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Two responses to victims of online abuse that should stop

As study after study shows, women receive an enormous amount of abuse for any online activity: whether as journalists, sex writers, performers. Just being a woman (online) is sufficient to receiving unwanted attention, threats and abuse. 

Of course this follows from the fact that women in general are targets of everyday sexism: street harassment, their representation in popular media, a culture of rape and victim-blaming, and so on.

Naturally, women respond to such abuse in different ways: from courageously broadcasting the abuse to rightfully ignoring, and everything in-between. When women do respond publicly, there tend to be people (mostly, it seems, men) who are quick to tell women how they should – or that the women are responding incorrectly. 

I want to highlight, and hopefully debunk, two popular responses victims, particularly women, receive when they speak out about harassment.

1. “Just ignore them!”

Women are often told to ignore the chaotic mess of bad spelling, capital letters and unrelenting fury that gets Tweeted, posted, or written at them. If for no reason than to protect the English language, it might be advisable of course. 

However, consider being bombarded daily with messages like ‘you need to get f***** until you die’, and another person adds ‘Could I help with that’ – or any listed by Caroline Criado-Perez in this speech; or you’re told by a man with his full face and name: “if you guys ever gain ground, we will take that ground back with guns. I will make sure there are roving squads in every community going from house to house looking for feminists to kill.”

And so on. 

These might be idle threats and naturally the proportion of those who follow through isn’t 100%. 

Yet, we who read this don’t get to dictate how the recipient should feel. Ideally, if I received such messages, I’d like to ignore or shrug it off so I could get on with my life; similarly, I’d like my friends and everyone to be able to do the same, so that the trolls aren’t winning, aren’t obstructing living and we can all operate normally. 

But we need to consider such abuse the same way we do car crashes: an ever-present danger that shouldn’t stop normal use, which we take precautions against, but which will happen much to our disapproval or opposition. Some people walk away unscathed, some don’t, but those unscathed don’t dictate that others must feel the same. 

First, as always, we must recognise that things aren’t equal in the world, between men and women, between different women and between different men. Some are stronger than others, some might have experienced or be experiencing a recent trauma, and so on. 

Women are treated and regarded as secondary people in numerous ways – both small and large, as I noted above regarding everyday sexism. That attitude bleeds into everything we use and partake in, including online life.

Second, the Internet isn’t some magical place existing “out there”. For myself and many others, it’s where we make our lives and careers. As Jill Filipovic says:

“Imagine going to work and every few days having people in the hallway walk up to you and say things like, “Die, you dumb cunt” and “you deserve to be raped” and, if you’re a woman of color, adding in the n-word and other racial slurs for good measure.

Consider how that would impact your performance and your sense of safety. But you still love your job and your co-workers. That’s how the Internet feels for many of us.”

Yet, women are expected to ignore or shut off or walk away. The Internet isn’t just for Farmville; it’s not some toy. Nor are various social media outlets or programs. Indeed, why should the trolls dominate these areas when it is the trolls who are wrong?

Third, the quality and quantity of this abuse isn’t equal to what men in general receive. Indeed, even if it was equal, that’s entirely irrelevant to what constitutes a proper response. Telling women “I received it too and ignored it” or “Men get it, too” is description: it’s not a justification for any action.

Again, consider the car crash: Would you tell someone to just walk it off, even if you managed to? Or do we take it on a case-by-case basis, sympathise with the victim, and consider how to avoid or reduce it? (Or perhaps a proper analogy might be being a victim in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.) 

People don’t get moral immunity in how they respond, though: for example, a person murdering another for a racist Tweet isn’t justified because the victim was a racist bully.

Similarly, just because someone is a victim of sexist abuse or thinks something is sexist doesn’t give her moral immunity in how she responds (for example, I think Adria Richards public shaming of two men she found offensive was wrong). 

But this is a careful distinction, one bundled with telling women to be silent in general, that must be separated so we can do the best we can to create a safe environment. Yet, a proper response – which exists on a kind of policy level – is different to a person’s feelings of being targeted, hated and feeling violated.

We can argue for the former but we can’t really argue for the latter in many cases: “Stop feeling targeted!” doesn’t undermine feeling targeted.

Similarly, abuse isn’t merely virtual. Game developer Zoe Quinn received threatening calls because she made a video game; a guy pitched up outside Jill Filipovic’s residence from an anonymous forum. Such stories are numerous.

Just because a Tweet or message exists on the Internet doesn’t’ mean it doesn’t have an effect. Words are words: emotional abuse still constitutes abuse, with some people being led to fear, anxiety, if not suicide (though we know suicide is almost never caused as a result of only one area of a person’s life.).

It’s not clear why words are less just because they appear in digital, rather than auditory form. Deleting the words or the user doesn’t delete the impact the words or user can and does have.

We don’t get to tell people to walk it off, since we can’t dictate how people will take abuse. On an individual level, we should be encouraging support – whether that means women wish to show the abuse or ignore it.

If someone is reacting badly, we want her to be OK, of course – but telling her to ignore the abuse doesn’t eliminate the sense of fear and so on that exists because of the climate the internet perpetuates in a thousand different ways, that makes it – like much of the world – unwelcoming to women. 

Support for a woman’s actions in response to abuse is not the same kind of support she might need to feel safe. We can support and oppose in different ways, but we must make that clear.

So I can support all women in feeling safer, in opposing sexism, while being more careful in criticizing particular responses (shaming leading to the firing, as in Richard’s case, for example). There’s nuance to be had, but it should be anchored on solidarity not dismissal because “it’s just the internet”.

2. “If it’s actual abuse, report it to police, otherwise you’re overreacting!”

This is a false dichotomy. Of course there are cases that do warrant police investigation, including death and rape threats, but what about those aspects in-between?

Being rude to someone isn’t illegal, but it’s also not welcome. We don’t take someone to jail for being a nasty individual – there’s no crime for that. However, we have created a culture where being rude is largely unwelcome in normal social engagements.

We’ve also done that for things like racism: Look at the reactions to Justine Sacco‘s racist-sounding Tweet, from all sorts of people, everywhere (even if I disagreed with many of the responses). 

Similarly, as Amanda Hess points out, much of the police constitutes people who know nothing about Twitter and the online world.

They think it’s just a game or a minor distraction, as opposed to a place for networking, career-building and careers in general (that Sacco and others lose their jobs over what they do on social media is testament that the Internet isn’t Narnia, our monitors no wardrobe). 

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Even when, as Hess found out, you do go to the police, it’s no guarantee things can be done. 

Similarly, platforms that host such messages, Twitter, Facebook, are also not very good at dealing with such high levels of toxicity and are regarded as unhelpful to victims.

Powerless, victims – who are, we know, mostly women – must simply endure the abuse because it’s not “criminal” enough.

What’s criminal is women fearful of doing or pursuing their jobs or subjects or topics because of fearful, lecherous people; what’s criminal is the psychological and emotional erosion women experience everyday for the crime of being a woman and having no systems to help protect them because it’s not “technically a crime”. What’s criminal is entire industries, entire career paths are avoided lest women kick up a fuss or be noticed because there exist terrible people ready to mouth off, knowing Internet culture helps insulate them from reaction rather than provide safety and inclusion for women. 

We need to change the system; we can start with a bottom-up approach of not dismissing women because abuse or messages “aren’t technically criminal”; that women just need to ignore or use different social media platforms – this is a mindset that helps foster moral immunity for the trolls, not solidarity or safety for women.

It would then be up to smarter people to come up with different policies and top-down approaches in how to change their spaces – whether social media platforms, websites, career paths (like, notoriously, science), etc. – to make it safe for women.

(PS: Also, how stupid do people think victims are to be unaware of the force known as the police? It’s safe to say they’re quite aware of the police’s existence and function.) 

(Minor edits from an original, published at Women24)

Image Credit: Emin Ozkan / Shutterstock


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