men write letters to me

As I started becoming more involved in an online life– using Twitter more often, blogging regularly, opening up my e-mail for people to communicate with me privately– I knew that I was going to have to steel myself against online harassment. For the first six months I was terrified of what was coming, unsure of how I’d stay healthy and strong in the face of that. It worked out that it didn’t arrive as a sudden deluge of hate, which was what my imagination had concocted; instead it was a slow and steady progression of vitriol and misogyny. In fact, looking back, it’s funny to me to see how the harassment has “evolved.” Initially all the harassment came from fundamentalists who didn’t like what I was saying, but has slowly shifted to misogynists who actively go out of their way to find women to hate on. My blog has appeared on places like The Slyme Pit (Google that with caution), I’ve been ripped to shreds in comment sections all over the internet where my work has been re-posted, and I’ve even picked up a few hate-readers.

That slow and steady increase in harassment has given me the time to build up a thick skin, which is definitely not something I’d previously cultivated. Now when an asshole sends me a hateful comment I can shrug it off more easily, especially when the substance of the comment is so unoriginal it’s beyond boring. I’m fat? Really? That’s what you’ve got?

Something I did not expect was the bizarre e-mails.

In a way, I find these things profoundly more disturbing than most of the comments I get– excepting the rape and death threats. Some of them are bizarre and threatening, which is a difficult combination to shake. I’ve been accused of being a fundamentalist double-agent, using my “powers that are far beyond ordinary people” to use you, my readers, as “guinea pigs” in some convoluted fundamentalist trap. I barely understood that one– although being called a sorceress, essentially, was entertaining and is now my reliable pick-me-up about my writing: I’m such a damn fine writer someone accused me of sorcery once.

All of these bizarre and harassing and threatening letters and comments come from men. All. It’s gotten to the point now when I see a notification that I have a comment from a male-sounding (or gender-neutral) username I don’t recognize, I ask my partner to read it and evaluate whether or not I can publish it (so, all you douchewaffles out there, most of the time I don’t even see your comments. They’re getting read by a guy so unflappable and emotionally steady you’re definitely wasting your time).

But what I’d particularly like to talk about today is a very particular subset of men who write to me. Almost all of these e-mails follow so specific a pattern I’m left scratching my head wondering if they’re all the same person, or multiple people who have all read Arguing with Liberals for Dummies.

This type of man– I’m going to call him Mr. Apologist– sends me an e-mail that opens with how concerned he is and how much he just wants to understand me. He wants to clarify things in order to communicate clearly. All those italicized words have become red flags for me, as well as the tone in which they’re said. Mr. Apologist is mild, bordering on gentle, and every word is obviously meant to be soothing. He goes out of his way to seem as non-combative as possible. He just wants to talk.

For the first couple years, I took Mr. Apologist seriously. I would craft extensive, well-thought-out replies. I engaged these men for hours, for days, doing what I thought was my job– after all, I’m a feminist. If someone comes to me asking questions, I’m going to use every opportunity I can to educate. I would do individually-tailored research, finding resources I thought would help this man particularly well.

Over time, however, I noticed a pattern: inevitably all of these men would become recalcitrant. I would tamp down feelings of frustration, telling myself sternly that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and this would take time and effort and patience. But, eventually, it would become obvious that Mr. Apologist is not actually interested in “understanding” me. What Mr. Apologist wants to do is find out what my particular set of presuppositions, arguments, and support are for various issues so that he can bring to bear everything he picked up at his “Defending the Faith” class at church.

I’ve also noticed that they all want to “talk” about the same things:

  1. Hell
  2. Salvation
  3. Homosexuality
  4. Abortion
  5. The Meaning of Truth
  6. How Women Need to be Gentle and and Meek and Mild and Sweet and Invisible

When I figured this out, all I could do was laugh ruefully. Because– supposedly– they got my e-mail from my blog (it’s the only place it’s published) which means if they’ve spent two seconds around here they’d realize that I used to be them. There is not a single argument they can possibly make that I have not already made myself. In fact, what I’ve found is that when I used to be them, I was a much better version of them. For example, if I’m going to debate someone about homosexuality in the Bible, my opening salvo would never have been Sodom and Gomorrah (first: Romans 1 is much more verdant territory. Second: Ezekiel 16:49).

What frustrates me about Mr. Apologist is that he also has another name: Bancroft calls him the Water Torturer.

He tends to stay calm in arguments, using his own evenness as a weapon to push her over the edge. He often has a superior or contemptuous grin on his face, smug and self-assured. He uses a repertoire of aggressive conversational tactics at low volume, including sarcasm, derision—such as openly laughing at her—mimicking her voice, and cruel, cutting remarks. Like Mr. Right, he tends to take things she has said and twist them beyond recognition to make her appear absurd … He is relentless in his quiet derision and meanness …

In an argument, she may end up yelling in frustration, leaving the room crying, or sinking into silence. The Water Torturer then says, See, you’re the abusive one, not me. You’re the one who’s yelling and refusing to talk things out rationally. I wasn’t even raising my voice. It’s impossible to reason with you.

From Why Does He Do That?, 94.

I have slowly come to the opinion that conservative Christianity teaches everyone– but especially men– to be Water Torturers. Staying calm in an argument is one of the ways we feel superior to everyone else, and emotions from other people are taken as a sign that we’ve “won.” These men feel the same way: an excellent example that many of you are familiar with is Tiribulus. I’ve also talked about this in the context of that protester outside The Reformation Project: that I’d become emotional couldn’t be a sign of how offensive, mean, insulting, and degrading he was being– it was the sign that he’d won the argument. He’d stayed calm longer than me: ergo, he was more logical, more rational, more right than me.

Today, when I get one of these e-mails, my responses are brief and straightforward. I link him to a few posts that are a good example of my stance on an issue and then ask him to limit his contact to commenting on individual posts if he’s so interested in “asking questions.”

So far, no one has taken me up on that.

[sidenote: I do respond to e-mails from men. I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the difference between guy-with-an-actual-question and guy-who-just-wants-to-debate-a-liberal. I do enjoy talking to all of you, male, female, or otherwise.]

Photo by Kevin Steinhardt
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