Seventh Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics →

Sexism Online…and Offline

  • AuthorNoah Berlatsky
  • Published Saturday, October 27th, 2012
  • Comments3

In Pakistan, Internet cyber-bullying and harassment of women is both endemic and largely unreported.  In an article for IPS from 2010, reporter Zofeen Ebrahim recounts one horrific incident in which a 10th grader was drugged and gang raped. When her family reported the incident, the perpetrators posted a video of the assault on the Internet.  Ebrahim also described a case in which a woman’s co-workers Photoshopped her face onto a naked body, and posted the altered photo on the company’s website.  Humiliated, she resigned her job and her fiancée broke up with her.  Her life was effectively destroyed.

Again, this is Pakistan — a country infamous in the US for its misogyny and mistreatment of women. As such, it’s easy for us to see the online harassment these women experienced as continuous with, or emblematic of, their society.  To a Western oSEbserver, online misogyny in Pakistan just seems like an extension, rather than a break with, what we see as ugly cultural norms.

Of course, the mote in the foreigner’s eye is always easy to pick out.  Closer to home, things get a little fuzzier.  What exactly, after all, is the relationship between online harassment and offline sexism in our society? 

For example, take the recent incident which focused attention on the online aggregation site Reddit.  Reddit has become (in)famous for a number of violently misogynistic forums or topical boards called subreddits.  In one subreddit called “Jailbait,” contributors posted pictures of underage girls. In another called “Creepshot,” people posted pictures of women they had snapped surreptitiously on the street or in public. The moderator of these forums (and a contributor to Jailbait) was a Reddittor who called himself “Violentacrez”.  Violentacrez was notorious — and lionized — for his promotion and curation of controversial content.  Among the subreddits that Violentacrez created or moderated were  “Chokeabitch,” “Niggerjailbait” and “Misogyny.”

In mid-October, Gawker‘s Adrian Chen revealed that Violentacrez’ real-life identity was Michael Brutsch, an employee at a financial services company.  Brutsch was fired from his job at that company  almost immediately — an outcome that seems to suggest that online sexism is, in fact, not accepted in American society.  Sexualizing underage girls and glorifying street harassment may be provisionally acceptable on Reddit (though both Jailbait and Creepshot have since been banned).  But it’s not acceptable under any circumstances in the real world.  From this perspective, online sexism should be seen as online sexism.  It’s the digital world that’s the major problem, not the real one — which is why Violentacrez was defanged  as soon as he was revealed to be Michael Brutsch.

There’s some evidence to support this viewpoint, according to Alice E. Marwick, an assistant professor at Fordham University who does research in Internet studies and new media theory. In a phone interview, Marwick said that many researchers believe that there may be “something about the online environment which creates a sense of disinhibition.”  The term “disinhibition effect” was coined by psychologist John Suler, and suggests, that people are more likely to be angry, vulnerable or outrageous — or, in this context, sexist — than they would be offline.  In part, this may be because people have a sense of interiority or feel that the conversation is happening inside their own heads when they are looking at a screen, and so feel less socially restricted.  Marwick emphasized that the disinhibition effect is a hypothesis rather than a conclusion, but said that she finds it persuasive as an explanation for at least some of the virulently sexist speech found online.

Marwick, though, also suggested another hypothesis.   “There is a new type of acceptable misogyny,” she said, “… a cultural shift…that is coming from a variety of social and economic forces and is reinforced by a lot of popular culture.”  Marwick argued that there is some evidence that pornography for men has become more violent and more obsessed with humiliation and dominance in the past decade.  If this is the case, Violentacrez and Reddit could be seen not as a cultural aberration caused by the Web, but rather as a manifestation on the Web of a broader cultural move towards more egregious, self-conscious and even militant forms of misogyny.

It’s not clear to me that you really need to posit more egregious or militant forms, though.  Surely plain, old, trusty misogyny could account for Violentacrez without any particular cultural shifting needed.  Emma M. Wooley, for example, in a recent Tumblr post, described the constant harassment she experienced as a teen girl.

The violations started small. I was 12, fairly tall with brand new boobs. My mother wouldn’t let me buy “real bras” for a long time. It didn’t occur to me that was weird until boys in my class started advising me to “stop wearing sports bras” because I was looking a little “saggy.”

It was a boy who told me I had to start shaving my legs if I wanted anyone to ever like me. I said that wasn’t true. He laughed in my face and called me a dyke.

During our conversation, Marwick linked this essay to Reddit’s Jailbait and Creepshot subreddits, and pointed out that both forums are evidence of:

a larger belief that men should have access to women’s bodies, that women should look sexy, that they are sex objects, that men are entitled to their own sexual pleasure regardless of the woman involved.  These notions are a total dehumanization and complete objectification — the woman becomes nothing but an object; her feelings are completely irrelevant.  Unfortunately, that is an attitude that is somewhat prevalent…

 The recent death of bullied 15-year-old Canadian Amanda Todd seems to further buttress the argument that online harassment of women and girls is a continuation of offline harassment, rather than a sharp break with it.  Shortly before she committed suicide, Todd uploaded a video to YouTube where she related a painful story on written cards of her extended abuse and harassment.  When Todd was in the  7th grade, she flashed her breasts during an anonymous webchat.  The man on the other end took a picture and then used the image to systematically blackmail and torture her, demanding she strip for him. When she refused, he sent the image to Todd’s teachers, friends and acquaintances. Her real life schoolmates then took up the bullying, forcing her to switch schools — though the original harasser and the picture continued to follow her.

Todd’s first suicide attempt, however, followed an apparently unrelated incident in which a school rival organized virtually her entire class to physically attack her.  This, Marwick said, was consistent with her own research findings about the relative effect of online and offline bullying.  “Kids,” she said, “are generally more emotionally affected by things that happen face to face than by things that happen offline.”  Moreover, online and offline harassment, as with Todd, tend to be linked and continuous — and kids like Todd who are the most vulnerable online are also those who are most vulnerable offline.   The Internet can certainly facilitate bullying, and may affect its form, but it’s not the cause of harassment or misogyny in America or Canada anymore than it is in Pakistan.  On the contrary, sexism and bullying would exist whether there was an Internet or not — and, for that matter, continue to take their most virulent forms offline.

It seems clear, then, that any effort to confront misogyny and harassment online needs to think about and confront misogyny and harassment offline. Since misogyny is a cultural rather than a solely technological problem, solutions that seek to regulate technology alone are unlikely to be effective.  For example, bans on anonymity which target people like Violentacrez can also hurt women and other marginalized groups.  Laws against sexting can end up treating and prosecuting children as child pornographers. Even in cases where laws might be helpful — as in restricting Creepshot-like posting of photos without the subjects’ consent — enforcement remains difficult.

Ultimately, the best response to harassment online and offline remains those old feminist staples: education and consciousness-raising.  Communities, both online and off, need to determine to treat women as human beings, with all that that entails.  This is, in fact, what seems to have happened with Violentacrez. People at Reddit became disgusted with his actions. When Reddit refused to control or discipline him, community members revealed his name to the media.

It’s also worth noting that in a world without the Internet, Amanda Todd would quite possibly have died with only a small number of people knowing her story.  As it is, her video has been viewed millions of time, and has clearly raised awareness about the harassment and misogyny which teen girls face in our culture.  The Internet can facilitate sexism, but it can also give women, and especially girls, an unprecedented ability to share their experiences and tell their stories.  If the Internet is part of the world, then maybe it can change the world, and not just for the worse.

Noah Berlatsky is the editor of the comics and culture website The Hooded Utilitarian, and has written for Slate, the Atlantic, Splice Today, and the Chicago Reader, among other venues.  He is currently working on a book about the first Wonder Woman comics. You can contact him at

3 Responses to “Sexism Online…and Offline”

  1. Shazia Hasan says:

    I found this article informative and interesting. It effectively explains the causes of sexist online bullying, and provides possible solutions to help bring it to an end. This article discusses the likely reasons that online bullying can sometimes be easier than bullying in person. The disinhibition effect suggests that “people are more likely to be angry, vulnerable or outrageous–or, in this context, sexist–than they would be offline.” This could be in part because people feel as if they are talking to themselves when they are typing on a computer, and looking at a computer screen. Talking on the computer gives users a feeling of less social restriction. Marwick explains why bullying has become more prevalent in our society both online and offline. She believes that sexism and online bullying by men can be explained by a shift in cultural beliefs. She points out that there has been a “larger belief that men should have access to women’s bodies, that women should look sexy, that they are sex objects.” These notions contribute to the objectification of women. Towards the end of the article, Marwick makes the point that “sexism and bullying would exist whether there was Internet or not.” She believes that the Internet can facilitate bullying, but is not the cause of it. The article goes on to give advice on how to help end online and offline sexist bullying. Education and consciousness-raising are still the best methods to prevent sexist bullying. It is suggested, that communities need to determine women as human beings, with all that that entails. I agree with all of the points made in this article. I believe that our society is quick to value women as beautiful objects, instead of intelligent, powerful, emotional human beings. Online forums do provide an extra forum for sexist bullying, but they are not the cause of it. Sexist bullying would exist, with or without the Internet.

  2. Desiree says:

    I personally have not encountered this problem in my life, but in my high school, there was an instance of ‘sexting’ of a girl who was performing a sexual act on a guy. Both of them were fairly popular, so the video was circulated around the school very quickly. The girl was the one scrutinized and not the boy. This is when I realized that cyber bullying and in it happening in person were connected. The video went viral all around school and everyone knew who it was. I knew the girl, and she tried to deny and talk to people about it, but the bullying went from online to others attacking her. It also went online to Facebook, where it was the worst. The bullying was able to be carried over from person to internet. I thought of that when reading this article, because the girl was way more scrutinized than the guy. I also thought that the whole article was more positive, in showing what the problem is and what needs to be done about it. The fact that it recognizes that bullying on the internet is also more intense because of anonymity and because it is through a screen is also an interesting thing to me. I feel like cyber bullying didn’t become a big issue because it was not so accessible to younger kids who still bully. Now, the misogyny is something new that I had not heard too much about. I don’t feel that it is new, but I gave it another name, calling it a double standard. I felt like men always felt like they could do things women could not, like be promiscuous. If a man does it, it is ok and he is a player. If a women does it, she gets other labels, which are not in her character’s favor. I feel that misogynist views go even further in not just holding women more accountable for their actions, but turns into an outright mistreatment of women, which is not warranted. I also like how it all ties into how the bullying happens in person and through cyber bullying. It crosses boarders from one to the other, and because of that needs to be taken down from both angels. They are inter-connected. I like the article overall and what it talks about.

  3. Aleks Gornisiewicz says:

    Sexism offline seems to be a huge problem, but often people fail to recognize it and
    take steps to prevent it from happening. Of course, it is hard to separate
    sexism offline from sexism online because sexual harassment happens everywhere,
    the thing is that some people think that Internet give them more freedom and enables
    them to get away with that because it is easier to maintain anonymity. I don’t
    agree with the statement that online harassment should be looked at as an online
    problem only, and not the real one. This is how people from Reddit see it;
    however, I think that there are norms of ethical behavior that apply to both
    online activities and real ones. If someone is capable of harassing others online, it is very likely that such
    person is capable of doing that in a real world. Just because online forums are
    intangible, it doesn’t mean that harmful activities should be justified. The
    point about “disinhibition effect” is very interesting: it is true that the
    online environment provides tempting opportunities to act the way one normally
    would not have behaved; nevertheless, I think it is much more complex than
    that. As I said, if you follow certain norms and standards of behavior and have
    values, it does not matter what kind of situation you are in- you always try to
    follow them and stick to them. The example proving that can be found in this
    article- a suicide of this 15-year old girl and many others we do not even know
    of should be a wake-up to those who tend to ignore the importance of this
    problem. Both online harassment and offline sexism have to be looked at together, and
    this issue should be challenged. It is easy to find a satisfying answer, but it
    is not what it is all about. We should protect everyone, especially girls and
    women because they are the most vulnerable ones. Internet is a wonderful tool, and the author is
    right: sometimes Internet is the only way to get your message out there.
    However, it is a very dangerous tool for people who want to harm others;
    therefore we all should make sure that such behaviors are not accepted in our society,
    whether it is harassment online or offline.

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