Sexist harassment flies under the web’s radar

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • April 2, 2015

In conversations about contemporary womanhood, feminism, and female safety, there are certain spaces known to be unsafe. Sordid recounts of personal experiences and recaps of Law and Order: SVU expose the old haunts: dark, wandering alleys, sparsely populated train cars, boisterous college parties, unfamiliar bars. There are classes teaching comprehensive self-defense methods, pepper spray bottles discreetly disguised as lipstick tubes, nail polish that changes color to alert its wearer of commonly-used date rape drugs — all devices and conventions used to keep women safe.

Still, there’s an expansive space where women aren’t safe. It’s not limited to one ZIP code, unbound by neighborhood or nation. The internet has done a lot of good, through the democratization of news and information and the ability to read and understand global cultures and experiences, and it’s made it possible to order delivery at a moment’s notice. Still, the internet is, in many ways, the most unexpected frontier in discussions about sexism. Women aren’t safe on the internet, and that’s something we all ought to come to terms with.

When I first began to read about the behavior many women writers are faced with online, I thought it was limited to the usual suspects of internet trolls. You know the type: the hyper-conservative single guy with reflective lens Ray-Bans and a wi-fi connection, someone who is deeply certain that Obama was born either in Kenya or on Mars, or both; the grandmother nostalgically waxing poetic for the gendered behavior of yesterday; the millennial that wants to make sure it’s acknowledged that he’s never at fault. Disagreement can be valuable, and comment sections are best suited for constructive discussions of ideas, discrepancies, and difference.

But debates like those, where the worst offense is simple rudeness, are not what women online have to weather. In the January cover story from Pacific Standard, Slate staff writer Amanda Hess explained the daily indignities so many women face on a daily basis for having a thought to share, and an internet connection with which to share it. These women aren’t just writers with Twitter followers in the thousands: a 2006 study from the University of Maryland’s school of engineering found that internet users with female usernames—no matter their actual sex or gender—receive 25 times more malicious messages than their counterparts with male usernames.

The criticism Hess recounts as having been tweeted, commented, and emailed to her far surpass simple disagreement and are loaded, dangerous threats. “[There was] the anonymous commenter who weighed in on one of my articles,” Hess quotes in her Pacific Standard story, “‘Amanda, I’ll fucking rape you. How does that feel?’”

This is more than cyberbullying. These are specific threats launched at women for sharing their opinions, a gendered form of harassment that after-school specials don’t address. In October, The Washington Post reported a 2014 Pew Research Center study’s findings that while statistically men receive more online threats, they’re rarely as menacing as the intimidations hurled at online usernames thought to belong to women: “Men, for whatever reason, seem to experience bullying as an annoying, even-pitched, locker-room hum of anonymous name-calling and bickering,” wrote Caitlin Duffy. “Women experience it in sharper, scarier jabs — acute, personal attacks that leave the victim shaken and reaching for the ‘block’ button, if not the telephone.”

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this is that it’s largely unacknowledged. This lack of education feels like an important reason why the dialogue and legal ramifications of online harassment are so steeped in the past—by and large, charges of cyberstalking have not evolved at the same rate the internet has. 

In February, my dad, visiting family in D.C., called me in a huff, desperate to know if I’d faced the kind of online threats of sex abuse he’d just read about in The Washington Post. “Hunter, when you write your articles, do people ever threaten to rape you online?” I laughed at the utter randomness of his question and answered that it hadn’t ever happened to me, but I appreciated the earnestness of his ignorance. My 60-year-old father—a man who conceptually doesn’t understand “the point” of Snapchat, and only just learned how to send an email last fall—can discuss this gendered harassment with more dexterity than some of my friends can.

In the large scheme of things, the internet is a relatively new space—Al Gore only invented it in the 90s, after all— and it’s a space that has been so quickly gendered. There’s not a history of single-sex dominance to pull from, only the well-documented online disinhibition effect that allows nameless, faceless users the freedom to behave badly, the worst of these behaviors directed towards women.