How to be a woman online

In our first Girl Guide, Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism explains how to fight internet trolls

Arvida Bystrom iCry
Arvida Bystrom (http://arvidabystrom.se)

Is there a way to be a bad feminist? How do you survive in the male art world? What does it mean to be a female writer? In conjunction with our Girls Rule issue, some of our favourite writers, activists and artists will be musing on these questions for Girl Guides, a series of how-tos and thinkpieces on the state of modern womanhood. To kick off the series, we asked Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates how to fight the online haters. 

This time, it's personal

“Fuck you, stupid slut.” “The only reason women were put on this planet is so we could fuck you. Please die." “Laura Bates will be raped at 9pm. I am serious." And my personal favourite: “There is no such thing as sexism. Now get off your high horse and change your tampon.” These are just a tiny selection of the joys that have come my way since I started writing about women on the internet.

If they’ve taught me anything, it’s that you can’t predict how you’ll react. Sometimes the most vitriolic are almost laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes the most subtle make your skin crawl. That’s why it’s so hard for the well-meaning commentariat or the enthusiastic twitterati to tell you what to do. The kindly intentioned: “You know they’d never actually do anything, right?” is all very well and good in broad daylight, when your rational mind is perfectly able to agree with the sentiment, but we’re not all rational all the time, and somehow the images of what has been threatened still play across your mind late at night.

rape threat
Another stunning piece of trolling, this time directed at campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez

The problem with being a woman on the internet isn’t just the abuse. It’s the crushing weight of all the people who want to tell you how to deal with it. So my best advice is this: rip up the rulebook. Do exactly what feel right for you. Do anything at all that makes you feel better, whether it means abandoning all technology and retreating to a nuclear bunker with nothing but a tin of cold baked beans and a fork, or coming out fighting with all guns blazing and taking them on at their own game. Trolling is all about affecting you. So the solution has to be specific to you too. It’s personal.

Do feed the trolls – if you want to

We’ve all heard the old adage: “Don’t feed the trolls”. But in recent months, it’s almost become more of a weapon to wield against victims than a snub to the perpetrators. It’s started to take on a phantom second clause, unspoken but implied: “Don’t feed the trolls (or else you’re really bringing it on yourself).” But dig a little deeper and what does "not feeding the trolls" really mean? Backing off, taking abuse lying down, just accepting that it’s part of your online experience? For many women, that’s just not going to cut it. Check out Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy’s Twitter feed for a masterclass in witty retaliation, from cheerfully advising her abusers that “it’s late Mum, go to bed” to bombarding them with pictures of kittens until they beg for mercy. Other women retweet the abuse, letting their followers teach the trolls a lesson – a technique that worked phenomenally in the case of one abuser of academic Mary Beard, who became cringingly contrite when another follower threatened to tell his mum.

“When I got my first wave of graphic threats I was so scared I couldn’t move"

Others give their reaction a creative spin, exposing the sad realities of their abusers in hilariously barbed and clever artistic responses. Like the fabulous “Thank You Hater!” from Clever Pie and Isabel Fay, or performance artist Louise Orwin’s “Pretty Ugly”, which deconstructs the phenomenon of teenage girls being trolled about their appearance on YouTube. And for all we’re told about “not rising to it", it’s difficult to suppress unadulterated glee when you watch Amanda Palmer tackling the Daily Mail head on for a particularly trollish article about her boobs with the song “Dear Daily Mail”. They say adversity breeds creativity, and it’s true in the digital age too – it’s partly the hostility of trolls we have to thank for leading to fab projects like ‘gURLS’ – a collective event for self-defining women, celebrating online feminist art.

But if shouting back’s not for you, that’s cool too. Block them, switch off, change accounts, submit a report, delete unopened – these are all techniques that work for those who respect their own headspace too much even to dignify a troll with their attention. And don’t let anybody tell you you’ve let the side down, or responded "wrong". There is no right way to react to online abuse, just what’s right for you.

Take it to the police

And if online harassment is getting to you, there’s plenty you can do to combat that horrible feeling of helplessness. If somebody threatens to kill or rape you, it’s just as illegal online as it is in real life. Report that crap to the police. It’s not weak, it’s not overreacting – it’s literally just the law, and you don’t have to put up with it. If you’re facing a particularly bad patch of trolling, you can make yourself feel more protected by taking some simple steps to beef up your online security. Use a Pipl search to find any long-forgotten contact information about you on the web that trolls could get hold of and remove it. Change all your passwords and make sure they’re all different so that even if one of your accounts is hacked it doesn’t give access to any others. Add in letters and numbers to make them more secure. Lock down privacy settings on social media accounts, photos and information. Set up a Google Alert with your name or company name, so you’ll be notified if somebody’s posting about you on the web.

And don’t be afraid to talk about it. When I got my first wave of graphic threats I was so scared I couldn’t move, and all the well-meaning advice in the world didn’t have much of an effect on my racing imagination. But what did help, a lot, was talking to other women who’d received threats online. Somehow, as soon as I heard how similar their experiences had been to mine - even to the extent that we’d received some of the same messages word-for-word - the fear went out of it for me. Somebody telling you explicitly how they’ll kill you becomes a lot less terrifying when you realise they’ve copy/pasted the same message to countless other people.

Bottom line? Just do what works for you. And don’t let anybody tell you any different.

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