A lot of people think that the entire brouhaha about the death and rape threats Kathy Sierra received have been vastly overblown. In fact, the proprietor of Daily Kos, the dominant liberal blog in terms of traffic, had this to say recently about her “situation”:

Look, if you blog, and blog about controversial shit, you’ll get idiotic emails. Most of the time, said “death threats” don’t even exist — evidenced by the fact that the crying bloggers and journalists always fail to produce said “death threats”. […]

But so what? It’s not as if those cowards will actually act on their threats. For better or for worse, this isn’t a country in which media figures — even hugely controversial ones — are routinely attacked by anything more dangerous than a cream pie.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I think that was a terribly inappropriate response to make. But it’s also got me thinking: why do so many people defend what Kos wrote?


My theory? I think it comes from a fundamental lack of understanding about what women experience everyday in our society. In particular, the level of sexual harassment, misogyny, verbal abuse, and threats of physical violence, especially sexualized violence in the form of rape. Others have quoted statistics up the wazoo about the vast gulf between the online threats and abuse women receive versus what men experience …

Maybe, despite being a major blogger, you haven’t spent much time thinking about the specific online experiences of women. In which case, you should know that women online–not just bloggers, but women in chat rooms or commenting on blogs or on internet forums–get twenty-five times more harassment than men do. That’s not 25%; it’s 2500%.

… but bare statistics are just numbers, too abstract, to cold and too detached from the actual experiences they document to make much of an impression on many people. So let’s get personal, shall we?

Most men have never been raped, or threatened with rape, or subjected to verbal abuse based on their gender. Not all, by any means, but most men just don’t have these experiences. That make sit a little hard to have any empathy for the women who have been raped, or beaten or verbally abused. But not impossible.

I’ve known several women in my life who have been sexually abused. Let me tell you their stories.

My first wife was anally raped by her father for years before she left home. She was in and out of therapy over the course of the next 2 decades because of this, and one of her therapists even took advantage of her trauma to sexually assault her as well (short of penetration, but a violation, nonetheless). When we were married she never told me anything at all about what her father had done to her. It was only years later that she confessed her dark secret to me. Because many women feel such shame about the experience that they are unable to tell even their own partners, the people they love and who love them.

My sister was also raped as a child. She was only nine or ten years old when it happened. Again, she hid what happened to her from her family for several years out of a combination of fear, shame and guilt. I won’t share all the details, but it has had a lasting impact on her life.

I have a second cousin who was very close to my mother, and thus to all of our family, who married a man who regularly beat her, verbally abused her, raped her and made numerous threats to kill her. It sounds like a cliche, but she frequently wore large sunglasses and thick make-up to hide the black eyes and bruises he gave her. After she left him, she was so frightened she bought herself a pistol and learned how to shoot — just in case. She was lucky to obtain a divorce and escape him and his violence, but we all know of instances of women who are not so lucky.

But the harassment or abuse doesn’t have to rise to the level of actual rape to have a profound effect on many women. How many have had to endure sexism in the working place? How many have been the target of a male peer or superior at work who has attempted to coerce her to provide “sexual favors?” How many have had fathers, or brothers or husbands that verbally abuse them everyday in the most demeaning language? You know the words: Bitch. Slut. Ho. Cunt. Words that are bandied about by men often larger and more aggressive than the victim of their taunts.

So, I thought maybe an informal poll here at Daily Kos might prove useful. Nothing too complicated. Just vote whether you, as a male or female, have ever experienced any of the types of sexual, psychological and/or physical abuse that I’ve described above. If people are honest, I think I know how the poll should come out. But let’s see, shall we.

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