Speaking up and staying safer: an interview with young reproductive justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman
The Young Feminist Wire interviewed Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive justice activist and author of Saying Abortion Aloud: Research and Recommendations for Public Abortion Storytellers and Organizations. Bracey Sherman talks about online harassment and how she dealt with it when she started writing and talking about her abortion publicly.
She also talks about how she dealt with all the online vitriol – which ranged from hurtful racially-charged slurs to very real and scary threats to her life. We also talked about how she joined forces with other online feminist activists to publish Speak up and Stay Safe(r), an online guide to dealing with online harassment and threats.
The Young Feminist Wire: You’re a very outspoken young feminist, racial justice and reproductive justice activist online. You have also received your fair share of backlash and threats. Tell us more about what has happened to you.
Renee Tracey Sherman: I am quite public about my abortion but it wasn’t always the case. I had my abortion 10 years ago. For about 6 years, I was really silent about it, didn’t talk about it. I almost pretended like I didn’t have one because I had seen a lot of the harassment and the really disgusting things people say about people who have had abortions and I didn’t want to draw attention to myself around that. It’s not that I was ashamed that I had [an abortion] because I knew that it was the best decision for me. It was something that I was happy to have had, but I didn’t want to deal with the harassment, especially for something that I knew made my life better and was really an empowered decision but I kind of realized after working at an organization with LGBT youth in supporting them to share their stories and telling them to speak up and that there is strength in numbers that I wasn’t doing that myself. So, I started speaking out and sharing my abortion story.
While it was an incredibly empowering experience because I got to meet so many people, strangers around the world who also had abortions and wanted to speak openly about theirs, it also came with a lot of backlash.
A lot of nasty messages, emails, tweets – so many tweets! Last year, right around Mother’s Day in the United States, which is in May, there was an article I had written (Reclaiming my mamahood after my abortion) and some really conservative commentators picked it up and talked about it on a radio show and their followers just hit me with a barrage of nasty comments and messages. On their radio show, they talked about me and then wrote an article and linked to the contact page on my website, which really encouraged people to come after me. And, it was one of the scariest feelings of my life. While [all the comments and threats were] digital, I felt very terrified to leave my house because some of the people on Twitter said their location was near where I was living at the time. It’s an extremely unsettling feeling when you have to use the Internet for work and to connect with loved ones and all of these things and you log on and there’s just this barrage of hate and it is coming to your phone, because the apps are popping up with the notifications and you can’t really escape it.
It was terrifying. Someone sent me an email that said that they hoped that I would get sold into the sex trade and get raped over and over and over again and forced to give birth over and over and over again until I finally died from childbirth … all that for having an abortion and for daring to speak about it.
When I tried to fight back and reported some of the comments to the FBI, one of those people found out that I reported their comments to the FBI and told the radio show people and they targeted me again and again and [the nasty comments] returned and that was sustained for about a week. So, when I finally felt safer and felt I could come up for air, I wanted to know how I could protect myself and what to do about it. I felt really frustrated because, there wasn’t a whole lot of information online. There’s some stuff about how to protect some of your information online but there wasn’t anything about what to do when you are being harassed.
YF Wire: What did you do to try to protect yourself?
RBS: So, I reached out to Jaclyn Friedman, who at the time was the executive director of Women, Action and the Media. I talked to her and said: “What do you recommend?” and so she gave me some tips and said that she also felt frustrated and said she was in the midst of a conversation with Anita Sarkessian about making a guide [about how to deal with online harassment] and I joined their team. All three of us worked on the guide for a little over a year and a half because we really wanted to just share everything that we learned ourselves having gone through lots of online harassment. [Teaming up with them made me feel] so much safer and secure online. I still get harassment, that’s not going to stop but I feel a little bit more equipped, both mentally and physically to be able to deal with it.
When you are being attacked and abused online, it is a very isolating experience. It is terrifying. You feel like no one knows what you are going through. It is also not visible. If I am walking in the street and somebody is calling me all sorts of names, or threatens to kill me, other people will see it as I am walking down the street and say, “Hey! Stop! It’s not okay.” But, when it is online, it can often be hidden because it is just in my email, or it is in my Twitter mentions, which if it is only a reply to me, not everyone sees it so it comes directly to you and it hurts.
I think it is powerful that all of us come from such different backgrounds and such different areas for our work. So, Anita is a media critic and also critiques how women and marginalized folks are shown in video games. Jaclyn is also a media critic. She talks openly about sex and consent and anti-rape campaigns. I come from a racial justice and abortion access perspective. So, the people who are attacking all of us are the same people and they use the very same tactics and so the Speak up and Safe Safe(r) guide is really a testament to the power of us, banding together to fight back and recognize the common threads of misogyny and homophobia, transphobia and racism, xenophobia, all of these things together and how they all show up online. I think one of the things that we tried to make clear in writing the guide is that it is not just for cis-women online. We really wanted to take an intersectional lens to it and point out that this happens to anyone who has a ‘marginalized’ identity and dares to speak up against misogyny, patriarchy, white supremacy online.
YF Wire: How are the connections being made between violent, misogynist, racist, homophobic behaviour offline and online?
RBS: I think the connections are being slowly made. I can’t tell you how many times, in response to receiving harassment or in response to fact that we even created the guide, so many people tended to say: “Here, I’ll tell you how to deal with online harassment, just turn your computer off and walk away.” That’s the equivalent of saying: “Oh, you don’t like being harassed on the street, well just don’t go outside or oh, you don’t want to be sexually harassed at work, well just don’t go to work!” When you say it out loud, it obviously sounds ridiculous. Unfortunately, both in real-life and online, we still have this blame-the-victim mentality instead of actually telling people who harass to stop. It is possible to have civil discourse without wishing violence on someone else online.
I hear a lot of people saying, “Well, this is shutting off debate!” But, it is not debate to call me a whore or to call me a murderer. It is not debate to call me the N-word. That is harassment and abuse and I think we need people to recognize that. And, to recognize that if I turn off my computer for a minute, that doesn’t mean that comments and the harassment aren’t there when I come back! I need the computer and the internet to do my job. I use it to connect with family and friends. I use it to watch Beyoncé videos online. I use the internet and I don’t think it is fair to say, if you don’t want to be called these names, well you don’t get access to this space. It’s a way to excuse an abuser’s online behaviour and keep marginalized folks out of spaces that are basically designed for cis-gendered, white, hetereosexual men. I think it is sad that as a society, we are still uplifting this ideology that it is okay to bully people off the internet.
I also want to make sure there is not a hierarchy of abuse where we say: “Well, if they are not doxxing you and putting your home address on the internet than you can deal with a couple of slurs here and there.” All of it is harmful. And, all of it impacts people’s mental health and people’s experiences online.
YF Wire: What do you think “feeling safe online” should look like?
RBS: I want everyone to be able to have an experience where they can go online and buy whatever they need from some little shop halfway around the world, connect with people who have similar identities to them, especially if they don’t have access to those people in their immediate community in real-life, play games and video-chat with their family and friends and read thought-provoking articles free from harassment and harm.
A lot the times, the reasons that people go to the internet to begin with is that they want to feel connected. I remember when I first started speaking out about my abortion, one of the simple reasons that I started doing it was because I knew very few people that had an abortion because there is such stigma around the topic. I’ve met some amazing people online who then have gone on to become good friends of mine in real life. So, the internet was really powerful in that way for creating spaces for both online and offline connections and so, I don’t want to just have to log off and get away from the internet.
YF Wire: How can authorities and social media companies be made more accountable when it comes to online harassment and threats?
RBS: Overall the laws have not caught up to where we are digitally. According to authorities, there is a difference if someone were to say to me “I hope you died a terrible death versus I’m going to kill you and give you a terrible death.” One of those is considered somewhat harassment and the other is not because in one they are threatening me specifically and in the other they are not. If the authorities feel it is not a very credible threat, then they won’t do anything about it. Thus far, with that I have experienced, authorities have done nothing and I think that is really frustrating.
I’m always hesitant to put a lot of faith in the authorities because, for me, as a biracial black woman – as you see in the news – the police don’t do very much to help black folks. And right now, they have the authority to decide what’s a crime and what is not! It is a bit of a catch-22 because I don’t want the same systems of oppression that happen in real-life to happen online as well with the authorities. But, with that said, I definitely think that there are ways in which to hold people accountable for if they are putting people’s information online and constantly harassing someone.
This guide is not the be-all-end-all. This is something to help bridge the gap. Social media platforms haven’t been the most responsible. These companies need to ensure that their platform is safe for their users. If they want to continue to grow – as I assume they do – they need to understand that protecting their users needs to be a number one priority. And if, people are using their platforms to do harm to others, they can and should be held responsible. Who wants to be known as a platform that is used to harass you and send you nasty photos and comments? You know, I like Facebook. But, the fact that someone can tell me they hope I die and call me a cunt and all sorts of different things but then when I send that comment to Facebook, saying I think it is a violation of their terms and they write back saying that it is not, that makes me, everyday, a little bit less willing to use Facebook.
I will say, since Women, Action and the Media worked with Twitter, I have felt the positives of that and when I report somebody who says those very terrible and nasty comments, they do actually delete the comment and block the account. I think they are taking steps in the right direction but there is still a lot of work to be done.
YF Wire: What’s your favourite recommendation from the Guide?
RBS: One thing I love about the guide is we do offer some self-care tips. Because when you’re in the middle of being harassed, it can be really scary to figure out what it is that you need to do and who to lean on for support so we offer some ideas on what we’ve done, who we have talk to and concrete asks that you could ask a friend to do for you, like check your mentions and clear stuff out on your page.
The guide is also available in Spanish and Arabic. If you want to help translate the guide into more languages, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org