The Perilous Life of a Woman Writer Online

I have been blogging consistently since 2004 and I began getting paid for my written words in 2012. Though I have published a novel, have appeared in anthologies and journals, and speak publicly, most of my content appears online. My work has been featured in the digital spaces of publications like TIME, EBONY, Salon, Washington Post, BlogHer, and more.

Over the years, I have learned that being a woman writer means engaging in regular acts of defiance. Having a “voice” and being unafraid to use it, as a woman, is revolutionary. Still. In 2015. Feeling free enough to even engage oneself in independent thoughts, devoting the time and energy to articulate and formulate a cohesive piece, and finally being brave enough to share it with people all over the world are no small feats, regardless of gender identity. But being a woman who chooses to engage in this process means opening oneself up to specific backlash generally meant to silence you from ever speaking out again. It is discouraging, to say the least, and there are those of us who will not go down without fight while completely understanding why other simply walk away from it all.

In order to understand how far we have NOT progressed as a society, particularly when it comes to sexism, we can begin with looking at the treatment of women who write and publish their work online. There is no topic a woman can write about that will afford her refuge from the risks of backlash, so let us not focus on the content being the inspiration for the ire. A woman can write a recipe for brewing the best beer and if she publishes it online, there’s a good chance at least one person will have a negative, likely gender-based response, for example.

There are, in my opinion, four major responses/ reactions to women writers that I see happen to women of all ages, races, classes, religions, and sexual orientations. These are various methods of silencing women that are regularly employed in online spaces. Simply identifying as a woman makes one vulnerable to any one or combination of these:

  • Superficial, Aesthetic-Based Insults/Slurs
  • Intellectual Criticism
  • Threats/Wishes of Violence
  • Plagiarism

Superficial, Aesthetic-Based Insults/Slurs

In a society that pressures women to focus more on how they look than what they say, image matters in ways it absolutely should not. If a woman’s physical presentation does not fit into an incredibly specific aesthetic ideal, she is immediately fair game for insults about her looks. And when she does, they will still find something to comment on, like one eyebrow not being well-arched enough.

Aesthetic insults are often worse for women of color, older women, larger women (in height and weight), trans women, and disabled women. Unfortunately, these insults are often effective because 1) we’re human beings and words do hurt; and 2) many of us have not been able to fully divest from the societal pressure put on women to look our “best”, so yeah, it gets to us. And who really wants to be called a “worthless cunt” or “stupid bitch” every single time an opinion is expressed, or have “ugly, man-hating feminist” hurled at them as a “slur” simply because you’re writing about an issue related to women?

There are only so many insults and slurs a woman can take before she gets discouraged from even posting her ideas, so unless she ignores the comments on the piece itself, those emailed to her, or those tweeted or added to Facebook statuses, this particular silencing tactic might work. The worst part about this? They don’t have anything to do with what she has written, which shows complete disregard for her intelligence and/or writing skills.

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Intellectual Criticism

Intellectual criticism is one of the most blatant silencing tactics used against women writers. Calling women “stupid”, “ignorant”, “dumb”, or whatever other insults, without fully reading what was written seems like the new masturbation material. Seriously. These men, primarily, log onto these sites, barely glance at what was written, and congregate in the comments sections or the women’s Twitter mentions just to beat off together, aroused by the thrill of insulting stranger women.

The attacks levied against women who are quite brilliant and whose arguments we incredibly well-articulated are rooted in the disbelief that women can ever make sense. No one is suggesting that one has to agree with every argument presented, but to outright deny a woman’s intelligence simply because you don’t agree with her is absurd.

Men are not immune to this treatment, but I have certainly observed that men are given more leeway to have differing opinions and other men are more willing to engage in respectful discourse about their disagreements. Women are not usually afforded the same respect. Hyperbolic reactions like “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read in my entire life” are easy to spot in the comments sections of women’s articles online and it isn’t until another man cosigns what the woman says do the insulting assholes decide that maybe it’s worth it to actually discuss the arguments made in the comments.

Threats/Wishes of Violence

Women are subjected to some of the most vile, violent threats in online spaces and it is simply disgusting. And if you are a woman of color, you can expect the vitriol to increase nearly exponentially. Women and young adults experience the most harassment on social media and women report being stalked more and having more intensely negative reactions to their online treatment. Many suggest that women simply ignore the abuse, but that is no kind of viable solution, so I wish people would stop suggesting it.

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If a woman doesn’t use canola oil and opts for vegetable oil in a recipe, she might have someone comment “I hope you burn in a deep fryer!” I mean, it’s really that bad.

Online harassment of women is one of the most serious issues that few people take seriously. Neither the operators of platforms nor the police do little to protect us from the verbal abuse, stalking, doxxing, and threats of in-person violence. It can take years for anyone to get any response at all.

This particular silencing tactic is highly effective because one never knows what is serious and what is not. In this age of free and easy information access, anyone can find you and cause you harm. How does one simply dismiss a vulgar threat or wish of violence because it was typed and not said to one’s face? And when you’re a mother and people introduce your children into it, the fear escalates significantly. A woman may easily decide to never write anything again if doing so means putting her family at risk.

Plagiarism

One of the most insidious silencing tactics is to simply take what a woman writes, repackage it, and present it as one’s own work to achieve more recognition and accolades than the original writer. This is often a tactic used against marginalized women (Trans woman, WoC, disabled women, etc). Women who lack access to mainstream outlets or who are not paid/endorsed by larger organizations, institutions, or firms are particularly vulnerable to this type of silencing.

Inherent in this type of plagiarism is the belief that the woman who produced the content is not worth attributing credit and that her work is better off in someone else’s hands or name. One has to believe that the creator does not need or deserve to be heard herself, for whatever reason. Black women writers who concentrate their work on persona blogs, for example, often find that White/non-Black people and Black men with more access to outlets plagiarize their work. We often have so many “journalists” and media types following our blogs and Twitter feeds, mining for content and ideas so they can flip it around and produce “ground-breaking” work… that they stole from us.

People of all genders and races engage in this type of silencing abuse because, again, they do not believe women’s voices are valuable or opinions viable. It is painful to pour your energy into a piece, share it, and invite discourse only to see that someone basically ripped your entire concept and nearly republished your content verbatim.

Do people have similar thoughts and writing styles? Yes. Do we exist in a rapid-fire response time when every outlet wants to be the first and get the most hits? Yes. Can there be similarities and overlap? Of course. I’ve seen accusations of plagiarism when none existed and that isn’t fair. However, when it is blatant that people with more power, privilege, and access take from disenfranchised women, we have to call it what it is: abuse.

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I write all of this to say that writing is a passion of mine and I won’t ever be silenced. I have a voice and intend to use it for as long as I am able. A lot of younger women seek advice from me about being a writer and how I got to where I am and I think it is important that they understand the rather dark, ugly side of being a woman writer in these spaces. If you are mentally/emotionally prepared to deal with this, then charge forward.

We have to keep fighting until this abusive culture dissipates and a lot of that work relies on your bravery. Let’s continue to support women writers and challenge, call out, and clap back at those who engage in abusive silencing.

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