These Boots Were Made for Stalking: When Women Harass Women Online
Imagine being manipulated, threatened, and humiliated because someone really, really wants to be your friend.
Image by Kat Aileen
In 2005, West Coast blogger and author Cynthia* had accumulated a number of sweet but hyperbolic followers--"the late 00s equivalent of #lifegoals commenters," she says--when one particularly effusive fan started to stand out. "I'm literally crying right now with jealousy," the longtime blog reader would write. "Why is your life so perfect?!" Cynthia did her best to respond these messages in supportive and kind ways. ("Aw, thanks." "My life is just as messy as yours!") until she grew uncomfortable enough with their frequency and intensity to gently say so. Afterward, her fan went from being a font of fawning worship to one of unstinting rage, leaving comments that called Cynthia a "wannabe earth mother bitch from hell" and "a stuck up pig whore."
Cynthia blocked the woman's IP address on both her blog and her Flickr, but the woman still managed to get messages through. When leaving messages was apparently not satisfying enough, she spread rumors that Cynthia was cheating on her husband, even going so far as to email him directly from an anonymous account to tell him so.
Women harassing other women online is no longer news. In 2006, adult woman Lori Drew was revealed to be behind the fake MySpace account that successfully urged 13-year-old Megan Meier to hang herself. Best-selling author Melissa Anelli was the target of extreme cyber-stalking by another woman for over five years. And in 2014, British woman Isabel Sorley served a brief prison sentence after tweeting threats to a feminist campaigner. This last detail is consistent with the media's usual coverage of online harassment, which now focuses heavily on white feminists (Amanda Hess, Anita Sarkeesian, Lindy West) trolled by men, though women of color-especially black women-and trans women often face even more abuse.
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In my online circles, which consist primarily of women who are not prominent feminists (if they identify publicly as feminists at all), I've noticed a flavor of harassment different from pure vitriolic trolling, a harassment that more closely resembles old-fashioned stalking. Some of my friends have thousands of followers on Twitter, others maintain blogs or Tumblrs with dedicated readers, and many do both. To publicly present oneself to strangers in highly calculated ways is now normal. Almost everyone who grew up with the Internet participates in establishing their own lifestyle brand, even if that's as mild as curating an Instagram feed that makes her life look like a non-stop party or a perpetual exercise in domestic excellence. These cults of personality developed through social media have led many women to experience occasional, aggressive, and unwanted attention from other women. (Which may be no surprise, given that studies have shown simply consuming information about the lives of others decreases one's own sense of worth and increases a sense of envy.) Increasingly, I hear friends mention having stalkers, and they're rarely referring to men.
"Stalking" can be an overused word, so it's useful to revisit what it's intended to describe: a pattern of unwanted behavior that would "cause a reasonable person fear." It's a series of actions that taken alone might seem legal or benign but viewed in context indicate clear harassment. To constitute stalking in any content (not only sexual or romantic,) the CDC's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey requires the victim be "very fearful" and believe that they or someone close to them will experience physical harm. But one can be in a constant state of distress and paranoia without necessarily believing she is about to be murdered. More than one in ten women will be a victim of stalking in her lifetime, and while only seven percent of these instances are estimated to be perpetrated by other women, the very high level of fear required for inclusion in the NISVS surely means a larger number of those undergoing low-level serial harassment don't qualify.
None of the women I spoke with said they feared for their lives at the hands of their female stalkers, but that doesn't mean their lives weren't considerably impacted. Liz was 18 when she met the woman who would become her cyberstalker, a married nurse ten years her senior active in same Twitter community. Liz's stalker recreated Liz's Instagram pictures down to the makeup and poses, named her cat Liz, and pretended to be in the same city so that her threats--such as drugging Liz while she was out at bars--carried more weight. The messages were often violent and explicitly sexual. The harassment went on for three years across multiple platforms, and although Liz knew the women lived too far away to physically attack her but still says, "I felt like I couldn't escape her." Her stalker eventually faded away without further incident, but only after Liz learned her stalker's identity when the woman forgot to log out of her account before posting another one.
Beyond mental terrorism, there's no doubt stalkers can inflict real damage from afar. Minor Twitter celebrity Veronica is plagued by a female stalker who has repeatedly attempted to find out where Veronica lives after her recent move and plotted how to steal her boyfriend, including propositioning him with sex. Sex worker Dominique's stalker tried to get Dominique fired (or at least to humiliate her) by posting pictures of Dominique in her webcam persona on the Facebook pages of various publications where she worked. Attempts to terminate a victim's romantic partnership and employment are "common tactics used by stalkers regardless of relationship and gender," explains Stalking Resource Center director Michelle Garcia. The methods of stalkers are remarkably similar whether the stalker is a spurned lover, obsessive fan, or jealous ex-girlfriend.
But that doesn't mean gender dynamics aren't at play when one woman becomes obsessed with another. Female stalkers are rarely taken seriously when they target men because they're presumed to be physically weaker and categorically not a threat. (James Lasdun's book on his years of being stalked by a woman was greeted with suspicion that he was at least partially responsible for her behavior, or simply complaining too much.) When women target other women, the entire ordeal can be written off as a catfight blown out of portion. Several of the women I spoke with said they went to the police with evidence of their harassers' threats and were told nothing could be done. Garcia says that's not uncommon. "Stalking laws are intended to allow intervention before violent assault," she says, "but we hear a lot of stories about law enforcement saying, 'we can't do anything until something [violent] happens,' particularly when technology is involved."
Emily Lakdawalla, a planetary scientist and writer, first crossed paths with the women who would become her stalker when the woman began posting excessively on a forum Emily moderated. "Jessica" sent her first email to Emily in 2009, asking Emily to meet for dinner. "I have tremendous respect and admiration for you," Jessica wrote, "and hope we can form a lasting friendship. You are like a celebrity to me and meeting you is one of my life's dreams." Emily describes the dinner request as "going from zero to 100" given that the two of them had never had an exchange before; she says it left her "creeped out." Emily did not respond, so Jessica followed up by emailing Emily's bosses with an offer to make a large donation to their organization if Emily would have dinner with her. When that offer wasn't accepted, Jessica attended a conference at which Emily was speaking. Though Emily tried to avoid Jessica, Jessica cornered Emily in the women's bathroom and tried to introduce herself through the stall door, a move that understandably made Emily "exceedingly uncomfortable." This encounter, during which Emily is confident her alarm was palpable, occasioned Jessica giving up on communicating with Emily directly and instead leaving angry comments about her on various online forums, accusing her of a being a "shill" for others.
Jessica seemed to be fixated on Emily because she wanted to emulate Emily's career path, and perhaps, in her head, a relationship with Emily was necessary to do so. Lisa A. Phillips in her book, Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, refers to this as "goal-linking": "the beloved comes to represent something beyond [themselves] and what's really happening." It seems this can happen on a non-romantic level, too, when the stalker fixates on a successful woman and believes that woman is standing in the way of the stalker's professional success if she withholds friendship and coaching. When I worked as an escort and maintained a relatively high online profile doing so, I received regular emails from women eager to start a friendship or receive mentorship from me, and they almost always made me uncomfortable. When I didn't respond, the women who emailed me would usually keep trying to force an exchange, sometimes in communication that accused me of wronging them and owing them an explanation, sometimes in social spaces where they acted like we had a real relationship to people who truly were my friends. Other times they would request mutual clients hire us both for a simultaneous date. Usually their biggest power play was dropping hints that they knew I was the writer Charlotte Shane--a fact I certainly did not want any of my clients or potential clients made aware of.
What I was most struck by in my own encounters with obsessive female "fans" was how readily they transgressed boundaries with the presumption of an established intimacy. I wondered if this was simply obsession's narcissism at work, through which one is convinced the circumstances are exceptional, or if our shared gender made them feel justified. ("Hey girlfriend," began one email written by a woman I'd never spoken to, who proceeded to connect my escort identity with Charlotte and talk about how she recognized "the real" me.)
Dr. Jean Twenge, psychologist and author of Generation Me, emphasizes that online spaces "can set up a false intimacy that often can't be fulfilled" and that, for millennia, "it has been very adaptive for women to band together (especially women with children). Those connections are very important to us, and when they're thwarted it, it trips us up." There's little research on women stalking women, but it seems true that women give themselves what Lisa A. Phillips calls "a gender pass": They buy into many of the same sexist ideas as men do and refuse to see their behavior as threatening or menacing. Why didn't the sex-working women harassing me think they were out of line, when surely they'd sympathize with me if a man were behaving in a similar way? Well, simple--they're women!
Molly Crabapple, who is no stranger to death and rape threats from men online, says, "female stalkers scare me so much more than men. They know how to get to you." Several of my friends who have suffered relentless harassment from other women online wouldn't talk with me for this article, partially because they didn't want to risk inspiring a renewed assault but also because they didn't want to revisit the experience. Veronica is frank about her sense of betrayal. "I've had men stalk me in real life and it's really scary," she says, "but this hurts more. I want to be able to trust other women." She echoes Molly's sentiment that women, in some ways, seem like more formidable opponents. "They're crueler. [Their harassment] feels more thought-out and planned, and they'll enlist other women."
Most of the women I spoke with told me upfront, without my asking, that they wouldn't reveal the identity of their stalker, though it wasn't out of fear of poking a hornet's nest. On the contrary, several explicitly said they were concerned about their stalker's well-being and didn't want to be guilty of endangering someone's already precarious mental and emotional health. This protectiveness and gentleness, too, seems directly tied to gender. "I'll start feeling sorry for her," Veronica says of her stalker, sounding sad, "but then she'll do something else [abusive] to me again, and I'll just feel stupid."
For her part, Cynthia made her blog private, which it remains to this day. About a year after her stalker stopped sending abusive messages, she contacted Cynthia one last time: to apologize. "I'm sorry for saying nasty things to you and trying to break up your marriage," she wrote. "I honestly don't know how everything got so out of hand."
*Any woman identified by only a first name in this piece is not being identified by her real name.