Why Naming Online Harassment Accurately Matters

Posted by Bailey Poland on Apr 11, 2016 in Internet Policy, Online Harassment
Why Naming Online Harassment Accurately Matters
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The issue of online abuse is finally being taken seriously. In the past year, the subject has been discussed before the U.S. Congress, at the U.N., on the nightly news, and with surprising empathy and depth on late-night comedy shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

Although the flurry of attention that abuse has gotten is encouraging, members of the media and the general public continue to struggle with what to call it. Terms like “cyberbullying” and “revenge porn” are used to describe different types of sexist online abuse, but they are both damaging terms that misrepresent the problems women face on the internet.

The problem with referring to the harassment and abuse aimed at women as cyberbullying is that the term already has a well-defined use and meaning—cyberbullying is online and technologically mediated abuse aimed at and conducted by teenagers and children. Organizations like the Cyberbullying Research Center exist to offer “up-to-date information about the nature, extent, causes, and consequences of cyberbullying among adolescents.” While cyberbullying is a real problem and often includes many of the same elements of bigotry aimed at adults, using the word to refer to the forms of abuse that takes place among the adult population is both confusing and inaccurate.

In addition, because it is a term associated with children, many people still fail to take it seriously when it’s applied to adults, who, by imputation, should “grow up.” “It’s just the internet—grow a thicker skin” or “Delete your account” are common reactions to learning that someone has become the target of an individual harasser or a hate mob. Referring to the online abuse aimed at adult women as “cyberbullying” reinforces the belief that online harassment and abuse are little more than juvenile pranks, and often allows people to assume that the perpetrators are themselves teenagers.

The abuse that occurs between adults takes different forms than cyberbullying does.

Cyberbullying often occurs between teens and adolescents who know one another, often and most usually through school. However, when the online abuse aimed at women can be traced back to a specific individual, it most often comes from adult men. The abuse that occurs between adults also takes different forms than cyberbullying does, often including death and rape threats, doxxing (the act of illegally accessing someone’s personally identifying information, such as a home address, credit card information, or Social Security Number and sharing it with others for the purposes of harassment), DDOS attacks that take down a personal or business website, and more.

A report from the Pew Research Center showed that 50* percent of adults who report experiencing abuse online said it was a total stranger, or that the identity of the person abusing them could not be confirmed. However, the reality is that sustained abuse is often tied to technology enabled intimate partner violence.

The term “revenge porn,” in which the perpetrators is usually known, obscures much of the harm done to women who have nude photos circulated online without their consent. “Revenge porn” is applied to any nude picture posted without a woman’s knowledge or permission, but the term serves more to titillate readers than illuminate the scope of the problem. Roughly half of all women who have had a nude photo shared online without their consent consider or attempt suicide once they discover it is there. Women also frequently lose their families, friends, and jobs after such photographs have been circulated and are frequently blamed for having taken a nude photograph in the first place.  

Calling this act “revenge porn” implies that the woman in the picture has done something that necessitates or excuses an act of vengeance—occasionally, such pictures are shared in the wake of a breakup or divorce as an attempt to humiliate an ex, but there are many other scenarios in which this abuse occurs. Hunter Moore, who pleaded guilty to multiple counts of identity theft and other crimes, ran a website where such photographs were hosted. One way Moore ensured contributions to his site was paying men to hack women’s computers and download nude photos they had taken of themselves. Additionally, women who have been raped sometimes find that their assailant has taken a photograph of the attack and shared it online, as was the case with 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, who later committed suicide.

Roughly half of all women who have had a nude photo shared online without their consent consider or attempt suicide once they discover it is there.

“Revenge” has nothing to do with many instances of sharing nude images of women without their permission—the goal is, instead, to humiliate women and control access to women’s bodies and lives without their input. Images that were taken consensually as part of a relationship that ended, images or video of a crime, and pictures stolen off a woman’s personal computer are all part of what California State Attorney Kamala D. Harris calls “cyber exploitation” rather than revenge porn.

Using a term like “cyber exploitation” removes the element of provocation implied by “revenge porn,” places blame firmly on the perpetrator rather than the victim, and describes a fuller range of possible situations in which a nude photograph has been posted without obtaining its subject’s consent.

The terms “cyberbullying” and “revenge porn” both illustrate the growing pains associated with the uptick in discussions about the online harassment and abuse of women. The very different contexts of cyberbullying and online harassment of adult women make these commonly used terms inappropriate to use when discussing the problem. In this scramble to bring these problems to light, we have latched onto familiar terms and catchy phrases that help keep the topic in the headlines. All of these types of abuse can have serious, long-term consequences for women in both their online and offline lives, including depression, reduced personal and professional goals, eating disorders, and suicidal ideations.

It’s important to approach sexist abuse online as its own phenomenon and find ways to talk about it that are accurate, sensitive to its victims, and lead to the ability to create solutions, rather than having to deal with the fallout caused by confusion. Instead, let’s use “cyberharassment,” “cyberstalking,” and “cybersexism,” which are more accurate for discussing the online abuse of women.

* Correction: this percentage was changed from 64%. [Go Back]

Bailey Poland
Bailey Poland

Bailey Poland is a feminist activist and writer. She is the author of an upcoming book about the online harassment and abuse of women, Cybersexism in the 21st Century, which will be published by Potomac Books. Bailey can be found tweeting about feminism, books, and coffee as @the_author_ on Twitter.

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Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact permissions@womensmediacenter.com. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.