Jessica Valenti, the executive editor at Feministing, writes in The Guardian on cyberbullying in light of the threats made against Kathy Sierra. Valenti had her own problems with online harassment last year after attending a bloggers’ lunch with former President Bill Clinton, which generated widespread hysteria from partisan misogynists that she discusses in the article.
Sierra thinks that online threats, even if they are coming from a small group of people, have tremendous potential to scare women from fully participating online. “How many rape/fantasy threats does it take to make women want to lay low? Not many,” she says.
But even women who don’t put their pictures or real names online are subject to virtual harassment. A recent study showed that when the gender of an online username appears female, they are 25 times more likely to experience harassment. The study, conducted by the University of Maryland, found that female user-names averaged 163 threatening and/or sexually explicit messages a day.
“The promise of the early internet,” says Marwick, “was that it would liberate us from our bodies, and all the oppressions associated with prejudice. We’d communicate soul-to-soul, and get to know each other as people, rather than judging each other based on gender or race.” In reality, what ended up happening was that, online, the default identity became male and white – unless told otherwise, you would assume you were talking to a white man. “So people who brought up their ethnicity, or people who complained about sexism in online communications, were seen as ‘playing the race/gender card’ or trying to stir up trouble,” says Marwick.
The whole article is well worth reading, and raises many important issues for women interacting online. The impression of background misogyny I had gained in online forums over the years before I began blogging was one reason that I chose a gender-neutral pseudonym for myself. Obviously, here on my own blog it’s very clear that I’m a woman, and an opinionated feminist woman as well, but when I’m commenting elsewhere the first impression gained of me is not that I’m a woman.
I know the advantage this gives me over other women who use obviously female handles, the privilege of “passing” as the default white male webuser (at least initially), at the same time as I deplore it. I note that at the group blog Larvatus Prodeo I generally receive less vehement sexist attacks on my posts than the women who use obviously female handles, although since we instituted a stricter vigilance on our commenting policy those attacks are far less frequent in any case (interestingly, commenters who had their posts deleted for ad hominem abuse but who were not actually banned from posting have largely chosen to post elsewhere, complaining deceitfully about being banned the while).
Alice Marwick, a postgraduate student in New York studying culture and communication, says: “There’s the disturbing possibility that people are creating online environments purely to express the type of racist, homophobic, or sexist speech that is no longer acceptable in public society, at work, or even at home.”
As Valenti concludes regarding the recent “Stop Cyberbullying” web campaign generated by outrage regarding the threats against Sierra:
It won’t mean the end of misogyny on the web, but it is a start. Such campaigns show that women are ready to demand freedom from harassment and fear in our new public spaces. In the same way that we should be able to walk down the street without fear of being raped, women shouldn’t have to stay quiet online – or pretend to be men – to be free of threats and harassment. It is time to take back the sites.