Right now, I must confess, I'm feeling queasy about my stash of Sarah Palin porn. I was collecting it with a mind to write an article about it, I swear. I thought it was funny and revealing that the Great American Subconscious was percolating up Photoshopped images of Palin getting fucked by Barack Obama's giant socialist cock.
But the events of the last few weeks have made me stop and think.
Let's start with Brit Hume of Fox News, who on Sunday managed the truly incredible feat of blaming Chris Christie's George Washington Bridge scandal on women:
"I have to say that in this sort of feminized atmosphere in which we exist today, guys who are masculine and muscular like that in their private conduct and are kind of old-fashioned tough guys run some risks—by which I mean that men today have learned the lesson the hard way that if you act like kind of an old-fashioned guy's guy, you're in constant danger of slipping out and saying something that's going to get you in trouble and make you look like a sexist or make you look like you seem thuggish or whatever."
So Christie is both a macho tough guy and the pitiful victim of a bunch of females? The mind boggles; the face palms. For poor-widdle-me victim-whining propaganda like that, you really need to call in the professionals at Fox.
This came six days after Amanda Hess's deeply disturbing article about the harassment women face on the internet, which begins with the story of the many death threats she received from an anonymous man posting under the name "headlessfemalepig." Charming stuff like, "You suck a lot of drunk and drug fucked guys cocks … im going to rape you and remove your head. … You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you."
Hess called the cops, who brushed it off. She called the FBI, who brushed it off. And her inbox kept filling up with more: "Amanda, I'll fucking rape you. How does that feel?"
Hess's experience was not by any means an isolated incident. She cites a blogger named Alyssa Royse who dared to write a negative review of The Dark Knight, which earned this response: "you are clearly retarded, i hope someone shoots then rapes you." A writer at Jezebel named Lindy West got "I just want to rape her with a traffic cone." A technology writer named Kathy Sierra got "i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob."
The real shock is the statistics. In one study, Hess writes, "Feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7."
A hundred to 3.7? That's a pretty fucking dramatic difference. Another statistic shows how large the chilling effect may be: "From 2000 to 2005, the percentage of internet users who participate in online chats and discussion groups dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent entirely because of women's fall off in participation."
This makes my knee-jerk response—shrug it off, toughen up—seem beyond stupid. Especially when Hess throws in the story of Jessica Valenti, a feminist writer who was so frightened by her own internet death threats that she fled her apartment and changed her bank accounts.
Knee-jerk response #2—disconnect—is equally inadequate. In a world where more and more work (and life) flows through, or on, the internet, most women don't have the option of logging off.
What is happening here is a hostile work environment on a global scale. Yet digital companies like Twitter and Reddit—and even pioneering liberal groups like the Electronic Freedom Foundation—continue to take absolutist positions on internet freedom. Even a liberal journalist like David Margolick on NPR tends to dismiss this kind of thing as "juvenile, immature, and obnoxious, but that is all they are … frivolous frat-boy rants."
Which brings us to knee-jerk reaction #3, which is that this is all just virtual. Leaving aside the troublesome philosophical issues that rise in any distinction between reality and illusion, Hess shows the real-world consequences. After fleeing her apartment, for example, Valenti also "stopped promoting her speaking events publicly, enlisted security for her public appearances, signed up for a service to periodically scrub the web of her private information, invested in a post-office box and begun periodically culling her Facebook friend list in an attempt to filter out readers with ulterior motives." Hess herself filed for a civil protection order against her persecutor, which took five visits to family court. But the day the protection order expired, the creep started writing again and even had the gall to send a LinkedIn request: "Your stalker would like to add you to his professional network."
After I read all this, I thought about how my wife and sister used to come home vibrating with rage at the hisses and catcalls of men on the street. But my mind still kept grasping at excuses—it's a big internet, a few crazies are bound to come out of the cracks, most men aren't like that.
Then a feminist writer named Jill Filipovic wrote an even more disturbing piece listing the threats she got on a law-school message board during her student days: "I want to brutally rape that Jill slut. … I'm 98% sure that she should be raped. … She's a normal-sized girl that I'd bang violently, maybe you'd have to kill her afterwards."
These were not random internet crazies. They knew her. They wrote of seeing her around the law school, of knowing her ex-boyfriend. One even showed up at a law-school classroom to confront her. As Filipovic puts it: "Imagine going to work and every few days having people in the hallway walk up to you and say things like, 'Die, you dumb cunt' and 'you deserve to be raped.' … Consider how that would impact your performance and your sense of safety."
The most sensitive conservative response came from Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Clearly disturbed by the attacks, he began by criticizing his fellow conservatives: "The grotesque abuse that liberal, feminist writers can receive for being liberal feminists is a scandal that conservatives, especially, need to acknowledge and deplore."
But quickly, and with much more enthusiasm, he turned the tables to his favorite subject—slamming liberals who regard "sexual license as an unalloyed good" and want to "lash out against the strictures it feels that feminism and political correctness have placed on male liberty." For examples, he offered "lad magazines, pick-up artists and Seth MacFarlane on Oscar night." In his view, despite some artful hedging, the internet trolls are mostly liberal men who want to punish women "for the culture's failure to deliver a beer-commercial vision of male happiness."
Which brings me to my stash of Palin porn. I want to say that she started it by sexualizing herself with that famous wink to the audience at the Republican Convention that mesmerized National Review's Rich Lowry after she did it again in the Vice Presidential Debate*, not to mention the pregnant teenage-out-of-wedlock daughter and all the pious Christian moralizing that accompanied it. Then I realized that sounds an awful lot like "she asked for it." The truth is, I took some pleasure in her virtual "humiliation." (Not that I think sex with Obama would be a humiliation, but you know what I mean.)
I'm confessing to this because I hate the tribalism of left and right. I tend to think we all want the same things—good jobs, happy children, loving partners—and just differ on the means. So I have to admit I see what Douthat seems to be getting at. I do want that beer-commercial happiness; I do want Palin punished for being so nasty and mean.
And it goes deeper than that. Men might dominate in the big world of money and business, but we all grow up under the dominion of a giant all-powerful woman who commands us to, ugh, behave. And when we grow up, we discover that despite all the myths of masculinity and its relationship to power, the successful prosecution of our most vital instinctual drive is completely in the hands of women. They have a veto over our freakin' sex lives, for fuck's sake. And if you are fat or shy or nerdy, you probably have felt it go beyond veto to actual scorn, which is even worse in a world where you're supposed to be powerful. It makes you a double loser. And losers "lash out."
That said, and maybe this is my own tribalism talking, but I would turn Douthat's emphasis on its head. All men are threatened by women's power, but conservatives are especially threatened for all the reasons we already know—gender equality, sexual and reproductive freedom, the crumbling patriarchy, women in the military, etc., etc., etc. And let's face it—the tone of these sex trolls is the tone of the right-wing. It is the sneering contemptuous and borderline-violent tone of right-wing trolls in the comments section of liberal websites, the sneering and contemptuous tone of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin and all the other right-wing radio hosts and the sneering and contemptuous tone hidden in plain sight in the smug insanity of Brit Hume's Christie defense.
Consider, for example, the tone of radio host Pete Santelli when he attacked Hillary Clinton last summer:
"I want to shoot her right in the vagina and I don't want her to die right away; I want her to feel the pain and I want to look her in the eyes and I want to say, on behalf of all Americans that you've killed…"
Okay, enough of that. You get the point. And this is not to let my tribe of the hook, because the nastiness seems to be rising on both sides. In response to a perfectly reasonable article in Salon on Wednesday called "I Fell In Love With A Republican," in which a liberal writer named Samantha Dunn explains how she overcame her politics for a conservative man who was loyal, funny, well-read and adventurous—a former punk rocker, even—some Salon readers responded like so: "Next article in the same set: 'I married a KKK member! He's really sweet and nice, I promise! He is loyal to his family! He's a wonderful guy!"
That's so depressing. Call me old-fashioned, but I think liberals should be, you know, liberal. My usual answer to all things is that less repression would make for less self-hatred and, therefore, less cruelty. (Old joke: Sex is a misdemeanor—the more you miss, the meaner you get.) But alas, Samantha Dunn and her husband notwithstanding, good sex doesn't solve everything. So let's make a deal. On behalf of the liberal tribe, I'll delete those Palin pictures and try not to laugh at that kind of partisan snark ever again if you right-wing hotheads try to get back to the old cloth-coat Republican virtues of decency and community. If we all stop being so goddamn mean, maybe we'll find out what we've been missing.
*This article originally stated Chris Matthews "got a tingle up his leg" from Palin. He actually said he got a "thrill up his leg" from Obama and later said to Steve Schmidt, the man who picked Palin for John McCain's ticket, that Schmidt got "the thrill" from Palin. To which Schmidt replied, "I think mine went away faster." (h/t to reader Kelly B.)
Illustration by Rob Shepperson