Tech + Health

Harassment Of Women Is Nothing New—The Internet Just Makes It Easier

The web makes it easier for misogynists to stalk women online, but the real problem is a very old and ingrained mindset that expects women to be silent and subservient.

01.17.14 10:45 AM ET

Since dial-up first started being installed in homes, women have been complaining about the sheer amount of harassment for being simply being female online, especially if one dares to be female with an opinion. The beginning of 2014 has produced an uptick in interest in the topic, largely due to Amanda Hess’s essay for the Pacific Standard titled “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.”  The piece chronicled not just the harassment that women endure but the toll it takes on victims, both mentally and financially. “Every time we call the police, head to court to file a civil protection order, or get sucked into a mental hole by the threats that have been made against us, zeroes drop from our annual incomes,” Hess argued.

Reactions to the piece were largely positive, with writers for the Washington Post and The Week agreeing that online harassment needs to be taken seriously instead of shrugged off as being “just” online. Jill Filipovic, in Talking Points Memo, further drove home the point that harassment online is real and insidious by recounting her own experiences, which even led to physical problems due to the stress. Even New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who rarely thinks to write about women except to scold them for having sex, ­­was shaken by the unfairness of it all. “We hear about it over drinks, we catch glimpses of it on Twitter, but it’s easy for us to miss how radically different it makes our female peers’ experience,” he laments.

All this support is wonderful, of course, but there is a danger in it: By focusing the discussion so much on the Internet and the newness of this kind of harassment, we run the risk of taking an overly reductive view of the problem. While Internet harassment is, relatively speaking, a novel and often overwhelming problem, it is hardly a unique problem in the world. It needs to be seen for what it is, an extension of the constant drumbeat of harassment and violence that women around the world face—and have always faced—for no other reason than they are women. Women are abused on the streets, in our workplaces, and in our homes. That we are also abused online shouldn’t be surprising at all. The Internet presents new challenges, but the problem of misogyny is the same as it ever was.

Douthat’s response was particularly blinkered in this regard, suffused with his typical unquestioned belief that the past was a safer and happier time, and that it has all gone to hell because people stopped apologizing for having sexual desires. He is certain that a lack of sexual repression and relative anonymity play a role in online misogyny, arguing that “many men who might have successfully regulated their darker impulses now have what seems like a green light to be ‘virtually’ abusive… because they’re just trying out a role, or because the woman on the receiving end seems no more real to them than a character in a pornographic film.”

To be fair, he not only blames the modern lack of sexual repression, but also tacitly admits that male anger at women’s changing roles plays a part. “[F]eminists tend to see it simply as a species of reaction,” he says, describing the worldview of the sexist miscreant who harasses women online, “social conservatives as the dark fruit of sexual liberation, when it’s really a combination of the two.” That it is a product of modern, feminist, sexually liberated culture, however, he does not question at all.

But there’s virtually no evidence for the contention that men who harangue and harass women online are generally meek pussycats afraid to express their contempt for women in real life. On the contrary, the likelier theory is that the rapists, wife beaters, ass-pinchers, and men who cat-call women on the street are also the men who perform similar misogynist behaviors online. In fact, we know in some cases that they are absolutely the same men, since some online forums for misogynists are dedicated to men who chronicle their offline harassment of women with photographs (called “creepshots”) and post them online for other misogynists to enjoy. Rebecca Watson, whom Douthat mentioned as a favorite target for abuse from online harassers, became a favorite target of abuse because of her work fighting to make it harder to harass women offline. But it’s also just common sense. The guy who yells, “I would fucking kill you, bitch!” to a woman on the subway is probably the same guy who goes home and yells it, through Twitter, at dozens of women who have committed the same offense of being female in public. The man who hits his wife for backtalk is probably the same guy who can’t help but get unhinged and ugly to strange women online whose unwillingness to be submissive offends him.

If we understand online harassment to be an outgrowth of other forms of abuse of women, from cat-calling to rape and domestic violence, then the pat assertion that it’s a modern, Western phenomenon is much harder to pull off. That’s particularly true when trying to claim sexual liberation somehow causes the harassment. Countries that have a more sexually repressive culture than the U.S. —think Egypt or India—have plenty of sexual harassment and assault problems to go around. The blunt truth is that why some men harass women—or beat women or rape women—is not at all complicated. They do it because it makes them feel powerful. They do it because they want women to be submissive, second-class citizen. They want women to know our place is as servants and sex objects instead of real people, and are willing to resort to violence and harassment to get their way. This is true whether your society is feminist or patriarchal, sexually liberated or repressed.

This is not a matter of speculation. Studies show a strong link between a man’s embrace of traditional gender roles and his propensity for domestic violence. Even just exposing a man to sexist jokes is linked to that man expressing more tolerance for violence against women. Violence and harassment against women is not some inexplicable phenomenon of nature, but an expression of an ideological belief that women should be subservient.

The Internet doesn’t create the urge to harass women, and it probably doesn’t even magnify it. What it does is it makes harassment more efficient and personal, all at the same time. A man who likes to abuse and harass women is limited by physical proximity, time restraints, and legal considerations in the real world. There are only so many waitresses whose butts you can pinch in a day, especially without being thrown out of restaurants or even having the police called. You can holler at women on the sidewalk, but they can move along. Online, however, a man who enjoys harassing women can attack dozens in a very short period of time. He can recruit his friends to make the attacks more intense and has a lot more avenues for attack, going through email, Facebook, Twitter, and blog comments. It’s harder for women to just walk away from your cat-calling online; they have to actively block the harasser. (Which in turn is also exciting for the harasser, who can use the blocking as evidence that he successfully got under his victim’s skin.) Following women without getting the cops called on you is much easier online than in public. If a particular woman catches a harasser’s attention in public, odds are low he will be able to figure things like her name and how to find her. But online, you not only have all sorts of details about the object of your obsession’s life, but you have multiple venues to get to her.

While these specifics can and should be addressed through technological and legal means, we also need to understand that none of this online harassment is happening in a vacuum. It’s all just a new way of expressing a very old—indeed, an ancient—sentiment, that a woman’s place is to be silent, submissive, and servile to men and that any women who disagree are to be put down with violence. The long-term solution to the problem is to fight for women’s equality, and keep fighting until the idea that a woman is anything but equal to a man is a relic of the past.