‘Gendertrolling’ and Violence Against Abortion Providers: Cut From the Same Cloth

Misogyny may evolve as new tactics are put into practice, but the systematic harassment of women, whether it be for speaking up or for accessing reproductive health care, continues to be about power.

Misogyny may evolve as new tactics are put into practice, but the systematic harassment of women, whether it be for speaking up or for accessing reproductive health care, continues to be about power. Shutterstock

Misogyny may evolve as new tactics are put into practice, but the systematic harassment of women, whether it be for speaking up or for accessing reproductive health care, continues to be about power.

In her book Gendertrolling: How Misogyny Went Viral, Karla Mantilla defines her new term, “gendertrolling,” as a separate phenomenon from the standard “annoying or disruptive” troll behavior, placing it squarely in the tradition of male entitlement.

“[G]endertrolling is exponentially more vicious, virulent, aggressive, threatening, pervasive, and enduring than generic trolling,” she writes. “[G]endertrolls, as opposed to generic trolls, take their cause seriously, so they are therefore able to rally others who share in their convictions to take up the effort alongside them resulting in a mob, or swarm, of gendertrolls who are devoted to targeting the designated person.”

The editor of a women’s studies journal makes it clear that the bombardment of gendered, personal, and prolific harassment of women online is simply the newest manifestation of a patriarchal culture. Her thorough analysis and suggestions for creating change purposely parallel offline and historical gendered attacks—even calling for readers and activists to draw additional parallels in the hopes of critiquing and expanding her recommendations for change.

“I am … attempting in this book to call attention to the fact that gendertrolling is not a new phenomenon that has arisen as an inevitable consequence of the Internet, but to demonstrate that it is simply a new form of age-old misogyny,” writes Mantilla. “I am hopeful that this book makes a contribution by identifying not only gendertrolling, but the patterns that it shares in common with countless other modes of misogyny.”

The clearest parallel for me to the pervasive, coordinated, and nearly universally ignored harassment of gendertrolling is the intimidation and violence against abortion providers in this country. Both attempt to restrict the autonomy of those who are marginalized and both rely on ignorance and/or apathy to thrive. Additionally, both create a culture of fear where the collective memory of the afflicted groups intensifies the effect of individual threats in a way that is reasonable—but only to those with a working knowledge of the medium and intent of the harassers. Law enforcement, in both cases, is often woefully lacking in the knowledge necessary to take threats seriously and/or the tools to address complaints.

At the time that I picked up Mantilla’s book, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was drilling Planned Parenthood’s president to “examine the use of taxpayer funding” by Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, and a founder of the #ShoutYourAbortion Twitter campaign was doxxed and ended up leaving her home city. Also, the Clinic Vest Project, a nonprofit of which I am a founding board member that provides free vests to clinic escort groups across North America, began seeing a significant uptick in resource requests from Planned Parenthood clinics with new or increased picketing. I immediately drew a connection between the steady rise in gendertrolling and the increase in abortion provider targeting as detailed by the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project Surveys and lawyer-authors David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon in their book Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism.

Both types of harassment intimidate, silence, and often bodily injure the targets. Anti-choice individuals who target abortion providers—inadequately dressed up in a concern for life—seek to end reproductive autonomy. The targeting of vocal women in a traditionally male space—such as a new public forum—seeks to shut down any foothold for those who dare express an opinion. Whether there is traceable crossover between those who commit these two kinds of targeting, both stem from a compulsion to control voices and power.

Mantilla effectively places gendertrolling in context as part of “a long-standing historical tradition of harassment and abuse of women, in which women have been barred from full participation in cultural, social, and political discourse.” Any campaign by legislators or anti-abortion groups to reduce or eliminate women’s bodily autonomy—and therefore control over their present and future—should be seen as part of the same tradition.

Abortion providers and those affected by gendertrolling also share an unfortunate frustration with law enforcement. Cohen and Connon interviewed medical director Inez Navarro, whose initial experience with local police was one reason she moved to a new neighborhood. When the picketers at her clinic began using her name and yelling more direct threats like “No one is going to protect you,” she decided to alert the police.

“If anything did happen, I wanted them to know there was a history, it wasn’t just a one-time random incident,” Navarro explained. When the police laughed rather than taking her complaint seriously, she was “irritated and pissed and emotional all at the same time.” Being brushed off changed her perception of law enforcement drastically.

“Maybe I had a naive faith that the police were there to protect me,” Navarro said. “I can tell you right now, I no longer trust that this police force is here to help. That was kind of my eye-opening experience with them.”

Journalist Anna Merlan’s experience reporting gendertrolling harassment was similarly frustrating. “[T]here are pretty good harassment and stalking laws on the books in most states that could be used to prosecute people who make clear threats online,” she told Mantilla. “But something about the online environment makes police lose interest.”

Navarro and Merlan are hardly anomalies. Having volunteered as a clinic escort in several states and cities as well as helped to launch new abortion access programs, I have experienced a wide range of law enforcement responses. In fact, one of my first questions to new team leaders and clinic staff is: “What happens when you call the police to report harassment?”

A discouraging lack of interest extends to prosecutors and the courtroom. Widespread mainstream coverage of GamerGate targeting high profile women in the gaming industry with rape and death threats wasn’t enough for the justice system. Of those targeted, Brianna Wu in particular had a very solid, high-profile case, and yet Merlan confirms that “not a single violent threat made against Wu, Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn has result[ed] in an actual, prosecuted criminal case.”

Abortion providers are fighting legal battles in the face of a proliferation of restrictive laws (51 this year; 282 since 2010), openly hostile governors and prosecutors, and ideological judges. This summer, pro-choice advocates praised an unexpected ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s that will put Angel Dillard on trial for threats she made to Kansas abortion provider Dr. Mila Means. Dillard has ties to other anti-abortion extremists like Scott Roeder, who killed longtime Wichita abortion provider Dr. George Tiller after years of targeting and murder attempts by anti-abortion groups, but was attempting to hide behind her First Amendment rights, contending her comments did not constitute a “true threat.”

From Rewire’s coverage of the case:

At the time Dillard sent the letter, Means was preparing to start offering abortion services at the clinic of the late abortion provider [Dr. Tiller]. In the letter to Means, Dillard presented a “vision” of what Means’ life would look like should she start providing abortions in Wichita, Kansas. In that letter, Dillard explained how thousands of people from across the country were already scrutinizing Means’ background. Soon, Dillard promised, they would know “your habits and routines. They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live,” Dillard wrote. “You will be checking under your car every day—because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.”

Anyone familiar with GamerGate or the history of abortion provider targeting would see the threats to Wu and Means as credible and unprotected speech. Eight abortion providers have been murdered in recent decades and misogynistic shooting sprees carried out by men like Elliot Rodger have made enough headlines to cultivate a culture of fear that intensify every mailed “warning” letter and tweeted rape/death threat. It only takes a handful of these acts carried out IRL—in real life—to create a collective memory of the targeting and for targeted individuals of either group to feel unsafe. This amplification effect is easily exploited by anti-choice groups as well as GamerGaters.

As Mantilla writes in Gendertrolling:

Although such expressly declared misogynistic killing sprees [like Rodger’s] are relatively rare, the fear of many women who are targets of online harassment campaigns is that the mob mentality and the amped-up rhetoric might precipitate more offline real-life violence. Given these incidents, along with the rape and death threats, graphic sexual and violent messages, and instances of doxxing, it is entirely understandable that women who are being targeted would reasonably be fearful for their safety.

If the fear is so reasonable, why are there so few—if any—legal actions available to those who are targeted? Mantilla and the Crosshairs authors advocate for similar solutions: increase cultural awareness; enforce current laws; enact new laws; and educate law enforcement on the climate of targeting, training them to respond appropriately. All these recommendations are made with an awareness that culture change will be necessary for solutions to work long-term; changes in law and culture can work together to amplify each kind of change.

“Many commentators see changing norms [to be] at least as important as or perhaps more important than changing laws,” writes Mantilla. “They also see changing laws as one way to induce cultural change and to signal to people that changes in norms and standards are taking place.”

The Crosshairs authors see labeling anti-abortion threats and violence as “terrorism” to be part of that two-pronged strategy. “By shifting terminology to include targeted harassment within the concept of terrorism, society will further brand these actions as unacceptable, possibly reducing the amount providers face through a shift in societal norms,” they write.

They also see the “terrorism” label as more clearly defining whose jurisdiction threats would fall under—another issue that connects both types of targeting. Wu similarly advocates for getting law enforcement the necessary tools to respond appropriately: “This is going to require funding, it’s going to require laws be [passed] that clearly outline whose responsibility it is to respond to these threats.”

A British Member of Parliament named Stella Creasy—who has, herself, received graphic online rape and death threats—has advocated for legal changes in the UK and is quoted by Mantilla on the need for law enforcement to take online threats seriously:

I want the police and other services to be able to understand the impact of these messages. I don’t want them to tell me how to learn to cope — I want to hear they are doing something about it.

The “Recommendations for Change” chapter of Gendertrolling summation fits both targeting scenarios and addresses the need to bring about legal and cultural change. “As we have seen, those who are bent on harassing, abusing, and threatening women seem to have endless capacities for adapting their tactics to new mediums and new technologies,” she writes. “Strategies that advocate for cultural change have the best hope of being effective at eradicating the motivations of those who attack women by tackling the root of the problem: misogyny.”

The abortion storytelling movement and heightened visibility of clinic escorts who can recount the day-to-day bombardment that reproductive health-care facilities endure are tackling this aspect of provider targeting. As public opinion shifts on abortion care and the offensive tactics of picketers are made known, harassing providers will become increasingly unacceptable. Campaigns like #ShoutYourAbortion that highlight the crossover in motivation between the two types of targeting accelerate our shift toward widespread culture change.

Mantilla closes her book with the hope that those fighting back in multiple arenas can work together and be sure to tag in the next generation to amplify our efforts:

“Perhaps if women and feminist activists were more prepared to anticipate the seemingly inevitable new iterations of misogyny, it would expedite the process of coming to recognize the commonalities each new form has with other earlier forms, which might enable women to identify and to fight them sooner, with less effort, and with more purpose.”

Hear, hear.