Misogyny and the Internet

Published in the Council Bulletin (National Council of Jewish Women of Australia Ltd.), vol 91, September 2014/5775.

Two incidents in the last month have sparked a debate on online misogyny and sexism: the hacking and publishing of the nude photos of women celebrities and the intense online harassment of the feminist video-blogger Anita Sarkeesian after she posted a video highlighting the misogynistic nature of most online games. In fact, the rape and death threats sent to Sarkeesian on Twitter were so direct and targeted that she had move out of house for a while.

Together, they throw light on two different kinds of ways in which the Internet is used to harass women.

The first is to cause direct reputational damage to women such as slut-shaming, revenge porn, circulating rape videos for extortion or shaming and malicious impersonation. It is not just celebrities who are victimized this way. It is happening to ordinary women around the world, who have paid the cost by way of lost jobs, incomes and relationships.

The second is to threaten and intimidate women out of the public debate. Women journalists and bloggers are regularly threatened with rape and death threats on social media for being politically outspoken. The idea is to intimidate them into moving out of the public domain voluntarily.

What is common between the two kinds of harassments is the sexually explicit nature of it. As the author of a recent book “Hate Crimes in Cyber Space” Danielle Citron explained in an interview: “It is sexually demeaning, it’s sexually threatening, it reduces the victims to basically their sexual organs, and sends the message that all they’re there for is to be sexually abused, used and thrown away, that they offer nothing.”

Australia is not immune to this Internet culture. One of the most famous cases of slut shaming to emerge out of Australia was the Facebook Page set-up last year called “Sluts of Perth”: a public page set-up to humiliate women for fun or revenge. It was removed but only after the media reported on it. A back-up page has since reappeared, which despite being reported several times hasn’t been removed.

Also, being the prime minister did not stop anonymous trolls from savaging Julia Gillard’s Facebook page with sexist remarks of the worst kind.

For Jewish women, online misogyny represents a bigger problem. The community is small and closely connected, incidents circulate readily and there are few degrees of separation between friends and family. It can wreak havoc within their families, networks and community. As the culture is so much a part of Jewish life, leaving the community and establishing yourself elsewhere is not easy; for religious women with an even smaller network, this would be difficult indeed.

Is there anything that can be done?

Yes. The answer lies in first recognizing the problem for what it is – hate against women. It is not ok to use sexually intimidating, humiliating or threatening social media posts about women, either for fun, or to humiliate them, or to silence them. This is not about the freedom of expression of men, it is about women’s right to live a life free of intimidation and fear.

The Internet is the space where we conduct our social lives: we speak to our friends, we play games, we discuss and debate issues, we store our photos and life stories. Increasingly, it is getting integrated into our professional lives. Employers google their potential employees and scour through social media to check their backgrounds. Journalists, bloggers, academics, public personalities depend on the Internet to get their word out. Intimidation and violence against women should not be acceptable on the Internet anymore than it is allowed inside people’s homes, work places, universities and social spaces.

After Anita Sarkeesian was cybermobbed by gamers, an influential video gaming designer Andreas Zecher wrote an open letter requesting gamers to respect critics of video games, including women. Thousands of members of the gaming industry rushed in to sign the letter.

But the problem is too important to be left to the industry to sort out. We need the political leadership to set regulations to which platform operators must adhere. And we need community education to assist people to quickly recognize and respond to online misogyny, thus minimizing the spread of the incidence.

There was a time when the business community argued against stringent laws against sexual harassment in work places. People argued it cannot be done. But proper laws and their implementation changed workplace culture. We believe the sexual harassment can be similarly erased out of the online culture with the proper push from the political leadership.