Bullying, stalking, and trolling are just the beginning. Extreme examples such as GamerGate get publicized, but otherwise the online abuse of women is largely underreported. Haters combines a history of online sexism with suggestions for solutions.
Using current events and the latest available research into cybersexism, Bailey Poland questions the motivations behind cybersexist activities and explores methods to reduce footprints of Internet misogyny, drawing parallels between online and offline abuse. By exploring the cases of Alyssa Funke, Rehtaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, and others, and her personal experiences with sexism, Poland develops a compelling method of combating sexism online.
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Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online
By Bailey Poland
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
The Many Faces of Cybersexism
Why Misogyny Flourishes Online
Online spaces are fraught with the abuse of women. The past few years have produced one high-profile case of harassment after another, suffusing news headlines with the lurid details of women forced from their homes, their online and offline lives shattered by a torrent of sexist, racist, and transphobic abuse. Hate mobs like those associated with Gamergate and individual abusers and stalkers have proliferated online in recent years, causing women to fear going online at all. Whether it's organized campaigns of unrelenting harassment, "doxxing," and violent threats loosely coordinated on various message boards and social media sites or abusive spouses taking their violence into cyberspace (once ending up in front of the Supreme Court), hardly a month goes by when the news isn't following yet another extreme example of the price women pay for being visible online. What is it about online spaces that makes abuse so common? And what can we do to make the Internet safer?
Before we can begin to explore the answers to those questions, it's important to understand the core terminology used to describe the online abuse that characterizes so much of women's experience with the Internet. A grasp of how this book talks about sexism and cybersexism is essential. While other definitions of sexism and cybersexism may exist and the definitions themselves are fluid, for the purposes of this book the two terms have specific definitions that are used as frames for the concepts discussed.
In this chapter I discuss the basic terminology used throughout the book in discussing sexism and cybersexism. I also explore the prevalence of offline sexism that informs women's day-to-day lives and how such attitudes moved online, and then I examine the mindset that leads to cybersexist harassment.
Sexism is a combination of prejudice against persons based on their gender, combined with the privilege and power required to cause harm. In other words, because men as a group hold the majority of social privileges, such as political and financial power representation, their prejudices against women as a group are more likely to hurt women, limit their opportunities, and cause other difficulties for women trying to go about their daily lives. Further, as women do not hold the majority of the privileges or power that exist, their prejudices against men (frequently a reaction to already-existing injustices and unequal levels of power and opportunity) do not rise to the level of sexism.
"Privilege" in this context is often misunderstood as primarily class or financial power; however, the definition of privilege used here takes a more nuanced approach. Privilege is, for the purposes of this book, the set of social advantages associated with particular axes of identity that are considered to be dominant. These social advantages are often unnoticed by those who have them, but they nevertheless carry a great deal of weight. Privilege is often associated with those forms of identity (and the associated benefits) that are considered default by virtue of overrepresentation. While having privilege will not correlate to success or power in all cases or situations, it simply increases the likelihood that it will. The term "privilege," therefore, is used to describe the broad social attitudes that impact power, access, safety, and representation along the axes of gender, race, sexuality, and more.
Male privilege, for example, is associated with greater representation in media, business, politics, and journalism, as well as easier access to positions of power, employment, capital, and so on. The same attitudes that produce sexism in the form of negative stereotypes about women often find footing as positive stereotypes about men — where women are seen as irrational or overly emotional, men are painted as levelheaded and logical.
As a result, while sexism is often understood solely as prejudice against someone on the basis of their sex — and, under that definition, it is often said that women who push back against sexism are themselves engaging in sexism against men — the ability to cause harm to a group (women) while conferring benefits on another group (men) is a core part of the definition of sexism used throughout this book. Sexism as it affects online life is the major focus of this work, with the key caveat that online harassment and abuse are rarely — if ever — linked to gender alone.
Although this book addresses women as a group and uses sexism as the guiding framework, racism is another key element of online harassment and one that, as a white person, I discuss but cannot ever fully speak to. Online harassment of women of color, and specifically misogynoir, requires far more in-depth analysis. A call to action for addressing that issue is a central part of my goal here; while this book is intended to start a discussion, it is only the first part of a much broader and deeper conversation that must take place in order to improve the well-being of online communities.
With that said, cybersexism is the expression of prejudice, privilege, and power in online spaces and through technology as a medium. While this book focuses on the verbal and graphic expression of sexism in the form of online harassment and abuse aimed at women, it's important to note that cybersexism can also occur in less overt forms not directly as a result of ill intent. For example, the design of technology to suit an ideal user (presumed to be male) or to make it more difficult for women to access and use is also cybersexism. Some examples include making smartphones too large for the average woman's hand, health and fitness tracking apps that exclude menstruation (or regard the tracking of menstruation as only for cisgender women and aimed only at pregnancy), or designing a "revolutionary" heart implant that works for 86 percent of men and only 20 percent of women.
This book examines the use of harassment and abuse aimed at women in online spaces, with an understanding that cybersexism often has a goal of creating, enforcing, and normalizing male dominance in online spaces — normspreferred by straight, cisgender white men, primarily located in the United States. While online harassment is a global problem, the norms established in the early years of the Internet tend to reflect Western-centric patterns of use and abuse. The types of cybersexism examined here include everything from casual sexist harassment to overt abuse, illegal threats, doxxing, and other behaviors that make online spaces uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unsafe for women's participation, along with a discussion of the justifications used for such behavior and women's ability to respond. While sexism itself is the overarching focus here, issues of race, sexuality, disability, and others also play a role in determining which women get targeted for certain kinds of abuse and how that abuse functions.
This book also looks at the ways in which this cyberabuse affects women in their online and offline lives — and the increasingly blurred boundaries between the two. Chapters address the ways women cope with abuse, the solutions currently in place, and why so many of them fail. This book also attempts to outline possibilities for long-term changes to the way we live, work, and play online.
Sexist attitudes color the majority of women's interactions with the world, from expectations about how — and if — women should talk (online and off), to the skewed media representation of women, to male dominance, to violence against women, and more. Stereotyping and gendered abuse are a common fact of life for women. The continued and rapid erasure of the lines between online and offline activities makes it impossible to fully separate online and offline harassment. Online harassment is rooted in offline beliefs, and those offline beliefs are supported and reinforced by the prevalence of sexist behaviors online. Domination of specific spaces deemed important is, as ever, a central goal for those who engage in sexist activities. With the Internet the quest for male domination is disguised by a mythology of level playing fields and equal opportunity, and it is backed by the vicious and constant harassment of women.
Understanding how cybersexism works requires an understanding of how sexism itself functions in offline spaces. Attitudes displayed online — whether in the form of YouTube videos, Facebook comments, Twitter replies, Reddit threads, or blog posts — do not occur in a vacuum nor do they exist only in online spaces. While people may be more comfortable expressing extreme views online than they would in person, such expressions often reflect the true beliefs they hold. Those views, extreme or not, are also not confined to or created solely in online spaces.
The United States in particular has a strong set of expectations regarding appropriate gender roles for men and women, and sexist, demeaning beliefs about women's roles are still common. Power, money, violence, and control continue to exist along highly gendered and raced lines, and taking a serious look at the ways sexism operates in offline spaces is key to understanding how it became so prevalent online.
Dominance and Violence Offline
The decision to target women with abusive, gender-based harassment online is rarely random or spontaneous. While individual actions may not be impelled by a goal other than disagreeing with a woman and wanting to put her in her place, as it were, the decision to engage in obviously sexist harassment to achieve such ends indicates how cybersexists think the Internet should work. In many ways activities aimed at building and reinforcing male dominance online are conducted in order to re-create the patterns of male domination that exist offline. In offline spaces sexism occurs in a variety of ways, from the obvious examples of financial and political control to violence, including almost invisible factors, such as policing the ways in which women talk.
Political and Financial Power
Offline, men remain in powerful positions throughout the world. From a political standpoint every U.S. president through 2016 has been male and, with the exception of President Barack Obama, white and male. The 114th U.S. Congress consisted of roughly 80 percent men and more than 80 percent white people, regardless of gender. Among countries around the globe, however, the United States is not even in the top seventy countries in terms of representation of women in political bodies. The top five countries are Rwanda, Bolivia, Cuba, Seychelles, and Sweden; the United States stands at an abysmal seventy-first place, and the United Kingdom is thirty-sixth. Of the top five countries only Rwanda and Bolivia have equal or greater numbers of women in a lower or single legislative chamber; no country in the top five has parity in an upper chamber.
Around the world women are often grossly underrepresented within the legal bodies that govern the everyday lives of citizens. As a result, decisions are made that affect women without women's input. Men's ability to control the legal environment in which women live and work is a source of much conflict and power. However, this overrepresentation of men is not unique to the political arena.
From the highest ranks of business, where women occupy fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, to the individual level, where working single mothers are disproportionately likely to be women of color who are living in poverty, men have significantly more control over the economic fate of the world and, as a result, most of the women in it. Financial control is an issue from the most senior positions within a business to the most entry-level role, with men consistently making more money than women, controlling more resources, and having easier access to higher levels of power.
The wage gap remains a gender issue within the United States and around the world, with men still making more than women at every level of employment. Further, it is important to remember that women's wages vary widely by race, with white women having the greatest advantage. Although all women are at a disadvantage where financial impact is concerned, race plays a major role, as do sexuality, disability, and gender identity. In the United States companies in twenty-nine states can legally fire gay employees for their sexuality; in thirty-four states companies can legally fire transgender people solely for being transgender. In addition, the Fair Labor Standards Act permits organizations to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage — often far less than minimum wage. The ability to find and retain work, and to be fairly compensated for that work, without being discriminated against based on race, gender, ability, or sexuality continues to be an immense challenge across the globe.
Beyond the world of finance and politics, even something as seemingly simple as entertainment remains a male-dominated field — on the screen, at the writer's desk, and behind the camera. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that men still make up 93 percent of directors and 83 percent of writers. The Geena Davis Institute also found that there is a 5 to 10 percent increase in women on-screen when women are writing and directing media rather than men, who consistently write more male characters and cast more male actors. Movies and TV shows still feature significantly more men than women, and even when women are present they are often relegated to supporting roles or are characters whose existence only matters in relation to a main male character. Women are more likely to be sexualized than men in entertainment, and degrading comments about women's bodies and intelligence are common across all types of media.
Sexism in media and entertainment is linked to numerous problems for women and girls. Media and advertisements often reflect unattainable and deeply manipulated imagery of women's bodies, and a company such as Unilever (owner of the Dove brand) sells a version of empowerment with one hand while selling skin lightening creams that contribute to racist stereotypes with the other. Multiple research reports across decades have shown that exposure to sexist, racist stereotypes in media — such as consistently portraying women as irrational and hyperemotional or only casting people of color as a variety of stereotypes (the nerdy Asian, the strong black woman, the hotheaded Latina) — can have serious real-life consequences. Eating disorders, feelings of inferiority, reduced personal and educational goals, feelings of invisibility, and more all result from people's limited opportunities to see their lives accurately and intelligently portrayed on TV, in books and comic books, through music, and even in the news.
Although media stereotypes might at first glance seem harmless, as easy tropes needed to quickly convey information, research has also shown time and again that the images we see on the screen both reflect and reinforceour preexisting social beliefs. While the media do not bear full responsibility for the creation of sexist attitudes and other negative problems, the representations of casual sexism and racism in media become part of the way viewers see the world around them. Cybersexists and sexists who operate offline both try to argue that something like a book, movie, or video game is "just entertainment" and that seeing social patterns reflected within entertainment is the work of people who are looking too hard.
The refusal to critically examine media or acknowledge its effects is often known as the "third-person effect": people who assume that they are not affected by stereotypes in media are often the ones who are most likely to absorb harmful messages and beliefs from it, because they do not interrogate the messages presented by the shows and movies they watch and the video games they play. A failure to examine something like sexist messages leads to passive acceptance of them as reflecting something true about the world, often leading to a reinforcing and strengthening of sexist attitudes about women.
This pattern of behavior contributes to a cycle of reification and reenactment of negative social beliefs. People who do not examine the attitudes implicit in media are less likely to examine their own beliefs and more likely to absorb those messages from the media they consume — whether or not the messages are deliberately included. People who go on to create their own media then unthinkingly perpetuate the same stereotypes, further reinforcing the validity of sexist portrayals of women for new audiences.
Economic power and the erasure and sexist portrayals of women through entertainment and media are not the only ways that gender comes into play. How people interact with one another at the personal level is keenly shaped by gender, expectations of proper gender roles and behaviors, and the power structures that uphold men and degrade women. Too often these interactions include violence. Violence remains closely linked to gender, and its intersections with race, sexuality, gender identity, and other factors increase the likelihood that certain groups of women will experience violence.
Excerpted from Haters by Bailey Poland. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. The Many Faces of Cybersexism: Why Misogyny Flourishes Online,
2. Types of Cybersexism: What Online Harassment Really Looks Like,
3. Don't Feed the Trolls: Why Advice about Cybersexism Fails,
4. The Effects of Cybersexism: Professional, Psychological, and Personal,
5. Misogynist Movements: Men's Rights Activists and Gamergate,
6. Dealing with Cybersexism: Current Solutions,
7. Fighting Back: Remixing Cyberfeminism and Strategizing to Reduce Cybersexism,
Conclusion: A Call to Action,