Online sexual harassment: conceptualising women’s experiences in the digital age

photo by West McGowan

photo by West McGowan

In a guest blog for Gender Politics at Edinburgh,  Australian feminist politics scholar -Jessica Megarry – reflects upon the latest cyber threats aimed at women in the public eye. She argues that we need to name these attacks as online sexual harassment.

Again, the aggressive, vitriolic, and often violently threating abuse women receive online has become the focus of national and international news. The countless opinion pieces in circulation are being joined by the voices of prominent public figures weighing in on the debate. Dissatisfied with the official response from Twitter, many are calling for the service provider to take more definitive action. Heated debates about the right to freedom of speech versus the need for a Twitter abuse button continue, while in the meantime attention has turned to the #twittersilence protest and the relative merits of ‘don’t feed the trolls’ versus shouting back. Nevertheless, the broader questions remain: how should we conceptualise the phenomenon of the online abuse of women? How can we accurately account for the experiences of those affected?

The most recent case began when Caroline Criado-Perez successfully campaigned to have a woman featured on a UK banknote. She was then subjected to a relentless barrage of rape and death threats via the social media website Twitter.  A rather scary result after what was, all in all, a fairly tame gain for women’s rights. As Guardian opinion writer Suzanne Moore remarked:

‘I am glad there is a woman’s face on the money. But can we have more actual money? Equal pay?’

Undeniably, the internet is a different place for men and women. Modern technology, including emails, blogs and social media platforms, have supplied new avenues for circulating abusive content, not just in regards to prominent public figures, but against women in general. What is perhaps most striking is that the types of abuse women receive are so similar as to be interchangeable. Harassers say the same things regardless of whether the woman they are attacking is overtly feminist, simply working in the public eye, or an unknown blogger with an interest in gardening.

And this is why the issue is one of gender equality rather than trolling, online bullying, or even cyberstalking.  The particular type of abuse levelled against Criado- Perez can only be used against women in patriarchal society.  Linguistically and metaphorically, it does not make sense say to a man “Wouldn’t mind tying this bitch to my stove. Hey sweetheart, give me a shout when you are ready to be put in your place” or “So looking forward to titty fucking you later tonight”. Such images pertain specifically to the female condition, as they rely on the social construction of the female gender as inferior in order to create a hostile atmosphere for all women online. Social scientist Alison Adam views this type of abuse as a ‘kind of pornographic invitation’ which incites others to join in the sexually threatening behaviour. It is a:

‘swift, aggressive male response to women claiming a space and speaking up on the internet.’[i]

Indeed, in many ways harassment in the online context mimics the manifestations of harassment on the street, as both are characterised by the anonymity of the harasser and frequently address women’s bodies in degrading and sexually explicit ways. Additionally, both occur in ‘open’ public spaces, where there is a distinct lack of resources available to the women who are harassed. Street and internet harassment  have also become a ‘normal’ aspect of women’s everyday lives, and occur against a background of routine sexism and discrimination. Academically, street harassment has been theorised as a behaviour aimed against women in general, intended to police, shut down, or restrict female speech and movement in the public sphere[ii]  Here we can see clear links to the modern day phenomenon of online harassment.

My previous research investigated the #mencallmethings Twitter hashtag, in which women reposted examples of the harassment they routinely receive online from men. I argue that, if we are to accurately account for the experiences of the women involved, the online harassment of women needs to be understood as online sexual harassment rather than just online incivility, and recognised as a way of excluding women’s voices from the public sphere Many social scientists view sexual harassment as a global practice, and consider that the online environment provides a new space for its proliferations. [iii] Nonetheless, and despite the multitude of recent examples, such terminology has not been used in reference to these cases.

Sexual harassment as global practice

As it stands, we have slipped back into predictable territory. The media focus is now comfortably on the behaviour of the female victims, and the appropriateness of their various responses to online harassment. The utility of the #twittersilence campaign, in which users chose to refrain from using the site for 24 hours in order to protest against abusive posts, is being met with criticism from those who saw the action as defeatist; more evidence of women curtailing their own behaviours in the face of harassment. I predict that this is where the news story will peter out, until the next example of horrendous abuse crops up and we all express our collective shock and dismay.  Media focus on the behaviours of the victims rather than the perpetrators functions as a kind of dilution of debate; it drains the political implications from the issue of online misogyny by taking attention away from the harassers and their motivations.

We can progress by calling the behaviour what it is: online sexual harassment.  Such a term reflects the reality that women are targeted for harassment online on the basis of their sex, creating a hostile and threatening environment for all female users. It also locates the harassment as a specifically political act which perpetuates women’s subordinate status online. Online sexual harassment is a political term which explicitly references the unequal social situation of women, and utilising this language is a move towards ensuring that the harmful nature of the practice remains at the forefront of public debates.

[i] Adam, A (2005) Gender, Ethics and Information Technology [Electronic Resource], Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 115.

[ii] See: Bowman, C (1993) ‘Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoisation of Women’, Harvard Law Review, 106 (3), 517-580.
Kissling, E (1991) ‘Sexual Harassment: The Language of Terrorism’, Discource and Society, 2 (4), 451-460.
Larkin, J. (1997) ‘Sexual Terrorism on the Street’, in Thomas, A and Kitzinger, C (eds), Sexual Harassment: Contemporary Feminist Perspectives, Buckingham: Open University Press, 115-130.

[iii] See: Barak, A (2005) ‘Sexual Harassment on the Internet’, Social Science Computer Review, 23 (1), 77-92.
Citron, D (2009), ‘Law’s Expressive Value in Combating Cyber Gender Harassment’, Michigan Law Review, 108, 373-415.



About genderpol

The blog of the Gender Politics Research Group, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh - and friends
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