The Digital Safety Gap and the Online Harassment of Women

Public space has traditionally been an entirely male sphere. It's only recently that this has begun to change. But, like street harassment, rape and physical assault, online abuse is largely tolerated. And, like harassment, women are supposed to quietly adapt.
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Paris, FRANCE: A woman looks at blogs speaking of Segolene Royal, president of the French western Poitou-Charentes region and partner of Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, 13 April 2005 in Paris. AFP PHOTO GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Paris, FRANCE: A woman looks at blogs speaking of Segolene Royal, president of the French western Poitou-Charentes region and partner of Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, 13 April 2005 in Paris. AFP PHOTO GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Warning for potentially triggering language.

Men Who Hate Women was the original language name of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. When the book was to be published in English the name was changed. Which is why I have a "Dumb Cunt" folder on my computer. It's jarring to see it there next to "Kids Stuff" and "Work Docs." But, this is where I file away copies of misogynistic messages and threats that I get via email, Facebook, Twitter and comments. I don't respond to these, but it's important to document them. I could have named it "Abuse File" or "Harassment," but I didn't because those words dilute their nature and intent. Like changing the name of the book. For some of us, words have meaning and there are men who hate women because they are women. What they say and do shouldn't be made politely palatable so that people aren't offended. They're offensive. Making them or their words "family friendly" is a systematized tolerance than enables them to act the way they do.

People who send these emails, comments, posts and tweets, mostly men but sometimes women, are misogynists and they want women to stop talking and do as they are told, as in "Die, bitch." Their language goes beyond "typical" feedback writers may get from mean-spirited, morbidly housebound, anonymous commenters. It's hateful and graphically violent. Saying "Then came the rape threats," is like a rite of passage. Jennifer Pozner, director of Women in Media & News, who has been the target of similar abuse, got a message at her door from a man saying he'd find her and her mother and "rape you both."

The intent is to silence women online. Unfortunately, sometimes, in Schrodinger's Rapist fashion, it gets real results off-line. I don't know many women engaged publically, certainly not those advocating for gender equity, who have not been harassed or threatened, many to the point of feeling physically endangered. While much of the communications is ugly and innocuous, some of it isn't.

The first time I received an online threat it was in response to an article in which I suggested the benefits of allowing boys to cross-gender empathize the way girls do. A man suggested that I should and would hang high. Since then I, like millions of other women, regularly am called any number of gender-based, usually sexually inflected insults, for expressing my opinions. And, like others, I get threats that include being stalked and raped. Most recently, one man explained -- with this actual photography and name in Facebook, "if you guys ever gain ground, we will take that ground back with guns. I will make sure there are roving squads in every community going from house to house looking for feminists to kill."

Public space has traditionally been an entirely male sphere. It's only recently that this has begun to change. But, like street harassment and the threat of violence that give it its suppressive power, namely rape and physical assault, this kind of online abuse is largely tolerated. Having an opinion, as Laurie Penny put it, is the "short skirt of the Internet." And, like harassment, women are supposed to quietly adapt. "Grow a thick skin!" "Just ignore it!" "Don't read comments!" We're suppose to pretend that these digital incivilities are gender-neutral and unrelated to other behaviors meant to keep women silent. They are not. A 2006 study found that chat room participants with obviously female names were 25 times as likely to be the targets of sexually explicit, threatening and malicious messages. In reality though, this gendered online safety gap mirrors the real world one.

In lat 2011, Sady Doyle, a feminist writer, started a Twitter hashtag, #MenCallMeThings, to document threats and harassment. In a roundup of responses she documented women's experiences and identified several themes, all of which resonate personally. Welcome to the life of a woman writer. She didn't mention "Die," explicitly as theme, but I'll add it based on what other women and I have discussed. When you are the target of these messages, you have to keep a sense of humour. But there really is nothing funny about them, other than the really egregious spelling and grammar that's often used to make threats and hurl obscenities.

While I understand "don't feed the trolls" and "don't read the comments" advice, I think that it crucially important that women who are experiencing this online harassment make people aware of it. So does Caroline Criado Perez, who today wrote about a new hashtag, #silentnomore, which she started to encourage women to speak out about their experiences and confront pervasive troll culture. Studies show that confronting sexism works.

The immediate catalyst for her action was the cruel and sexualized assault, which was, as Criado Perez succinctly put it, "intended to degrade her and reduce her to nothing but a vagina," of academic Mary Beard. If you are unfamiliar with her work, Beard is a 58-year-old professor known for "bringing the classics" to the public. Here she is explaining last week what has been happening to her in the wake of a recent BBC "Question Time."

Beard's experience isn't unique and many others have spoken out or written repeatedly about this topic. Helen Lewis' "You Should Have Your Tongue Ripped Out" includes several women speaking out and in November of 2012, Cath Elliot compiled a good list of articles and examples. Since then she would have to had, in addition to the notable case of Mary Beard, a massive cyber attack on pop culture feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian. Her online "harassment" included tens of thousands playing a game, Beat the Bitch Up, that resulted in photos of her bruised and bloodied face. Here she is explaining the experience (trigger warning):

The comments on this video had to be shut down. She doesn't actually describe here the full extent of what happened.

I often have to write the words "to be clear" when I explain that men are harassing and violently threatening women and that this violence is systemic, as in "to be clear, I'm not saying all men harass and violently threaten, just that most people who do are men." In this case, I will add another, however. And that is this: To be clear, as Martha Nussbaum explained in her book Sex and Social Justice, complaint, in other words, explaining what is going on, is "better than silent intimidation, and the right to complain does not turn women into pathetic victims -- any more than the right to complain when someone steals a wallet turns men into pathetic victims."

Women are not going backwards. That's why actions like Doyle's and Criado Perez' are meaningful and why organization like Take Back the Tech, whose mission is making technology environments safe and stopping violence against women, should be supported. It's also why ad hoc online campaigns designed to confront sexism, like Everyday Sexism's #ShoutingBack and Miss Representation's upcoming #NotBuyingIt Superbowl campaign are equally important -- the change the tenor of what's acceptable and alter norms.

Take Back the Tech's "CyberStalking and How to Prevent It" is a tremendous resource. Especially for teenage girls whose "real" lives are virtually seamlessly integrated with their virtual ones. Take Back the Tech also runs a mapping project that documents harassment, stalking, threats and abuse. If you have concerns about your privacy and security, check out TOR. Another excellent resource is

But, it will take more than any action that individual women take to change this manifestation of misogyny in our culture. Just as with harassment rape, bystanders -- those who would never indulge in this behavior -- have to get involved in confronting those that do. We need to shift the onus from the targets of abuse to the abusers. Right now it is often the case that women are isolated and their assailants deriving power from community and institutional tolerance. What this means is that, in men need to get involved. Like John Scazi who in 2011 wrote a great piece, "The Sort of Crap I Don't Get" and Ben Atherton-Zeman who two weeks ago wrote an excellent piece in Ms. Magazine's online blog, "How Some Men Harass Women Online and What Other Men Can Do to Stop It." Please read it.

There is too much to be said than can be said here about freedom of expression, censorship, hate speech, legal remedies and the Internet. But, there is enough space to say this: this isn't about censoring people, it's about changing norms for what is acceptable. This speech online, whether in random blog comments, on Twitter or on Facebook, is no different than the same speech taking place in homes, street corners, schools, cable television, locker rooms every day. Online harassment is just a technology-enabled take on long-held ideas that women are public property, to be commented on and criticized, publicly shamed and held up for abuse as an example. Confronting it in this space has to happen as we confront it in all the others.

Is it really too much to ask that we live in a civil society, one that includes women?

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