Over the past few months, much ado has been made about the harassment of female bloggers, and the online harassment of women in general. The Kathy Sierra incident — wherein a female technology blogger was threatened so badly that she canceled speaking engagements and was afraid to leave her house — was the final straw for a lot of women, and more of us are speaking out about the harassment, threats and intimidation tactics that are leveled at us on a daily basis. Even The Washington Post is covering it.
It’s no secret that women face sexualized threats online. Female bloggers who speak with other female bloggers know that we all get it — and research backs us up:
A 2006 University of Maryland study on chat rooms found that female participants received 25 times as many sexually explicit and malicious messages as males. A 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005, entirely because of the exodus of women. The study attributed the trend to “sensitivity to worrisome behavior in chat rooms.”
Women are harassed in a particular way — it’s about what you look like, and what’s between your legs. Feminist bloggers in particular seem to garner attention for their physical appearance. Either we’re too ugly to get a man and so we turn to feminism (and cats), or we’re too pretty to be taken seriously. Often it’s some combination of both.
And then there are the rape comments. On one website where commenters are routinely racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic — and where I’m not particularly popular — there are threads and comments with titles like “Official Jill Filipovic RAPE thread,” “I want to brutally rape that Jill slut,” and “I’m 98% sure that she should be raped.”
I don’t know a single feminist blogger who hasn’t had similar comments made about her.
As the WaPo article points out, this kind of harassment has driven many women out of chat rooms and off of blogs. It’s encouraged others to blog under gender-neutral or male pseudonyms. Conservative female bloggers like Michelle Malkin and even progressive male bloggers like Markos Mousilitas (Daily Kos) have basically told women to get thicker skin and expect these kinds of comments if we go online.
The news media is covering this issue as if it’s a new story. It isn’t. It’s been the narrative for hundreds of years.
The original “public woman” was the prostitute. Men have traditionally occupied the public space (including the political), while women were relegated to the domestic — or at least, certain kinds of women were relegated to the domestic. Cloistering women away or at least keeping them tied to domestic duties has long been a sign of socioeconomic class, from ancient Greece through Victorian England through the 1950s and The Feminine Mystique. “Other” women — poor women, women of color — worked outside the home. The lowest class of women were the publicly available ones. And public availability was tied to sexual availability.
This mentality thrives anywhere and anytime women transgress traditional roles and enter into the public discourse — and especially when they want to play with the boys. Second-wave feminists were routinely sexualized or deemed to ugly to be taken seriously, whether the topic of conversation was Gloria Steinem’s miniskirt and Kate Millet’s breasts, or Andrea Dworkin’s overalls and Kate Millet’s face on the cover of Time Magazine. The Riot Grrls of the 1990s tried to give girls a place in the mosh pit and owned sexual slurs by scrawling words like SLUT across their stomachs — and were still met with calls to “take it off!” during their shows. And do I even need to mention the treatment of female politicians (see: Hillary Clinton)?
Street harassment is still a major issue for women. It isn’t unusual for a man to feel he has the right to comment on your body, your clothes or your demeanor (“Smile, honey!”) when you’re female and doing little more than walking down the street. The message is that you have less of a right to that space than he does — his presence in public is assumed to be right and natural, whereas yours is a privilege and something that he can take ownership of or exert power over.
Harassment of female bloggers, then — and sexualized insults and threats in particular — is not new, and it’s not surprising. Short of obliterating patriarchal social norms, there isn’t much we can do to completely end it.
But there’s a lot we can do to control it — and the answer isn’t just to “get thicker skin.”
First, blogs can moderate comments. I’m not a fan of universal moderation pledges or censorship, but a responsible moderation policy will at least come down on users who level threats at others. Rape threats aren’t protected speech any more than yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is, so this isn’t a First Amendment issue (and besides, bloggers aren’t the government, and we can control our sites as we see fit). Second, feminist and progressive bloggers should watch out for each other — if someone makes a threatening comment on my site about another blogger, I have no qualms about sending her that person’s IP address. Outing anonymous bloggers or commenters because you disagree with them is completely out of line and unacceptable; outing people who make threats is a pretty good way to make others think twice before posting similar comments. And if the threats come over email, all the better — post the harasser’s email address. Sort of like Holla Back, but in internet-land. Finally, name it. Point out harassment when it happens. The reaction to the Kathy Sierra story has been so strong in part because so many women had experienced similar things and had simply chosen to quietly leave, or just ignore it. Ignoring it doesn’t work — or at least, it hasn’t worked for me. The website that has allowed commenters to post sexual-assault-related comments about me has somewhere around 100 threads where my name comes up, and they’ve been commenting, posting pictures, and filing “Jill sightings” for more than a year and a half. I don’t comment on their site and I’ve avoided writing about them, but they aren’t going away. The more we talk about it, the more we emphasize the fact that this is common, that we aren’t doing anything to incite it, that it is gendered and that it is unacceptable — and the more we can share strategies for how to stop it.
It’s high time women were able to be publicly present without being considered publicly consumable. Blogs have been at the forefront of progressive activism, bringing together people of all backgrounds and locations to discuss issues of interest, take action, or simply share stories. Now, we should be at the forefront of taking a collective stand against harassment and in support of the “public woman.”
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