"It's been 17 years since I was first called a 'hore' on the internet and in that time I've watched gendered cyberhate move out of the fringes and into the mainstream." Photo: Stocksy
I got my first rapey email back in 1998 – the year Will Smith was getting' jiggy wit it, mixed tapes still contained some actual tape and Monica Lewinsky was becoming "patient zero" of what would turn out to be an online bullying and shaming epidemic.
I was writing feminist, gonzo-style columns for The Australian and had just started including an email address at the end of my work.
"You should have a good arse f--- lasting two hours every day," wrote one of my very first internet haters. "That would set you right! You look like a tart desperate for cock or maybe you think you're cool or funky? All feminists should be gangraped to set them right. Plus work in a hore house for a year or so."
Yep, that's how he spelled "whore". And no, in the original he didn't give the f-word modesty hyphens.
My reaction was part alarm, part ewww and part sheepish (because back then I secretly did think I was cool and funky). Mostly, however, I was intrigued.
While I'd received grumpy letters from newspaper readers for decades, this was the first time anyone had addressed me in Rapeglish.
What kind of person talked like this? Who read through a newspaper and thought: "Hmmm. I don't appreciate Reporter X's writing. I think I'll send an obscene message advising a good, solid raping. Now there's a response that's both appropriate and proportionate!"
I wondered how many male columnists were receiving emails from disgruntled female readers threatening pack sodomy, de-testiclisation and wall-to-wall sexual violence.
Mr Set You Right soon wrote again.
"[Y]our article reeks of a half ugly lesbian, determined to get her own back on all the men who refused to f--- her over all these years. We all know that for $35 a bloke can get a full body massage, his dick wanked for him, by a pretty little 18 year old, not some sad assed thing like you with a hatred of men."
And so it continued: relentlessly, predictably and sometimes laughably for 14 years until 2012 when I finally moved out of journalism and into full-time academia.
For three years, I lived cyberhate free. Then, in June, it started again – at the exact same time I started writing for the media about my university research into gendered cyberhate.
It's hard to believe it's just a coincidence. And it's ironic to be called fat, ugly and slutty by men whose shouty claim is that there is no misogyny on the internet
The three-year cyberhate study I'm involved in at the University of New South Wales is not an attempt to produce precise statistics on what percentage of the internet is now made up of rape threats or exactly how many women are being targeted.
This sort of hard number crunching is being done elsewhere. The Pew Research Center in the US, for instance, has found that women aged 18 to 24 are particularly vulnerable to the more serious forms of online harassment and are more likely than men to find it extremely or very upsetting.
My research is designed partly to put human faces to these sorts of statistics. I'm interviewing female targets of online hostility to get an idea of what happened, how they felt and whether these attacks have affected the way they use the internet.
So far I've spoken with nearly 50 Australian women – some with sizeable public profiles, some without. And while my research is still in its early stages, here are three preliminary observations.
1. Cyberhate hurts. While most targets are able to laugh it off at least some of the time, some suffer periods of intense depression and anxiety during which they spend time withdrawing – not only from the internet but sometimes from other aspects of life as well. The price they pay is financial and professional as well as emotional.
2. The powers-that-be are not doing enough to help. The oh-so-constructive advice police have offered women I've interviewed include, "stop using the internet", "stop being so politically provocative on Twitter" and "can't you use a profile photograph that's a bit less attractive?"
3. Abuse which starts online can spill offline. One of my interviewees had attackers who went so far as to contact her employers and sign her up for appointments with bariatric surgeons. Then they left a note in her letterbox which read: "Hi fat bitch, I see this is where you live."
It's been 17 years since I was first called a "hore" on the internet and in that time I've watched gendered cyberhate move out of the fringes and into the mainstream. I've watched rape threats become the "go to" response for men who don't like what a woman says or how she looks.
The women I have interviewed, however, show extraordinary resilience in the face of truly heinous abuse.
They are leaning on each other for support and finding innovative ways to avoid, confront, expose and/or de-tooth the e-thugs – continuing to risk the wrath of rapey dudes without spell checkers to call out online misogyny for what it is.
Dr Emma A. Jane is looking for interviewees for her government-funded study into gendered cyberhate. If you have experienced rape threats or other hostility online and would like to participate, visit the project website.
She will also be speaking at 'Cybersexism: How did the internet become unsafe for women?' with Clementine Ford and Laurie Penny at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on September 6.