Cyberbullying is Not a Women’s Issue. It’s a Human Issue.

Men receive more death threats online than women. evert/Shutterstock.com

Debates surrounding the place, presence and perception of women online manifests in an astounding way. Column inches and a plethora of posts online are dedicated to the cyber-harassment of women, which can be excruciating and vitriolic at times. Over the last few years, the issue has garnered much attention, but could it be that presenting cyberbullying as a gendered issue, instead of a human issue, negates the bigger picture and in turn victimizes women, impeding their progress?

A WOMEN’S ISSUE?

According to the most recent research conducted in harassment and cyberbullying by the nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center of more than 2,800 people, 40 percent said they have experienced harassment online. That figure mushrooms to over 70 percent who have seen others being harassed.

Some have gone so far as to call these attacks gender terrorism.

Consider that an estimated third of the world’s female population experience gender-based violence. Not one country in the world has closed the gender pay gap, female infanticide has resulted in generations of “missing girls,” and its possible to infer that the subjugation of women is ubiquitousand that online is no different to offline.

According to the Pew report, women (especially young women) are “significantly” more likely to experience abuse online. They experienced “disproportionately high” rates of certain, more severe forms of abuse such as stalking or sexual harassment that left them “traumatized.” Moreover, young women were twice as likely to find the abuse “extremely upsetting” than men.

Award-winning writer and Internet culture commentator Amanda Hess is among a number of female journalists who have spoken out against their trollersHer crime, as she puts it, is doing her job. Because she’s a journalist, she expresses views and opinions that encourage debate and discussion. But for years, she has faced a brutal onslaught of rape threats and other forms of harassment.

“None of this makes me exceptional,” she writes. “It just makes me a woman with an Internet connection. A woman doesn’t even need to occupy a professional writing perch at a prominent platform to become a target. As the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online everyday.”

This issue is indeed an everyday occurrence for some women. Sites like Twitter have fundamentally changed the way that people communicate with its ability to disseminate thoughts and views to the world in just an instant. Its raw openness means that those who want to harass can do so with minimal effort but maximum effect.

For example, Caroline Criado-Perez, who led a campaign to for a woman (other than the monarch) to be featured on British currency, was one victim of vitriolic Twitter harassment. Her campaign was eventually successful, with author Jane Austen selected as the next famous Briton to appear on a banknote. But sexually lurid threats of rape and disembodiment, death threats and questioning of Criado-Perez’s motivations and credentials came in thick and fast. In some cases these were so severe that it drove Criado-Perez to shut her Twitter account down and report it to the police. Eventually Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo were convicted and sentenced for “extreme threats.” Two years on, the feminist activist, now returned to Twitter, reflected on that summer in 2013 and the trauma it caused her.

Until now, it’s unclear what drove the level of hatred toward a woman who was campaigning for equality. Criado-Perez has not been deterred and continues to use social media to raise awareness for her campaigns. But cases like hers have increased in the last few years.

For Brianna Wu, head of development at Giant Spacekat and radio presenter, rape threats were not the worst of the abuse directed at her on image-board website 4chan. Wu was forced to leave her home after threats and packages were sent via mail. She was labeled the derogatory term, social justice warrior, for speaking out against the male-dominated gaming and tech industry by those who rallied around the exclusion of women in gaming culture—the Gamergaters.

Brianna Wu Shannon Grant Photography.

Brianna Wu, head of development at Giant Spacekat received a number of rape and death threats online for working in the male-dominated gaming and tech industry. Shannon Grant Photography.

“I’ve gotten so many harassing tweets and emails that I now have an employee who works full-time handling them,” she explains. “They’ve shared my home address so many times that I now keep a baseball bat by the front door, and any unexpected knock can send me into a panic. To them, no area of my private life is off limits to use against me.” Wu says that at the last count, there were more than 400 pages dedicated to exposing her as a “free speech hater” and “militant feminist.”

Wu is not the only woman involved in the Gamergate saga to be harassed by trolls. Zoe Quinn was accused of sleeping her way to the top‘ Anita Sarkeesian, a vlogger and writer, was the subject of a game where you could beat her up; Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice ended up leaving their professions because of similar attacks.  

Wu believes that the harassment she is getting is because she is a woman. She says, “I absolutely think that women experience significantly more harassment than men, and in ways that men could never possibly consider to be harassment.”

THE MALE VICTIMS

Cyberbullying is regularly deemed a female-centric concern, however more men are the targets of physical and death threats than women—and this statistic is all-too-often overlooked. To negate (as some feminist critics, bloggers and thinkers have done) the fact that men receive a higher sum of the total abuse online is tantamount to not seeing the true problem.

Key is that Pew’s research also finds that “online men are somewhat more likely than online women to experience some level of online harassment overall.” This finding may at first seem inconsequential but is hugely important when it comes to understanding cyber-harassment.

Demos, a UK-based nonpartisan think tank, in collaboration with Sussex University, analyzed over two million tweets and found that in all, male public figures are “several times” more likely to receive harassment on Twitter. The only group to buck that trend were female journalists (like Amanda Hess) who received about three times more abuse than male journalists.

“[W]e realized that year after year, there were predictable episodic periods of very public crisis around trolling and abuse especially being raised by very prominent women, and especially, prominent journalists, but it was stretching to women in lots of different fields,” says Carl Miller, co-founder and Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

Miller has been researching language and decorum online and says, “In terms of extent I didn’t see an imbalance in the level of hate that women get compared to men. In terms of kind, yes. So when abuse aimed at women was meant to be hurtful or disturbing, people were groping for the most damaging words they could which, unfortunately, in this sense for women, are sexually aggressive words.”

Miller continues, “We do something called corpus linguistics which is essentially tipping all the tweets into a great big bucket and start looking at word frequencies and distributions within this massive bucket of words and the abuse towards women was certainly more sexualized, it was certainly more focused towards their physical appearance, and it certainly used a constellation of sexually aggressive language that was not coming up in the male category.”

Another counterintuitive finding when looking at perpetrators rather than victims of online harassment is that there seem to be just as many women hurling abuse as men. Miller finds that, “women tended to send more abuse to women, men sent more to men, but men did tend to send more to men and women.”

Cyberbullying is often considered a women's issue, which negates the bigger picture as a human issue that affects women and men alike. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock.com)

Cyberbullying is often considered a women’s issue, which negates the bigger picture as a human issue that affects women and men alike. (Dean Bertoncelj/Shutterstock.com)

A HUMAN ISSUE

Rather than amplifying the view that women are merely suffering due to comments from loser men, it may be key to open the debate and understand it as a wider issue of persistent and ongoing misogyny in popular culture by everyone, regardless of gender.

Cathy Young, columnist and author of Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces To Achieve True Equality, argues that calling it “gendered” harassment is exacerbating the problem. “I have seen several times women on Twitter retweet or screencap an abusive tweet that they got which isn’t necessarily gender specific, and they will post it with a comment like ‘just another day of being women on the Internet,’” she explains.

Young says that there are gender-specific comments that men get and “we tend to think of men as the default human being and so what happens to women is gender specific. I’ve seen men get accused of being rapists or child molesters over something that they wrote and…not a whole lot of women get called child molesters because again, men’s problems just get called human problems.

“Feminists have often criticized this way of thinking, but we are also perpetuating it. We need to look at this as a human issue not a gender issue.”

A recent investigation by academics into the types of people that sexually harass women online finds that “low-status males increase female-directed hostility to minimize the loss of status as a consequence of hierarchical reconfiguration resulting from the entrance of a woman into the competitive arena.” But that higher-skilled players were more positive towards women.

Replace the word misogyny with misanthropy in much of this article and the result would be the same. Perhaps a viable explanation as to why women face gendered harassment online is not because they are women, but because they are successful, articulate or popular.

Cyber harassment exists and the experiences of many women, famous or otherwise, proves that it can destroy lives, but it’s important that we recognize it for what it is rather than reading gender into the problem.

It may be that labeling the abuse women get on the Internet as “online misogyny” and assuming that women get more of it than men is making it a woman-only problem, thereby placing it in the realm of women’s issues and women-only discussion groups that relegate the debate onto the path of didactic intellectualism—a woman’s problem for women to sort out.