Reality check: Online harassment of women can do serious harm

Just because the abuse is digital doesn't mean it's innocuous

Harassment online
(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

For a brief moment, the internet was Daisy Coleman's ally. When it was revealed that the Missouri teenager had been harassed and bullied after she accused a star high school football player of raping her and abandoning her outside in freezing temperatures, Anonymous came to her rescue by posting critical information and exposing evidence.

However, all charges against her accuser were dropped in January, and her case was forgotten by Anonymous and much of the media.

But her enemies in the online community remembered. This past weekend, Coleman attempted suicide after undergoing an especially brutal round of cyberbullying on Facebook. She was called a "slut" who "wanted it." Another woman wrote on the Facebook wall of her mother, Melinda, that unlike Daisy, she was "smart enough not to put [her]self in those situations."

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The internet has the frightening capacity to magnify threats. And it has emerged as a uniquely vicious source of harassment toward women. As the cases of Daisy Coleman, Rehtaeh Parsons, and Audrie Pott show, women who come forward with accusations of sexual assault are often tormented on the internet. In addition to facing real-life stigmas, victims are pressured to stay silent by voices in the digital ether.

And it's not only sexual assault victims who face harassment. Women of all stripes tend to bear the brunt of hateful and potentially dangerous threats that are prevalent on social media.

In a report for Pacific Standard, Amanda Hess examined the internet's hostility towards women. Of all the people who reported being stalked and harassed online from 2000 to 2012, 72.5 percent were female. A 2006 study from the University of Maryland showed that people with feminine usernames in chatrooms received on average 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day, while those with masculine names received 3.7.

These threats are not benign. Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland, wrote in the Boston University Law Review that "it interferes with [women's] professional lives. It raises their vulnerability to offline sexual violence. It brands them as incompetent workers and inferior sexual objects."

Part of the problem is that there aren't always clear legal avenues for dealing with online harassment, a relatively new phenomenon. Additionally, "authorities treat the internet as a fantasyland," wrote Hess. That means threats are often dismissed as sticks and stones, the work of obnoxious but ultimately harmless trolls.

Lindy West at Jezebel wrote, "The line where online attacks cross over into real-life danger is muddy and ill-defined for most people — even, quite often, victims themselves. Is this real? Am I being oversensitive? Am I installing an alarm system in my house because some 13-year-old boy in Ohio is bored? How many rape threats is too many?"

When I faced some online harassment in response to one of my articles, I was taken aback that people had tracked Facebook photos of me and my father and made comments about how he had "raised a lying feminist bitch." While I was able to ignore the anonymous creep, women who face more regular and more explicitly violent messages have had a tougher time. Hess quoted women who had reported being told, "You are clearly retarded, I hope someone rapes then shoots you." Here's another charmer: "I hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob."

Even when these disgusting threats aren't realized, they clearly cause emotional and mental distress. "When people say you should be raped or killed for years on end, it takes a toll on your soul," Jessica Valenti, a feminist advocate and writer who spends extra money for security as a result of online threats, told Pacific Standard.

It's not perfectly clear how to rectify this growing problem, but two things need to be changed in order to move forward. One, wrote West, is the fact that "we, as a society, need to start accepting the fact that the internet is real. The internet is not a fantasyland without consequences — it's a real place of real joy and real danger where real flesh-and-blood people exchange real ideas and real threats."

The other is that the onus cannot be on women to deter the harassment themselves. "Placing the burden of making sure an individual doesn't feel like her life is in danger on the individual is straight-up irresponsible," wrote Alison Herman at FlavorWire. But unfortunately, "that's exactly what happens while tech companies and law enforcement agencies continue to pass the buck amongst each other."

We need to take responsibility and realize that victims of online harassment do not deserve or cause the threats and attacks they receive. And that goes for everyone, not just women.

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