Commentary Sexuality

There Really Isn’t Any Bad News for People Who Like to Masturbate

Martha Kempner

A recent Maxim article warned readers that masturbation may be harmful in the long run if they do it too often or the wrong way. Thankfully, the article is based on pseudoscience and misunderstandings—there is no reason to stop the activity.

Masturbation is such an under-appreciated form of sexual activity. It has been blamed in urban legends for everything from hairy palms to lack of productivity, and has a reputation of being reserved for those who can’t find anyone else to have sex with them. But that’s just not true. Most people masturbate. It feels good. It carries no risk of pregnancy or disease. It can take as much or as little time as you have. And it’s relaxing. So why have media outlets warned readers that they might be doing it too much or the wrong way?

Recently, in a December 15 article titled “We’ve Got Bad News for People Who Love Masturbating,” Maxim’s Ali Drucker tells readers: “If you or someone you love frequently enjoys doing the five-finger shuffle, there’s a study that suggests they might face negative effects over time.” The article actually points to three pieces of “research” that seem to suggest masturbation isn’t as good as other forms of sexual behavior, that one can become addicted to it, and that the “grip of death” can make men incapable of experiencing pleasure any other way.

Well, Rewire has good news—these conclusions are largely based on junk science and misunderstandings.

The first study Drucker cites, originally published in Biological Psychology, is called, “The post-orgasmic prolactin increase following intercourse is greater than following masturbation and suggests greater satiety.” Prolactin is a hormone that is released by the pituitary gland. Its main function is to stimulate milk production when a woman is lactating, but it also plays a role in the sexual response cycle. According to the study, which was first published about ten years ago, prolactin is released after orgasm as a way to counteract the dopamine released during arousal. Some scientists believe that the more satisfying the experience is, the more prolactin levels will go up afterward.

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For this study, Stuart Brody and his colleagues compared data showing prolactin levels after penile-vaginal sex to those after masturbation and found that levels after intercourse were 400 percent higher than after masturbation. They interpreted this to mean that intercourse is more physiologically satisfying than masturbation.

On the surface, this conclusion isn’t surprising. Many people don’t view masturbation as the same as a shared experience with a partner. It doesn’t tend to produce the same physical or psychological feelings. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun and satisfying way to spend a few minutes (or hours, if you’re ambitious or bored).

When I read the study, I did not interpret it to say that intercourse was better than masturbation, just that our biological reactions to different sexual behaviors were different. I had never read anything by Professor Brody before and reached out to him, assuming that people were overstating his results and that he did not mean to discourage masturbation. I thought, what sex researcher would ever want to discourage masturbation?

However, he replied, “Instead of any fresh quotes, I attach my review paper on the evidence regarding health differences between different sexual behaviors.” He sent me a different article, a literature review in which he says in no uncertain terms that penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) is the best kind of sex and that “sexual medicine, sex education, sex therapy, and sex research should disseminate details of the health benefits of specifically PVI.”

As a sex educator, I can’t imagine telling anyone that penile-vaginal sex is inherently better. For one thing, not everyone is in a couple, and not all couples have a penis and a vagina between them. And even for cisgender heterosexual couples, PVI is only one of countless potentially pleasurable behaviors. Moreover, many women find it less satisfying and less likely to end in orgasm than behaviors that incorporate clitoral stimulation.

But Brody not only thinks it’s the best form of sex—he thinks we sometimes do it wrong. He writes that “PVI might have been modified from its pure form, such as condom use or clitoral masturbation during PVI.” He also explains that Czech women who were vaginally orgasmic were more likely than their peers who didn’t have orgasms through PVI to have been taught during childhood that the vagina is “an important zone for inducing female orgasm,” concluding that “sex education should begin to be honest” about sexual behaviors.

I thought we’d moved on from the idea that we should all be having heterosexual, penile-vaginal sex in its “pure form” (missionary position?) and that women who couldn’t orgasm this way were both bad at sex and shit out of luck.

Colleagues in the field told me that many of them ignore Brody’s studies because he makes wild inferences based on soft science and, as implied by his research, is wedded to the idea that for sex to have the most benefits it needs to include PVI.

Nicole Prause, a researcher who has written critiques of Brody’s work, told me via email that, “His work almost exclusively uses data from other researchers, not his own, meaning the design is never really appropriate for the claim he is actually trying to make.” She went on to say that Brody’s studies on orgasm are often based on self-report, which is notoriously unreliable. Although the study Maxim cites was based on blood tests, “He has never once verified the presence of orgasm using a simple physiological measure designed for that purpose: anal EMG. Many women are thought not to be able to reliably distinguish their orgasm, so his purely self-report research is strongly suspect. If this is his area of focus, he should be studying it better than everyone else,” she concluded.

But Brody’s research on prolactin isn’t the only questionable science that Maxim relies on for its cautionary tale on masturbation. The article goes on to discuss the role of oxytocin and dopamine and points out that there’s less oxytocin released during masturbation. This is probably true—oxytocin is known as a bonding hormone and is triggered by contact with other people, so it’s not surprising that it’s not released when you’re orgasming alone. The Maxim article, however, argues that if the brain is flooded with dopamine (a neurochemical) during masturbation without the “warm, complacent, satisfied feeling from oxytocin,” you can build up a dopamine tolerance, or even an addiction, and get into “a vicious cycle of more masturbation.”

David Ley, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sexuality expert, explained in an email that many people describe dopamine as the “brain’s cocaine,” but this is an overly simplistic way of looking at it. It doesn’t mean we’re at risk of desensitizing our brain or getting addicted to jerking off. Ley wrote:

It appears that there are many people whose brains demonstrate lower sensitivity to dopamine and other such neurochemicals. These people tend to be “high sensation-seekers” who are jumping out of airplanes, doing extreme sports, or even engaging in lots of sex or lots of kinky sex. These behaviors aren’t caused by a development of tolerance or desensitizing, but in fact, the other way around—these behavior patterns are a symptom of the way these peoples’ brains work, and were made.

OK, dopamine isn’t cocaine and neither is masturbation: We’re not going to get addicted if we do it “too” much.

But, wait, Maxim throws one more warning at us—beware the “death grip.”

Though the article describes this as “the idea that whacking off too much will damage your dick,” the term, which was coined by sex advice columnist Dan Savage, is more about getting too accustomed to one kind of stimulation and being unable to reach orgasm without it. There is some truth to this—if you always get off using the same method, you can train your body to react to that kind of stimulation and it can be harder (though rarely impossible) to react to others. There are two solutions, neither of which involve giving up on masturbation: Retrain your body by taking some time off from that one behavior and trying some others, either by yourself or with a partner, or incorporate that behavior into whatever else you’re doing to orgasm (like clitoral masturbation during intercourse).

In fairness, the Maxim article ends by acknowledging that masturbation can have benefits, but I still think it did its readers a disservice by reviewing any of this pseudoscience in the first place. As Ley said in his email, “This article, targeted towards men (because we masturbate more), is still clearly pushing an assumption that there is a ‘right kind of sex/orgasm’ and that masturbation is just a cheap (and potentially dangerous) substitute … That’s a very sexist, heteronormative, and outdated belief based on a view of sex as procreative only.”

So for a different take on it all: Sure, there might be more prolactin and oxytocin produced during intercourse than masturbation, but that does not mean that masturbation isn’t enjoyable or worthwhile. You won’t become addicted to it, but you might want to mix up how you get to orgasm or just incorporate your preferred stroke into all other sexual activity.

What you shouldn’t do is view the Maxim article—or any of the research it cites—as reasons not to stick your hands down your own pants.

Commentary Sexuality

Should There Really Be an App for Recording Consent?

Martha Kempner

A group hopes to encourage affirmative consent by creating an app that asks partners to record each other saying "yes" before having sex—but it might just cause more problems than it solves.

As Rewire has been reporting, many states and schools are looking toward affirmative consent as one way to deal with sexual assault on campus. This new paradigm is an attempt to shift the standard of judging whether a sexual experience was consensual from “no means no” to the more proactive “only yes means yes.” California and New York now require this standard be used on all college campuses. However, many experts don’t think it’s realistic, and a recent study found that many students don’t understand it at all.

Now, a group called the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence is trying to digitize this standard by releasing an app called “We-Consent,” which records video proof of affirmative consent. The videos, according to the group’s website, will then be kept in a database that can only be accessed by law enforcement or campus officials involved in disciplinary procedures. The creators of the new app believe that it can increase communication and, in doing so, promote affirmative consent.

While I support affirmative consent and very much want to encourage couples to talk about sex before they have it, I think the app is impractical and may cause more problems than it solves.

Here’s how “We-Consent” works. A user puts in their name and a potential partner’s name into the app. (For the sake of this example, let’s say the initial user is a heterosexual man.) He then finds his intended partner and points the back camera on the phone toward her face. The app asks the partner to state her name and then informs her that the user “desires sexual relations.” The app asks her to say “yes” or “no” into the camera and records the video. If the partner says “yes,” according to the group behind the app, the video is uploaded to storage where it is encrypted and kept for seven years in the event that one partner files sexual assault charges. If the partner says anything other than a definitive “yes” (which, the app’s creators say, will be verified by speech recognition), the video is destroyed and the partners are asked to try again. The creators claim that this all takes 20 seconds to complete.

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The theory behind the app seems to be that if couples have to pause briefly to discuss affirmative consent, they will be spurred to have important conversations on the topic that they might otherwise have avoided. Michael Lissack, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, which developed the app through its Affirmative Consent Project, told USA Today College: “This app cannot prevent sexual assault. The main point is triggering the discussion about affirmative consent … students have their phones with them 24/7 … if [the app] is on their phone, it is one more trigger for the conversation. If it isn’t there, it is harder to get the conversation triggered.”

I fear, however, that this conversational “trigger” ignores the reality of most sexual assaults. An in-the-moment conversation starter might be helpful in situations in which both partners are sober and have good intentions. But on college campuses, for example, many rapes involve alcohol, robbing an individual of their ability to consent. Moreover, some research has suggested that a small group of men on campus are responsible for committing a large number of rapes. These serial rapists are looking for victims, not consent. The app would not help in either of these situations.

The only situations that might be prevented by a video record of consent are those sexual assaults that devolve from a misunderstandings of whether consent was given and for what activities. The goal of affirmative consent—which, again, may only be possible if both partners have good intentions and reasonably clear heads—is to settle any potential misunderstandings beforehand. Such negotiations can sometimes seem uncomfortable in intimate moments. Critics have made fun of videos showing couples “practicing” affirmative consent as awkward and suggested partners need painful questions such as “Can I gently lick your earlobe right now?” or “I would like to put my penis in your mouth, do I have your consent?” Real people don’t talk this way, and we shouldn’t expect them to.

Of course, affirmative consent doesn’t have to look so stilted; “We-Consent” might help in these situations if it were to somehow make these interactions easier and less embarrassing. But in its current incarnation, the app will likely only make it worse. Essentially, a smartphone asks you to smile for the camera and say yes or no to “sexual relations.” I can think of few things more awkward than that.

Unfortunately, it’s not just awkward, it’s imprecise. And that’s also a huge issue. Many cases of sexual assault occur when a couple agrees to initiating a sexual encounter but don’t necessarily agree on the parameters and one partner goes too far without consent. A video made at the beginning of the encounter using vague language like “sexual relations” does nothing to help young people negotiate parameters or understand that consent for sexual behavior is not carte blanche.

Which brings us to an even bigger problem. There is now a video recording of that snapshot in time when the partner said yes. Although it’s unclear from the app’s website how much legal weight such a recording would actually carry, this could help those accused of rape clear their name. But it really isn’t proof that the sex, or all the sex acts involved, was consensual. Especially if we consider the possibility of coercion or force on the other side of the camera.

Real consent is an ongoing negotiation that goes from the beginning of a sexual encounter until the end without threats or coercion. It can be as simple as frequently checking in with your partner and asking “Is this OK?” or “Are we good?” But it can’t be captured in a 20-second video.

“We-Consent” is part of a three-app series. The others, called “What-About-No” and “Changed Mind,” function in much the same way. They allow users to record a firm “no” or a “not now” aimed at a specific partner. These apps may have fewer problems —they won’t, for example, be used to let an accused off the hook via video “proof” of consent—but they are still not the answer.

For affirmative consent to work, it has to be about more than just saying “yes.” It has to be about understanding that when it comes to sexual behavior, you’re not in this alone and if your partner is not into it (whatever “it” is), you stop. It has to be about realizing that you might not be able to tell if your partner is enjoying themselves unless you ask, and being comfortable enough to ask. It’s about accepting that if your partner is too drunk, they can’t consent. And, it’s about respecting the fact that at any point after the “yes” can come a “no” or a “not now,” and that once you hear that, you stop.

We do need to teach college students the importance of obtaining consent before sex, but first we need to teach them what consent really looks like. When we do, they will realize that it’s much more than saying “yes” into a camera phone.

Commentary Violence

Do Feed the Trolls—to People Who Will Hold Them Accountable

Andrea Grimes

A few weeks ago, I experienced an Internet first: a troll genuinely apologized to me for his behavior. What happened? I called him out by calling in his family members and his peers. By treating him like a human being, instead of an insult machine with a keyboard and Internet access.

I’ve been using the Internet for nigh on 20 years now, and social media for nearly as long. But a few weeks ago, I experienced an Internet first: a troll genuinely apologized to me for his behavior.

What happened? I called him out by calling in his family members and his peers. By treating him like a human being, instead of an anonymous insult machine with a keyboard and Internet access.

The conventional thinking when it comes to online harassment might be “Don’t feed the trolls”—as in, just ignore them and they’ll go away. But I propose a new convention: Do feed the trolls … to people they know.

I’m not advocating in this instance for “public shaming,” a practice that’s getting a bad rap these days among certain crowds—erroneously so, in my opinion, but that’s another piece altogether. I’m talking about demanding social accountability, a modicum of civility, from online trolls, using much the same approach I’d employ for any asshole who wandered up to my stool at the bar and called me, ahemm, a “stupid fucking cunt.”

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Because this particular troll had indeed messaged me from his real account on Facebook, calling me a “stupid fucking cunt” and telling me to kill myself. He did this from an account that also publicly listed his friends and relatives. So I copied his message and sent it to a couple of people on my troll’s friends list who shared his rather unique last name. It was a shot in the virtual dark, but I sent a brief note, along with a screenshot, asking the troll’s presumed family members to maybe consult with him about more productive ways of talking to strangers, particularly strange women, online. It cost me $1 to ensure my message went to these folks’ regularly visible inboxes instead of their “other” boxes, where spam and—ironically enough—troll messages from total strangers tend to land.

Just days after I did so, I got the best return on any investment I’ve ever made. My troll sent me just one line, but it was a glorious one: “I’m sorry about the last message. I sincerely apologize.”


I’ve never had a troll apologize to me before, and I’ve had probably thousands of them—mostly men, mostly intent on alerting me to my sluttiness, fatness, and overall rape-ability—take up residence in my timelines and inboxes over the years. It’s an experience that any social media user who isn’t a straight, cis white guy is very likely to be intimately familiar with.

What made this guy different? Well, I reacted differently to him than I have to any other troll, ever. Instead of pretending like he existed solely on some elusive nonspace called “the Internet” that we’ve somehow (wrongly) come to think of as being wholly separate from the “real” world, I treated him like a human being, who owes it to his fellow humans not to act like a complete jerk.

It wasn’t putting this guy on blast to my 15,000 or so Twitter followers—which I did, by sharing the same screenshot I sent his family—that had evidently prompted his apology. And look, it absolutely felt good to do so. There are social and emotional advantages to reaching out to a friendly community when you’ve just been told that you’re a stupid fucking cunt who should die by her own hand.

It also created an echo chamber—albeit a supportive, funny, entertaining, soul-enriching echo chamber. Sure, I’d do it all over again (and did do, with subsequent messages), but it also treated my troll as if he existed nowhere but on the Internet: as if he were a screen name and avatar attached to a nobody-nothingness ripe for mockery and moving on. It didn’t have any effect on, or perhaps for, my troll.

But showing his mom—or possibly his wife, sister, or aunt—what he’d said was a different story. She wrote back quickly and told me she’d “look into it,” though she told me his message was “completely out of character for him.”

This guy didn’t care what 15,000 strangers thought about him calling me a stupid fucking cunt. But he did care what his family thought, at least enough to make a show of sending me an apology.

My inspiration was Alanah Pearce, a video game reviewer who did something similar with young men who’d sent her rape threats on Facebook last year: She messaged their moms. Said moms were mortified. Sons wrote apologies. And as I read my troll’s apology, gobsmacked, I also thought of writer and comedian Lindy West’s brilliant This American Life piece about confronting her own worst troll by telephone. This elicited not only an apology, but some mighty thoughtful introspective self-evaluation from him. West’s troll actually reached out to her first, but there’s something about bringing trolls into a space where they have to grapple with an actual human that seems to disarm them.

And after I posted my own troll apology success story, another friend of mine told me she’d been inspired to confront one of her trolls, an anti-choice blogger who’d posted a picture of my friend’s baby online, inviting a slew of death threats and abuse into her life. Through a mutual online contact whom she had reason to believe that her troll rather respected, she asked the troll to remove the photos, and they complied with her request.

Trolls thrive on one-way communication; even responding to them publicly on Twitter is a gamble. Maybe we get to rip through a few good burns and toss off some funny jokes, but ultimately, the troll’s first message is often all they ever need or care about: They just want to make sure that their target hears, and hopefully internalizes, whatever horrible invective is issued their way in that initial conversation.

By bringing our trolls’ social circles rather than just our own into the fold, though, we were able to redirect a one-way communication, volleying their cruel messages back over the net to their team, instead of punting it haplessly to our own.

These examples complicate the knee-jerk “don’t feed the trolls” narrative, wherein people who are harassed or abused online are told to simply ignore message after hateful message, lest they provide more fuel for a troll’s fire.

But if a troll is trolling, the fire’s already been started. And when trolls launch into attacks that include words like “cunt” or “fatty” or “bitch” or “whoreface,” the fuel, as it were, is the simple act of being a woman in public.

Do trolls take cues from their victims’ reactions? Sure. Many times, ignoring a troll will mean that the troll stops with just one message. By contrast, they often enjoy the thrill of engaging further with their victims. I don’t deny that, and I’m careful about the lengths to which I’ll entertain a public kerfuffle with a harasser.

“Don’t feed the trolls” doesn’t stop trolling in general, though—it just means that our inboxes and timelines fill up with a bunch of one-way messages filled with hate and vitriol.

The truth is, I’m starting to think that “don’t feed the trolls” is as much about absolving nice people like you and me of the responsibility to confront the fact that our friends, family, and loved ones are taking to the Internet to spew abusive invective at strangers as it is about simply not providing more fuel for the troll fires. Because in truth, online abusers and harassers thrive, in part, on the shame of the people they target, benefitting from the helplessness of their victims to do anything of consequence to shadowy, anonymous strangers—including confronting the trolls, the trolls’ families, or the trolls’ social support groups about their behavior.

So “don’t feed the trolls” can promote the silence that trolls bank on. If the default response to trolling is to ignore it, trolls can enjoy knowing that their targets will keep quiet about their harassment, and no one who might hold the troll responsible for their actions will ever be the wiser. It’s a guarantee against transparency.

In fact, it feels a lot like the admonition we give our children: Don’t be a tattle-tale. I’ve never understood this way of thinking, because it reads predominantly as laziness to me: Don’t make me get involved; I’m trying to watch the game.

Maybe I feel this way because I was a tattle-tale. I guess I still am. I like it that way.

This is a plea I have made again and again, particularly to my guy friends and male feminist allies: asking them to tell their fellow dudes that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. Invariably, I receive pushback on this idea from people who say that they don’t know anyone who would threaten to rape or murder women on the Internet, or that their own family and friends would never hurl racist slurs at people of color online.


I suspect that the friends and family members of the trolls I contacted a few weeks ago might have thought something similar—indeed, the evidence suggests that at least one person felt that their relative’s trolling was “completely” out of character. But now at least a few of them know otherwise, whether or not they intend to ever do anything about it. I was able, in a terribly small way, to chip away at the anonymity that not only affords trolls the ability to operate with impunity, but gives those in their social networks’ ability to plead ignorance.

This doesn’t work all the time. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to trolling, and not just because so few trolls undertake to abuse and harass strangers under their real names. My suggestion—feeding a troll back to their social circle—is a tremendous risk, and it’s not one that I suggest anyone undertake lightly. It could be dangerous, and it requires a troll’s target to have the time and emotional wherewithal to risk further abuse, or to hear from those whose aid they seek that it’s just not their problem. Or worse, they could find that their trolls’ social circles support their behavior.

I know this because I also contacted the friends and family of some of my other Facebook trolls, and either never received a response or was told that it wasn’t any of their business. In one instance, the father of a man who told me that he hoped that I “get raped by a gang of black man [sic] and they set you on fire” and “fuck you in the face you fat cunt and kill yourself” excused his son’s behavior by explaining that “he is very outspoken and excitable.” The same troll’s girlfriend told me that she’s “one of those to each there [sic] own kinda people so I won’t be much help.”


So, yeah. To each their own, indeed. Not an A+ solution in every case. Obviously.

But I do take some comfort in knowing that a man who told me to “get raped” didn’t get to do so quietly, in the privacy of my inbox. Even if I never hear a word about it, maybe the friends and family members of these trolls will look at these guys a little differently now, knowing the behavior they indulge in online.

Maybe they won’t. Maybe they still don’t give a shit. But I feel a hell of a lot better.

The Online vs. “Real” World Fallacy

At first, I struggled with the idea of outing these guys to their friends and families; it seemed, somehow, even more rude and uncouth than telling a total stranger to commit suicide. As if I were breaking some kind of sacred rule.

And in a way, I was. Women are socialized to be demure, accommodating. I’m not surprised that my trolls felt empowered to harass me. After all, they probably expected me to do what women the world over have been taught to do: Keep quiet. Mind my own business. Don’t cause a fuss. Don’t be a tattle-tale—that’s so very much worse than bullying could ever be!

But gendered violence, gendered bullying, is my business, and I’m not the one causing a fuss when I’m on the receiving end of a line like “you’re a treasonous twatbag who needs to be eliminated soon.” It’s everyone’s business, and it is especially the business of those who possess the social capital to demand better of their peers.

I simply do not separate “online” from “offline” when we are talking about manifestations of gendered and racial oppression and prejudice. I refuse to pretend like there are two discrete groups of bigots and bullies in this world, one of which can be roundly appeased with weak maxims like “don’t feed the trolls.” Do we really believe that people stop thinking hateful thoughts as soon as they shut off their computers or smartphones? That the hatred and vitriol these trolls—real humans, with real lives—express online never manifests unless it’s being transmitted through a wifi connection?

The line of thinking that makes women targets of gendered abuse online is merely an extension of the line of thinking that makes them targets of, for example, domestic violence in their homes. The line of thinking that makes women of color targets for misogynoiristic abuse online is the same line of thinking that makes them targets of, for example, police violence offline.

We know that, to some degree, social pressure to behave civilly in our homes, workplaces and neighborhoods keeps people mostly responsible for their everyday actions. That is, at least, how most of us raise our children: We teach them not to steal, because it hurts our communities. We teach them not to make fun, because it hurts our communities. The list goes on.

Why, then, don’t we exert those same social pressures on the Internet? Why do we continue to make it difficult for people who are abused online to report and counter their abuse?

Because abusers and harassers do the most powerful and privileged members of our society the tremendous favor of maintaining a status quo predicated on white supremacy and patriarchy, and anyone who’s in a position to do anything about it gets to simply throw up their hands and say “Don’t feed the trolls!” Then they reap the benefits. That lets us—people who might otherwise have to have difficult conversations with people we’d rather think better of—off the hook just as much as it does the trolls.

It’s a mighty fucking convenient little system, isn’t it?

Case in point: This week, Twitter launched a new feature that allows people to receive direct messages from any user, not just users they follow.

I get harassed on Twitter a fair bit, but I’ve never been harassed in a Twitter direct message. It would take remarkable disregard for the conventions of polite discourse for someone who is able to DM me to also harass me. I don’t reckon it’s impossible, but there’s simply a greater chance that, if someone is DM’ing me, I know who they are in a way that could signal actual consequences for, as an example, telling me to “get raped.” They’d have to actively and purposefully violate a social contract.

Now, Twitter’s powers-that-be have apparently decided to focus their efforts on creating yet another means by which trolls can reach their targets without incurring those social consequences. It’s something of a relief that this is an opt-in only feature. Still, it’s disappointing to the extent that it shows that Twitter’s priorities do not include strengthening their support structure for people who are harassed on their platform, despite claims to the contrary. It signals to me that whatever efforts they have made to empower and accommodate marginalized voices on their platform so far have largely been done half-assedly.

Which is a terrible shame, because Twitter has emerged as a space where people, especially women of color who are often otherwise written off by the gatekeepers of mainstream media and mainstream white feminism, can develop, create, and host wide-ranging conversations without begging for air time from those who would only ever have given it grudgingly, if at all.

At its best, Twitter upsets the historic balance of power in terms of national and international discourse. But at its worst, it is a hellmouth of harassment where the nipping flames of racist and misogynist trolling are not only not stifled, but are indeed continually fed, by Twitter’s own willfully impotent leadership.

To repeatedly fail to put meaningful accountability measures in place—Twitter could, for example, require users to tie their accounts to a cell phone number—is to pretend as though trolling is just an inevitable matter of Internet happenstance instead of a behavior that feeds on anonymity and ease of access to potential victims.

Online harassment doesn’t happen by accident, perpetrated by mysterious strangers with an unknowable agenda. It isn’t as if there is nothing to be done about this kind of behavior besides not “feeding” those who engage in it. As if I have to wonder what’s up the ass of a man who calls me a “stupid fat fucking whorecunt.” I know precisely what he’s upset about: my engagement with and in the world as a woman who has failed to express a sole desire to appease him and men like him.

Indeed, online abuse is expressly intended to bleed over into the “real” world, where it reinforces historic systems of oppression and marginalization. For reference, see the entirety of the “GamerGate” affair, wherein trolls and bullies actively sought, via online harassment, to dissuade anyone who isn’t a straight, cis white guy from participating in the culture of video games. Why would we ever, then, try to pretend that we can’t or shouldn’t use the “real” world, and real-life consequences, to push back in the other direction?

Ultimately, I leave the decision to “call in” a troll’s friends or family members up to the individual being trolled. This piece is emphatically not a demand for all people who are bullied or harassed to engage in elaborate “doxxing” campaigns of their abusers. Indeed, it couldn’t be, even if I wished for it: The vast majority of trolls are, and will remain for the forseeable future, functionally anonymous, because platforms like Twitter continue to allow people to create an endless array of sockpuppet accounts that can only be deactivated if they repeatedly engage in the absolute worst kinds of abuse.

But if you’re being harassed online, and you’ve got the opportunity to engage a troll’s social circle in addressing their abuse, I encourage you to think about doing so if you think you can do it safely. You might be doing your troll’s next intended target—who could very well be someone they know in the “real” world—a favor.


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