Women: Welcome to the Internet

Kim Saberton contemplates how online harassment reinforces ideas of gendered space.

Recently there has been story after story focusing on the online hacking and harassment of high profile females, from stolen and leaked nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence to the obsessive cyber stalking and sexual harassment of Sophie Monk. The most recent in this spate of online attacks – which turned out to be a hoax – was a threat expressed toward Emma Watson after she gave an inspiring speech to the UN calling for support in the establishment of the He for She campaign. What caught my attention when I heard about the threat of an online campaign to besmear Emma Watson by releasing nude images of her, was the fact the threat felt so VERY believable and perfectly plausible.

Not just because she is a celebrity.

Not just because she openly identifies as a feminist.

Because she is a woman.

It has perplexed me to think that the beauty of the Internet (as perhaps the most democratising form of media to exist since the printing press) can be such a threatening, violent and negative space. Then I began to look a little harder and realised that the Internet is like watching society after drinking three double shot lattes – gender performativity and stereotyping is really just part of the daily grind, and those partaking in misogynistic hate campaigns are terrifyingly also part of the every day.

So before we go any further – let’s talk some numbers that Amanda Hess uncovered, just to get an idea of how “every day” we are talking.

  • Within a report released by the Pew Research centre in 2005 it was noted that men and women have accessed the Internet in equal numbers since 2000.
  • The Working to Halt Online Abuse Organisation reported that between 2000-2012, 72.5 per cent of the reports they received for online harassment were from females.
  • In 2006 The University of Maryland created fake online accounts within chat rooms to measure gender related interactions. They found that accounts with feminine usernames received on average 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day, while masculine names received 3.7.

The most obvious explanation for this phenomenon? The Internet is a playground. For men.

And it has been built that way.

From the inside and the outside.

And I don’t mean that to sound as negative as it does. Sometimes these things happen without particular targeted or malicious intent involved, but instead grow as a consequence of a broader series of social systems. The industry we know generally as the online and computing industry is male-dominated. Hess pulls some impressively depressing figures for the U.S. state of employment.

  • In 2010 CB Insights found that 92 per cent of the founders of small-scale Internet companies were male. 86 per cent of their founding teams were EXCLUSIVELY male.
  • In 2012 within the U.S, women made up only 22.5 per cent of American computer programmers, and 19.7 per cent of software developers.
  • In a 2012 study of 400 California companies, researchers at the University of California-Davis found that just 7 per cent of the highest-paid executives at Silicon Valley companies were women.

This is not to say that women are being harassed on the Internet because mainly men are employed in Internet and software based companies. I’m talking broader here.

Remember walking around Big W as a kid and seeing the pink aisle and that disgustingly boring looking boy aisle? There definitely weren’t many toy kitchens, plastic jewelled high heels and dolls dressed as fashionistas and nurses in THAT aisle, but I am very sure there were many toy robots, mechanically minded cars, pretend laptops and futuristically designed tech savvy action figures. And what about that time you decided it was probably time to stop playing your Gameboy because you’d started high school and suddenly had a vested interest in making sure you had the correct amount of obsessive interest in that latest clothing or hair trend? Remember that time you were mid-high school and it was time to pick electives? What was the gender split like between the Visual Art, Drama or Hospitality classes and say the Computing, I.T. and Intro to Software Design classes?

You can see the picture I’m painting here.

Put simply, technology has been socially defined as a masculine pursuit due to an underlying trend in which male thinking is aligned with the Sciences and female thinking with Humanities.

It’s at this point that you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, okay… But today we all walk around with the Internet in our pocket, so surely female access to technology is completely equal to male access,” right?

We often forget that it was only the mid-nineties when the Internet became accessible to the general public – a measly decade ago. Bruce Bimber from the University of California conducted a study in the year 2000 which traced the socioeconomic and gender related gaps between access and use of the Internet, finding the primary difference between men and women accessing the Internet appeared to be gender related and less about money as technology became more affordable. With the Internet as readily available today as it is, why is it then these female hate campaigns are being waged?

One answer to this question may lie in the story behind now-Internet sensation Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian, an avid gaming community enthusiast, came under intense fire from an online community after creating her website Feminist Frequency and starting a Kickstarter campaign. The catch? Her Kickstarter campaign was looking to fund an education program about the negative and disempowered images and tropes of female characters within the gaming industry. It seems like a pretty simple and noble idea, right? Not to the male dominated gaming world. Sarkeesian became the victim of a tremendous online hate campaign that included spreading photoshopped pornographic images of her, attempts at hacking into her social media profiles and even the creation of an online game in which players could punch her in the face with gruesome effects.

Saarkesian’s complete bashing was such a large scale and coordinated mob affair, this type of abuse actually coined the term ‘Anita’s Law’ – that is, the law that whenever an online discussion about sexism and misogyny takes place, it will be met with exaggerated displays of sexism and misogyny. And, more often than not, a targeted harassment and hate campaign. The most recent large-scale attack of this dimension was waged against another female of the gaming community, Zoe Quinn, whose story seems to prove that you don’t necessarily need to be engaging in feminist actions online to be a target – you simply need to dump your boyfriend. He’ll do the rest for you by releasing an online manifesto and gathering an online mob to attempt to completely shatter both your professional and personal life. Heck, they might even call your father and scream, “Your daughter is a slut” down the phone at him.

What’s saddest is that this is not some new occurrence, but one that is perhaps becoming exacerbated with the rise of social media. In her article Why women aren’t welcome on the Internet, journalist Amanda Hess traces not only her own story of a cyberstalker who has been tracking her for years, but also the hopelessness she felt when faced with rape and death threats on her Twitter account. Other accounts she details include comments between a group of men who left disturbingly graphic remarks on a web page with an image of Hess and another prominent feminist writer. (“Put ‘em both in a gimp mask and tied to each other 69 so the bitches can’t talk or move and go round the world, any old port in a storm, any old hole,” one decided.)
What is equally scary is that more often than not these attacks take on a violent and sexual nature.

And it’s here we come back to the Internet having existed once as a male playground.

The commonly quoted stat regarding the abundance of pornography on the Internet is 37 per cent – a stat we cannot really rely upon anymore as data is now constantly uploaded 24/7 from all around the world on mobile devices. What we do know is there is a lot (a simple Google search of the word “porn” will bring up pages upon pages of options). What is pertinent though is that the overwhelming presence of porn on the web, particularly when we consider the gender divide in online use and access as early as the 90s, demonstrates that pornographic images of women have, for a long time, been THE online images of women. And this of course has consequences for what Internet users come to expect of sex and gendered roles, which are more often than not objectifying, violent and abusive.

In their discussion of feminist perspectives surrounding the porn industry, Gail Dine and Sharon Smith reveal some frightening statistics regarding violence in pornography:
“One of the only studies of contemporary pornographic content found that the majority of scenes from fifty of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers. Physical aggression – including spanking, open-hand slapping and gagging – occurred in over 88 per cent of scenes, while expressions of verbal aggression – calling the woman names such as ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’ – were found in 48 per cent. The researchers concluded that ‘if we combine both physical and verbal aggression, our findings indicate that nearly 90 per cent of scenes contained at least one aggressive act, with an average of nearly twelve acts of aggression per scene.’”

When we consider that the Internet now plays a huge role in daily life, particularly to students and teens, is porn as sex-ed really such a great thing, and could it explain some of the psychology behind these misogynistic hate campaigns? Is Anita’s Law a consequence of disrupting the existing technological safe zone in which (some) men can freely fantasise outside the codes of social decency in the real world? Do women actually have to identify as feminist or look to be setting out to destabilise the “SUCKMEBITCH.COM” club, or is simply being a woman and owning a smartphone enough to warrant the harassment?

These questions definitely linger on my mind as I recall being all of 14 when I received an email containing a death threat. No less, from a boy who I later found out had a crush on me.

(That’s a perfectly logical adolescent dating ritual right? Right?)

But this really isn’t an issue just for girls. Not just the ladies.

This too is an issue for men and boys.

Because a culture of normalised harassment can only exist so long as it remains normalised.

As Emma Watson has so aptly pointed out in her UN speech – gender equality is an issue for all genders. Please support the He for She campaign at  http://www.heforshe.org.

Image: Doormat II by Mona Hatoum