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Isn’t this “just bullying”?
Why focus on women, if everyone is harassed and whose experiences can be radically different?
Aren’t anonymity and stranger danger the problem? And, if we get rid of it, won’t harassment go away?
Harassment isn’t “really violent,” right? Not compared to offline violence?
But, aren’t men harassed, too?
Don’t women harass online, too?
Aren’t only women celebrities and writers being harassed? Aren’t they public figures and harassment goes with the territory?
What are the costs?

Isn’t this “just bullying”?

An act of bullying is defined by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society as hostile acts or behaviors that share three characteristics: a) they are intentional; b) they involves a power imbalance between an aggressor (individual or group) and a victim; c) they are repetitive in nature and sustained.[i] While this definition provides an excellent framework, definitions can and do differ greatly and don’t necessarily align with academic and research definitions. Legal definitions of bullying and harassment vary by jurisdiction and the term bullying most frequently involves the targeting of children and teens. For example, only 16 US states define bullying as encompassing only behaviors that are intentional; seven states define it to include only behaviors that a ‘reasonable person’ thinks would harm another person.” Only four states take into account power imbalances.

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Why focus on women, if everyone is harassed and whose experiences can be radically different?

Because abuse targeted at women is qualitatively and quantitatively different, and intersectionality matters when determining how and what to do about it. Gender based harassment is marked by the intent of the harasser to denigrate the target on the basis of sex. It is characterized by sexist vitriol and, frequently, the expression of violence.

When men face online harassment and abuse, it is first and foremost designed to embarrass or shame them. When women are targeted, the abuse is more likely to be gendered, sustained, sexualized and linked to off-line violence.

Women, the majority of the targets of some of the most severe forms of online assault – rape videos, extortion, doxing with the intent to harm – experience abuse in multi-dimensional ways and to greater effect. They are the vast majority of the victims of nonconsensual pornography, stalking, electronic abuse and other forms of electronically-enhanced violence.

In addition, women report higher rates of finding online harassment stressful. This is not because they “can’t stand the heat,” as is frequently suggested, but because the abuse online exists simultaneously with three facts:

  • Women have to be hyper-vigilant in daily life. A double digit safety gap offline has an online corollary. Women are more likely to experience more gendered and consequential abuse.  They are more frequently harassed, online and off, for sustained periods of times, in sexual ways and in ways that incorporate stalking and manipulation. They are more likely to be pornographically objectified and subjected to reputation damaging public shaming. Sexual slurs toward women evoke the threat of real-life sexual violence; they are also perceived as intended to “put a woman in her place” and tell her that her opinion is worthless because she is a woman.
  • The abuse women experience online is intersectional. Women all over the world are experiencing misogyny online, but rarely is it experienced along only one dimension. Women who are targeted because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality or disability face abuse on multiple fronts and report higher rates of emotional and psychological harm. Sometimes, sexism is married to race, others to caste, others to sexuality – the overlap has a compounding effect. A lesbian woman experiences homophobia and sexism. A black woman, racism and sexism. A Moslem or Jewish woman, religious hatred and sexism.
  • Globally, women still face sexist, patriarchal (power-over domination of all kinds) constraints that compound the negative effects of online harassment . There are preexisting, offline limitations on our ability to work, go to school, earn money, be politically active and shape culture. Limitations that, for the most part, men do not face. When girls and women are harassed online, that harassment taps into these restrictions and the potential damage is amplified. Girls and women are more likely to face bullying, harassment, censorship and abuse that reflect preexisting, and still enforced, sexist double standards and the disproportionate effect of honor culture norms. Many of the most commonly employed tactics rely on preexisting double standards regarding sexual behavior. Harassers, for example, count on women being judged for their sexual behavior and shamed and penalized because of it.
  • 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. Much of the harassment that women are subjected to online reflects these uses of objectification.

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Aren’t anonymity and stranger danger the problem? And, if we get rid of it, won’t harassment go away?

Anonymity is a serious problem, however, anonymity doesn’t mean that the abuse comes from strangers. Most women are harassed online by people they know: school peers, acquaintances, intimate partners, former intimate partners, employers and, in some countries, religious and political authorities. Many of these people do use anonymity to perpetrate abuse, but anonymity itself isn’t the problem.

Anonymity is often a lifeline for people online, an essential dimension of privacy and freedom from violence. There are many movements, globally, such as the #Nameless Coalition, encouraging platforms to create more nuanced and flexible approaches to the problems presented by anti-anonymity policies.

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Harassment isn’t “really violent,” right? Not compared to offline violence?

Online harassment exists on a continuum with offline violence. Harassment online is a very strong thread in an already densely woven fabric of socially acceptable and institutionalized resistance to women’s full participation in the world.   A teenage girl in Pakistan might not only be harassed online, but might find that her life is at risk if her family finds out about her online life or because a conservative member of her community non-consensually shared a photograph of her on Facebook. A woman in Texas whose ex-husband nonconsensually shares naked pictures of her, might legally be fired by her conservative employer. A girl in Canada might kill herself after a video of her rape is shared electronically, and her classmates slut-shame, literally to death. A writer might have to cancel speaking opportunities because of threats made on an open-carry campus. A trafficked 10-year old in a country where child marriage is acceptable might be terrorized when her trafficker tweets a picture of himself drowning her best friend in a toilet, just to prove he can. A woman’s small business might collapse after an online mob actively decides to flood Yelp reviews with defamatory comments. And, for those tempted to think, “women over there have real problems compared to those of you complaining about online trolls,” it pays to remember that the nonconsensual distribution of sexualized images is not illegal in the vast majority of US states.

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But, aren’t men harassed, too?

Men are harassed and abused online. Studies show that they experience many of the same forms of abuse that women do. The argument that men are harassed equally or even more camouflages qualitative and quantitative differences. Men are more likely to be called names and are harassed in one-off incidents, whereas the scope of what women are experiencing is broader and more violent. Additionally, the harassment of many people, including men, is focused on their defying rigid gender and sexuality roles. Transgressions of conservative gender roles mean heightened risk for users who don’t conform. LGBTQUIA youth experience online bullying at three times the rate of their straight peers. When men are harassed, it is often by people using homophobic and feminizing slurs. Additionally, there are some notable aspects of perpetration. While women can and do engage in harassment of both men and women, most perpetrators of online assault, like offline crimes, are men.

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Don’t Women Harass Online As Well?

Yes. Women also perpetrate online abuse and express hateful sentiments. However, particular in cases of abuse that are sustained and include off-line dimensions, male-perpetration is more prevalent. For example, the overwhelming targets of abusive sharing of non-consensual pornography are women whose photos are shared by men. Similarly, stalking, in which men tend to be the majority of perpetrators, disproportionately affects women.

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Aren’t only women celebrities and writers being harassed? Aren’t they public figures and harassment goes with the territory?

Women in the public eye, journalists and celebrities, are the most frequent targets of stranger abuse, primarily involving slurs and threats. However, that type of abuse frequently affects women who are not professionally in the public eye or involved in gaming or tech. They are not public figures or writers, and they don’t have huge social platforms. They are going about their lives as biologists, teachers, debaters, business consultants, mothers, technologists, activists, students, violinists and they are being harassed while they do it. All over the world women are dealing with socially, and often legally, allowable, electronically enabled abuse every day. Frequently, organizations that advocate against cyber-hate on behalf of particular groups will overlook intersectionality, and therefore the specific harms and risks that women face. Part of our work is prioritizing the intersectionality of women’s online experiences of abuse so that better solutions can be developed.

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What are the costs?

Online abuse exacts many costs that are routinely minimized. Online harassment can be a steep tax on women’s freedom of speech, civic life, and democracy.  It can and does inhibit their economic and educational opportunities.  For women, harassment frequently perpetuates harmful stereotypes, is sexually objectifying and relies on the threat of violence to be effective.  Among the most commonly reported by targets of online harassment are:

Personal

  • Emotional and psychological distress and health problems related to anxiety, depression, anger, post-traumatic stress and hypervigilance
  • Concerns about physical safety
  • Concerns about the safety of immediate family
  • Concerns about employers and family members finding out or being affected by harassment
  • Incurring financial costs of trying to avoid or offset harassment and abuse
  • Physical assault
  • Privacy violations

The seamlessness of online and offline violence means that real world safety gaps are made even more pronounced.  Perpetrators of intimate partner violence, stalkers and anonymous harassers all rely on pre-existing violence, and societal tolerance of that violence, to leverage new technologies.  According to research conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV),  89 % of domestic violence programs report that victims experience intimidation and threats by abusers via technology, including through cell phones, texts, and email.” Intimate partners create impersonator content online, sometimes with brutal results.   While media narratives often focus on stranger abuse and harassment, the fact is that the most sustained and destructive examples of abuse online, like offline, are most likely to be perpetrated by people known to victims.  While this is true worldwide, there are also unique physical risks in countries where free speech norms and gender imbalances differ from those in the US. For example, in countries with highly punitive laws against blasphemy and/or where women are discouraged from engaging in public expression and political life, online abuse is enabled.

Professional

Harassment frequently involves harm to professional life and impairs people’s ability to pursue economic opportunities.  Targets of harassment frequently worry about damage to their reputations and professional lives, their ability to find work and loss of employment. Women who are targeted might, for example, might be bombarded with bad reviews for their place of business or their work products.  Search engines might be maliciously optimized to highlight unflattering, inaccurate information.

Harassment makes women’s participation in male dominated fields or quickly evolving new markets difficult. Hostility towards girls and women in new and expanding markets is often particularly pronounced.   Misogyny and sexism expressed profusely, for example, in gaming or sports, inhibit women’s ability to fully participate and be taken seriously when they do.  Harassment reduces opportunities to engage as equals, be seen as authoritative or compete with for employment and education opportunities.

Civil and Human Rights

Danielle Citron and Mary Anne Franks argue that online abuse is, first and foremost, a civil rights issue, not only for women but for other historically discriminated against and marginalized groups. “Civil rights laws,” writes Citron in her book, Hate Crimes in Cyber Space, should “redress and punish harms that traditional remedies do not: the denial of one’s equal right to pursue life’s important opportunities due to membership in a historically subordinated group.”  

According to global studies conducted by Take Back the Tech one in five women report that “the internet is inappropriate” for them. Fear of online violence, shaming, spying and tracking are significant impediments to women’s adoption and use of internet and mobile technologies. As a result, they are effectively, systemically restrained from participating as equals in civic and economic growth opportunities.

Harassment substantively constrains free speech. Many free speech absolutists think of safety and free speech as being in opposition to one another, as in, if we make changes to ensure people’s safety online we will necessarily squelch free speech. This equation fails to consider that for marginalized and non-dominant groups safety and free speech go hand-in-hand, and that the steps necessary to ensure the safety of people online rarely require new ways of censoring speech, but rely on the proper and fair execution of existing laws and policies.  

Journalists and Media Marginalization

Hostility to women’s public engagement is hardly a new phenomenon and the experiences of women journalists and writers attests to its persistence today.  An analysis of online harassment in Twitter,  for example, conducted in 2014, revealed that women journalists and writers are among the most targeted for online abuse.  Research shows that women silence themselves, opt out of doing certain work, avoid certain topics, are fearful and restrict their level of public engagement.

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