Monday, April 30, 2007

Online sexual harassment and threats covered by Washington Post

About a month ago, Salon had a good piece about how women are treated online, which I covered here.

Now, the Washington Post also covers the subject.

Sexual Threats Stifle Some Female Bloggers

A female freelance writer who blogged about the pornography industry was threatened with rape. A single mother who blogged about "the daily ins and outs of being a mom" was threatened by a cyber-stalker who claimed that she beat her son and that he had her under surveillance. Kathy Sierra, who won a large following by blogging about designing software that makes people happy, became a target of anonymous online attacks that included photos of her with a noose around her neck and a muzzle over her mouth.

As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats. Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms -- a trend that was first evident in chat rooms in the early 1990s and is now moving to the blogosphere, experts and bloggers said.

For those of us who have participated online for years, the online stalking, harrassment, and direct and indirect threats towards women have been obvious. Unfortunately it has been hard to back these claims up except with annecdotes - a type of evidence which can only be used to a negative to an absolute ("there are no female scientists" can be dismissed by "I know several"), but it can't be used as postive evidence for absolute claims ("there are no female scientists" cannot be proven by "I don't know anyone"). Fortunately there have been some studies into the subject, and as the Washington Post article makes clear, they are conclusive.

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."

Many Americans mistake my first name to be a female first name, so I have had a couple of episodes where I have been mistaken for a woman when debating online. While I have never experienced the kind of behaviour described in the article, I have exprienced a shift in behaviour when the other side of the debate realized I was a man.
The most extreme example of this, was in the comments to the Eight Skeptic's Circle, where some Men's Rights Activists showed up to debate (and got soundly beaten - don't try to bluff your way out of citing sources when debating science geeks). One of them addressed some points I'd made, but never addressed me by name - until the moment when he found out that I was male, at which point he started addressing me by name. Weird, and profoundly telling about how he, and many other people on the internet, consider women beneath notice. And this kind of behaviour is certainly less bad than the type of behaviour the article describes.

So how do we stop such behaviour? There have been some suggestions out there, including a code of conduct for bloggers, which has won little approval. I don't think that such measures will make a difference on the whole, but they can help creating safe spaces for women on the internet [as an aside, I should perhaps mention that I would expect that it would go without saying that any comments with the kind of content described in the article would lead to the comment being deleted and the commenter IP-banned (at the very least)].
Until there is a fundamental change in how society, and men especially, view women, there will be no way to stop these things from happening. We can help out by speaking out against it when we experience/see it, and support those being targeted, but until the fundamental changes happens, there will continue to be articles like this.

This is why feminism is still important. Or rather, this is yet another reason why feminism is still important.

Note: The picture is one I took on the streets of Copenhagen. I aim to include it in any post with a subject relevant to feminism.

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Blogger Trinifar said...

Glad to see posts about this article (and the topic in general). When I looked at the on-line Post this morning and saw this on the front page I was thrilled. In addition to bloggers taking responsibility for the kind and tone of the comments on their blogs, raising awareness is a good thing.

I edited out a horrific description of a violent act from a comment on my blog last week even though I know the commentor and was certain he didn't intend it to be taken literally. But since it's my blog I don't want anything on it to feed the minds of disturbed readers in that way.

May 01, 2007 2:51 AM  
Blogger Kaethe said...

I don't have nay faith in the Code of Conduct idea. Harrassment is ubiquitous, not just online. I know of only two things that might help. First, for bystanders to call harrassers on their abusive behavior. Kos's response was a letdown, while yours is encouraging. Second, is perhaps a Holla Back NY approach. A blog of offensive trolls, not republishing their hateful comments, just a summary of the offenses committed, along with the alias used, and any other identifying information available from SiteMeter or whatever.

May 01, 2007 5:43 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Your immediate sexist dismissal of female harassment of men is offensive as well as being the antithesis of "science." Females who whine that the attacks on them are "worse" than female attacks on men such as "" has conducted and continuing to conduct are just more offensive bigotry. Likewise, the citation of obviously prejudiced "studies" shows the prejudce rather than science of this topic.

March 28, 2008 8:43 PM  

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