Taking a step back

Illustration taking a step back pranisha

A 2014 Pew research study found that of the people who took steps to address online harassment, thirteen percent changed their usernames or deleted their profiles, ten percent withdrew from an online forum and eight percent stopped attending certain offline events or places.

While these may seem like really negative outcomes of harassment (and in many ways they are), they also represent women’s choices and decisions when faced with persistent or threatening online abuse.

Taking a step back can range from slightly adjusting what you talk about, to taking a social media hiatus, to disconnecting from interactive portions of the internet.

I have had people coming and sending me messages like “I hope your snotty nose children end up turning into lousy failures in life” over email and [blog] comments. The negativity plays on your mind […]. Do you want the bad vibes directed to your children? Do you really need such negativity in your life? So I have stopped writing about current affairs. Each one of these incidents made me realise that I should not invest in so much.

-- Trishna, interviewed for Don’t Let It Stand

Taking a step back, in whatever way works for you at the time, has a lot to do with self-preservation. It is a completely valid and understandable response to abuse – and you should never feel guilty for doing it.

Twitter is a super public platform where pretty much everything you say is visible to pretty much everybody else. So it’s no surprise that many women feel they need a break — either temporary or permanent — from the harassment they face on Twitter.

In 2012, actress Priyanka Chopra took a hiatus from Twitter after a slew of harassment. She wrote

Hi Everyone.. Sorry i disappeared. I was very hurt by a few haters who i seem to expose myself to by tweeting [sic].

But she figured that it wasn’t all hate, and that the love might be worth it. Cautiously, she returned.

But then i also realised how much luv most of u have shown me..So here I am..cautious..but real..love to all who share love..cause thats all I’m here to do..for anyone else..c ya! [sic]

In a demonstration of this love, her fans created the hashtag #WeLovePriyankaChopra, which trended worldwide.

But you know, that’s Priyanka Chopra. Not everyone gets that kind of support, or a hashtag.

TV presenter and writer Melissa Harris-Perry receives tons of abuse on Twitter, and as a result, has stopped using the platform very often. She says,

I am at a point where I don't retweet anything that I really like because I fear that I would send all of my haters, all of the harassment that comes to me, over to some person who doesn't deserve it.

Melissa says she feels her inability to participate in Twitter is ‘quieting [her] digital voice’.

Similarly, news presenter Sagarika Ghose, who used to be very vocal on Twitter on a range of political subjects, for a while decided to stick to tweets about programmes on her news channel. She explains:

This is the social media version of gang-rape. They threaten you with rape and public stripping and beating. They are brave when anonymous, and hunt in packs.

Not everyone is even able to continue using the platform at all. Writer and feminist Lena Dunham is one of them. She says in an interview with The Guardian,

I deleted Twitter because I’m trying to create a safer space for myself emotionally. People threaten my life and tell me what a cow I am, so I decided I was gonna […] check it occasionally, but it’s not the same co-dependence Twitter and I once shared. It’s the dark side of the internet. There’s a lot of people I love on Twitter, but unfortunately you can’t read those without reading deranged Neocons telling you you should be buried under a pile of rocks.

While Lena still has her Twitter account, she’s deleted the app from her phone, and if she wants to share something online, she sends the tweet to a trusted friend to post.


Being vocal on public online platforms often leads to more abuse than women can (or should) take on. How much to say, how to say it and whether to be on Twitter at all are questions many of us grapple with.

Some topics tend to attract particularly high levels of abuse. In 2011, British writer Helen Lewis wrote in the New Statesman

On the whole, I’ve managed to avoid the worst threats and misogyny that other women writers endure but I don’t think that’s luck or because my opinions are well-argued. I think it’s because, very early on, I became conscious of how my opinions would be received and began watering them down, or not expressing them at all. I noticed that making feminist arguments led to more abuse and, as a result, I rarely wrote about feminism at all.

Seven years later, feminism is still a topic that seemingly accrues the worst types of online hate.

A 2015 article in the Washington Post speaks about the mental and emotional costs of online abuse for feminists. Some women have taken several steps away from the interwebs as a result of this.

In 2013, when American pro-choice activist Jaclyn Munson wrote about going undercover at an anti-abortion pregnancy centre, she began to receive numerous death threats from a stalker. A year and a ton of threats later, she pretty much gave up publishing her writing online and deleted her Twitter account. She explains:

It was just becoming really emotionally overwhelming to be on the front lines all the time.

For many women and gender minorities, speaking on the Internet really is like being on the front lines of a war, in which the battle scars are sometimes too much to bear.

American writer Hayley Krischer used to run a blog about feminism and motherhood, but shut it down after the comments got out of control.

I spent so much time blocking nasty people saying nasty things, it just wasn’t worth it. Part of me felt like I needed to be fair, so I tried to moderate and respond, but it took up so much time and emotional energy. Then I wrote one post about the movie Maleficent and a rape scene and the negative response was so overwhelming, I just thought, “Fuck this, I don’t need this.”

Namrata, interviewed for Don’t Let it Stand, talks about her early days of blogging, when she ran a blog tracing the history of a feminist movement. The blog had very few readers, but it was here that she received ‘three explicit rape threats [where they spoke about] hunting me down and raping me, slitting my throat and raping me.’

Following these threats, Namrata shut down her blog, and only re-entered online public platforms much later. She says of her experiences across the Internet:

Talking about rape means that people say you deserve rape.

Emily McCombs is the executive director of young feminist website xojane, ‘where women go to be their unabashed selves’. Specialising in raw, first-person narratives, xojane is a beautiful project – but one where not many writers last. Emily says in an interview with the Washington Post

We bring someone here, we develop them, they are able to make their name and their brand online, and the first chance they get they go somewhere safer, like print. Part of that is definitely not being able to handle the harassment […]. I’ve watched a lot of women in this industry burn out.

In 2014, another abortion rights activist, Lauren Rankin, pulled back from writing online and in large part from Twitter.

I don’t like the idea that it seems like I was scared or intimidated away from the Internet. But I think I’ve recentered why I do what I do, in ways that I can maintain my mental sanity. Unfortunately, that really doesn’t involve the Internet as much.

Feministe is one of the oldest feminist blogs around, and after years of relentless abuse, its creator Lauren Bruce no longer has any online presence at all.

I had to completely cut that part off in order to live the rest of my life. In order to work, have a nice family and feel like I was emotionally whole, I could not have one foot planted in a toxic stew.


Feminists face tons of online abuse for voicing their opinions, and their decisions to leave online spaces, like those of other women, are often linked to self-preservation and emotional wellbeing.

When 24-year-old blogger Agratha Dinakaran wrote a blog post accusing Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan of plagiarising content from JK Rowling’s speech, she was entirely unprepared for the shitstorm that was about to be unleashed.

After a few inoffensive, random messages from strangers, a representative of Shah Rukh’s PR firm wrote his own blog post. She writes of the incident

It seemed to give wings to the desperate Shahrukh fans who really couldn't figure out a way to defend their idol. Instead of logically arguing with me on Twitter, I had fans who splashed that link all across Twitter while spewing all kinds of inappropriate words at me.

Fans took to Twitter and spread the link to her personal blog far and wide. They then flocked to both her blog and Twitter profile in rage.

While many abusers deleted their tweets after the media’s coverage of the backlash, she managed to screenshot two of the ‘kinder’ ones.

Credit: MeLaNGe, Agratha’s personal blog
I could only take in so much, and after a point, I ended up having a nervous breakdown. I have never been subjected to hate in such a heinous manner before and somehow, I couldn't cope with this kind of bullying. I apparently wasn't strong as I thought I was, and I was suddenly filled with fear.

Agratha deleted her Facebook account after someone sent her a message detailing a family member’s workplace address. She couldn’t leave the house for ages due to incessant threats, and was constantly worried for her family members and friends.

I probably faced less than 1% of cyberbullying than most other victims around the world did. But that was bad enough for me. Enough for me to go into "digital hiding". Enough for me to stay locked inside my house. Enough for me to experience, for the first time, to fear for my life.

She feels the hardest lesson she learned was about free speech.

The experience was painful and harrowing but it was more depressing to learn that this is what free speech in this country means […]. It means that if you lend your support to anything that is morally right but remotely controversial, you will be forced into silence.

Today, she’s cautiously making her way back online, but like many other women, she closely guards what she does.

I’m trying to put it behind me, and moving on. Still, I am cautious about where I go, what I do online and try to protect as much as information about myself that I can.


After facing large volumes of abuse (and sometimes all it takes is one bad period), women often become more strategic about how they share their information and data, and with who.

Taking a step back doesn’t only mean censoring yourself or disconnecting. Apart from being about a good, healthy dose of self-care, it can also entail leaving abusive spaces to find or create friendlier, warmer spaces for interaction.

At the end of September 2015, writers Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner launched Lenny Letter, a newsletter for women with the goal to

create a space where new voice were safe to speak loudly about issues they care about [...], a snark-free place for feminists to get information: on how to vote, eat, dress, fuck, and live better.

While there’s nothing new about newsletters, what’s interesting is how many women have turned to them in recent times. Newsletter platform TinyLetter (owned by MailChimp) had 126117 users worldwide, of which many of the newer users are women.

Kate Kiefer Lee, content manager for MailChimp, says

TinyLetter feels like a safe space […]. You know who’s on your list, and you don't have to post your newsletters publicly.

And so, when Hayley Krischer shut down her blog on feminism and motherhood in large part due to aggressive abuse (see above), she started writing a TinyLetter called So Very. Managing editor of Book Riot Amanda Nelson runs a motherhood newsletter called Madame Ovary, and her reasons for switching platforms are very similar.

The parenting blogosphere is notoriously strife-ridden, and writing about your kids and parenting choices on larger platforms really opens you up to some heavy criticism I didn't feel like dealing with. It's a style and a niche that almost demands an intimate setting. And of course, I'm more comfortable writing about my kids on a smaller platform because it feels safer, even if that's a false feeling.

Newsletters are also a great space for marginalised groups of women. Writer and sex worker Charlotte Shane recalls,

When I had my blog I — particularly from men — got a lot of emails that were really, really presumptuous and sort of acted like we had a relationship because they had read what I wrote.

But on her newsletter, Post Prostitute, things are different.

The feedback is overwhelmingly sensitive and undemanding and mercifully somewhat rare, too. Which is probably the greatest compliment of all — people just keep reading with just a few encouraging and grateful words here and there but without trying to strike up extended one-on-one correspondence about it.

Writer, researcher and educator Nidsitis began working on her TinyLetter, 'Am I a falcon, a storm or a great song?', because she was interested in engaging people on a healing journey through food, poetry and thoughts. In a conversation with us, she comments;

I have always felt newsletters can be a distant idea of a community. But my own experience has changed this idea. People write back with warmth, kindness and reflection. That is wonderful to have in the internet world.

In this way, women moving away from public platforms to the more intimate space of newsletters allows them to foster communities that are supportive and genuinely interested in their words and ideas. True, these spaces are much smaller, but many women say they prefer smaller, engaged readerships. As Galo says, ‘That’s the appeal.’

(Most of the examples in this section have been taken from ‘Are Newsletters the Internet’s New Safe Space for Women?’, an article by Lyz Lenz for The Cut)


Newsletters have become an important and more intimate way for women to express themselves and foster engaged, encouraging communities.

In Summary

Taking a step back

  • Taking a step back is an important means of self-preservation in the face of abuse.
  • This can entail changing what you say, how you say it, or which platforms you choose to be on.
  • Feminists are often subject to aggressive online abuse, and many are taking various steps back from online engagement.
  • Because Twitter is a really public space, it’s not uncommon for women to take breaks — either temporary or permanent — from the platform.
  • Aside from being careful about what they say online, women are also learning to guard their data and information closely.
  • Newsletters have become an important and intimate way for women to express themselves online.