Women online are facing harassment — the #ToxicHush campaign is addressing it.

By Shari Graydon

The TV reporter was telling me over the phone that he needed someone to interview who was not a beauty contestant. I qualified. 

It was 1992 and I was serving on the board of MediaWatch, a national organization working to improve women’s representation by the media. The reporter thought my view on the cancellation of the Miss Canada pageant might differ from the perspective of the previous winners he’d also interviewed. 

I looked into his camera and said how encouraged I was that a contest treating women’s bodies like cattle at an auction was no longer popular enough to attract advertisers. My sound-bite aired between equally brief clips of Miss Canada 1991 and Miss Canada 1992. 

But I had a lot more to say about how society objectifying women makes it harder for us to accept our physical imperfections, or be taken seriously at work. So I channeled the rest of what I thought into a newspaper commentary. 

Its publication emboldened me. I began regularly scanning the news looking for opportunities to write about the stuff I knew and cared about. As a result, I did lots of commentary on CBC Radio and TV, and for three years, wrote a weekly column for the Vancouver Sun. These experiences led to a 13-part TV series, a job in the BC Premier’s Office, and many invitations to speak. 

What I learned was that when you have a public voice, it’s much easier to get your phone calls returned, to convince people to fund the causes you believe in, or to change policies to reflect your research. And this realization inspired me to start Informed Opinions to support other women to increase their influence. 

The newspaper column also gave me experience dealing with hate mail. The envelope of the very first letter sent to me care/of the Vancouver Sun was addressed to “Shari Graydon, Bitch of the Year club.” Inside, my correspondent continued, “You are a dog-faced slut.” 

“The envelope of the very first letter sent to me care/of the Vancouver Sun was addressed to ‘Shari Graydon, Bitch of the Year club.’ ” 

Other readers sent me religious tracts making clear I would roast in hell for supporting gay marriage or for demanding action on women missing from the Downtown Eastside. One male columnist called me “feminazi”; another — employed by my own paper — publicly described me as the kind of person who “can’t stand to see others have fun.”

So I thought I knew what it was like for women targeted by ugliness. But I was wrong.

Two years ago, Informed Opinions convened a roundtable discussion with a group of accomplished women with intersectional identities featured in our experts database for journalists. I told them we were tracking how well we reflected Canada’s diversity and asked how we might better reach out to and support others in their communities.  

“We don’t want to invite women in our networks to join your database,” they told us. “It’s brutal out there. Can’t you do something about the toxic hate we’re getting?”

They shared stories I wasn’t capable of imagining about un-repeatable insults, physical and sexual threats, and despicable lies, all pouring onto their Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or into their email inboxes by anonymous trolls bent on shutting them up. And their experiences reflect international research findings that Black, Indigenous, Asian, Muslim and immigrant women, those who identify as LGBTQ+ or live with a disability, are much more likely to be targeted than their white, cis, hetero sisters. 

Because these high-achieving women had careers they’d fought for, families they cared about, and reputations they needed to protect, sometimes the trolls succeeded. Sometimes the emotional and psychological impact of the degrading, sexist, racist, homophobic, or anti-Islamist assaults they were receiving became physical and financial, costing them not just productivity and mental health, but the ability to travel or the willingness to take on new opportunities.

That’s why Informed Opinions has invested in measures to address the unique hate speech specifically aimed at women. Last year we released our #ToxicHush Action Kit to provide a free, online resource to support those targeted in knowing how to respond and where to complain.  

“Sometimes the emotional and psychological impact of the degrading, sexist, racist, homophobic, or anti-Islamist assaults they were receiving became physical and financial, costing them not just productivity and mental health, but the ability to travel or the willingness to take on new opportunities.”

And in June we streamed “A People’s Tribunal: Every Woman’s Right to Speak Free from Online Hate” to draw attention to the human rights abuses affecting thousands of women every day, and to encourage change. The event featured moving testimony from courageous women speaking to their experiences in the context of their work in journalism, advocacy, politics, and healthcare.

In opening the Tribunal, the Honourable Marci Ien referenced the nastiness she’d received as a result of her visibility as a Black woman in television and politics. 

Award-winning Indigenous journalist Brandi Morin quoted a gut-punching death threat in her email inbox, and affirmed her intention to use her voice “for those who cannot speak.” 

And prominent human rights advocate Amira Elghawaby spoke of having been threatened so often that she’s met with police and installed a security system. 

“The fear of being attacked on social media and for that hatred to spill into real life,” she said, “means that I have to often second-guess myself about what I say online in case it is used against me… to justify hate and violence.”

Senator Kim Pate, in her role as one of three ‘Citizen-Judges’, gave legal context to help inform the action we’re urging the government to take. She spoke of the constant assault on women’s rights to participate freely and fully in public debate. 

“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” she noted, “does not guarantee a carte blanche freedom of expression… There is no constitutional right… to threaten to rape or kill a woman because you disagree with her politics.” But she also observed that in the absence of any formal regulation, the default practice is that anonymous attackers can say whatever they want, while the impact on women is “speak at your own risk.’ ”

The event was moving, illuminating, and infuriating. And as part of our #ToxicHush campaign against online hate, we’re complementing the Tribunal’s powerful stories with data gathered from many others about how they’ve been targeted, where, and what impact the abuse has had on how they feel and act. 

So if you’re affected — or know someone who is — help enrich the stories our data can tell by completing this simple survey.

“Unchecked online abuse threatens not only to stymie much-needed progress, but to actually reverse decades of equality gains.”

To date, 76% of the 270 respondents say they’ve seen an increase in online hate over the past two years, with Twitter and Facebook cited most often. More than half are being targeted with insults and slurs, and almost 20% have received threats of physical or sexual violence. 

Individual attacks retraumatize survivors of sexual assault, and the cumulative impact of having your mobile phone transformed into a delivery vehicle for abuse becomes a serious deterrent to women who might otherwise be willing to share their insights publicly and increase their visibility and influence. 

Indeed, unchecked online abuse threatens not only to stymie much-needed progress, but to actually reverse decades of equality gains. Despite the advances made, Informed Opinions’ Gender Gap Tracker shows that Canada’s most influential news media continue to quote men almost 70% of the time. 

We’ve devoted the past 13 years to bridging that gap, amplifying the voices of women and gender-diverse people, connecting them with journalists, supporting them to increase their impact. Because we all understand the truth behind “if you can’t see her, you can’t be her…” 

And if women’s realities and experience-informed perspectives aren’t part of our public conversations, helping to set agendas, shape policies, and impact spending, the resulting imbalance will continue to profoundly undermine our democracy.

Shari Graydon

Shari Graydon

As a print and broadcast columnist, best-selling author and award-winning women’s advocate, Shari Graydon has spent 30 years using media to draw attention to issues she knows and cares about. Now she motivates, trains and supports others to do the same. Since founding Informed Opinions, she’s helped thousands of subject matter experts share their knowledge in engaging and persuasive ways, and built a database of diverse, qualified sources to make them easier to find. She previously taught communications at Simon Fraser University, wrote speeches for cabinet ministers and the governor general, and was president of two national women’s organizations.