STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

Online Shaming Gives Creeps the Spotlight They Deserve

Women are coming together online to shame men who harass and abuse them. But can online embarrassment spark a real change in behavior?

09.23.14 9:55 AM ET

When Lucky Strike server Laura Ramadei reportedly felt a male customer touch her ass “ever so gently” as he told her that he’d like to take her “to go,” she knew exactly what to do. Not only did she rebuff his awkward advance in person, she went home and did some sleuthing. By plugging the name on the receipt—Brian H. Lederman—into Google, she found her harasser right away: Lederman is a hedge-fund manager who works with Swiss Performance Management and Truehand AG.

Ramadei posted Lederman’s receipt to Facebook along with her story, eventually drawing widespread media attention to his alleged misdeed. For his part, Lederman denied the accusation but didn’t do himself any favors by telling the New York Post that he has nonetheless “grabbed plenty of girls’ asses in [his] life.” In this same interview, he also called Ramadei a “cunt” and threatened to destroy her chances of employment in New York City. Now, when you Google “Brian Lederman” the first result describes him as someone who “grabs a lot of asses.”

Revenge, it seems, is a dish best served through search engine optimization.

Thirty years ago, a woman in Ramadei’s situation would have no way of determining the identity of a customer like Lederman beyond flipping through the phone book. But today, as We Are Social reports, 40 percent of the world’s population is active on the Internet, with those users operating over 2 billion active social media accounts.

As more people disclose their identities on the Internet and as the use of social media becomes more widespread, it’s easier than ever to quickly spread personal stories online. Slowly but certainly not quietly, the Internet has changed the way that we shame others. For better or for worse, Google and social media have become the new currencies of public reputation.

Many forms of public shaming in the Internet era focus on more or less universally acknowledged standards of courtesy. The Facebook page Passenger Shaming, for example, ridicules airplane passengers who fly shirtless or who sit with their feet perched on tray tables. Servers and restaurant owners occasionally shame those who drastically under-tip. This month, for instance, NFL running back LeSean McCoy left a 20-cent tip on a 60-dollar check, prompting an angry Facebook status from the restaurant owner.

But can women like Ramadei succeed in using Internet shaming for more pointed acts of political good against male misbehavior? Are these acts of feminist public shaming ever effective? Can most men even feel shame online? And, if not, what are we really doing when we try to shame men online?

Women have been trying to wield Internet shame against men for years now to little avail. The popular Tumblr “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train” documents men on subway and train cars who seem to require six feet of seat space to air out their testicles. As a similar Tumblr so eloquently states: “Your Balls Are Not That Big.” These Tumblrs have both gone viral, but New York subway cars are still full of men sitting spread eagle across three seats.

Women who brave the world of online dating also use social media to shame men who send impolite, aggressive, or insulting messages on sites like OKCupid and Tinder. When one female Tinder user rejected a man named Tom, for instance, he sent her over 30 consecutive messages, deriding her intelligence while boasting about his income and his supposed resemblance to Ashton Kutcher. This female Tinder user simply posted these messages to popular image sharing service Imgur and then made sure his rant went viral.

Feminist blog Jezebel, too, regularly features roundups of the most overbearing men on online dating sites who can neither stomach rejection nor tolerate silence. These roundups have become such a staple of our Internet diet that women instantly know when they’ve found a prime candidate for public shaming. When a male suitor sent one woman a series of insulting text messages, for example, she responded: “These texts are so going on the internet lol [sic].” But no matter how many rude men we expose on the Internet, more rush in to fill the void in a seemingly endless game of asshole Whac-A-Mole.

If we aren’t altering men’s behavior, then, what are we hoping to accomplish when we shame men on the Internet? This month, New York City photographer Caroline Tompkins published photographs that she had taken of men immediately after they street-harassed her. The expressions on the men’s faces are smug, even defiant. Several of them make direct eye contact with Tompkins while others gesture suggestively toward their crotches. Even when directly confronted with the threat of identification in an Internet-connected age, many men, it seems, still have no fear of being held accountable for their actions.

In his book Affect, Imagery, Consciousness, psychologist and pioneering affect theorist Silvan Tomkins described the response of shame as “an act which reduces facial communication.” Someone who feels shame, according to Tomkins, tries to break eye contact with anyone looking at him while withdrawing from social interactions. The men in Caroline Tompkins’ photographs, by this definition, show no hint of shame as they stare unabashedly at the woman who is documenting their harassment for the world to see.

The men of OKCupid and Tinder, too, often perform the virtual equivalent of looking right back at you. When the aforementioned woman told her male suitor that the texts were “so going on the internet,” he simply replied: “Enjoy.” And when Brian Lederman’s alleged harassment of Laura Ramadei became public knowledge, he proudly wore his history of ass grabs as if they were badges of honor.

Perhaps we can’t shame men on the Internet, then, because many of them cannot feel shame, at least within the context of current social structures. Silvan Tomkins observed that shame is a feeling that emerges when enjoyment is interrupted: When we’re caught as children with our hands in the cookie jar, we feel shame because we still want the cookie even though we know we’re not supposed to have it.

If women are the cookies of the Internet, then, they’re cookies that men never feel like they can’t have. Even the tersest of responses on OKCupid is still giving an aggressive user exactly what he wants: interaction. Men’s enjoyment of women—of their bodies, their words, and even their distress—is often so thorough and so adaptable that posting their messages or threatening to call out their behavior online has little to no effect. In the absence of meaningful consequences for misogynistic behavior, many men can afford to be cavalier and carefree about their online personas.

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Occasionally, a woman will try to interfere with a man’s enjoyment by showing his bad behavior to his close friend or family member. Last year, a woman responded to an unsolicited dick pic from a man named Trevor by trying to explain to him why his communication was unacceptable. Trevor’s responded by reiterating that he does, indeed, have a “big cock.” It was only when she threatened to show the conversation to his mother that Trevor went on the defensive: “That is not right. Don’t do that. It’s my mom.” This month, too, a woman on Tinder tried the same tactic after being called a “dog slut piece of shit” by a potential match. But short of these rare attempts at direct retribution, most women who engage in Internet shaming understand that only men can motivate themselves to change their online behavior.

One of the only plausible explanations, then, for the increasing prevalence of women’s Internet shaming is that it’s not shaming at all. If we have no illusions about being able to make men feel embarrassed for their actions, the most important functions of these acts of Internet “shaming” might simply be that they let other women know that their experiences are systemic rather than individual.

Whenever Jezebel posts a roundup of OKCupid and Tinder grossness, for example, several women respond in the comments with screenshots of their own negative experiences. And when Laura Ramadei posted about her negative experience with Brian Lederman, her Facebook was flooded with sympathetic comments from other women in the service industry:

“I remember a lot of advances from my waitress/bartender days,” one woman replied.

“As a fellow NYU grad who is also a server,” another woman chimed in, “I am so sick and tired of condescending customers and sexual harassment.”

In a world where it’s almost impossible to make a man feel ashamed, what looks like public shaming from women is, first and foremost, public commiseration, a way to connect with people who understand experiences that can sometimes feel idiosyncratic in their awfulness. We might not be able to use the Internet to make the subway, the service industry, or online dating any more hospitable for women than they already are, but we can at least use the Internet to understand that we’re not alone.