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Catholic women need thick skins online

When Caroline Farrow began a blog promoting Church teaching she was staggered by the vitrolic attacks on her by men and women alike

By on Friday, 18 November 2011

A mother uses her laptop on the move. Hatred directed against women on the internet is currently in the headlines (Photo: AP Photo)

A mother uses her laptop on the move. Hatred directed against women on the internet is currently in the headlines (Photo: AP Photo)

Online misogyny is currently hitting the headlines, with prominent women columnists testifying to an unrelenting tide of sexually motivated aggression. It’s a narrative with which I have an enormous amount of sympathy, for as a female blogger I find that my comments box fills up with remarks of a sexually abusive nature with alarming alacrity.

Comments tend to centre around my personal appearance, which, somewhat paradoxically, is apparently both repellent and inviting of sexual advances. I am quite clearly sexually frustrated and repressed, they suggest, and in need of a therapeutic sexual encounter, one that will have the effect of relieving my obvious sexual tension and have the added desired effect of altering my abhorrent Catholic views on the nature of sex and sexuality.

Sexual violence is a prominent feature, either to myself, or even more shockingly to my children; a comment received last week stated that it was a great shame that my children had never been sexually abused, which was obviously required in order to make me understand the severity of the clerical abuse scandal and make me understand the iniquitous nature of the Catholic Church.

As a Catholic blogger, I experience something of a double- or even triple-whammy effect. The abuse I receive is centred around my faith, my gender and to a certain degree my marriage. At the time I started blogging and engaging in online debate I was married to a vicar, which held a certain fascination. I was seen as a symbol of the Christian establishment and thus a legitimate target for attack. Whereas the headlines have been focused around male misogyny, my robust defence of Catholicism and in particular of Catholic social teaching has meant that the misogyny has emanated from all quarters – men and women alike.

Whereas the threats from men have been articulated using the language of sexual violence, women have equally not been averse to threatening physical violence of a different nature.

A woman hoped that I would fall victim to a backstreet abortionist’s rusty scissors. Another woman asked that God might strike me down. Another wished for my death in childbirth. And yet another expressed a hope that my children would be removed from my care and placed in the care of a homosexual couple as I am clearly inflicting psychological damage upon them by a process of religious indoctrination.

This isn’t simply a narrative of women under attack from men; any woman with strong counter-cultural views, such as Catholicism, comes under attack from her own kind. Some of my most pernicious opponents who have threatened a disproportionate real-life response due to a divergence of opinion have been women, with one particularly enraged individual threatening to ring up my husband’s former bishop to report slanderous allegations unless I halted pro-life work, and whose version of feminism didn’t encompass exercising any compassion or charity towards a heavily pregnant woman.

Male Catholic bloggers do testify to a certain amount of aggression and strongly worded opinions, littered with ad hominem attacks, but none that resort to threats of physical or sexual violence or involve their family. Male bloggers do not, on the whole, tend to attract insults about their personal appearance, which is a regular feature of the negativity from both sexes. To insult a woman’s appearance and comment on her attractiveness or desirability is designed to strike at the core of her femininity. In

a society in which women are actively encouraged to sexually objectivise themselves and in which women still tend to be judged upon their physical appearance, a comment designed to tell a woman how ugly she is, is an attempt to marginalise and dismiss her as being of little value or worth.

I have had something of a mixed response to my reported online abuse, which featured in the New Statesman and the Observer. Other women bloggers, such as the noted libertarian Anna Raccoon, have viewed it with incredulity and reported that they receive very little in the way of contrary opinion, let alone highly personalised invective. Her opinion was that women should simply grow up and take it as being an inevitable part of the online discourse. Interestingly enough, various bloggers of a liberal bent, who had previously thrown accusations of attention-seeking or pity-seeking when I had vocalised hurt, were suddenly overcome with concern when the abuse was viewed through the filter of misogyny. The feminist bloggers who initially expressed solidarity chose to whitewash or ignore my inclusion in the initial story as my narrative did not fit neatly into the idea of male aggression, given that I had been at pains to point out that some of the misogyny had stemmed from those in their clique. A few of the comments following on from the New Statesman suggested that in many ways I was responsible for any negative or violent reaction due to my homophobia and offensive views on IVF.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to online abuse. Misogyny is no doubt one of them, as is an anti-Catholic sentiment. But it is misleading to spin either of these into a single narrative which seeks to present either women, or Catholics, as unique victims. Many women and many Catholics are able to engage in online discourse with little to no harassment. Equally, there are many male writers who attract opprobrium, but this tends to be less violent and vitriolic in nature. Though David Starkey, for example, attracted a lot of negative attention in the summer due to perceived racism, he did not report receiving threats of violence. Those of us who are subject to online harassment seem to possess a unique combination of features that provoke strong polarised reactions.

It is difficult to pose any realistic solutions that do not impinge on our diminishing religious freedoms. Catholic social teaching is counter-cultural and therefore we should all be wary of advocating legislation which would define the right not to be offended or extend the definition of hate speech.

One solution would be to assume a cloak of anonymity, something to which I have given considerable thought.

The reasons why my identity is transparent are twofold: first, taking responsibility and ownership for my blog means that I am also forced to behave charitably towards those with whom I disagree and not resort to cruel insults or barbed impatient retorts, a trap that besets all bloggers. Second, I began to blog, not only as an outlet but also as a means of apologetics and evangelisation. I am read by a substantial number of non-Catholics, so I wanted to transmit my ordinariness and my foibles, to be a human face while putting forward the case for the Church, to encourage and inspire other ordinary Christians.

“What did you expect?” is a common refrain. I am still unable to answer that question with any clarity. Freedom of speech includes the right to freedom from illegal harassment or aggression. The Public Order Act states that it is an offence to “display any writing… which is threatening, abusive or insulting”, hence my blog comments are highly moderated and appropriate action is taken where necessary. All of us who engage in online activity must ask searching questions and ensure that we behave in a manner worthy of the Kingdom.

To accept the premise that only those who are emotionally robust enough to withstand the cruelty that may result from voicing opinions should be allowed to do so is to contravene Gospel principles, as it denies a voice to the weak. All of us must work then to make the internet a reflection of the Kingdom and a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

Caroline Farrow blogs at Carolinefarrow.com.

  • http://twitter.com/thirstygargoyle Thirsty Gargoyle

    I’m increasingly convinced this is a serious problem. Disagreement – even vigorous disagreement – is fine, and to be expected when engaging in any kind of public forum, but full-blown abuse and intimidation is a different matter, and it really does seem that women are far more likely to be faced with it than are men.

    It’s almost as though people expect women to back down in the face of aggression, and so attempt to shut them up through nastiness, whereas with men, people are more likely to think aggression won’t work so easily, so don’t bother as much.

    A generalisation, I know, but a valid one, I think.

  • Anonymous

    I think there’s another reason – which is that liberal women see women who take a different stance as traitors to the ideals of the sisterhood. Try being an anti-abortion woman – people tell me they attract virulent reactions.

  • WSquared

    Isn’t it interesting how people who yelp most about “choice” are also the first to raise the hue and cry about how the choices of other women that run contrary to theirs are “wrong.”  Gay Catholics who choose celibacy and fidelity to the teachings of the Church get similar treatment from liberals.

  • John G

    Excellent article. Your reward will be great in heaven. I empathise. Being a practising Catholic in modern secular England incites vitriol & hatred. Maranatha

  • maryp

    Thank you for being a voice for Catholic women, Caroline. Keep fighting the good fight. You won’t get much thanks for it in this life but your reward will be great in the next.

  • Lisa

    I think the experience of the conservative American columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin is instructive. For years she has borne vicious abuse from “readers” – misogynist and racist and vile.  

  • Bob

    One feels as if marooned in a desert, when countering media opinion about the Church.  The BBC, PBS, NPR, ABC, NBC, CBS, the NY Times, et.al., engage in continual barrages of Anti-Catholic propaganda.  Any opinion counter to their promotion of Gay Marriage, Abortion, Female priests,etc.,  is met with scorn and derision.  At the same time, the media are in love with Islam, promoting sharia and the rest of the abhorrent Muslim religious laws.  Burqas, for covering women totally? Great.  Bowing to Islamic violence and threats? No problem for the Media.  Afraid to criticize Mohammed?  Of course, says the Media, no problem, He was just wonderful! 

    How about the killing of Apostates and Honor Killings?  No problem, says the Media, it’s just a small minority of Muslims, and it’s their own business, not ours. Polygamy?  Forced Conversions?  Abrogation of Western law, and replacing it with Islamic law?   The continued killing and persecution of Christians in Islamic Countries?  Great!! says the Media, love to see those Christians get what is coming to them, what’s better, we in the Media can easily ignore this – it isn’t news, because it’s only about Christians getting massacred…

    And, what is far worse than the thousands of Christians killed each year in Africa, is the ongoing prejudice and persecution of Muslim folk in Europe and the US - why, the insulting looks!!  How it damages those poor Muslim women!….Poor Souls!  (sounds of Media sobbing).  We have to remedy this with wonderful programs about the average Muslims out there, so loving, kind, and patriotic….and so free with Petrodollar grant money. 

  • http://ccfather.blogspot.com/ Ben Trovato

    I almost feel guilty for being a man. I blog on similar topics: pro-life, pro-Catholic moral and social teaching, anti-gay ‘marriage’ etc etc, but have never attracted the kind of venom and hatred that you have experienced.  

    Also I do blog under a psuedonym, to protect my family from any come-back (and also because I might lose my job if I didn’t!)

    So I am awestruck by your courage and commitment!

  • Edward Zaremba

    I am so sorry people treated and continue to treat you this way. Liberalism is the force behind it and to a large extent responsible for even good Catholics being confused. This liberalism tells them they have the power to say what they want to say, even the right, but if they could see the state of their souls by these aggressive and hateful sayings they would understand.Keepblogging and God Bless

  • MarissaKNichols

    Great piece!  Yet another “non-solution solution” on the part of the secular media.  The problem isn’t the ‘skins’ of women bloggers…the problem is the chainsaw-massacre of incivility waged against them.  If people were able to argue respectfully without ad-hominem attacks and death threats, the problem would diminish.

  • concerned Catholic

    Unfortunately, this despicable type of behavior isn’t at all rare on the internet nor limited to one side in the cultural wars.  Notice the statements about the physical appearance, attractiveness, age and sexual frustration of progressive female bloggers by traditionalist Catholic male bloggers like Father Z and, even more so, by bloggers like Mundabor.

  • SBallew

    I agree with Ben, I am awestruck by your courage as well.  I would be a heap of depressed goo, had I got blasted and “molested” online like you seem to be all the time.  Blessing to you as you fight the good fight…the good moral fight against evil and secularism.

  • Marion_Upon_St_Blogs

    ” the premise that only those who are emotionally robust enough to
    withstand the cruelty that may result from voicing opinions should be
    allowed to do so is to contravene Gospel principles, as it denies a
    voice to the weak.”

    If in reply to a Catholic author’s online essay, someone were to write, “I believe what you argue is both untrue and unfair. The history of the situation as you described it fails to take into the account the experience of X people under Y conditions . . . . I hope in light of what I have written, you will reconsider your positions, and ask other Catholics to do the same.” That reply, although counter to your own, would be reasonable, sensible, *sane*.

    The threats and obscenities shrieked in writing by these online furies are not reasonable, sensible, or sane. Their communications bear the hateful tone of hell; their language, the foul imprecations of the damned spirits.

    This is spiritual warfare we are engaged in. We are not doing battle
    against these men and women, but against the Evil One whose tools they
    have been so unfortunate as to have made themselves.

    Against the Evil One *all* of us are weak! However, we have the weapons to defeat him and his minions. Catholics know what those weapons are: prayer, the sacraments, sacramentals such as holy water. We need to don the breastplate of the Rosary, the shield of frequent Holy Communion, the helmet of spiritual reading, the sword of the sign of the cross, the spear of holy water.

    It’s no fun being in battle, but if we’re properly equipped, we need not fear the onslaughts of the enemy or his minions.

  • http://wayofthebeacon.com Cynthia Scholl

    Here, here ! As a woman ho started a charity (wayofthebeacon.com) to assist underprivileged Christian adults, I also was subject to this abuse. It amazed me. Here I was giving away my own funds to help others and I got reviled for giving only to those who “agreed” w/ me and my religion. Thank you for revealing this as it helped me to deal w/ it. Also, it is interesting to note, my husband , who assists w/ the charity, never received any criticisms.

  • guest

    I’m not a blogger, but was in a back-and-forth with someone on a Facebook thread who, when their rational arguments for abortion ran out, suggested I should be raped and then strangled. Bizarre.

  • Sandra

    Do not dispair! We are living in very difficult times, and you are witnessing as a Catholic wife and mother–a reflection of God’s own mother–the very one Satan comptempts.

    Remember that Jesus spoke about these times when He stopped while carrying His cross (even in the painful and exhausted state that He was in at that point), and told the women, “…do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’”

    When Jesus spoke those words, He had already been scourged and crowned with thorns. He had already fallen twice, and was nearing crucifixation, so He would not have taken any moments for a casual conversation. In fact, those are the ONLY recorded words that He spoke while He carried His cross. Therefore, we must witness to the lives that God intends for women, and pray that Satan will be overcome in this anti-woman, anti-life world!

  • Anna Raccoon

    A good article Caroline – but it still doesn’t answer the question of why only some women get picked on….

    Even at the height of the http://www.annaraccoon.com/politics/libertarian-liberties/ debacle, the most that was said was that I was ‘a bit of a nutter’ – which considering the furore that post caused and still causes today, I thought was pretty mild actually!

    I would say the question was a good basis for a Thesis.

  • truthseeker

    The more vitriolic the attacks the surer you can be that the Word is Truth. If you parroted the popular falsehoods no one would respond.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbZaf2R2r-Q Bellator

    Ultra-secularists tend to think that the rest of the world are as trashy as they are. I suppose I feel sorry for them in a way, since their life doesn’t really have any meaning outside of base utilitarian materialism. All we can do is pray for their conversion, for their own sakes.

  • Gina101

    It’s always easier to hurl attacks outward than to look inside.  These sad souls need to feel okay about their sins, and anything that threatens their conscience is dangerous to their denial.
    Keep up the great work.

  • Mack

    And much of that was perhaps from our fellow Catholics.  He(ck) hath no fury like a Catholic Keyboard Commando.

  • gina101

    Protecting your family is a good reason to blog under a pseudonym.  There are some radical ant-traditional marriage activists that publish peoples names/addresses that have contributed money to pro normal-marriage state initiatives. 

  • Mandy

    I blog as a Catholic librarian. Try being both of those! I blog anonymously and although I have a pic of myself online, my face isn’t shown.  In my travels online and commenting on various blogs, it is the liberal “Catholic” women whom I find are the most problematic. They brag about their open dissent from Church teachings especially in the areas of contraceptives and marriage. The church in its own way (by not preaching about the Catholic teaching in these areas and in some cases by openly resisting such teachings at the diocesan level) has given these rabid crazy women much fuel. Women come on catholic and christian blogs bragging about their (multiple) abortions, sexual encounters with numerous men, sham marriages, and how they themselves are indoctrinating their daughters (and sons) to live this normal lifestyle too. When challenged with facts, many of them scientific in nature and supported by sound research studies, these women go absolutely crazed. As an example I’ve seen highly educated women state beliefs that unborn babies are not yet alive because they aren’t “sentient”. The only way I can figure this is that people who want to live their lives a certain way with a specific set of values, will do and believe anything to justify this. Best of luck my dear and I will be checking out your website. :)

  • Sonny’s Mom

    The phenomenon of “trolls” who espoused pro-Obama (or other left-wing ideologies) ganging up on politically conservative online columnists and bloggers was much observed during the 2008 presidential.  It sounds as if the ranks of trolls have expanded to include just about anyone who resents any suggestion of moral limits, or limits placed on personal conduct, as well as atheists and others who attack “1st Amendment” freedoms.

    As Our Lady has said to the Medjugorje seers, “You will not have peace through the presidents, but through prayer.”  We all need to “pray, pray, pray” for conversions and for the well-being of our country.

  • willow

    Can you tell me why you even allow comments? I don’t get it. I’ve not once seen a thoughtful honest comment on ANYONE’s page on the internet. Just write your blog and leave it at that.

  • Anonymous

    “Isn’t it interesting how people who yelp most about “choice” are also the first to raise the hue and cry about how the choices of other women that run contrary to theirs are “wrong.”  Gay Catholics who choose celibacy and fidelity to the teachings of the Church get similar treatment from liberals. “Indeed. You’re quite right, both are treated as traitors to a “cause”, and they are treated with absolute contempt as a result. There is no attempt made to understand their position. It is accorded no validity. The level of hatred directed at both groups is quite alarming.

  • http://ccfather.blogspot.com/ Ben Trovato

    Does that include your comment here, Willow?  (Sorry – couldn’t resist!)

    I can’t speak for Caroline, but I have certainly also found both supportive and perceptive comments left on my own and others’ blogs, as well as trollish and simply ignorant ones.  I have even made some online friends in this way…

  • Elaine

    Unfortunately, the negative comments are a result of society’s growing rudeness, coarseness and lack of consideration for fellow human beings who are not even considered to be actually human. The ability to hide behind the keyboard and be anonymous, faceless, and use a pseudonym cause some to believe they can say whatever they want, no matter how cruel and over-the-top. I used to be a personal trainer and I would peruse some of those message boards for people who were asking for help with exercise and diet. I could not believe how any given thread would degrade to an assault on someone’s manhood from   a mere innocent question or comment. Don’t take it personally. There are very many who have fallen into that culturally accepted gutter that says it’s OK to say whatever with no regard for humanity.

  • butterflygalxx

    Like @maryp, I thank you Caroline for being a voice for Catholic women on the web.  I have enjoyed reading your blog for a long time. Keep up the good work! You have supporters!

  • Parasum

    *Everyone* needs a thick skin to survive on-line. No group has a monopoly of b-minded nastiness. That’s not pretty, it’s very unflattering to human nature, it says nothing for people’s existential claims (religious or otherwise); but it’s a fact. Some of the nastiest people on the Net are Christians – & some of the nastiest people on the Net are non-Christians. It takes all to make a world, in cyberspace as well as in “reality”. What happened to “offering it up” ? The internet is not for use by Christians alone – and Christians have never needed much excuse to hate one another violently. At least on the Net Christian hatred has no way of being translated into homicide – words in a post won’t lynch or hang or burn anyone.

    “Freedom of speech includes the right to freedom from illegal harassment or aggression.”

    ## There is no right – legal or moral – to freedom from unpleasant people or ideas. Since – from a Christian POV – all men are sinners, the set of “unpleasant people” has to include *everyone*.

  • Tout

    I, Catholic man, hope you will understand that such opposition exists.Many non-believers exist, many don’t like(hate)your belief.Many write because nobody knows who they are.In my old age I started a religious procession in this big city,where there was none.If the weather is good,I go weekly to statue of Mary,downtown,pray the rosary there, visible to whoever passes.People in cars, stopped for the red light, can see me,rosary in hand.A young man came, prayed,left.Girl(age 19 ?)sank on her knees, prayed,left.A woman came,prayed with me the rest of the rosary aloud,then left. Some pedestrians come,touch the statue,leave.Only once a man(25 ?)stepped in front of me,shouted something in my face,left.I was so surprised,don’t know what he yelled.People are asked to pray inside,or outside in group.Every church should have A STATUE OUTSIDE,or against the church,visible    from the street.Each Catholic should pray there at least once a year,to evangelize thru example.Afraid to go alone,go with 1 or 2 friends.Where are al those on pension ? They have the time to go.Afraid ? So was I the first time.But tell yourself that you will do it only once.So it is no big deal.If you do it once, you may do it again. Realize, GOD SEES YOU.Are you a grown man,but don’t dare ? Please, think about it. It must become a natural event to see someone praying at a religious statue outside.Maybe a woman should not go alone. Anyway, think about this Catholic action. Do it. God bless you. 

  • Anonymous

    People get riled up because (some of) the Church’s social teaching has proven bad consequences that the Church ignores and will not tackle.

    For one its subtle homophobia is psychologically damaging to young people growing up and trying to accept their sexuality. I don’t think this is acceptable way to behave, and I understand why people who have been damaged by the Church may have a legitimate grievance, and may take it one on people who are Catholic.

    On the other hand some people simply enjoy being bullies and starting arguments, we should give no time to these people, and if possible, ignore them.

  • Clareshort79

    You are my inspiration!

  • steveandchrissie

    Wow !  This is terrible . I had no idea people were so ….. nasty !  My prayers are with you , whether I’m a male or female … Catholic or other denomination . I believe this reprehensible behavior towards you is called fear. Call on your spiritual warriors . St Michael comes to mind .

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  • julianzzz

    A lot of “poor me” persecuted comments on these pages! The comments about Muslims are very odd, given the virulent press coverage of that faith! As for being persecuted, try being an atheist voice in America, especially outside the NY/LA bubble, or being a gay person in Africa!

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  • Alidylan73

    Also Paul Priest, and Linen on the Hedgerow.

  • Alidyl73

    As or you Ben, you stir it up and make more trouble rthan anyone. Forst you are with the liberals, then you go all traditional, then you enjoy playing both sides against the middle. The likes of James Preece and yourself have done more to harm the Catholic faith than anyone, so let’s dispense with the wide eyed inocencehere.

  • nyctreeman

    Julian, the “zzz” in your handle is appropriate, since your nonsense puts me to sleep.

    So let’s compare the media treatment of the Roman Catholics versus the Muslims, shall we?

    When an artist created “the Piss Christ”, a crucifix submerged in his own urine, how many people were killed in riots around the world over this highly praised work which the media published thousands of pictures of?

    When a cartoonist in Europe created a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, how many people were killed in worldwide riots? And most media outlets refused to publish the cartoon for fear of being the targets of violence and or politically correct considerations.

  • http://jessicahof.wordpress.com/ JessicaHof

    I fear it goes with the territory. The thing is that one can give as good as one gets, but touching pitch still defiles.

  • GabrielAustin

    Much of the howling is like that of a patient in a dentist’s when the probe has found a cavity.

    Dorothy L. Sayers recommended praying for the howlers; it would aggravate them so much.