Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Public Woman

Over the past few months, much ado has been made about the harassment of female bloggers, and the online harassment of women in general. The Kathy Sierra incident -- wherein a female technology blogger was threatened so badly that she canceled speaking engagements and was afraid to leave her house -- was the final straw for a lot of women, and more of us are speaking out about the harassment, threats and intimidation tactics that are leveled at us on a daily basis. Even The Washington Post is covering it.

It's no secret that women face sexualized threats online. Female bloggers who speak with other female bloggers know that we all get it -- and research backs us up:

A 2006 University of Maryland study on chat rooms found that female participants received 25 times as many sexually explicit and malicious messages as males. A 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005, entirely because of the exodus of women. The study attributed the trend to "sensitivity to worrisome behavior in chat rooms."
Women are harassed in a particular way -- it's about what you look like, and what's between your legs. Feminist bloggers in particular seem to garner attention for their physical appearance. Either we're too ugly to get a man and so we turn to feminism (and cats), or we're too pretty to be taken seriously. Often it's some combination of both.

And then there are the rape comments. On one website where commenters are routinely racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic -- and where I'm not particularly popular -- there are threads and comments with titles like "Official Jill Filipovic RAPE thread," "I want to brutally rape that Jill slut," and "I'm 98% sure that she should be raped."

I don't know a single feminist blogger who hasn't had similar comments made about her.

As the WaPo article points out, this kind of harassment has driven many women out of chat rooms and off of blogs. It's encouraged others to blog under gender-neutral or male pseudonyms. Conservative female bloggers like Michelle Malkin and even progressive male bloggers like Markos Mousilitas (Daily Kos) have basically told women to get thicker skin and expect these kinds of comments if we go online.

The news media is covering this issue as if it's a new story. It isn't. It's been the narrative for hundreds of years.

The original "public woman" was the prostitute. Men have traditionally occupied the public space (including the political), while women were relegated to the domestic -- or at least, certain kinds of women were relegated to the domestic. Cloistering women away or at least keeping them tied to domestic duties has long been a sign of socioeconomic class, from ancient Greece through Victorian England through the 1950s and The Feminine Mystique. "Other" women -- poor women, women of color -- worked outside the home. The lowest class of women were the publicly available ones. And public availability was tied to sexual availability.

This mentality thrives anywhere and anytime women transgress traditional roles and enter into the public discourse -- and especially when they want to play with the boys. Second-wave feminists were routinely sexualized or deemed to ugly to be taken seriously, whether the topic of conversation was Gloria Steinem's miniskirt and Kate Millet's breasts, or Andrea Dworkin's overalls and Kate Millet's face on the cover of Time Magazine. The Riot Grrls of the 1990s tried to give girls a place in the mosh pit and owned sexual slurs by scrawling words like SLUT across their stomachs -- and were still met with calls to "take it off!" during their shows. And do I even need to mention the treatment of female politicians (see: Hillary Clinton)?

Street harassment is still a major issue for women. It isn't unusual for a man to feel he has the right to comment on your body, your clothes or your demeanor ("Smile, honey!") when you're female and doing little more than walking down the street. The message is that you have less of a right to that space than he does -- his presence in public is assumed to be right and natural, whereas yours is a privilege and something that he can take ownership of or exert power over.

Harassment of female bloggers, then -- and sexualized insults and threats in particular -- is not new, and it's not surprising. Short of obliterating patriarchal social norms, there isn't much we can do to completely end it.

But there's a lot we can do to control it -- and the answer isn't just to "get thicker skin."

First, blogs can moderate comments. I'm not a fan of universal moderation pledges or censorship, but a responsible moderation policy will at least come down on users who level threats at others. Rape threats aren't protected speech any more than yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is, so this isn't a First Amendment issue (and besides, bloggers aren't the government, and we can control our sites as we see fit). Second, feminist and progressive bloggers should watch out for each other -- if someone makes a threatening comment on my site about another blogger, I have no qualms about sending her that person's IP address. Outing anonymous bloggers or commenters because you disagree with them is completely out of line and unacceptable; outing people who make threats is a pretty good way to make others think twice before posting similar comments. And if the threats come over email, all the better -- post the harasser's email address. Sort of like Holla Back, but in internet-land. Finally, name it. Point out harassment when it happens. The reaction to the Kathy Sierra story has been so strong in part because so many women had experienced similar things and had simply chosen to quietly leave, or just ignore it. Ignoring it doesn't work -- or at least, it hasn't worked for me. The website that has allowed commenters to post sexual-assault-related comments about me has somewhere around 100 threads where my name comes up, and they've been commenting, posting pictures, and filing "Jill sightings" for more than a year and a half. I don't comment on their site and I've avoided writing about them, but they aren't going away. The more we talk about it, the more we emphasize the fact that this is common, that we aren't doing anything to incite it, that it is gendered and that it is unacceptable -- and the more we can share strategies for how to stop it.

It's high time women were able to be publicly present without being considered publicly consumable. Blogs have been at the forefront of progressive activism, bringing together people of all backgrounds and locations to discuss issues of interest, take action, or simply share stories. Now, we should be at the forefront of taking a collective stand against harassment and in support of the "public woman."


Anonymous said...

Hi - thanks for inviting me to participate in this project. I will do my best to contribute from time to time but like everyone else I am overworked and trying to juggle so many jobs and activism.

Anonymous said...

We are tech women. Can we not find tech solutions for some of this.

How about if we simply shine some light on the buttheads? We need some eay way to tag a post as harrassment and to pool the harrassing posts. Then we can look for IP addresses of the most gross comments, do a little datamining of addresses and common phrases.

We CAN figure out who some of these people are and post what we we've learned. These guys are posting on public blogs, they have no expectations of privacy. Even the lowliest jackass has a mother (or girlfriend or employer) who he doesn't want to find his name next to a vile rape posting. Believe me, employers would want to be warned that they are about to hire a misogynist who sents rape threat emails. Might make for a hostile work environment.

I don't want to hear that posting their names gives them publicity. If we don't make them accountable for what they are saying, who will?

Besides, some of these guys are truly dangerous. Posting what facts we know could help in a serious law enforcement effort when the cops have some clues and not others.

We have to get serious about protecting ourselves from this scum. By doing nothing we are making the online world completely unsafe for our daughters.

Lewis H said...

The nexus between violence and anger is a proven paradigm that some interesting social psychology work has been exploring. It's a moral emotion that for insecure men gets thrown out of whack.

There's something unique about the web that provide that false freedom - it's why Craigslist personals are so popular with guys.

So I agree with the analysis, but let's look at the big picture and create creative public spaces on & off line that create fusions - here's a post on how early this starts -

Free Culture said...

This is a complicated issue. I'm in the inaugural graduate student Annenberg Program for Online Communities (

I'm also a board member of USC Free Culture & organized this panel with a female undergrad -
where we made sure to have split gender numbers.

I also submitted a link to your site from my personal blog, Blue Mandarin, and while there links back and forth between all these sites. Like future generations, I often feel over-networked, but male identity is becoming harder to construct and maintain integrity with massive social network choices (unless you're centered and resist and just look at the news to see a lot of American men aren't).

georgia said...

Amazing post Jill, thank you. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately too.
This is wonderful technology that we are using now, it allows us to connect and share our thoughts, to pass on information, engage in debate; it sparks and facilitates activism, provides a platform for personal expression...(the list goes on). When I first started reading blogs (especially feminist blogs) I really thought that this was an opportunity for change, for a democratic and safe environment. How naieve :) Frustrating though it is to see the evidence that the blogosphere isn't the utopia I thought it would be, that it isn't immune from hatred and discrimination in the way I hoped(how optimistic i was!) I think that we do have an opportunity here. If offline junk can make it online then we can also use our online strength to make a difference beyond the Internet. We can make our voices louder speaking online or speaking about what is going on online. The documentation of harassment provides evidence and keeps the issue in the spotlight. It is important that we refuse to abandon our blogs and allow big media and big politics to take over. It would be a very sad day indeed if blogging wound up as nothing more than a marketing ploy and if bloggers were tied to prescribed blandness and obscurity.

Anonymous Boxer said...

I have to admit that one of the reasons I decided NOT to allow comments on my blog was due to this kind of problem. The veil of the Internet allows the harrassment of women more than in our daily culture - or that is my opinion. So I keep it all very shrouded. It makes me sad (at times) that I "need" to do that. I find those that DO put themselves out there, my heroes. And, I enjoyed this post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous "tech woman" has a point -- actively combat those who think they can easily get away with illegally threatening you. Run a couple to ground, and if complaining to a prosecutor’s office doesn’t work, take a couple to civil court and make sure the press knows about it.

They don’t even understand what a fundamental civic and personal infraction they are committing. They think it’s like cussing someone in another car, separated by two rolled-up windows and twenty feet of air. Wake them up. There are certainly acquaintances of theirs who will be disgusted by the revelation.

Lewis H said...

I think there idea of fusing, creating safe spaces and being humble and mindful about how hard this will be is one direction. For example, I'm active in Free Culture, the progressive jewish blog, jewschool, other prog. Jewish blogs, read boingboing, etc.

I studied w/ Manuel Castells, a leading expert in globalization who created the network society mode of analysis, and simply put, on a global level, identities (male/female/in between) are fracturing.

Eventually, change has to take place most imp. in reclaiming public spaces, but it's a long road, as recent news in LA testifies.