News about cyber-misogyny has steadily increased during the past year, since the publication of Amanda Hess’ “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” but many people challenge the notion that women’s online harassment is a matter of specific and particular concern. For example, a piece in the Daily Beast last week argued that men are harassed more often than women online. It’s a common refrain.
The starting point for the article, written by Cathy Young, is a recent survey by British think tank Demos that found that male celebrities are recipients of more abuse overall on Twitter than their female counterparts. This was a relatively narrow and unrepresentative study. There are many others documented in Danielle Citron’s new book, Hate Crimes in CyberSpace, that illustrate pronounced abusive sexism online.
In addition to the difficulty of comparing data sets of varying size and depth, however, comparing male versus female online “harassment” is problematic for many reasons.
First, as Young points out, women’s harassment is more likely to be gender-based and that has specific, discriminatory harms rooted in our history. The study pointed out that the harassment targeted at men is not because they are men, as is clearly more frequently the case with women. It’s defining because a lot of harassment is an effort to put women, because they are women, back in their “place.”
Second, online comparisons like this decontextualize the problem of harassment, as though a connection to what happens offline is trivial or inconsequential.
Third, the binary frame camouflages the degree to which harassment of people, often men, is frequently aimed at people who defy rigid gender and sexuality rules. LGBT youth experience online bullying at three times the rate of their straight peers.
For girls and women, harassment is not just about “un-pleasantries.” It’s often about men asserting dominance, silencing, and frequently, scaring and punishing them.
According to Erica Olsen, Deputy Director of Safety Net, a program created by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), “In a 2012 survey, 89 percent of local domestic violence programs reported that victims were experiencing intimidation and threats by abusers via technology, including through cell phones, texts, and email.”
Online harassment is a key weapon in intensified stalking, for example. Intimate partners create impersonator content online, sometimes with brutal results. This type of harassment also includes rape and death threats, such as those at the heart of an upcoming Supreme Court case.
Rape and death threats made by strangers are also common, however. They coexist online with violent sexist, racist commentary on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook and the sharing of gifs, images, jokes and memes depicting gross violence against women as “humor.” The “humor” can sometimes spill over into aggressive cyber mob attacks, which, as Citron explains in her book, disproportionately target women and people of color. These mobs include hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, systematically harassing their targets. #Slanegirl, a trending global public shaming of a teenage girl filmed performing fellatio is one example. Attacks on public figures like Anita Sarkeesian or Caroline Criado-Perez can take on surreal qualities whose effects can’t be underestimated—either on the individual attacked or on the environment.
Women are also the majority of people experiencing revenge porn, the distribution of non-consensual photography, often involving nudity and sex. Last month’s theft and distribution of the private photographs of more than 100 celebrities, almost all female, was a case in point.
Rape videos also harass women. In country after country, including ours, boys and men are recording and sharing their raping of girls and women. Some cases, such as the most recent, #Jadapose, explode into social media consciousness, but there are far more cases that most people never hear about. Videos like this are of a philosophical cloth with the common sexual surveillance of women in public spaces, from public bathrooms and changing rooms to rental apartments and subway platforms. These images are then used to populate online spaces created for sharing them, cyber-cesspools whose sole purpose is to deprive people of dignity by humiliating, and harassing them.
And then there’s the matter of human trafficking online. Social media is used by traffickers to sell people whose photographs they share, without their consent, often including photographs of their abuse of women as an example to others. Seventy-six percent of trafficked persons are girls and women and the Internet is now a major sales platform.
In theory, these things can happen to anyone—but they don’t. They happen overwhelming to women and the abusers are overwhelmingly men. Stalking, off and online, is a crime in which men are the majority of perpetrators and women the targets. Justice Department records reveal that 70 percent of those stalked online are women. More than 80 percent of cyber-stalking defendants are male. Similarly, a study of 1,606 revenge porn cases showed that 90 percent of those whose photos were shared were women, targeted by men. In gaming, an industry known for endemic sexism, studies cited by Citron show that 70 percent of women in multiplayer games play as male characters in order to avoid abuse.
As far as “harmless threats” are concerned, the reality of rape and domestic violence qualitatively changes the meaning and effect of threats when leveled against women by men. Women have a 1 in 5 chance of actually being raped and a 1 in 4 chance of being physically assaulted by an intimate. For men, the chances of being raped are 1 in 71, and 1 in 7 for being physically abused, also an asymmetrical comparison.
The harassment men experience also lacks broader, resonant symbolism. Women are more frequently targeted with gendered slurs and pornographic photo manipulation because the objectification and dehumanization of women is central to normalizing violence against us. Philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Ray Langdon describe in detail how this works: women are thought of and portrayed as things for the use of others. Interchangeable; violable; silent and lacking in agency.
Women take online harassment more seriously not because we are hysterics, but because we reasonably have to. There is no gender equivalence in terms of the denigrating, hostile and sometimes exceedingly dangerous environmental effect that misogyny has, online or off. It has a long history and cannot be isolated from actual violence that we adapt to avoiding every day. The fact that that violence has always suppressed women’s free speech is only now becoming too obvious to ignore.