It Isn’t Just the Trolls

As I’ve been accused before of being a writer in the genre of “Quit Lit,” I’m disinclined to add an essay to the growing genre of “Why I’m Thinking of Leaving Twitter.” But I also hate being misunderstood, and the folks on my Twitter feed think it’s just the trolls.

The trolls are awful. I really do get tired of being accused of supporting the sex abuse of children (because I’ve supported understanding the difference between pedophilia as a sexual orientation and the sexual abuse of children), of hating transgender people (because I know that not every child who expresses cross-gender feelings will grow up to be transgender), of having no sympathy for people with chronic pain (because I worry about opioids), etc., etc., etc.

I especially hate being called a stupid bitch, told I should die, and threatened with hacking and physical harm.

Some people tell me I’m a terribly tough woman—I sure am!—and that therefore I should just kick at the trolls, or block them, or report and block them, or whatever. This seems to me like suggesting it’s not that bad to live in an environment where bugs keep biting you, because, hey, you can just swat them off.

Other people tell me to just get screens: set my notifications to only show people I follow. But the whole point of being on Twitter is to have conversations with people you would not have otherwise met, so this seems to me kind of antithetical. One thing I’ve enjoyed about Twitter is hearing from people who have read my work and have a question, or who have read something they think (often correctly) I’ll find interesting.

Besides, it’s not just the trolls.

Twitter is a giant social network. (Duh.) Women experience social networks differently than men, on average, and I think I experience Twitter the way a lot of women do; I have more emotional reactions. I’m not saying women are more emotional than men, but I am saying I think we are more inclined to be sensitive to (aware of) inflections and suffering of strangers, and less inclined to just brush people off.

That means that on top of all of the people who I daily try to help, I find myself trying to help people on Twitter who need an affirmation, a referral, a connection, a study that will help them understand what they need to understand. It takes a lot of time not to ignore them. It also takes a ton of emotional energy.

I could just be colder. Yeah, I could use Twitter to learn to be colder. Think about that for a minute.

Twitter also fucks with my writing muse. Like all good writers’ muses, mine is attuned to the audience she thinks might be interested. She’s pretty good at 140 characters. And she likes the instant gratification of lots of favorites showing up on a funny tweet. But it’s not the best use of her. There are three books that want writing right now, and they need her.

And then there are the culture clashes that happen on Twitter. Which often lead to misunderstandings. Which sometimes lead to nice people turning into troll-like creatures.

One example: the assumption a lot of people on American Twitter that there are no multiracial families. This means I am assumed to have an all-white family. In fact, one of my brothers is multiracial, and culturally Black. He’s had a lot of the shit experiences men of color do in this nation. But if I try to make a comment out of that experience….oy vey. Suddenly I’m a racist.

Same with trying to exist as a feminist who believes in biological sex differences and freedom of speech.

Same with being pro-trans-rights but not subscribing to the dominant narratives about transgender. (I’ll admit I kind of love watching some people wrongly and angrily call me a TERF while certain feminists respond angrily that I’m a shit not worthy of the TERF badge.)

And then there’s the one special cultural clash that I don’t know how to talk about without looking like I support sexual harassment or am bragging about being attractive, but here goes anyway:

Sometimes straight men on Twitter start a professional conversation with me. They admire my work. They talk shop in a spirited and friendly fashion. And then they start DM’ing to talk. And then they hit on me.

A man friend of mine told me, “The problem is you have an attractive photo and you talk about sex all the time.” Uh. So I changed my photo to my rat’s, and I started talking less about my sex life and restricting myself to talking about sex research. (Too bad, though. Some of my best tweets were things like: “Sex in middle age—when you ask to be on top so you can get the FitBit credit.”)

That slowed down the problem, but it hasn’t ended it. And yeah, I know a lot of my feminist sisters will want to call this sexual harassment, but I think it’s really more like a culture clash, one that has to do with innate sex differences. Men tend to see the whole world as a safe place to look for sex. And I’m a woman who writes openly about sex, so they think I’m comfortable being solicited.

I’m not. Their progression from colleagues to hit-on’s doesn’t make me feel violated, but it does make me feel like maybe men don’t actually take my work seriously—that they see it as a venue by which to butter me up to bed me. I thought at age 50, with a Guggenheim Fellowship and a book recommended by the New York Times, I’d be to the point where my work was taken as more than a cervix.

So why have I stayed so long? Twitter has been a great way to share my work and the work of other folks that I think needs more attention. It’s been a fun place to make people laugh, particularly at my mate’s hilarious lines. It’s changed sex ed at my son’s high school. It’s completely changed the public perception of pet rats.

But the costs are kind of high for me. And they aren’t going to be solved by Twitter offering a new screening tool.

The problems with Twitter are the problems of the human condition, including my own. A break from Twitter is always a break from myself. Sometimes I really need that.