On Wednesday, Valenti tweeted that she received a rape threat directed toward her 5-year-old daughter. "That this is part of my work life is unacceptable," she wrote. She said in an Instagram post that is now private that the threat came over Instagram, according to Mic. In another tweet, she called on law enforcement to do more about online harassment.
Valenti may experience more harassment than the average woman due to her prominence as a feminist figure, but the problem she's calling out affects a huge number of women all over the world. For example, over three quarters of women under age 30 in Australia have been harassed online, according to a survey by the digital security firm Norton. And a 2014 Pew Research survey found that women are more likely to experience the most severe forms of harassment online, including stalking and threats of sexual violence.
Women in Valenti's profession are particularly vulnerable. According to the Women's Media Center, nearly two thirds of women journalists have experienced online harassment, and over a quarter have received threats to their family and friends.
This poses a conundrum: The very place where some women are expected to do their jobs — the internet — is also the place where they're likely to be mistreated. It's the equivalent of expecting women to work in an office where complete strangers regularly walk in the door and begin spewing vitriol at them — something which would undoubtedly be considered unacceptable. As President Obama mentioned in a speech at South by Southwest, online harassment of women stems from the same place — and has the same effect — as sexism directed toward them in public. But, as Valenti points out, online harassment is more often tolerated and less often prosecuted.
As of now, if you're being harassed online, you can report the person to the social media site where it's occurring, but there's not always much that the law can do except in special cases of harassment, like cyber-stalking. Even then, University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron told Mic that there are only 30 to 50 cyberstalking prosecutions a year. She also said many people have harassed Valenti in similar ways on a regular basis without punishment.
The fact that trolling is driving women away from social media even when their careers depend on it should tell us something about how serious this issue is — and how badly we need to address it.