Addressing Gendered Online Harassment
Last summer, my friend Katie* received an Instagram message from a man who claimed to know her. When she ignored him, he commented several times on her photos: “hey baby,” “bad girl,” “sexy,” “I knew you were bad,” and “you bitch” were only a few of the degrading messages she received. She blocked him on Instagram, but he then sent her multiple Facebook and Twitter messages. Katie felt so embarrassed, violated, and harassed that she decided to delete all of her social media accounts.
Katie’s experience is, unfortunately, hardly an anomaly; she is just one of the one in six women who will be stalked in her lifetime. In 2016, 26 percent of young women aged 18-24 were stalked online, and 25 percent were the target of online sexual harassment. In contrast, only about 7 percent of men were stalked online and 13 percent were sexually harassed. Women and girls are also more likely than men to experience online harassment on a social networking site or app; in fact, gendered online harassment is at risk of becoming an established “norm,” according to one study.
Women and members of other marginalized groups face not only stalking and harassment, however, but also the public invasion of their privacy. There are plenty of websites that publish photographs of naked women (and even underage girls) that have been obtained without their consent. This nonconsensual publication of sexually graphic images is known as “revenge porn,” and many times, these publications even include women’s full names, email addresses, and other personal information. This abuse is downright malicious and can result in women feeling afraid to leave abusive relationships or even contemplating suicide. Some victims—like the founder of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative—have had to change their names and identities because of this abuse.
Young women are expected to (and do) live their lives on social media platforms, but must do so despite the knowledge that every comment they read, every message they receive, and every person they meet can potentially lead to public embarrassment, shame, false accusations, threats, criticism, and/or serious harm. It’s this reality that highlights why Ashley Judd’s recent TED Talk, “How Online Abuse of Women Has Spiraled Out of Control,” is so important. Judd, who is the co-chair of the Women’s Media Center (WMC) Speech Project—a project that aims to raise public and media awareness of online abuse—addressed gender violence so effectively and powerfully in her speech. “Girls' and women's voices … are constrained in ways that are personally, economically, professionally and politically damaging,” she said. “And when we curb abuse, we will expand freedom.”
Although progress on this front has been slow, there are signs of hope. Recently, for example, Twitter announced a push to tackle abuse and threats made on the channel. Last year, Facebook launched a tool called “Suicide Prevention,” which offers support and resources to users who are at risk of suicide. In addition, the WMC Speech Project has an immediate help and online abuse guide to assist victims and provide crisis support.
A growing number of activists and lawmakers are also attempting to criminalize online harassment. Thirteen states have passed laws that criminalize nonconsensual porn, bills have been introduced in 16 other states, and Representative Jackie Speier is working on a federal one—the Intimate Privacy Protection Act (IPAA), which can result in up to five years of prison and fines. As far as sexual comments, death threats, stalking, and hate speech goes, however, much activism and awareness is still needed in drawing a clear line between free speech and online abuse.
As Judd put it, “We must as individuals disrupt gender violence as it is happening.”
More articles by Category: Feminism, Media, Misogyny, Online harassment, Science and tech
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexism, Social media, Pornography, Film