An important lesson from my first encounter with an internet troll

I have an admission to make. Even as someone who proudly identifies as a feminist, I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable at how some feminist women take the hard line against men’s involvement in the movement, even insisting, say as Clementine Ford does, that the time to try and involve men in being part of the solution has long passed – that trying to convince men of the benefits of a gender equal society is futile.

Ford and others focus their campaigning on women rather than men; on building the movement from the inside. As Ford says herself “Feminism still has to make room for so many different kinds of women before it concerns itself with making room for men.” An important point, but personally I identify with more of a bipartisan approach – one where men can truly feel and be part of the solution. I think of my father, my brothers, my husband, my son. Leaving them out of debates and discussions and the opportunity to stand up for equality doesn’t feel right to me. That’s how we end up creating echo chambers, right?

This week I had my views tested. A minor online incident spurred a major realisation for me about what the feminist movement is actually up against.

A few weeks ago I took part in a Twitter chat about everyday sexism, discussing the findings of an Australian-based survey about the experiences of young women. The research was commissioned by the organisation I work for, Plan International. I tweeted in response to one of the findings – that half of girls surveyed feel they’re valued more for their looks than their brains or skills. In my tweet I put forward the view when young girls are complimented for their looks more than anything else, they learn that looks are what matters most.

This week a US-based twitter user, whom I’ve had no contact with in the past, found my tweet and replied with a sarcastic jibe about how complimenting girls on their looks must cause them psychological damage. I (foolishly) responded, pointing to the actual findings of the report. He disputed the merits of the research and accused women (all women, presumably) of being too privileged if we think compliments are holding us back. He then started ranting about how ‘women are doing pretty well these days’ and how ‘feminists like me are being victims’. I took the bait. I referenced Australia’s 18% pay gap and suggested that as a man, he might not be qualified to speak on behalf of all women. He disputed the gender pay gap even existing. A couple of his fellow ‘men’s rights activists’ jumped on board and started firing aggressive tweets my way. Feeling uncomfortable, and sensing that this was heading nowhere constructive, I suggested we end the discussion. He kept going. So I blocked him. In response to this, he posted a screen grab of my profile (name and photo included) to his community of followers.

Up until then I was feeling ok about what was happening. Sure, I was fired up and I could tell he was too, but I viewed our exchange as not much more than opposing views in the twitter-sphere. Happens every day. Happens every minute. No big deal. But when he posted the screen grab with my name and photo, and remarks that were clearly designed to incite outrage towards me among his fellow men’s rights activist community, I felt personally attacked or at the very least harassed. My throat tightened. I had a mystifying sensation of feeling physically unsafe.

This little incident is nothing compared to what other women experience online every day. It doesn’t rate a mention compared to what Ford, Van Badham and other outspoken feminists experience when it comes to online trolling. But still, this is what online harassment feels like, even this tiny dose of it.

And that’s when I finally got it – why certain feminists in the public eye are unequivocal about naming and shaming trolls. Why they have reached and even travelled beyond the point of utter despair when it comes to trying to change men’s minds. Why they’re sick and tired of answering the question ‘why do you hate men so much?’. They have been hated on, abused, trolled and threatened to the point where the mere idea of carving out a special place in the feminist movement for men just seems like a joke. I didn’t really understand this view before; I do now, simply for having a personal experience that gave me a fleeting insight into what it feels like to be trolled online by a man who is deeply and personally affronted by the idea that women are equal to men.

I still stand firm in my view that we must involve men and boys in creating a world where gender equality is the lived experience for everyone. There are plenty of men willing and wanting to get involved. I hope all the men in my life will play their part. But I have a new appreciation of the hard-line approach some feminists are taking now, in a digital world where they can have their actual lives threatened on a daily basis just for expressing a view. The momentary sense of vulnerability I experienced this week and my instinct to self protect must pale in comparison to the steely fortitude required on a daily basis by feminists such as Ford, Badham, Catherine Deveny, Karen Pickering and the brilliant Susan Carland, to simply get through the day, let alone keep up the good fight.

I’m immensely grateful that they do.

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