Not long ago, I had a conversation with my father about how literally every woman I know with an active presence online – whether it was as a journalist, as a gamer, or as someone active in a forum – had experienced violent and/or sexual threats. This news often shocks men, as it shocked my father, because they don’t experience the same issues online. Yet harassment is a daily experience for women online, especially for those who are outspoken about feminism. Journalist Amanda Hess has chronicled not only harassment she’s experienced, but the statistics behind harassment that prove, truly, that women are harassed online far more than men.
Hess points to the following depressing data:
We are more likely to report being stalked and harassed on the Internet—of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organizationWorking to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female. Sometimes, the abuse can get physical: A Pew survey reported that five percent of women who used the Internet said “something happened online” that led them into “physical danger.” And it starts young: Teenage girls are significantly more likely to be cyberbullied than boys. Just appearing as a woman online, it seems, can be enough to inspire abuse. In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.
Less than four explicit or threatening messages per day compared with 100! It boggles the mind. Hess’s whole piece is worth a read, although it won’t leave you with any warm, fuzzy feelings and trigger warnings are firmly in place. While women are often told that harassment online is a bunch of empty threats, our gender already spends too much time worrying about how to protect ourselves from assault (sexual or otherwise), so it’s hard to take any of it as “empty.” Adding to the difficulty is that many police officers don’t even understand the platforms on which harassment is occurring:
Two hours later, a Palm Springs police officer lumbered up the steps to my hotel room, paused on the outdoor threshold, and began questioning me in a steady clip. I wheeled through the relevant background information: I am a journalist; I live in Los Angeles; sometimes, people don’t like what I write about women, relationships, or sexuality; this was not the first time that someone had responded to my work by threatening to rape and kill me. The cop anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, “What is Twitter?”
For women who spend a great deal of time online and need to report harassment, having to work with officers that don’t understand the issues or belittle the danger of the threats just makes things worse. It also doesn’t help women feel like they can report harassment because, after all, many people they’d turn to wouldn’t take it seriously. And when you do spend a lot of time online, especially for work, it’s very hard to unplug and walk away. As Hess says, “Abusers tend to operate anonymously, or under pseudonyms. But the women they target often write on professional platforms, under their given names, and in the context of their real lives. Victims don’t have the luxury of separating themselves from the crime.” When you’re harassed in a context where you’re using your real name, you know exactly how easy it is for your harassers to google your name, find your address, learn about your family, and if they want to, take a threat and turn it into something real. Meanwhile, the harassers are operating anonymously so they can continue with their daily lives with no one who actually knows them any wiser to their behavior online. It’s a sad situation and we are far from a solution, but maybe we’re on the way to at least having this issue taken seriously beyond the people who are harassed and their allies. After all, a man in Toronto is facing jail time after being charged with criminal harassment for messages he sent to women via Twitter. We can only hope this is part one of a change in how people treat those who harass online.