I was just four months into my role as tech editor for the UK’s most popular cycling magazine, Cycling Weekly, when a man who didn’t like a piece of content I’d produced asked his followers to comment on intimate parts of my body. This resulted in a stream of sexually aggressive responses which left me feeling violated and questioning my decision to pursue a career in a male-dominated industry.
That first degrading comment was part of a video critiquing a product test I had been involved in. Rather than specifying which parts of my work he disliked, the presenter invited his followers to make leering and repulsive remarks about my anatomy.
Using sexual slurs is a common tactic among a noisy minority of people who take exception to journalism produced by women. Last year, a global survey of 901 journalists found that women are experiencing unprecedented levels of violent and sexual harassment. A quarter had been threatened with sexual violence and death. This abuse, the UN concluded, was intended to “belittle, humiliate, shame, induce fear and ultimately discredit female reporters.” Similarly, Panorama’s recent documentary ‘Why do you hate me?’ uncovered the sexual and violent abuse that affects women in the public eye.
The reports tally with my experience: harassment has left me feeling physically threatened, and the instigator clearly sought to discredit my career. Very little of the abuse targeted my work directly but instead focused on my appearance, my fertility, my husband and our home. The campaign of insults and intimidation went on for close to a year.
When I tweeted my disgust at strangers’ lewd speculations about sex with me (“like shagging a bucket”), I received plenty of support. However, the tweet also became a magnet to greyed-out, faceless bots spouting terms clearly aligned with the Incel movement as well as further abusive content from the ringleader.
A series of videos deployed insults such as “more f*cked than Michelle’s vagina”, “more f*cked than Michelle’s career”, and referred to giving a dishwasher called “Michelle… no, Miele!” a “good f*cking kicking” as punishment for “disobedience”. There was also a 10-minute diatribe that included claims I’d breached Covid guidelines during a bike ride, with the pre-lockdown date conveniently cropped from the screen; followed by gloating about having sleuthed my activity on Strava and annotated “every minute detail”. It was at this point that I began to feel physically threatened.
The final onslaught – published close to a year after the first incident – included two articles targeting not only me but also my husband. These listed our home address with photos of our house, analysis of the parking situation outside, plus screen shots showing routes I used for regular bike rides – alongside false allegations of driving offences based on pieced-together MOT records, false accusations of the use of anonymous online accounts, as well as an entirely fabricated story about my using “feminist extremism as a cover up” to hide my “infertility” and “multiple failed IVF treatments”. The giant red flag of misogyny here is the assumption that a woman would, or indeed should, cover up infertility out of shame.
This content didn’t only affect me in cyberspace. The abuse and false allegations surfaced whenever my name was searched online, alongside our home address, which had some very real repercussions for us, until we moved house.
My response to this tsunami of hate was to set out the facts in an article on my personal blog, designed to correct the false accusations made against me – such as driving without brakes, and breaking Covid guidelines – which were damaging to my career.
Meanwhile, trolls rifled through my Instagram profile, commenting on my smiling wedding photos of 2014 “this woman is a cuckold”, elsewhere “you silly girl”, and calling me a “whore”, a “feminazi” and a “roastie” (see: Incel culture). “You’re not just a bad woman, you’re a bad HUMAN”, one commented, revealingly. I woke up each morning anxiously anticipating more abusive and unwanted direct messages or emails. I was either a slut to be shamed or a child to be belittled.
The sniff test for misogyny: do men have to put up with this? And the answer here is no; no male colleague of mine has ever had to endure archaic accusations of infidelity, speculation on their fertility, sexually aggressive messages, or harassment of their loved ones while going about their job.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t contact the police, I can assure you, I did.
Eventually, the police did visit the individual to offer “suitable words of advice,” assuring me that this would provide a written record in the event that the harassment escalated. But most victims are not so lucky: without having the harasser’s name and address, instigating a police visit is usually out of the question.
Negotiating YouTube’s generic reporting procedure was futile. Once connected with a human, matters improved but only after hours of diligently copying and pasting excerpts from the company’s Terms and Conditions to its own employees. Reporting website pages to Google was an equally frustrating dance with an AI robot. It was my employer Future Plc that provided the most assistance, in the form of weekly third-party counselling sessions as well as practical support; not all journalists benefit from this level of backing.
This is a problem that extends far beyond my own experience, and beyond gender, misogyny, sexism and the Incel movement. The perpetrators cite ‘free speech’ as their free pass to defame and abuse. I am one woman in a relentless tide of online abuse – racism and homophobia are just as rife as misogyny and every bit as damaging. One way or another, this hateful rhetoric affects us all.
The onus lies with social media platforms to stamp out blatant instances of harassment, hate speech and fake news. No doubt, they’ll need assistance from law enforcement and governments to control the unwieldy beast they’ve created, with its algorithms so ingeniously tailored to generate polarising echo chambers and surface discontent. In the meantime, the burden lies with the rest of us – to create social media output that reflects the world we want to live in. Personally, for me, that world makes no space for sexual harassment, violence or hate.
Writing about personal experiences can be tough, thank you to the friend who gave up his time to help me edit my thoughts. I’ve disabled comments on this article, because I do not want to allow any comments which may identify those involved; it’s time to move on.