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 firstname.lastname@example.org.