In Australia last year, a young woman named Olivia Meville faced an onslaught of Tinder shaming by strange men for simply posting a Drake lyric in her bio—“The type of girl that will suck you dry and then eat some lunch with you.”
The first wave of harassment came from 31-year-old bartender Chris Hall, who screenshotted her bio and posted it to Facebook with the comment, “Stay classy ladies. I’m surprised she’d still be hungry for lunch.” (Yeah, ladies, how dare you remind men you consume… food.)
Hall’s original post soon went viral on social media, with detractors piling on and Melville’s friends attempting to defend her. Some of the worst comments came from a man named Zane Alchin, a 25-year-old pal of Hall’s. Within a two-hour period, Alchin posted 55 comments to Meville and her friends. As The Guardian reported:
Among the comments Alchin made were: “You know the best thing about a feminist they don’t get any action so when you rape them it feels 100 times tighter”; “You’ll be eating my cock till you puke”; and “I’d rape you if you were better looking.”
When one of the women targeted by Alchin threatened to report him to police, he scoffed, “What law am I breaking? I’m not the one out of the fucking kitchen.” When police did indeed arrest him for making the rape threats, he claimed he was drunk at the time and just trolling.
The authorities didn’t buy it, and earlier this week, Alchin pleaded guilty to “using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend.” He will be sentenced in late July, and faces up to three years’ jail time.
Alchin is hardly the first man online to post such abuse, and even with his guilty plea, the bigger question remains: Why do men keep doing this? Why are so many people—not just harassers themselves by bystanders, too—accepting of the idea that we can be this hostile and threatening online? That it’s OK to view women’s requests to not be targeted, shamed, or harassed by strange men as somehow imposing on men’s freedom?
The ability to harm others online is often dressed in moral garb: free speech, “just a joke,” defending some cause. After all, almost no one believes themselves to be the villain in their life stories.
Alchin claimed, for example, that he was defending himself and his friends from feminists. We saw this with another man who cried “free speech” when he lost his job after calling a woman a slut. Free speech is a noble-sounding endeavor—but here it’s being used as an excuse to harass women.
Harassers believe they’re on a mission for “good,” and that their targets are harmful to something that must be defended, usually the status quo. This is why women in general and marginalized groups in particular are so often targets of online vitriol.
The Guardian, in its exhaustive analysis of abuse aimed at its writers, found the data confirmed this:
The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10,” one was Muslim and one Jewish.
And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.
This is not surprising to many of us. Indeed, anyone who’s displayed themselves as being anything other than a straight white cis man has probably encountered online abuse targeting their identity.
This awfulness exists when it should not.
Abuse happens too frequently.
We find a million ways to rub this toxicity onto the walls of the internet and to assert it’s just a part of online spaces. That needs to change and men need to examine the various ideas they perpetuate that allow it to happen.
“Abuse and excuse” is what we should start calling the system that lets men get away with this damaging mindset, the harassment narrative. Alchin can send threats and excuse it because it’s “trolling” or he’s defending his friends or it’s free speech or he’s drunk. (Funny that so many people get drunk but have never issued rape threats at strangers!)
For too long, targets have paid the price for such harassment, not the ones doing the harassing. Reflecting on the Guardian’s findings that she is its most targeted writer, Jessica Valenti notes her concern is, mostly, about the future of digital spaces.
"I speak at colleges frequently, and at every one I visit at least one young woman comes to me with the same concern: she wants to be a writer but says she doesn’t have the stomach for the online abuse.
This is especially true for women of color and trans women: we are losing out on talented writers who are part of marginalized communities because they don’t want to pursue a career where harassment is considered an expected part of the gig."
The big issue is twofold: that people should not have to endure this and its continuation perpetuates spaces devoid of diverse voices. We need to change those spaces, if we want others to enter and not merely be targets. If we continue eroding this toxicity into background noise with the excuse that “it’s just the internet,” instead of recognizing it as toxic sludge, we’ll never make any effort to clean up online spaces.
The internet was meant to be, in an ideal sense, the great equalizer. Instead, it’s so often a blown-up version of the kinds of encounters so many face everyday. (Targets of internet abuse are those more likely to receive abuse offline, too.)
The excuse that the internet creates such encounters by virtue of design is a complicated statement. This is usually seen in something like “Alchin only said that because he feels safe behind a keyboard, he’d never say it to women’s faces”.
In a way, this is true.
But it’s really like saying, “the telephone allows for creepy phonecalls.” People who want to be threatening are merely using the tools at their disposal. Harassers now can more easily react and directly contact their targets, with a few taps of a button. This is not the case with letters and other older forms of communication (these are all horrible, regardless of platform). Still, as study after study shows, so-called trolls are as awful offline as they are online. The internet didn’t make them horrible, only facilitated a new medium to express it.
The point is: We should be careful of distinguishing explanation and excuse. Yes, Alchin and similar harassers use the internet to be awful but it’s not because of the internet that they’re threatening women. Wishing rape on feminists didn’t emerge from nowhere. Alchin and similar men don’t just magically convey hateful ideas because their hands touched a keyboard.
There’s an overarching, larger narrative—both online and offline—which tells men: “This is acceptable.”
We see it when judges and wealthy families claim rapists are the ones deserving of sympathy. When a famous comedian’s fans target a woman for criticizing the comedian’s humor. When women are blamed for their own rapes by virtue of their wardrobe or inebriation, rather than blame being laid on the grown man or men who chose to harm them. When stories of abusive, creepy, stalker behavior are framed as romantic.
We live in a culture where men are told even their bad behavior is, in fact, “good,” and the only ones who have a problem with it are just causing an unnecessary fuss: they’re mistaken, irritating, humorless, thin-skinned, “politically correct.” It can’t possibly be that you, as a man, are wrong, when the whole world— the justice system, your parents, your friends, Hollywood!—gives you immunity and permission.
Is it any wonder then that even young men, whom we’d expect to be more familiar with the impact and longevity of the digital world, are behaving this badly online?
We can’t have the internet we want until we create the conversation we need. And men need to be speaking to other men about being better. Just as we can create the web we want, we can also create better men. We don’t have to accept that we’re stuck with sexist harassers and haters of women.
As we’ve seen in the Alchin case, such people are increasingly facing the repercussions of their speech and their behavior. But that’s the end result. We should also focus on the beginning and how so many men think they can get away with it in the first place.
It’s not because they’re drunk or defenders of freedom or whatever. It’s because they’re being awful assholes.