“What a joke… You deserve ridicule for your idiotic ‘rape culture’ statements.”
This is how it began. I received this email last Saturday in response to one of my recent articles which unpacked the rhetoric of American rape culture. I was shocked, at first, by the coarse language and threatening tone of the message, which was sent to my Emerald email address by a total stranger who seemed to be using a fake name.
But as I read through it, a familiar feeling settled over me: resignation. I kept thinking to myself: “I should have expected this. Of course I should have expected this.”
The gendered harassment and intimidation of female journalists is a rampant problem facing the news media industry today. In one study from UT Austin, 73 of 75 female journalists reported that they regularly faced sexist harassment online. In addition to the critiques and trolling that male journalists also receive, women who write often face slews of death and rape threats, sexual harassment, and online stalking. These women frequently receive aggressive photos of genitalia, objectifying commentary on their bodies, and other threats designed to frighten them away from writing.
Most of these comments would disturb the average reader. One journalist recalls being told things such as “rot in hell. You’re a c-nt. Maybe you wouldn’t be so mad if you weren’t so ugly.” The email I was sent included similarly misogynistic language: “Innocent until proven guilty, statute of limitations, and total silence by c-nts like you who give the actual rapist bill (sic) Clinton and his enabling wh-re wife a pass.”
When messages like this become hostile enough, female journalists are often forced to “think twice before taking a stance that could be controversial, and they occasionally opt not to publish anything rather than deal with the abuse.” At that point, gendered fear-mongering becomes a legitimate barrier to freedom of speech. I myself had to think long and hard about whether I was willing to put myself at risk by publishing the content of the hateful email I received last week.
Trump’s assaults on the news media have only increased the frequency of attacks on women in the media. Trump has been quoted dozens of times making misogynistic remarks towards female journalists, when he chooses to acknowledge them at all, including comments made two weeks ago to ABC News’ Cecilia Vega: “She’s shocked that I picked her. She’s like in a state of shock… That’s OK. I know you’re not thinking. You never do.”
Statements like these are designed to belittle and discredit women. Despite my qualifications as a journalist — one would assume being a PhD student of American politics and culture would give me enough authority to write my own well-reasoned opinion in a college newspaper — I was mocked as if I hadn’t robustly defended my argument:
“Clearly you haven’t travelled the world much if you think we have a rape culture in the USA. You are full of sh-t because you favor emotion over facts. Wake up and get out of your safe space. There’s reality out there… You are not only a hipocrit (sic) but an ignoble person devoid of knowledge.”
It would seem that many of Trump’s tricks have been picked up by his supporters, as evidenced by the closing of the email I received last week: “I hope someone comes to ruin your life because they don’t agree with your views (sic) Enjoy being Trumps (sic) b-tch.” The irony of his attack is that it represents yet another example of the exact rape culture he claimed did not exist. This particular reader referred to the Kavanaugh hearings continuously throughout his email in a way that aptly demonstrated the role fear-mongering plays in maintaining the rhetoric of rape culture: “[Dr. Ford is a] De Ford is s partisan wh-re member of the resistance and deserves zero respect.”
Aggressively attacking women who dare to speak out about misogyny is just another way to maintain systemic power over women. As Ellen Weinstein put it, “Abuse can also manifest itself in invisible ways: In the stories that have gone untold or unexplored by women because the risks of telling them, psychologically or physically, require too damn much.”
I have pushed forward with the publication of this article because I do not want to contribute to the ongoing erasure of these gendered intimidation practices. These hostile messages are rarely seen by anyone but the woman being harassed. Female journalists — and especially women of color who also experience racial targeting — put themselves at risk any time they call attention to these issues because newsrooms and legal systems have often failed to provide adequate support for female reporters.
News organizations, law enforcement, and men must learn to stand behind female journalists. Until that happens, “c-nts” like me will be out here trying to do our work alone: writing what we need to write, and resigning ourselves to the inevitable.