Yesterday, a message arrived in my email inbox with the title “Are you happy to die a virgin,” a somewhat unusual question, I felt, not just because of its faulty premise but also because of its lack of the conventional question mark at the end. The email itself was equally blunt and illiterate:
You sound like a 40 y/o FAT VIRGIN living in a basement rotting away. Is manboobz.com your way of hide behind your own internal issues u refuse to face? Father issues???
Ah, here’s where the missing question mark went, along with some friends.
The sender appended a photo of an extremely obese Asian man at least 20 years my junior, mostly if not completely nude, along with the question (and I quote verbatim) “This this photo you??”
As hate mail goes, this isn’t particularly interesting and original. What got my attention was the sender: it came from the admin account at mensrightsmelbourne.com, an Australian Men’s Rights site taking much of its inspiration from Men’s Rights Edmonton (its website design) and A Voice for Men (its propaganda). So this wasn’t simply some anonymous internet troll sending me puerile hate mail: this is one of Australia’s most visible MRAs.
On the front page I noticed something else: A post with the title: “‘Twitter gave me PTSD’: Woman claims mean comments and ‘cyberstalking’ gave her an illness usually suffered by WAR VETERANS.”
The post – most of which is plagiarised directly from The Daily Mail, including the title itself – is an attack on Melody Hensley, a feminist and skeptic who is the Executive Director of Center for Inquiry in Washington DC. Hensley, who in the past suffered intense harassment from misogynists in the skeptic movement and other assorted assholes, is now facing a second wave of harassment as a result of saying publicly that the earlier harassment had given her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
That’s right: she’s being harassed for saying that harassment so fucked up her life that it gave her PTSD.
While much of the most vicious harassment this time is coming, as it did last time, from the misogynist wing of the atheist/skeptic movement, MRAs are jumping on board as well.
The “argument” of Hensley’s enemies? That she couldn’t possibly have gotten PTSD from “mean words” online. Men’s Rights blogger The Native Canadian put it this way:
PTSD from being a feminist on the internet? Yeah I bet she wakes up screaming at night because of all the mean words! Must be hard going day to day with flash backs of your friends being called “femnazi’s” right in front of you! How ever do you handle life? Fucking disgraceful b****. Let’s see her tell that to someone who really knows what living with PTSD is like. …
I’m sorry but I am totally shocked, I don’t know what else to say, other than, is there nothing sacred to these cat lovers?
And that’s pretty much the argument all of them make: based on nothing but their own vague notion that PTSD is a serious thing that only happens to soldiers, they’ve decided she’s a lying “b****” who is trying to steal the sympathy that rightly belongs to men. (Never mind that her comments on Twitter about veterans suffering from PTSD are always respectful.)
As Hensley has made clear, she’s not claiming that a few mean tweets gave her PTSD. On a page she’s set up to help raise money for research into PTSD she notes:
In July of 2013 I publicly disclosed that I had been diagnosed by my psychiatrist with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to more than a year of online harassment and abuse. The abuse -including death and rape threats- occurred on numerous websites and via email, phone, online postings, images, and videos.
Is it possible for this sort of harassment to cause PTSD? Well, according to someone who knows a lot more about the subject than me or The Native Canadian or the dude at Men’s Rights Melbourne or the staff writers at The Daily Mail, the answer is a clear yes. Caleb W. Lack, a licensed clinical psychologist and psychology professor who writes a blog called Great Plains Skeptic, and who is an expert on anxiety disorders, writes in a recent post on the Hensley controversy that
Bullying has long been known to have a severe impact on mental health, particularly if the bullying is repeated and prolonged. While research has traditionally focused on youth (as briefly reviewed here), more recent work has examined it’s impact on adults. as well, particularly in the workplace. Research focusing specifically on cyberbullying has found very similar results to “traditional” bullying, in terms of increased risk of depression, suicide, and anxiety. In youth, around a third of bullying victims display quite high rates of PTSD symptoms and rates are perhaps even higher in adults who are bullied.
So, given what we know about PTSD, and given what we know about the effects of bullying (cyber and otherwise) on mental health, I think it’s relatively safe to say that “Yes, you can ‘get’ PTSD from Twitter.” One needs to be careful, though, to be specific about this: it’s the bullying and harassment that could lead to PTSD or PTSD symptoms (as well as depression, increased suicidality, and so on), not anything inherent to Twitter itself. Twitter and other forms of social media are just a new tool to use to bully and harass others, but the underlying mechanisms and the results are the same as if these interactions were face to face.
The internet isn’t somehow apart from the “real world.” It’s a part of it, and actions on the internet have real world consequences. Unfortunately, the internet seems to magnify the power of bullies. But it may also magnify the power of bullying victims to fight back.
Of course, the bullies don’t want to acknowledge that what they are doing is bullying. Indeed, many of the worst bullies in the skeptic and Men’s Rights movements consider themselves “activists” — even though the bulk of their “activism” may consist of nothing more than harassing individuals. That may be part of what is driving the widespread refusal to accept that online harassment can lead to real trauma, including PTSD.
And that may be why the guy at Men’s Rights Melbourne — that is, a guy who sent me a crude, bullying email calling me a “FAT VIRGIN” — felt the need to weigh in on the Hensley’s case, and to insinuate ( in one of the few portions of his post that wasn’t plagiarised) that she’s making it all up.
But on some level the bullies know that they’re bullies. There’s no question that the new wave of harassment against Hensley is driven by one of the central dynamics of bullying — offline and on. Bullies love to pounce on anyone who shows signs of vulnerability, and Hensley’s announcement that she suffers from PTSD is a sign that the first wave of bullying got to her.
Happily, that’s not the whole story. What really seems to infuriate Hensley’s enemies is that she’s not acting like they think a victim should. She’s not shutting up and going away. She’s back on Twitter and responding to critics, because doing so gives her a sense of control over her bullies. She’s taking power away from them.
On A Voice for Men, Dean Esmay tries his best, in a barely coherent post, to paint her as a “professional damsel in distress” who deserves to be distressed some more. But the tweets of hers he reposts aren’t very damsel-like; they’re blunt and direct and they call out bullies by name. And when she posts them she knows she has the support of a lot of people who are as disgusted by the bullies as she is.
EDIT: There has been a lot of really good stuff written about Hensley and PTSD, particularly on Freethought Blogs. Here are some links to interesting, useful, insightful posts.
How could Twitter possibly cause PTSD? by Stephanie Zwan, documents some of the harassment.
What Melody Hensley Has to Teach You About Professionalism, an older (2013) piece by Zvan
Your Uninformed and Incorrect Opinions About Psychology, by Miri Mogilevsky
A Voice for Me – AVfM and Thunderfoot on PTSD, by Avicenna
PTSD and Me(lody), by Avicenna
Feel free to post more links in the comments!
NOTE TO DRIVE-BY ASSHOLES: If you want to talk about what a liar you think Melody Hensley is, don’t bother trying to post comments here. I mean, you can if you want; it’s just that it takes me a lot less time to throw them in the trash than it does for you to write them.