Crude insults, aggressive threats and unstinting ridicule: it's business as usual in the world of website news commentary – at least for the women who regularly contribute to the national debate.
The frequency of the violent online invective – or "trolling" – levelled at female commentators and columnists is now causing some of the best known names in journalism to hesitate before publishing their opinions. As a result, women writers across the political spectrum are joining to call for a stop to the largely anonymous name-calling.
The columnist Laurie Penny, who writes for the Guardian, New Statesman and Independent, has decided to reveal the amount of abuse she receives in an effort to persuade online discussion forums to police threatening comments more effectively.
"I believe the time for silence is over," Penny wrote on Friday, detailing a series of anonymous attacks on her appearance, her past and her family. The writer sees this new epidemic of misogynist abuse as tapping an old vein in British public life. Irrelevant personal attacks on women writers and thinkers go back at least to the late 18th century, she says. "The implication that a woman must be sexually appealing to be taken seriously as a thinker did not start with the internet: it's a charge that has been used to shame and dismiss women's ideas since long before Mary Wollstonecraft was called "a hyena in petticoats". The net, however, makes it easier for boys in lonely bedrooms to become bullies."
The cause has been taken up by New Statesman writer Helen Lewis-Hasteley, who invited other women to share their experience. "I wanted to have several writers addressing the issue at the same time because these threats are frightening but they are also embarrassing," she told the Observer. "I know many people will say that every commentator on the internet gets abuse, but what really came through to me when I was looking at this was the modus operandi of the attackers, which was to use the rape threat."
Caroline Farrow, a blogger for Catholic Voices, points out she has nothing in common with writers such as Laurie Penny except her gender, but is subject to the same violent abuse. The wife of a vicar and "quite orthodox", Farrow decided to write under her own name and photograph to take responsibility for her views. "But the downside is that for some men this seems to make you a legitimate sexual target. I get at least five sexually threatening emails a day." One of the least obscene recent messages read: "You're gonna scream when you get yours. f**** slag. Butter wouldn't f**** melt, and you'll cry rape when you get what you've asked for. Bitch."
Linda Grant, who wrote a regular column for the Guardian in the late 1990s, has stopped writing online because of the unpleasant reaction. "I have given it up as a dead loss. In the past, the worst letters were filtered out before they reached me and crucially they were not anonymous," said Grant.
"What struck me forcibly about the new online world were the violence of three kinds of attitude: islamophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny. And it was the misogyny that surprised me the most. British national newspapers have done little, if anything, to protect their women writers from violent hate-speech."
The author and feminist writer Natasha Walter has also been deterred. "It's one of the reasons why I'm less happy to do as much journalism as I used to, because I do feel really uncomfortable with the tone of the debate," she said. "Under the cloak of anonymity people feel they can express anything, but I didn't realise there were so many people reading my journalism who felt so strongly and personally antagonistic towards feminism and female writers."
Lanre Bakare, who monitors the comments on the Guardian's Comment is Free website, said he was constantly looking out for attacks on female commentators on any subject. "It can be on European finance and there will still be some snide anti-woman remarks, but there are certain subjects, like abortion or domestic violence, which bring out trolls and then it becomes really unpleasant. Of course, if anyone is found making threats of sexual violence they are banned from the site instantly."
Lewis-Hasteley has also been surprised by some of the reaction to the growing campaign to protect women writers from this verbal abuse. "Someone asked me if I didn't realise that I wasn't really going to be raped. But the threat of sexual violence is an attack in itself, and some commentators have their Facebook pages searched, and their home addresses tracked. It's a real feeling of being hunted by these people."
Susie Orbach, a psychotherapist, psychoanalyst and writer, said: "The threat of sexual violence is a violence itself, it's a complete violation and it's meant to shut the people up. It's hateful and it raises the question, what do these men, or the people who are doing this, find so threatening? Is it that they feel attacked in their own masculinity and therefore sexuality in this violent form becomes the way that they establish a means to cover up their fragility by bringing their own vulnerability onto these women?
"If you set women up as sexual objects which society has, no matter what we are doing, that makes women into objects rather than human beings and what you create is a situation in which women who then stand up and make arguments about things, terrify these men who have no access to real women and so they beat them up in the terms in which they've been offered by society, which has nothing to do with the content of what they are saying. Women are supposed to be sexual objects, we're still not supposed to be thinking, feeling, complex human beings. It is due to the continual representation of women as just beauties, the attempt to reduce women to a surface on which we project sexuality. So we're not real people.
"The deeper question is the disenfranchisement of men who find themselves in such depraved circumstances that all they can do is expel the fury that's inside of them on to women. The reaction these men are having shows they are very, very threatened by something and that threat is to their masculinity.
"With sexual violence, what the victim is receiving is the self-hatred of the individual who is expressing that pain and upset that is inside of them in a very explosive manner. Rape is different to the threat of rape but nevertheless it's a very, very serious and threatening experience."