by Mary Ellen Dingley
The very first thing I did on the internet was go on Ask Jeeves and search the Loch Ness Monster. (I know, I’m a nerd.) I was maybe 11 years old and I was fascinated by the reams of information I had at my fingertips. I’ve loved the internet ever since.
I use the internet to find jobs, to write articles and make an income as well as connect with friends and family on social media. The internet is an inescapable part of most of our lives. Unfortunately for many people, internet harassment is also inescapable. And the people who catch the brunt of it are young women. And if you’re a woman of color it seems to be even worse.
We’ve recently seen some sad examples from women being harassed online – Leslie Jones was attacked multiple times, with her website recently being hacked, in a show of vitriolic racism and sexism. The most famous case of online harassment might be “GamerGate”, when female video game commentators were threatened so badly online some of them had to flee their homes.
It’s not just celebrities or bloggers who get harassed online – any woman is fair game. Like the lady who posted a photo of some new headphones only to get sexually charged commentary. One woman made an entire instagram account from the harassment women receive while online dating. The harassment runs the gamut from rude to violent threats – threats that law enforcement doesn’t always take seriously.
Some researchers warn that online harassment of women could soon become an entrenched norm, an embedded part of our culture. And it’s hard to change culture.
But the internet is not going away, and if anything, it will only become more integral to our lives. Fighting for the culture of the internet is vital. Women can’t reach equality if they are having to shut down their accounts from harassment on the biggest economic and social platform of our day.
How do we work for cultural change online? Women’s only spaces have sprung up, but they are limited and impractical for all occasions. There is a lot of love for (some) women who get harassed, like Leslie Jones, there are happy-feel-good sites like UpWorthy, and nicest places on the Internet like Humans of New York and the now defunct The Toast, “feminist tinder” like Bumble, but the main culture still tends towards Youtube flame wars and harassment of women.
This culture did not spring up with the internet of course, it comes from the IRL (in real life) culture of sexism. But real life culture has changed plenty of times, via organized movements, or individual thought leaders galvanizing people, or big events, or small, incremental changes of everyday life. We no longer believe women aren’t able to work or run marathons or handle politics. Planned cultural change has happened and can happen again. Entrenched sexism is, of course, very difficult to root out. But while we can’t always change someone’s beliefs, we can change what is considered acceptable and appropriate social behavior.
The fact that harassers are getting called out by the harassed and influential online personalities are speaking out is a great first step to changing social norms. But change will take all Citizens of the Internet being ready and able to stand up for women (in a civil, respectful way) and their right to exist on the internet without harassment. Creating a culture means new social norms, where harassment is no longer considered normal and respect is.
About the Author: Mary Ellen Dingley works in communications and international development in Washington, DC. She earned her master’s degree in anthropology and development management from the London School of Economics. She’s passionate about gender equality, literature and Googling obscure facts.