The Hazards of Being Female on the Internet
- Saloni Diwakar
Trigger Warning: references to sexual assault & rape
The past few months have been riddled with news items reporting sexism, whether it's a local politician raging over women in ripped jeans, or the more sinister case of CJI Sharad Arvind Bobde imploring a rape accused to marry his victim to avoid jail. One can argue that the manners in which men and women physically occupy public spaces betray many extant inequalities prevalent in society. This isn’t news to women, considering some of us are accustomed to clutching keys between our knuckles while passing through that dark alleyway on our way back home from work at night, or squaring our shoulders when walking against pedestrian traffic on train platforms or crowded pavements.
A study by Centre of Environmental Planning and Technology titled ‘Gender, Urban spaces and Resting places’, compared how men and women occupied outdoor spaces in varying contexts. Men were far more at ease, particularly when finding places to rest, or meandering purposelessly – activities far less likely to be performed in public by women.
Women rushed through ‘transitional’ spaces such as by-lanes to reach their destinations sooner and avoided groups of men. The phenomenon isn’t specific to India.
Another paper investigating patterns of pedestrian behaviour in Maryland showed that women often travel in groups or with company, engage in ‘purposeful walking’ (to reach a destination or perform an errand), and articulate greater safety-concerns inherent in their commutes, which was absent in the responses by men. It’s debatable whether men know the degree to which women’s behavioural nuances in steering themselves through public spaces are now internalized.
It seems these gendered differences in how people negotiate spaces carry forward into the online realm as well. Women and men occupying the same space on the internet face vastly different experiences because of their gender.
Surviving the Internet
Motherboard recently published an article illustrating how a female gamer playing World of Warcraft was forced to navigate the Rape Tavern – an updated name for the fictitious in-game Goldshire Inn that every gamer must encounter on their journey. Previously considered an erotic hub for role-players to engage with each other consensually, it has degenerated into a mass of depraved digital-rapists who admitted that chasing after non-consenting (predominantly feminine) characters was appealing because it simulated “real rape”. The female gamer ended up deleting her character and account and hasn’t played since.
Analogous to the advice to cover up to avoid street harassment, apologists of such behaviour diminished the damage caused by perverts by suggesting those who can’t handle it “could just log off”. This suggestion that not only fails to offer solutions to online sexism but encourages disengagement with the issue entirely, furthering the notion that such spaces are not for women.
Being present in spaces – virtual or physical – should not be an act of bravery. Harassment should not be the ‘norm’, where women’s behaviours need to be altered if they desire to exist in these spaces. That harassment occurs in virtual spaces does not make it less ‘real’, particularly when we consider that some perpetrators were found scouring for female gamers’ real identities and contact information.
Speaking of doxing, a few years ago Gawker conducted an award-winning exposé of a Reddit moderator who went by the alias Violentacrez. Violentacrez was the owner and moderator on a number of subreddits – sub-categories within Reddit – including Jailbait (a subreddit for posting sexualized images of underage girls) and Creepshots (a subreddit for posting stealthily taken sexual images of women in public).
Jailbait and Creepshots cumulatively drew tens of thousands of subscribers, subsets of Reddit’s millions. Posting to either of these ‘subs’ was presupposed by only one criterion, that they were taken and posted without the consent of the women they featured. Images of themselves posted by women consensually were removed.
Jailbait even parsed through and filtered images of girls who could pass for adults, as the rules were to feature underage girls – even pictures of girls seemingly 16 and 17 years old were disqualified. Since all images (only barely) censored the identities of the girls, they didn’t technically conflict with Reddit’s code of conduct. Violentacrez was outed by Gawker staff-writer Adran Chen as being a middle-aged man named Michael Brutsch.
Brutsch’s defence to Chen was that he was upfront about his preference for girls, hence didn’t feel guilty or wrong (anonymous online aliases notwithstanding). He categorized himself as an ephebophile to differentiate himself from paedophiles and intellectualized his perversion saying it was natural for men to be interested in younger female bodies. His lack of comprehension – or perhaps lack of concern – for the girls’ consent, agency and respect for their bodies and mental-health enabled him to revel in the celebrity that his alias elicited within these online communities.
Redditors (and non-Redditors) who recognized images of themselves or their friends’ featured on a subreddit had a harrowing time getting the images off, as though ownership of a body is transferred to whoever owns the space where the images are hosted – and with the images, their sense of personhood as well. More than one subscriber and contributor were found to be male high school teachers, who were preying on their female students. A moderator defended the group saying,
People constantly have their pictures taken, without their consent, and used in publications without their knowledge. When you are outside and in public space, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There is nothing illegal about this subreddit, whatsoever. Creepy, sinister, skin-crawling and generally downright distasteful… yes. But nothing illegal.
After Violentacrez was doxed, the irony-impaired communities of these subreddits came together to rally for the right to privacy of Michael Brutsch, citing distress to his disabled wife and (then) teenaged son. For context, Brutsch was also moderator to subreddits called Chokeabitch, Rapebait, and DeadJailbait (which posted pictures of deceased underage
Reddit was compelled (by negative media attention) into shutting down these subreddits, but it would seem that such communities have a Hydra-like tendency to clone and regenerate themselves multifold. Facebook and Twitter have yet to implement a protocol that limits harassing speech. Instagram should offer more than just allowing users to disable comments, which other than protecting from vitriolic speech, also limits constructive engagement with followers, and directly impacts its utility as a platform-building site.
In India, cases of sexual assault and rape are recorded and circulated on social media, so much so that rape videos are shared with police via Whatsapp as evidence without concern for the identity of the victim, who often isn’t the complainant. Trolls on Facebook and Twitter are quick to issue rape and death threats to women for having the audacity to form and articulate opinions, whether political or just general disagreement.
What does research say?
Psychology research has shown that greater the distance between perpetrator (troll) and the victim, the lesser the concern for their wellbeing, and guilt about harming them.
Deindividuation enabled by anonymity, is a core feature of various types of trolls, characterizing them by reduced empathy for their victims, and lowered self-regulation and awareness of their own actions. When science tells you trolls are terrible people, let’s listen.
Physical spaces are difficult enough for women to navigate, without being paranoid about being recorded on smartphones. Young girls on daily commutes to colleges or internships shouldn’t have the double burden of fearing technologically enabled sexual assault, additional to the stress of being teenagers or pursuing their academics.
Women should not feel the need to be risk-averse in relationships, fearing revenge-porn post breakups. Purchasing clothes should not come pegged with the advice to check for two-way mirrors or mobile phones which detect hidden cameras. What women face online is a digital rendering of experiences they deal with in real life, made infinitely worse by the permanent nature of the internet, ‘memories’ that are retrievable if one knows where to look.
While thousands of women participated in the #metoo campaign, illuminating the sheer prevalence of sexual assault women face, there are sections of women who don’t have access to the internet (or any platform) that allows them to voice their distress. Also notably, there were women with access to the internet who didn’t feel safe sharing their stories online, anticipating a vitriolic quality of online engagement that they might’ve previously faced themselves, or vicariously experienced through witnessing others’ struggles to maintain coherence in their sexual assault narratives, without being derailed by chauvinists.
Any and all stories that make it into public discourse are only a sampling of the entire range of trials women face in navigating spaces – digital or IRL. Feminist critiques of urban studies have begun to take cognizance of the way our physical spaces alienate women and marginalized communities and make recommendations for its remedy. Perhaps it’s time online platforms follow suit.
Saloni Diwakar (she/her) is Asst. Professor and Research Author at the department of Psychology, Nolmë Labs. Her research interests include political, moral and social psychology, and psychometrics.
(A version of this article was previously published on feminisminindia.com)