As I was driving home today from dropping off children at school and preschool, my mind drifted to the men who email me about my writing. I’m not quite sure why I decided to think about these men, who I’ve never met but who chose to contact me anyway. Perhaps, I thought about these men because of the discussions surrounding the #MoreThanMean video, in which men read the harassing tweets that other men send to women sports writers. The catch is that they read the tweets out loud to the writers. Some of the men can’t say what was tweeted aloud. The campaign hopes to bring attention to the online harassment of women in sports. Of course, online harassment of women writers is not just a problem for women who write about sports, but women who write about anything (and women on the internet more generally). I know this factually as well as intimately because it has happened to me.
In 2007, I started blogging at Religion in American History. When I began writing more about racial violence and white supremacy, commenters were not nice. When I wrote about the murder of George Tiller, a commenter threatened my life. I shrugged off the threat; my partner did not. After my book was published in 2011, I started receiving emails from men who read my work and expected me to respond to their criticisms. A Son of the Confederacy emailed to let me know how wrong I was about Nathan Bedford Forrest being a Klansman. He accused me of harming Forrest’s legacy. A man claiming to be the Second Coming of Jesus wrote me a letter, in which he called me “honey” and told me that I was wrong about the Klan, race, religion, and well, everything. If I only would visit him at his home, he would explain what was really happening in the world. I declined his invite. I laughed off the letter; a member of my department told me to contact the FBI.
On the Facebook page I created for Gospel According to the Klan, men have called me a racist, threatened to beat my ass, and promised to hunt me down and show me how wrong my racism is. None of these men seemed to recognize that I’m a historian that studies the Klan, not a member of the order. I took screenshots of their messages and reported them to Facebook. I tried to find humor in the situation.
These emails and messages were anomalies in my life that I tried to make into funny stories about the weirdness of being a scholar in the internet age. When freelance writing became my career, these were no longer anomalies but realities. I’m a woman who writes on the Internet, which means men email me to tell me what they think of what I’ve written whether I want to know or not. My attempts at humor are long gone.
This morning, I found myself thinking about all these men, who are strangers to me, and the routine similarity of their emails in tone, style, and content.
The men who email me tell me that I’m wrong. I’ve made the wrong argument. I’ve missed the essential issue or the salient details. I’ve made errors and mistakes. I didn’t use data. I used too much data. They assert that gender is not as big of an issue as I make it out to be or that I don’t realize how hard it is to be a man. They assert that I can never be anything but wrong.
The men who email me claim that I don’t know anything about higher education, religious studies, labor, gender, or any other topic I’ve ever written an essay about. They ignore my credentials in favor of assuming my incompetency. “You didn’t possibly think this through,” they type. They don’t care that I have, but just assume that I haven’t. If competency appears out of reach, expertise becomes impossible.
The men who email me explain that I haven’t considered the consequences of what I write. They want me to now that I’ve opened the door to critiques of academia from The Right or Rightists (their language, not mine). My essays give ammunition to all of those conservatives who despise higher education. I become singularly responsible for academia’s downfall. I wonder when I became so powerful without realizing it.
The men who email me sometimes start with a compliment about how much they “enjoyed” my essay. They then proceed to send me their own writing on the subject and tell me to “please include it” next time because they are experts on the topic. They are the experts. How did I not know that? They are just remedying the situation and improving my knowledge.
The men who email me often use my essays as an excuse to direct me to their own writing. They claim to have a revolutionary work that will vastly improve anything that I am writing. They describe themselves as epic poets, should-have-been-famous scholars, and amazing-but-unrecognized authors. They haven’t read a word I’ve written, but they expect me to hang on every word of theirs.
The men who email me need me to know that they took the time to read my writing. They paused their busy days to read 1000 words of mine, which they makes me indebted to them somehow. A writer is beholden to the reader, right? They read my essay, so I must respond to whatever they email no matter how demeaning or awful. I think they misunderstand a writer’s obligations.
The men who email me demand to know why I didn’t get an academic job and why I left academia. They want me to tell them what went wrong in every excruciating detail. They want me to justify the choices I made without acknowledging how those choices were forced. They want me to justify my continued existence. They want me to go away.
The men who email me insult the content and style of my writing. They need me to know that I’m a terrible writer who doesn’t deserve a platform. How did I get to write for these publications anyway? Why didn’t these publications recruit them?
The men who email me ask for favors. They read my essays, so why won’t I read and edit and comment on theirs? These men expect my labor for free. They expect me to help. They want my advice. I read and edited a few essays from men I didn’t know. Once I gave them feedback or advice, they never emailed again.
The men who email me beg me to promote their work. They just wrote the best essay ever, and I should share, um, they mean, read it. And then share it. For them. To be helpful. They don’t like to take “no” for an answer. I learned to say “no” anyway.
The men who email me are not anonymous. They use their personal or work email. They gladly offer their names, their job titles, and their sense of entitlement. They can’t imagine that I would refuse to listen to them. It is just an email, just a comment, just a criticism, or just a threat. What’s my problem?
The men who email me take up space in my inbox. They take up space in my head. They take up my time. What amazes me is that these men think that I owe them time, attention, and effort because they read something I wrote. I don’t owe them anything, but I seem to be the only one who knows that. These men continue to believe that I deserve their opinions. I want them to learn to keep their opinions to themselves.
Last week, I decided to not write an essay I had pitched about bros in academia. I struggled to write the essay because I could not deal with the men who email me. What I couldn’t face was a dumpster fire in my inbox. I weighed the impact of the essay’s possible reception against my mental well-being. I killed an essay because I knew I wouldn’t be able to manage the nasty responses. Some weeks, I can ignore what the men who email me say. Last week was not one of those. My essay died a quiet death, and my inbox remained uneventful.
What you need to know is that emails and harassment I face is mild compared to what other women writers have experienced. It could be so much worse, I tell myself as if that makes anything better. Mild harassment is still harassment. These men continue to email me.
I’ve stopped reading the emails from these men. I might read a first line. I might toss my partner my phone and ask him to read the email. He will delete them for me. I stopped reading their essays. I stopped offering advice and sharing their work. I stopped giving justifications. I stopped responding to them. I stopped interacting with the men who email me because I don’t have to explain myself, or my work, to them. No matter what they might think, they aren’t entitled to my explanations, time, or effort.
And still, men email me to ask me for favors, explanations, and justifications. They think reading my work gives them the right to my time and attention. I no longer grant them either.
Finally, I learned that I didn’t have to respond to the men who email me. Now, I delete their email without hesitation. And you can too.