THE BLOG
09/29/2016 05:12 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2017

Your Free Speech Does Not Eclipse Mine: The Problem of Harassment as an Accepted Form of Expression

A few years ago, after a charming fellow messaged me about slapping my face with his penis, I deleted my Twitter account and made my other social media accounts private. Instagram was the first to go following an eloquent quip involving the commenter's penis and my eye socket--on a photo of me holding a kitten. At the time, I assumed the comment was aimed at me; in retrospect, it is very possible it had nothing to do with me. In which case, I hope that kitten is somewhere safe.

As a woman, a feminist, a student, a sometimes 'passable' white person, a human, I have encountered several types of harassment. I have been shamed into silence. I have been made to feel afraid. I have been touched without my consent. Most recently, a man chased me for half a block, spit flying from his mouth, because I disagreed with his decision to call me a 'fat slag.' In my attempts to understand why harassment is so normalized--the sage advice of averting your eyes and ignoring provocation--I've been told to 'Have thicker skin, sweetheart.' Also, I should be more aware of my surroundings, the length of my skirts. I should closely monitor what I write and how. I should. I should. I should.

First, I'm not your sweetheart. Second, stop trying to desensitize people by suggesting ways they 'should' avoid harassment and masquerading degradation as freedom of expression, instead of addressing the harassment itself. A quick scan through any number of social media timelines shows how ugly and abusive things can get, immediately followed by declarations of free speech. There is on social media an upswing of people advocating for the First Amendment, but I'm not so sure it means what they think it means. Unless exercising the right to free speech by extension allows rape and death threats and, oh, I don't know, detailed penis-to-eye-socket commentary. Things have gone far beyond rearranging your Top 8, which is why Instagram and Twitter are attempting to make the Internet a bit more tolerable by broadening ways users can protect themselves from abuse. However, this helpful (wonderful and healthy) step has its limitations: some threats continue to reach users because people continue to send them.

In his novel The Circle, Dave Eggers writes about a future where anonymity, on the Internet and otherwise, is nonexistent. This future is free of trolls and cyber-bullying because there is no way to hide: your online presence is directly tied to everything and as such, you can't get away with sending rape threats while hiding behind a computer screen. Sure, Instagram and Twitter are making strides but we don't yet live in The Circle, and there are many reasons to be anxious and cautious; additional security measures can only do so much to ward off bigots and bullies spewing violence, confusing hate speech with free speech.

After months of worrying about the potential harassment I could face on Twitter, I decided it was a bogus way to go about living. Why should I miss out on connecting with people whom I admire? After creating a new account, I saw a few users had retweeted an essay I wrote about divorce, calling me 'stupid' and 'dumb.' Truly, my first thought was, 'Well, that's not so bad. They didn't say anything about wanting to rape and kill me.' Is that the incredibly low bar? It's a great day because nobody threated to rape me!

What can be done about this? Do I laugh off being called dumb and stupid (and a slew of other things I won't type here but which are liberally tossed around the Internet) because it could be worse? Do I stand my ground and clap back--only to be told I am too sensitive, don't get the joke, and am overreacting? Do I turn away from social media, delete or lock up my accounts, losing the opportunity to interact with good people, to reach out and grow together?

People have been using terror in lieu of strength since... forever. Now there's just a faster, sleeker medium through which to do so. Perhaps instead of hiding behind a completely skewed idea of freedom of speech and shaming people into believing they should be 'tougher' and tolerant in the face of pejorative language, bigotry, and abuse, let's make this conversation about accountability and entitlement. You see, believing that somehow people are above reproach when making threats, sexist comments, and racial slurs is absurd. 'Don't censor me or else, b*tch!' and 'Shut up you ugly, stupid, Feminazi piece of sh*t.' isn't as much a way of employing constitutional rights as it is a self-serving, shallow attempt to intimidate, frighten, and silence. And until I read about what other women were experiencing on social media, I absolutely felt intimidated, frightened, and silenced. These women, in discussing politics and sexuality, were cracking the hell out of the glass ceiling and it thrilled and emboldened me; under a nearly constant barrage of harassment, they were not averting their eyes. Why should I? Why should anyone?

It is suggested that I seek privilege when what I really seek is decency. So, no, I won't shut up until I find it.