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Since the initial passage of the Violence Against Women Act, in 1994, amendments to the law have gradually updated it to apply to new technologies and to stiffen penalties against those who use them to abuse.
Thirty-four states have cyberstalking laws on the books; most have expanded long-standing laws against stalking and criminal threats to prosecute crimes carried out online.
The examples are too numerous to recount, but like any good journalist, I keep a running file documenting the most deranged cases.
There was the local cable viewer who hunted down my email address after a television appearance to tell me I was “the ugliest woman he had ever seen.” And the group of visitors to a “men’s rights” site who pored over photographs of me and a prominent feminist activist, then discussed how they’d “spend the night with” us. It just makes me a woman with an Internet connection.
In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms.
Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. There are three federal laws that apply to cyberstalking cases; the first was passed in 1934 to address harassment through the mail, via telegram, and over the telephone, six decades after Alexander Graham Bell’s invention.
On the other hand, headlessfemalepig was clearly a deranged individual with a bizarre fixation on me. Two hours later, a Palm Springs police officer lumbered up the steps to my hotel room, paused on the outdoor threshold, and began questioning me in a steady clip.
(When the Bank of England announced its intentions to replace social reformer Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the £5 note, Criado-Perez made the modest suggestion that the bank make an effort to feature at least one woman who is not the Queen on any of its currency.) Rape and death threats amassed on her Twitter feed too quickly to count, bearing messages like “I will rape you tomorrow at 9 p.m ... She called up police and hounded Twitter for a response.
But making quick and sick threats has become so easy that many say the abuse has proliferated to the point of meaninglessness, and that expressing alarm is foolish.
Reporters who take death threats seriously “often give the impression that this is some kind of shocking event for which we should pity the ‘victims,’” my colleague Jim Pagels wrote in Slate this fall, “but anyone who’s spent 10 minutes online knows that these assertions are entirely toothless.” On Twitter, he added, “When there’s no precedent for physical harm, it’s only baseless fear mongering.” My friend Jen Doll wrote, at The Atlantic Wire, “It seems like that old ‘ignoring’ tactic your mom taught you could work out to everyone’s benefit.... Which means we shouldn’t take the bait.” In the epilogue to her book , Hanna Rosin—an editor at Slate—argued that harassment of women online could be seen as a cause for celebration. Many women on the Internet “are in positions of influence, widely published and widely read; if they sniff out misogyny, I have no doubt they will gleefully skewer the responsible sexist in one of many available online outlets, and get results.” So women who are harassed online are expected to either get over ourselves or feel flattered in response to the threats made against us.
The cop anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, “What is Twitter?
” Staring up at him in the blazing sun, the best answer I could come up with was, “It’s like an e-mail, but it’s public.” What I didn’t articulate is that Twitter is the place where I laugh, whine, work, schmooze, procrastinate, and flirt.