Love, Life Stories

Internet trolls tore me apart – and I felt completely alone online

There's no How to Handle Abuse and Harassment 101 for us to take. But maybe there should be.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re a writer on the internet, especially a woman writer, especially a woman of color writer, that at one time or another you’re going to get slammed with gross comments from gross people. It won’t matter what you write. When I decided I wanted to be a writer, I also decided that I’d stomach these comments, ranging from simply stupid to blatantly abusive, and I’d continue writing anyway. 

[bctt tweet=”It’s another lesson I have to learn, and one I wish I didn’t have to.” username=”wearethetempest”]

One of the most repeated pieces of advice for writers is to toughen up and grow a thicker skin. It’s the key to success in this arena. I got this “toughen up” lesson by two because when I was growing up, I was quick to tears when I was hurt. I figured out that this only made things worse. Flash forward to twenty-three and I’ve made criticism my baby. I came to love it because it shone a light on things I’d missed and mistakes I’d made, giving me the chance to buff out all the imperfections and make something shine.

In short, I did exactly what I was told to do. How to take constructive criticism is one of the things hammered into me when I was an English major, but there’s no How to Handle Abuse and Harassment 101 for us to take. 

Maybe there should be.

[bctt tweet=”There’s no How to Handle Abuse and Harassment 101 for us to take. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

When I landed a contributor position with “Book Riot,” I was beyond thrilled (I still am!). My first official post for them was about my experience interning at a literary journal.  Before “Book Riot” accepted me as a contributor, my only audience had been a few people on my blog, none of the numbers consistent or anywhere near high. I’d had more people reading my fanfiction than I did my editorials, so the hits and Facebook likes excited me, especially with it being my first post and one I’d pored over for hours. I’d done it. I’d written something people were reading, that some were even appreciating it. But eventually messages started slipping into my Twitter mentions from a small group of readers who took issue with one section:

…I said no to a piece on gentrification in NYC ( two other interns loved it) because its white dude perspective killed its otherwise stellar structure and language for me. I did the same with other pieces that were good except for their sexism or racism or *insert other -ism here*

As you can probably imagine, these were not people impressed by any attempts at diversifying literature. I knew these weren’t even regular readers of “Book Riot” (any regular reader would know the site isn’t the place to come and whine about diversity in publishing). So I knew already there was no reason to lend them credibility or give them any of the attention I knew they wanted. Still, the mentions came saying that this is why I didn’t have a job (it’s not but okay) and that I was another Social Justice Warrior ruining publishing (giving me a lot of credit there, thanks). 

I laugh at it now, but when I first noticed those messages I was confused and then disturbed and then a little scared. Not because I thought these people would actually find and harm me (they were a bunch of dudes standing in a circle jerk of their own white male masculinity) but because this was just a taste of what I could look forward to if I managed to make it any further down this path I’d chosen. The internet, despite all its treasures, is also a cesspool of harassers and abusers who are particularly emboldened by the shield of smartphones and computer screens.

[bctt tweet=”This was just a taste of what I could look forward to if I managed to make it any further down this path” username=”wearethetempest”]

I’ve watched women I follow deal with racist and misogynistic attacks. They’ve been doxxed, their personal information flooding the internet and leaving them vulnerable and wondering if the threats of violence they were getting were soon to become a reality. This is typical for women who have even a shred of visibility, not just writers. Comedian and actress Leslie Jones just left Twitter after numerous racist and sexist attacks against her, and she’s not the only woman who’s left social media platforms for similar reasons.

I’ll say it again: the group attacking my mentions was small and eventually fell into patting each other on the back for being awful and left me alone. No one threatened to hurt me, they just threw a few insults my way. I was quick with the block button, and with so few of them it was easy to end it that way. I assured BR’s managing editor that I was totally fine when she emailed me to check and let me know they were monitoring comments and would be liberal with the “delete” option. So it was in no way comparable to that of other women online, including “The Tempest’s” own founder.  

But I felt exposed and vulnerable regardless, suddenly very aware of my internet presence and that of the people sending these messages. I knew how much worse it could get, and had gotten for others. 

So did this mean I made it? 

[bctt tweet=”So did this mean I made it? ” username=”wearethetempest”]

A friend of mine, who’s been doing this writing thing longer than me and has already seen and heard plenty in the way of awfulness, confirmed that it did. “You haven’t made it,” she said, “until something you write upsets the worldview of someone enough that they harass or wank about you. Congrats and welcome to the club. Next step: don’t give a fuck.” 

It’s another lesson I have to learn, and one I wish I didn’t have to. I’ve spent all this time learning how to embrace the criticism that would make be better, and now it’s back to the drawing board as I learn to steel myself against abuse that’s only going to wear me down.

  • Chelsea Hensley

    Chelsea A. Hensley is a writer from St. Louis. She recently graduated with a BA in English from the University of Missouri. When she isn’t writing, she's enjoying a book, watching Netflix or listening to Beyoncé. Sometimes she even tries to do all three at once.