The following is an excerpt from Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online (Potomac Books, 2016) by Bailey Poland. Poland is a writer, feminist, and activist, as well as the creator of the literary journal Leaves and Flowers; she is a regular contributor to numerous print and online journals, including Line Zero.
From Chapter 4: The Burden of Cybersexism
Each day when I wake up and get online, I have a routine. Read the news, check my email, glance at Facebook, read my Twitter mentions, review the readership of my latest articles or check my blog stats—all pretty normal stuff for anyone who spends time online. I check my blog and article comments, just in case something has gotten caught in the spam filters; sometimes, I find some harassment. Then I look up the accounts that have sent me rape threats recently: are their profiles still active? Has my report been received and reviewed? After that I scroll through the tweets and Facebook posts and blogs of the people and groups who are dedicated to stalking and harassing women online, including groups that stalk a few of my online friends and occasionally me; sometimes there’s advance warning if they’re planning on ramping things up. Once in a while I’ll let friends know that they’ve appeared on certain websites used to coordinate harassment, or they’ll let me know if I have. I spend some time preemptively blocking Twitter and Facebook accounts that are engaging in cybersexist harassment in public forums, a practice that continues throughout the day. All of this, too, is normal—for women online.
Not every woman deals with cybersexist harassment but enough do to make my personal routines part of the norm, and it’s a norm that is shaped by the awareness and expectation of being on the receiving end of gender- based abuse. And while not every woman receives cybersexist harassment, there are many women whose daily activities involve dealing with significantly more abuse than what I see in a month. For them, too, it is routine: wake up, get online, begin dealing with cybersexism.
Th is routine might sound depressing; it is. It’s also annoying, and occasionally scary, and it puts an additional burden on women’s online presence that men just don’t experience. The effort of dealing with cybersexist abuse takes time away from women’s hobbies, positive interactions both personal and professional with other people, and is a contributing factor in making women feel that the Internet is not a welcoming space for their presence. Cybersexist abuse goes beyond just sending a nasty comment to a woman online. It also encompasses all of the extra work placed on women as a result of those comments. The emotional and psychological labor of reading online abuse and deciding how to deal with it—How many people will I have to block today? Should I shut down comments on my blog? Is this threat serious enough to report?—is exhausting, and it sometimes leaves women with little energy for other online activities. In many ways that’s the true purpose of cybersexist abuse: to wear down individual women so that they give up and leave the space to the men.
Many people still refuse to believe that cybersexism is a serious issue. Despite the many studies that “have demonstrated that gender roles remain in effect online, prescribing the rules of acceptable behavior, [and] allowing for the harassment of women,” it is entirely too common for women to be told that we’re taking the Internet too seriously—that cybersexism is only a burden because we burden ourselves with it and that we receive harassment because we did something that invited it.58 Of course, women are told the same things offline when the conversation turns to talk about street harassment, interpersonal violence, and sexual assault. It’s much easier to downplay the harassment and abuse aimed at women as an issue of how women are behaving or responding and to put the onus of dealing with the issues on women instead of examining the social structures offline that have been imported to the Internet and that allow cybersexist behavior to flourish.
In an article on online comments about domestic violence, researchers have written, “Not surprisingly in a culture of violence, the man as the abuser is rather absent from users’ statements: the process of blaming the victim is obsessively focused on her behaviour, her fault, her decision to stay.”59 The same attitude is often extrapolated to women who discuss times when they experience online abuse; even though the true problem is the abuse itself, the focus shifts to what women did to “deserve” it, why they didn’t just leave, and other equally useless victim-blaming comments. Not only do these types of arguments avoid dealing with the source of online harassment and abuse (the abusers), they also make women responsible for bearing the additional emotional burden of being blamed for the abuse they experienced. When it comes to cybersexist harassment, women are often told that it’s their labor that must be employed to deal with the abuse: not only must women read and deal with the initial comments, but they are also told they are responsible for the fallout and must either find ways to protect themselves or stop talking about it.
Women are thus forced into a reactive stance where cybersexist abuse is concerned. There are few structures in place that exist to prevent cybersexism from occurring and little support for the women who are targeted. When women do speak up about the abuse they receive, their experience is often trivialized, and women are blamed for making up a problem where none exists. “Commentators dismiss [online abuse] as harmless locker-room talk, characterizing perpetrators as juvenile pranksters and targeted individuals as overly sensitive complainers,” Citron notes.60 Women, therefore, have to take on the burden of receiving the abuse, deciding how to deal with it, seeking solutions, and engaging in self- defense— all while also facing demands to prove the abuse exists in the first place and being told that they’re overreacting. Many women with significant online platforms deal with threats on a daily or near- daily basis; most women online receive at least some cybersexist harassment regularly. Each time harassment occurs, this cycle repeats itself.
The extra work that individual women must do in order to make being on the web possible and sustainable is a burden that results from the actions of cybersexist harassers, but that burden is increased by the reactions to women’s stories. The excuses made for cybersexist harassers (as discussed in chapter 3), the victim-blaming, and the silence of men who don’t participate in cybersexist abuse all enable its presence and its continuing effects. On top of the personal, professional, and psychological effects of cybersexism alone, dealing with the backlash can be exhausting. It’s no wonder that so many women feel the need to temporarily disconnect from Internet life, even with the cost of doing so, and that so many women regard the Internet as hostile.
The prevalence of cybersexism is not wholly disheartening, however. Many of the positive things people say about the Internet happen to be true—it is a space where the rules aren’t yet set in stone, and it has the potential to become a more level playing field than its current, unequal state. The same factors that enable online abuse to persist can be used to combat it, and the fluctuating, constantly changing culture of the Internet means that we don’t have to accept cybersexism as an inevitable part of online life.
- Ritter, “Deviant Behavior in Computer-Mediated Communication,” 199.
- Stoleru and Costecu, “(Re)Producing Violence against Women in Online Spaces,” 108 (original emphasis).
- Citron, “Law’s Expressive Value in Combating Cyber Gender Harassment,” 375.