The Bigger Problem Online Harassment Indicates

Two weeks ago, my friend Izzy accepted a Facebook friend request from a mutual friend of a friend. Let’s call him "Chris." She thought nothing of it until she read the comments his friends left on the post announcing their “friendship.” They were the kind of sexist slurs that regard women as pieces of meat: every comment tore her body to shreds. I had never before seen someone make comments like these directly to someone I care about and was enraged.

Izzy and I called this person out on his behavior in a Facebook post that went on to describe just how widespread sexual harassment is. But the sexist comments still flowed. It was "just a bit of banter," these commenters said, adding that they  wouldn't expect us "to be so petty as to get upset."

“For someone to be so affected by silly banter shows the world must revolve around them,” commented one male friend of Izzy's. “It’s just words, there’s more important things going on in the world to get offended over.”

We're just sensitive, they added, and don't we know how lucky we are. How self entitled of Izzy to complain.

Chris’s response to this exchange? Hey, there’s no use arguing because, well, our little, fragile, female minds can’t handle anyone’s opinions (presumably, the correct opinions). We can only see what directly affects us and can’t take a joke. And plenty of other people backed him up. As one commenter put it, “There's no use arguing with a bunch of feminists who can’t grasp more than the female side of the story.”

When I was younger, I tried to pretend sexism didn’t exist — or at least I was convinced it wasn’t part of my world. I thought sexism was big: lawsuits, assaults, rape. It never occurred to me that sexism can be found in relatively small, everyday acts. How something as mundane as walking down the street in a skirt can provoke catcalls and personal bubble-bursting wolf whistles. Or that something as unremarkable as accepting a friend request can result in being sexually harassed on a public platform. Until college, I didn’t really see the need to put a label on my feminist beliefs. Everyone’s a feminist, right? I figured. Everyone wants equality.

Then, gradually, my rose-tinted vision of the world began to fade. Not just because of the Chrises on social media, but because of the everyday sexism that incident made me realize I had been unconsciously accepting for years. I see it in the press office email in my inbox that I sift through as I make our student newspaper, the email that starts with “a spokesman said,” when I know for a fact the person they’re referring to is a woman. Sexism is evident in the comments left online about women’s bodies like “oh, she doesn’t need all that hanging out” while we wordlessly scroll past countless photos of topless men.

There’s only one guy in my feminist studies class. Students’ hands go up in the air so often in this class, it’s like a constant wave, like we're all cheering each other on.  When we know the answers, we revel in the satisfaction of being right. We love to have discussions during which we challenge each other's ideas.

Flash forward to the next day: same women, different lecture. We all know the answers yet only a fraction of us raise our hands. The guys in the room behave how we did yesterday: confident, outspoken.

It’s not necessarily their fault. Not every guy is a Chris, but there’s still undeniably inherent sexism in our society, in our institutions, in our phrases, in our practices. People find it easier, I think, to classify feminists as “nasty women,” as people who think the world revolves around them. As angry, unhinged, bra-burning people. Because then they don’t have to face up to the troubling reality of how normalized sexism has become. If we’re radicals, the implicit connotation is that we’re hysterical, because the norm (sexism) can’t possible be wrong: It’s the norm, after all.

But now that I’ve seen this sexism for what it is, I can’t un-see it. There are days where I wish I could, times when I don’t want to be the girl crying “sexist” because I don’t want to be seen as difficult, as angry.  Even while writing this post, I’ve been subconsciously (and not so subconsciously) are of how I’m coming across.

The Chrises of the world might not realize it, but their comments hurt — individuals and all of us on a much a deeper level. Izzy was not “weak” for being upset by those comments. She’s powerful for being strong enough to publicly call the offenders out on them.

I’d rather be seen as weak, as a feminist who can only grasp one side of the story, than let that story continue to be damagingly written for me.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Girls, Misogyny, Online harassment, Science and tech, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexism, Title IX, High school, Social media, Sexual harassment, Discrimination



Susannah Keogh
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