Amanda Hess wins the February Sidney Award for her provocative Pacific Standard essay, “The Next Civil Rights Issue: Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” describing the abuse that female journalists disproportionately encounter online and the implications of this phenomenon for women’s equality in the public sphere.
“Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head,” the user @headlessfemalepig tweeted at Hess, “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.” When she called the police, the responding officer had never even heard of Twitter.
Like many victims, Hess discovered that existing cyberstalking laws provide little meaningful protection for women who are targeted for online abuse. She was able to obtain an order of protection against one particularly tenacious serial cyberstalker, but only after multiple trips to court, and only for one year.
“Without the support of law enforcement, women are forced to seek out protection services and civil remedies, like restraining orders, ourselves, in an effort to keep harassers at bay,” Hess said. “It all adds up to a tax on women’s participation on the internet—we have to spend a lot of time, money, and personal emotional investment in order to deal with real crimes that the government nevertheless fails to recognize.”
Hess’s experiences are sadly typical. A 2006 study found that simply having a female user name in a chat room dramatically increases the odds of abusive or sexual messages. Fake accounts with female names averaged 100 such messages per day, while accounts with male names received just 3.7.
“The internet is the new public square,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein, “When female journalists face death threats and real-life stalking for expressing controversial opinions, neither free speech nor gender equality is safe.”
Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer and co-founder of Tomorrow magazine. Her work has appeared in WIRED, ESPN: The Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and Pacific Standard.