Last year, after being announced as patron for the Full Stop Foundation, which is dedicated to ending rape and domestic violence, I experienced a spike in online threats. "Rape the bitch again" one man wrote to me, adding, "Cuff yourself to deep water."
His Twitter feed was filled with disturbing comments and images, including violent porn, photographs of women with their mouths being covered by men's hands, pictures of high-profile women with the word "rape" and an image of US news anchor Megyn Kelly's face Photoshopped onto a naked woman engaged in sex.
I reported the man to Twitter, who contacted him and asked him to "discontinue this behaviour", which prompted more abuse. Twitter made it clear that the onus was on me to report him again if the behaviour continued.
In order to do that, I'd have to unblock him, expose myself to more of his insults, and record them.
I did. It took further communications over four days, with yet more screen shots and URLs as evidence, to point out what was obvious in the first place – he was using Twitter for abusive purposes, against its terms and conditions. As I wrote to Twitter, "I hope you will agree that allowing a user to continue in this way makes a mockery of Twitter's rules and new complaint procedures." This man's account was finally suspended.
This was just one abusive person, but where do you draw the line? I knew he was doing this to other women; I could see it. If I had done nothing, and sat by and had the social media platform do nothing except ask him to "discontinue this behaviour" without monitoring whether he actually did, I would have been condoning his abuse.
Once, when I was on a panel with Germaine Greer, she commented that if you go on Twitter, "you get what you deserve". There was great laughter, and though it was one of Greer's famously provocative throwaway lines, the problem is that too many people believe online abuse – on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, wherever – is a normal fact of life and if you go online you should expect it, you have "signed up for it" even.
We have normalised online abuse, and in doing so many of us have decided that nothing can be done. This idea has disturbing shades of the more toxic assumptions about offline abuse: women just get hit; gays just get bashed. That's life. Besides, that's what they get for being female, being gay, being online ...
A new survey by the Internet security company Norton (for which I'm an ambassador) shows that nearly half of all Australian women (47 per cent) experience online harassment. That rises to a staggering 76 per cent for women under 30. Unsurprisingly, 70 per cent of women believe online harassment is a significant problem and 60 per cent believe it has got worse in the past year.
Forms of online harassment range from unwanted contact, trolling, character assassination and cyber-bullying to sexual harassment and threats of physical violence, rape and death. Shockingly, the survey revealed that one in 10 women under 30 had experienced revenge porn and/or "sextortion" – both extreme forms of bullying, and crimes.
This abuse, it must be stressed, is not a matter of free speech. It is a matter of public safety and law. Threats of death, rape or other physical harm are illegal online, just as they are offline. Likewise, it is against the law to encourage a person to harm themselves. Though these types of threats do not always get reported, or when reported do not always result in adequate support, it is against the law and perpetrators have been jailed for these crimes. It is never okay.
As a community, we need to do more to acknowledge the effects of online abuse and take a stand against it, and as with offline abuse, we need to make reporting safer and easier.
It isn't enough to say it's what they deserve. No one deserves abuse. Ever.
I'm eating ...
Whatever my talented husband makes. He is also a writer, but unlike me he is a truly excellent cook.
I'm reading ...
On Longing, by Susan Stewart. It is a beautifully written exploration of our relationship to the past, memory and objects.
I'm growing ...
A garden oasis for our wild animal friends, including newly arrived ducklings, to give them respite from the foxes.
I'm planning ...
Another novel, after a couple of years of writing non-fiction books and academic papers.