All writers can become targets on the web.

All writers can become targets on the web. Credit: iStock

Internet harassment of women, especially feminists, has emerged as a major cause for concern in the past year. Last month, Brooklyn-based writer Michelle Goldberg published an op-ed at whose headline speaks for itself: "Feminist writers are so besieged by online abuse that some have begun to retire." But is this a genuine issue that disproportionately affects feminist women, or a plea for special sympathy and privilege?

Goldberg acknowledges that, thanks in part to the dynamics of digital media, feminist voices have a far greater presence and impact than they did a decade ago. But she argues this new reach comes at a "steep psychic price," because women are "ferociously punished" for speaking out on gender issues. The Internet gives writers an unprecedented ability to reach readers, but it also gives haters, harassers and even stalkers an unprecedented ability to go after writers. Goldberg cites the examples of three women who have withdrawn from online activity -- one because of death threats following a piece for which she went undercover at an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center, two who felt they needed to back away from constant nastiness for their own sanity.

It is true that cyberspace can be a toxic environment. Political arguments easily turn to nasty personal attacks -- and in some cases, to harassment and threats. Whether any of this is specific to women or to feminists is another question.

Women are more likely to be targeted for sexualized threats (and more likely to perceive them as frightening). However, a Pew Research Center study last year found that online threats of physical violence are more often directed at men, and both sexes are equally likely to report experiencing "sustained harassment" on the Internet.

Plenty of male writers across the political spectrum have harrowing war stories. Charles Johnson, a blogger who started out on the right and then moved left, received so many threats that he decided to move to a gated community. Milo Yiannopoulous, a writer for the conservative website, not only had his home address posted online last year, but received a padded envelope in the mail containing a syringe. Some male bloggers have been targeted by phony emergency calls that resulted in police SWAT teams being dispatched to their homes.

Female writers who are critical of modern feminism, such as Christina Hoff Sommers, have also been on the receiving end of both personal abuse and occasional threats.

Arguably, law enforcement should do more to tackle severe Internet harassment, as long as this does not abridge legitimate speech. But feminist complaints about online abuse often seem to conflate stalking and threats with general nastiness, or even harsh criticism.

This is especially ironic given that the same feminists often engage in online behavior that qualifies as verbally abusive. Jessica Valenti, a journalist who spoke to Goldberg of the toll exacted by online abuse, has used such terms as "rape apologist" to refer to women and men who show concern with fairness to men accused of rape. Men who disagree with feminist opinions on the Internet are routinely accused of everything from "mansplaining" to misogyny and called every name in the book. If the climate in online discussions of gender issues is particularly toxic, feminists are no less responsible for this than the men's rights activists Goldberg singles out.

Threatening behavior on the Internet is an issue that needs to be addressed -- regardless of gender or ideology. As for making cyberspace less abusive, it's a task for all netizens -- and all of us, including feminists, can start by looking in the mirror.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.

DON'T MISS THIS LIMITED-TIME OFFER1 5 months for only $1Save on Unlimited Digital Access