Woman with laptop on couch facing away
A growing wave of vitriol is building on the Internet against women who are vocal and visible (Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

Topics: Justice | Technology

Cyberbullies are on the attack, often with women in their sights

Just like they have done to make workplaces and homes safe, women are fighting to make cyberspace free from criminal aggression


On June 25, 2012, at 5:10 p.m., a person with the handle “Rupert my Hero” posted a comment about Laurie Penny on the British political blog Order-Order: “Perhaps she should be Circumcised, only sew up her mouth.”

This is not the worst comment on the Internet about Penny, a 26-year-old English journalist who contributes regularly to the Guardian and other newspapers. It’s not even the worst in the string of 84 comments on Order-Order, left below a video of Penny arguing with a fellow journalist.

It is, however, representative of what many writers, lawyers, police and Internet users say is a growing wave of vitriolic misogyny crashing down on women who are visible on the Internet. One could almost call the vile sentence poetic, if that weren’t outrageous, for how succinctly it encapsulates the author’s concern — not Penny’s politics, of course, but the fact that she’s a woman with a voice, who makes it heard.

She’s not alone. Many women face misogyny and sexism online from an early age. Internet trolls offer up insults and rape threats, sometimes as comments on an article or blog, other times on women’s Twitter or Facebook feeds.

Cyberbullies will hound a young girl for being a “slut,” as in the case of Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who created a YouTube video about the attacks and her nervous breakdown. She killed herself a month later.

In Todd’s video, she holds up a series of signs chronicling her short online life: a “friend” she met through video chats coaxed her into flashing her then 13-year-old chest to him via webcam; he seized a photo of it, blackmailed her into performing sex acts, then sent the photo to friends and family anyway.

Whether we call it trolling or cyberbullying, this behaviour, in many cases, can be summed up in a single word: criminal. According to Statistics Canada’s most recent Canadian Internet Use Survey, from 2010, more than 80 percent of Canadians over 16 go online. And yet the idea of the Internet as a lawless wild west persists. This results in a strange dichotomy: an invention that revolutionized our world, bringing us into the digital age, has a culture more rife with bigotry of all kinds, including misogyny, than what we’ve come to accept in most other public places.

And like the struggle for political representation or equal pay and recognition in the workplace, the Internet is yet another space where women will have to fight for the right to be there, free from harassment.

“I think of it as road rage,” says Michelle Allison, smiling through my laptop’s screen via a Skype video connection. “Just that little bit of a disconnect, whether it’s through a screen or in cars, makes people act sort of like animals.”

Allison is the Fat Nutritionist, a nutrition counsellor who has been blogging for more than a decade about the relationship between health, eating habits and weight. She says she’s noticed an uptick in negative comments and personal attacks on her website in the last year, culminating in someone exhorting her to kill herself. It’s made her reluctant to continue, even though blogging is how new clients find her business.

Allison’s metaphor neatly explains what’s known as the online disinhibition effect. It’s not that people are strictly anonymous on the Internet — like the licence plates on cars, every computer’s Internet connection comes with a unique number, called an Internet Service Provider (ISP) address. But users are still anonymous to and physically distant from others.

This distance unleashes what some studies call “the true self,” but for many might be their worst self. In the 2004 article that made this theory famous, John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University in New Jersey, distinguishes between benign disinhibition, which allows Internet users to reveal secrets, be generous and feel close to strangers, and toxic disinhibition, in which “out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats.”

Interacting across physical distances plays trick on the mind, Suler argues. Some people perceive the online world as distinct from the real one. “Why should they be held responsible for what happens in that make-believe play world that has nothing to do with reality?” he asks hypothetically.

This mental distancing doesn’t always work when you’re the target of a disinhibited comment, however.

“I feel reluctant to hit the button that signs me into the backend of my blog on a regular basis, because I don’t know what’s going to be there today,” says Allison. “Even if it only happens one percent of the time, it’s like getting punched in the face one percent of the time.”

“In the same way that there’s a psychic distance that exists that makes people feel comfortable saying [offensive things online], there’s maybe a little bit of psychic distance being on the receiving end of that stuff,” says Stephanie Guthrie, 28, a Toronto feminist active in social media. “But reading that kind of thing is painful, and reading a lot of that kind of thing is hateful.”

She would know. Last August, Guthrie found and posted online the real identity of a man who created Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian, a video game that invites players to reduce a photo of Sarkeesian, a feminist video game player and critic, to a mess of cuts and bruises by virtually punching her. Sarkeesian “claims to want gender equality in video games,” Bendilin Spurr, 26, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., wrote in the game’s description, which remains online though the game was removed. “But in reality, she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path.”

When Spurr’s local newspaper ran a story about the video game, naming him as the creator, he went silent online. Many of his supporters didn’t, however, crying censorship because Guthrie questioned Spurr’s right to free expression and privacy.

After a Twitter user with the handle “super_cool_guy” threatened to “wipe [Guthrie] the f— out,” she called the police. “They sent beat cops to my house, one of whom didn’t understand how even e-mail worked,” she says. “They were nice, though. But I never received a follow-up call after that.”

Even so, she didn’t stop debating with her detractors, calmly responding to every person no matter their tenor. Tellingly, those who decried Guthrie’s outing of Spurr as censorship didn’t flood super_cool_guy’s Twitter feed with hateful comments for his attempt to silence Guthrie permanently, nor did they see the video game itself as an attempt to silence a woman for her opinions.

Uttering threats and inciting hatred are illegal in Canada, whether the behaviour takes place online or on a street corner, but many people don’t recognize this. Nor is online sexual harassment always acknowledged as such, even by those who experience it.

A 2008 study by Samantha Schenk at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University tried to measure if its participants encountered sexual harassment on the Internet. Schenk interviewed 24 female college students over a summer, and found that while every single woman was sexually harassed online, less than half thought of it that way.

The study defined cybersexual harassment as “any gender-/sex-related comment received or image viewed that causes the individual to experience psychological discomfort (i.e., feelings of awkwardness, discomfort, and lack of safety).” But one woman said, “When I think of sexual harassment, I think of physical [harassment], any unwanted sexual contact,” a definition echoed by others in the study.

And yet, participants recounted having to “click out” of conversations or web pages that made them uncomfortable, delete a social media account or block specific users from communicating with them because of sexual comments or photos.

 “We shouldn’t give up the ship and just say that’s the way the Internet is. We could have done that with domestic abuse and sexual harassment,” says Danielle Citron, a research professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey’s School of Law.

Citron draws a direct line between the fight to make domestic violence a crime in the 1960s, followed by workplace sexual harassment in the 1970s, and the current debates over how to prosecute criminal harassment and stalking online. Just as there was a time when police wouldn’t intervene in the “family matter” of beating your wife, when women go to police now to report online harassment or threats, “mostly they’re told that boys will be boys; turn off your computer,” Citron says.

But there are signs the tide is turning. In February, at the Social Media and the Internet Law Enforcement conference, Toronto detective Jeff Bangild cautioned police that “most any crime can be perpetrated with a keyboard, a mouse and a connection.” I watched the presentation on my laptop in New York City, streaming live from Sunnyvale, Calif. Amanda Todd’s YouTube video played silently behind Bangild as he spoke, a reminder of the consequences of a crime in which the victim and the criminal (the man who took and distributed her photo) never even met.

And in March 2012 in Kitchener, Ont., Justice Margaret Woolcott sentenced Patrick James Doherty to four years in jail for criminal harassment (as well as a year and a half for other offences) despite arguments that Doherty serve less time because he never physically attacked his victim. She wrote, “There is no requirement that there be physical harm to make out a very serious case of criminal harassment.” Doherty originally met his victim on the Internet but used letters and phone calls to stalk her. Still, the decision sets a precedent that could be used in online criminal harassment cases.

For Citron, the solution to online misogyny isn’t avoiding the Internet but reclaiming it. Speaking over the phone, she makes the idea of going offline because of harassment seem laughably anachronistic. She’s confident that cyberspace can be tamed by enforcing current laws, while also making it easier to force websites to give up ISP addresses for criminal investigations into stalking, harassment and threats. This can be done without censoring the Internet or unduly infringing on people’s right to privacy, she adds. As for those who wish to keep the Internet as a wild west, Citron isn’t buying it.

“The analogy to the Wild West fails on its own terms,” she wrote in the Michigan Law Review. “The West is no longer wild: society long ago subjected it to the rule of law.”

Kasia Mychajlowycz is a writer in New York City and a former Observer intern.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s April 2013 issue with the title “The ugly Internet.”


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