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  • Anonymity & Misogyny Online: How It's Pushing Us Out
This blog was featured on 09/22/2017
Anonymity & Misogyny Online: How It's Pushing Us Out
Written by
Andrea Wrobel
September 2017
Written by
Andrea Wrobel
September 2017

As young, emerging writers, it is vital for us to take chances, putting ourselves out there for the world to see our work. The internet provides potential for us to do so, with online contests, boards, and blogs that connect us with an international community of sayers and doers. On that hopeful note, I entered a tournament-style short story contest called “Indie Writers’ Deathmatch,” which is run by Broken Pencil magazine and, lucky enough, my story was one of eight accepted to compete against the others.

The competition is heavily vote-based; two stories go against each other in each round. Visitors are welcome to comment on the board below; likes and dislikes about both stories emerged in my first round, and even a couple personal attacks. Here, I noted how each negative comment came from only anonymous commenters, to which “someone” (their chosen name) replied: “anonymity makes the internet great!”

And this is the whole “point” of a Deathmatch, isn’t it? This is what I signed up for. It's described as a contest where authors are encouraged to defend their stories, so I was wholeheartedly built up to combat all my naysayers. But it quickly moved away from this, becoming less and less about my story and more about how big of a mistake it was that I'd entered this contest because my male opposition would probably “mount [me] like a blow-up doll” in the next round.

Internet anonymity allows individuals to live behind a guise where they are able say whatever they want. People are able to say mean, disheartening things when they believe it won’t be linked back to them. As we move towards a lifestyle that’s living online, however, total anonymity is becoming less and less likely. Even the author of the above “rape joke,” as it was deemed, was named on the board. But knowing the person's name didn't change much. We’re hearing more and more stories about online harassment, cyberstalking, and cyberbullying, and the results are harrowing. Depression. Self-harm. Suicide. I can say for a fact that no matter how strong you are, when you receive personal attacks, especially one that includes pro-rape “jokes” and jabs at your character from people you’ve never met, it’s impossible not to take some of that to heart.

While this is my first run-in with misogyny online, this is the same thing that has happened before, to other women, with far more detrimental results. This act of cyberbullying and online harassment should not and cannot be tolerated. Look at what’s happened before: Amanda Todd, a fifteen-year-old who was bribed and abused via the Internet, committed suicide because of the depression she felt. Fourteen-year-old Hannah Smith also committed suicide after being cyberstalked on Ask.fm, and seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons attempted suicide and then passed away in the hospital after speaking out online about being gang-raped. Even our fellow artists feel it: Baltimore-based Lindsay Bottos has a project called Anonymous (see above photo) that attempts to re-appropriate the negative and anonymous personal attacks she gets daily...from strangers.

These comments are not okay.

Comments defending my character to strangers who haven’t even given me a chance is not the competition I wanted to be a part of. As my story made it to the semifinals and, as the only female writer, I got picked on and personally attacked for being “a young buck,” “naïve,” “an immature brat,” “annoying,” and for lacking manners and being ungracious. Words of this nature were not thrown around with my competitors. Comments even pointed to my relationship with my mother and how I should “go sic her” on the Anonymous commenter because she’d openly been supporting me on the board.

When these comments occur and because I was one of four authors left, I felt a responsibility to participate in the board. I was invested in the competition. It is, after all, one opportunity for me to get myself out there, to have people read my work, and to attach my name to a piece I am proud of. But at what cost? I had little to say that I wasn’t afraid would get clobbered down by another comment about rape that would later be deemed a “joke” once labeled inappropriate. Because of this, it was mostly my partner on the board attempting to educate the anonymous about why it’s dangerous and inappropriate to write pro-rape, misogynistic words directed at strangers and, in return, was told to “take it easy.” You can read his thoughts on the Canadian Women’s Foundation blog, here.

Over the past two months, I’ve been enlightened as to the state of the “open Internet.” What I once thought of as opportunity is silencing me. Is it now that only those women willing to combat misogynist, pro-rape comments will have a place online? And if I choose not to be a part of it, will there be no place for me? Positive person that I am, I am betting that this can and will change. Trying not to let a hard lesson harden my heart, I know we can speak out, and be examples, as both sayers and a doers. If we don't, who will?

Broken Pencil’s Indie Writers' Deathmatch runs until Sunday, March 9th at midnight. Visitors can read my story, Eraser, and my opponent’s story, Idiot Without A Coat On, here.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Bottos.


* This post was originally published in March 2014.

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  • Mohana Rajakumar

    I completely agree. We need to speak out against misogyny no matter who is doing it and whether or not in person. For too long women have been allowing subtle ways to undermine our place in society. We should use our voices and empower others to do so as well.

  • Sandra Schmidt

    Thanks for the article. Very timely. I've had my encounters with troll-like people, on-line. I usually refute their comment logically, calmly, and without pulling punches. Then, I block them. Unfortunately for you in this contest, you were stuck, out "in the line of fire" for the life of the contest. You did good! And, you brought attention to this growing problem.

  • Janice M

    (Brian, I had very similar thoughts about that post.)

  • Brian Cauley


    HI Meg, I read your comments a few days ago and there are a few things that bother me about your response. First, I think it is great that you want to align with Andrea and offer advice. 

    What I think would be more helpful would be lending support.I agree that artists should stand by their work and their choices, and Andrea did just that. In the Deathmatch Andrea stood by her work and simply answered many questions from readers. Some artists don't like discussing (or don't want to) but Andrea managed to discuss her choices and it was very insightful and positive.

    When it came to many of the hateful, sexist, misogynist or otherwise negative comments, Andrea's engagement was always with a positive tone and one that seemed to come from a desire to educate.

    I understand that many people who are being harassed can't or won't engage, but I think Andrea's engagement was extremely courageous. There was positive change on the board and it spurred a lot of positive discourse. Now, I'm not naïve and know that not every engagement with harassment goes this way, but if the people who can engage don't engage, this kind of discourse will never happen.

    I'm not sure if you're aware, but suggesting Andrea made "errors" and attributing some of this to her being a "young writer" are the same kinds of comments that Andrea illustrates in her article. 

    You're right, the Internet is a place where rules are still being formed, and that means we need strong courageous people who are willing to speak-up to actually speak-up. I know Andrea's strength inspires me to speak out against harassment and I witnessed her actions do the same for others.

  • Jennifer L Myers

    Hi Andrea, 

    It's really too bad that there are so many men out there who hide behind their computers. This is the nature of cowardice. Unfortunately, there are plenty of men (and women) out there who resort to much more hateful tactics. I know this based on experience. I've found that by believing in myself, becoming stronger as a woman (and as a person), and finding the courage to stand up for myself, for what I believe in, and for what I know to be right, then the misogynistic and every other form of criticism, harassment and insult out there affects me less and less. This didn't happen overnight. It takes years of practice. Please don't be discouraged and always, always fight back. Words are more powerful than we know.

  • Lindsay ~ thank you for your blog post, and how sad how you were treated online.

    I look forward to taking a moment to read your work.

  • Lourdes Anllo-Vento

    I just happened to run into the great work of Jean Kilbourne on a related topic: the image of women in the media (including the internet). When you see her video,Killing us softly 4, it seems easy to understand where all this misogyny and sexualization-victimization of women comes from. We have to be willing, like you, to take a stand and combat our culture's treatment of females.

    Thank you, Andrea!

  • Pamela Olson

    Reminds me of a quotation we have in the South: "Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty, and the pig likes it."

  • Meg E Dobson

    My heart aches for you. There is a difference between entering a contest (winning by votes or not, after all that's what Goodreads is, right?) that judges your work and those that seek to judge from something other than your work. I think you did error out of naivety and in complete innocence. You've failed to remember the cardinal rule about critiques--never defend ever: make your notes, evaluate comments, judge relevance, and then use them or not. What they think never plays into it. You don't defend what you've released. BTW, anonymous gets zero and shouldn't even be read! I see no advantage to a contest concerning artistic worth of your work that needs you to defend.

    Engaging was a 2nd error. I'm not a young writer but even I know the tendency to flame is rampart in certain areas of the internet. EVEN GOODREADS! The internet is the Old West with no rules. And we don't want moral cops patrolling and blocking content. At least, I don't. It too often falls into one sided view points leading to things like concentration camps.

    As a young person on the internet, you know that. There is no point or worth in attempting to prove your gun (the nice euphemism) is bigger than theirs. My advice? Mark it up as painful lesson learned. Certainly never enter this contest again, unless you see true value in winning there. MOST IMPORTANTLY, LET YOUR WORK SPEAK FOR ITSELF. If your work needs a footnote, you kinda failed.

    Again, I sympathize with you so much. I cannot stand bullying or anonymous comments, but engaging won't ever prove her/his stupidity in his/her mind. You simply end up in the same muck and there isn't a playground cop in sight! MORE IMPORTANTLY, these tech creeps can find out a heck of a lot more about you than you ever can about them. You make yourself vulnerable to possible RL problems. (Attend a Writer's Police Academy's white collar sexual predator class and you'll never get on line again! Good luck getting in. It sold out in less than two hours. I got in my sheer luck this year on a lottery drawing.)

    Be careful out there. Be ever, so very careful out there! It isn't worth it.

  • Pamela Olson

    Another technique I have is responding to a troll by simply listing what stupid/inappropriate thing they did and following that with *ignores troll.* Example:

    Hophmi: "Baseless accusation featuring false equivalency"

    Pamela: *Ignores troll*

    The trick is to actually ignore them afterwards. They will try to insult you and goad you into continuing a pointless and draining conversation that wastes your precious time and energy. But we have better things to do.

  • Pamela Olson

    I lived in Palestine for two years and wrote a book about it. One Amazon reviewer wrote that my mother must be ashamed of me for "cavorting with terrorists" or something to that effect. My mom immediately commented that she had visited me in Palestine, seen what the situation was, and met my friends on both sides of the Green Line, and she was very proud of me. It was a pretty good smack-down. The troll never responded. :)

    But I've never endured anything like a rape joke. (Wait, that's not true, I did a long time ago after I was in the newspapers about some silly scandal involving a pathological liar, but they were so painfully stupid I just felt sorry for the morons. And they had nothing to do with me because it was just a bunch of people in a foreign country who knew nothing about me except some rather badly reported articles.) That is pretty horrifying, and I can see how it can feel very violating. Not only that, but afterwards, no matter how you respond, they can accuse you of being "over-sensitive" or "pushy" or any number of derailing words that are NEVER used against men.

    But as much as we can, we shouldn't let trolls shut us down. They are just sad people with nothing to offer but obscene spitballs. In general, try to ask moderators to ban anything rapey or otherwise misogynistic, racist, etc. Trolls should be blocked with no compunction whatsoever. Hell, I block people on my blog or Facebook all the time just for being stupid.

  • Janice M

    Hi Andrea,

    I have encountered the same thing online: rampant misogyny and pro-rape comments. As the other commenter Rosey Goodman mentioned, it seems to be growing at an exponential rate. Maybe it was always there and just appears to be growing, since it has a huge forum now, or maybe (my guess) at least some of it is attributable to a "backlash"--a la Susan Faludi--which grows the more women gain power in society. The viable thought of a female President has got to be terrifying to misogynists, and I think that's part of what's fueling all the anti-women's rights laws (rape insurance, databases of people who have had abortions, forced ultrasounds, etc.). To me the online misogyny is a piece of the larger puzzle called rape culture.

    Your reaction reminds me of so many times I myself have been surprised and then extremely saddened by misogyny I encounter day to day. I'm a human being, just going about my daily business. I'm a good person. And some men just harass me, cat call, make nasty comments or condescending sexual comments, not to mention all the disgusting billboards, magazines and Hooters I have to walk/drive by every day--it's a part of daily life and shouldn't be. I'm always surprised and then saddened when men are so nasty for no reason, I guess other than in a twisted attempt to affirm their own worth.

    Anyway you're definitely not alone. The feminist (non-woman-hating) community is also large on the internet. Connecting in this way helps me somewhat. Truly, I personally don't have any ultimate solution other than to write about my feelings. That's the only thing that helps me the most, though the best thing would be for all this garbage to just go away. Since the ultimate goal of misogyny is to make women invisible and silent, I guess writing is one of the best ways to deal with it.

  • Emilie Peck

    This is always so terrible to hear about. I've only come across a few bullies like the ones you've faced, and blocked/reported every one of them to the respective forums when I could. On tumblr, at least, you can track their IPs and have them blocked completely from sending further comments. They're cowards one and all. I'm not shy about voicing my opinion on their behavior and what I think of them personally based on their behaviors.

    This article reminds me a lot of a video done by one of my favorite YouTube STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) creators, Emily at The Brain Scoop. She's regularly exposed to sexist comments focusing more on her looks than the content of her videos, and overly sexual comments, too. If you're interested, here's her video on the subject.

  • Olga Godim

    Sheryl, thank you for posting Pete Morin's link. Interesting and educational.

  • Rosey Goodman

    Welcome to the real world of the nastiest sandbox one could be in -- the net.  Not for the faint of heart but damn, one helluva great place to explore the misogynistic underbelly that seems to be growing at an exponential rate. 

  • Sheryl J. Dunn

    I'm not sure that Rice's petition is the answer.

    Here's a link to Pete Morin;'s thoughts on the petition:


    I do think, however, that online companies that provide review capabilities have a duty to ensure that reviewers don't use multiple accounts, and that it's technologically possible to prevent most of the multiple accounts.

  • Karen Engelsen

    I recently made the decision to publish my historical fantasy under a male name, due in part to this kind of thing.  Combine trolling with the flagrant sexism in SFWA, and it made sense to do so.  

    Yeah, as a woman writer I should stand strong and work to combat this bull-puckey, but I've got better things to do with my limited time & energy.  

    Like write. 

  • Sheryl J. Dunn

    In response to the comment that many of the "hecklers" are women, it has always been true that many in an 'underclass' are the worst critics of the members of their class, or at least as virulent as other hecklers. Study after study has proven this.

    This doesn't help when it happens, of course, but knowing that it happens within other disadvantaged groups may help to understand it. 

  • Maureen Connolly

    I encourage all to sign Anne Rice's petition!

  • Sheryl J. Dunn

    I'm expecting to be targeted because of the topics of my novels (vigilantism and pedophilia), but I'm not sure I'm prepared for the misogyny that I know is rampant, but in my old age I've tried to ignore.

    Years ago, SF author, James Tiptree wrote under a pen name. Relatively recently, Rowling was advised to use her initials, something I'm considering.

    I do think we must stand proud, but having been the brunt of rampant discrimination years ago (one of the first group of women to enter law school), I know that no matter how much your mind says that it's not personal, your heart doesn't believe it. Plus, it affects your pocket book even if it doesn't hurt your feelings.

    Thanks for standing up to be counted.

  • Olga Godim

    Andrea, you got caught in a horrible situation, and I admire your courage to fight. But strictly speaking for myself, I'd never enter a contest driven by votes and comments of readers. In such contests, the winner is not the best but the one with the largest number of the loudest friends. There are different online communities, some are very friendly and polite. My recommendation: avoid Broken Pencil. If they allow online harassment of this kind, they're not a place for us.

  • Ana Bastow

    This is becoming a huge problem and we need to stop it now. I myself stopping writing for a whole year out of a mean spirited review. I came back but God only knows how many nascent writers are writing for themselves just to avoid this kind of abuse. Anne Rice has started a petition along those lines. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/anne-rice-protests-bullying-amazon-petition

    But the problem is that we need some laws to held accountable people that think that anonymity is a good excuse for harassment.

    I'm sorry you are going through this *hugs*

  • Maureen Connolly

    See Anne Rice's petition to Amazon on this very problem.

  • For what little comfort it's worth, this is happening across the Internet and not just to women. (Small comfort, I know.) Grist had an article (http://grist.org/climate-energy/new-study-internet-trolls-are-often-machiavellian-sadists/) on "trolling" vis a vis climate change and quoted from some recent studies of Internet behavior, specifically just who the anonymous, nasty commenter is. Basically, trolling is highly associated with Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), psychopathy (lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others), as well as the amount of time spent on line. Some online magazines are limiting the use of comments (at the Blue Lyra Review, where I'm an editor, all comments are screened prior to publishing - - we've gotten Jew-hating comments that were caught before posted) and others, like Popular Science, are getting rid of comments altogether.  Andrea, the comments you received are horrible, and I don't want to sound as if I'm blaming the victim (you NEVER should have received those comments and neither should any other writer), but at this point, I'd never enter a tournament, comment-driven situation, and I wouldn't suggest others do it unless they were prepared for how they'll respond to the attacks.

  • Suzy Soro

    I've had more problems with women than I have with men. And women I've known for years online have turned into bullies. I've stopped engaging with them on all social platforms because there's no point. I've had a few run-ins with men, but the men weren't as openly hostile as the women. I'm wondering how many of the anonymous people are actually women. It's high school all over again.