An effort to put women back in their “place”

Soraya Chemaly explains some reasons Cathy Young is wrong to say that men get harassed online more than women do.

In addition to the difficulty of comparing data sets of varying size and depth, however, comparing male versus female online “harassment” is problematic for many reasons.

First, as Young points out, women’s harassment is more likely to be gender-based and that has specific, discriminatory harms rooted in our history. The study pointed out that the harassment targeted at men is not because they are men, as is clearly more frequently the case with women. It’s defining because a lot of harassment is an effort to put women, because they are women, back in their “place.”

It seems silly having to explain this. People who have a better spot on the hierarchy ladder are not as harmed by harassment as people who have a worse spot are, because harassment is itself a power move – a ladder spot enforcer.

For girls and women, harassment is not just about “un-pleasantries.” It’s often about men asserting dominance, silencing, and frequently, scaring and punishing them.

Rape and death threats made by strangers are also common, however. They coexist online with violent sexist, racist commentary on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook and the sharing of gifs, images, jokes and memes depicting gross violence against women as “humor.” The “humor” can sometimes spill over into aggressive cyber mob attacks, which, as Citron explains in her book, disproportionately target women and people of color. These mobs include hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, systematically harassing their targets. #Slanegirl, a trending global public shaming of a teenage girl filmed performing fellatio is one example. Attacks on public figures like Anita Sarkeesian or Caroline Criado-Perez can take on surreal qualities whose effects can’t be underestimated—either on the individual attacked or on the environment.

Well actually they can be underestimated, by people like Cathy Young and Christina Hoff Sommers (who enthusiastically hyped Young’s article), but they shouldn’t be.

The harassment men experience also lacks broader, resonant symbolism. Women are more frequently targeted with gendered slurs and pornographic photo manipulation because the objectification and dehumanization of women is central to normalizing violence against us. Philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton describe in detail how this works: women are thought of and portrayed as things for the use of others. Interchangeable; violable; silent and lacking in agency.

Women take online harassment more seriously not because we are hysterics, but because we reasonably have to. There is no gender equivalence in terms of the denigrating, hostile and sometimes exceedingly dangerous environmental effect that misogyny has, online or off. It has a long history and cannot be isolated from actual violence that we adapt to avoiding every day. The fact that that violence has always suppressed women’s free speech is only now becoming too obvious to ignore.

Despite the best efforts of the Cathy Youngs of the world.


  1. Jason Dick says

    The phrase, “can’t be underestimated,” really needs to be changed to, “can’t be overestimated,” so as to make sense. Then it would be a bit hyperbolic, but would at least make a degree of sense.

    But yeah, there is simply no comparison at all between the kinds of harassment most men receive and the kinds most women receive.

  2. says

    Women are more frequently targeted with gendered slurs and pornographic photo manipulation

    I’ve had a fair bit of abuse being the writer of @TheBlockBot, head censor, and generally someone who goes out of their way to annoy my detractors on Twitter. So I can say in my experience men *do* get targeted with gendered slurs, a lot. Although I usually get called, cunt, little bitch, mangina, etc… So gendered slurs that degrade women by juxtaposing my assumed horribleness with slurs that generally are applied to “horrible” women. Or in the case of “mangina” obviously imply that having “womanly” attributes is a weakness . Oh I also have been called a “white knight”, which is predicated on the idea that the only reason someone would stand up for a woman is if they wanted to fuck them. Cos why else would you bother?

    You do also get some neutral tweets about how no one likes you, or you are smelly, or a virgin, or even “your a dick”. But the gendered element wins out by a long way. As for the photos I do also get those, almost exclusively about how stupid I am, with a few on how unattractive I am. Never involved in any sexual activity or sexualised imagery to shame me, for some reason men being depicted having sex or posed in sexually suggestive ways isn’t seen by them as inherently shameful somehow. Funny that.

    Now you could say I am small fry, why would they bother? That is true I am, but some of the women who run the block bot have had very different experiences. All the gendered slurs and insulting tweets but also rape “jokes”, sexual comments and shaming. Attempts to creep them out with these references and demean them in ways that are not tried on me. A relatively tame example – one mod who had a breast feeding picture as her avi – got this comment from a level3 block, the lowest “nastiness”!

    Well, I gotta go! Enjoy your baby’s sweet sweet lips caressing your nipple as you take a picture of him.

    In real life I’ve never had anyone call me a cunt or bitch with venom and from a position of power. Never had anyone sexually assault or harass me, using their dominance and implied threats of sexual aggression to control me. Whether those attacking consciously realise they are using slurs and attacks that will hurt because the person has experienced them in their life or not, they are using cultural misogyny as a weapon. It’s a blunt instrument when applied to me and all other men, probably why they don’t bother attacking men as much in the first place. It most likely won’t have the same effect and on some level they know that.

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