How the web became a sexists' paradise

Everyone receives abuse online but the sheer hatred thrown at women 
bloggers has left some in fear for their lives. Jessica Valenti, 
editor of, reports

Jessica Valenti
Friday April 6, 2007

Last week, Kathy Sierra, a well-known software programmer and Java 
expert, announced that she had cancelled her speaking engagements and 
was "afraid to leave my yard" after being threatened with 
suffocation, rape and hanging. The threats didn't come from a stalker 
or a jilted lover and they weren't responses to a controversial book 
or speech. Sierra's harassers were largely anonymous, and all the 
threats had been made online.

Sierra had been receiving increasingly abusive comments on her 
website, Creating Passionate Users, over the previous year, but had 
not expected them to turn so violent - her attackers not only 
verbally assaulting her ("fuck off you boring slut . . . I hope 
someone slits your throat") but also posting photomontages of her on 
other sites: one with a noose next to her head and another depicting 
her screaming with a thong covering her face. Since she wrote about 
the abuse on her website, the harassment has increased. "People are 
posting all my private data online everywhere - social-security 
number, and home address - a retaliation for speaking out."

While no one could deny that men experience abuse online, the sheer 
vitriol directed at women has become impossible to ignore. Extreme 
instances of stalking, death threats and hate speech are now 
prevalent, as well as all the everyday harassment that women have 
traditionally faced in the outside world - cat-calls, for instance, 
or being "rated" on our looks. It's all very far from the utopian 
ideals that greeted the dawn of the web - the idea of it as a new, 
egalitarian public space, where men and women from all races, and of 
all sexualities, could mix without prejudice.

On some online forums anonymity combined with misogyny can make for 
an almost gang-rape like mentality. One recent blog thread, attacking 
two women bloggers, contained comments like, "I would fuck them both 
in the ass,"; "Without us you would be raped, beaten and killed for 
nothing,"; and "Don't worry, you or your friends are too ugly to be 
put on the black market."

Jill Filipovic, a 23-year-old law student who also writes on the 
popular blog, Feministe, recently had some photographs of her 
uploaded and subjected to abusive comments on an online forum for 
students in New York. "The people who were posting comments about me 
were speculating as to how many abortions I've had, and they talked 
about 'hate-fucking' me," says Filipovic. "I don't think a man would 
get that; the harassment of women is far more sexualised - men may be 
told that they're idiots, but they aren't called 'whores'."

Most disturbing is how accepted this is. When women are harassed on 
the street, it is considered inappropriate. Online, though, sexual 
harassment is not only tolerated - it's often lauded. Blog threads or 
forums where women are attacked attract hundreds of comments, and 
their traffic rates rocket.

Is this what people are really like? Sexist and violent? Misogynist 
and racist? Alice Marwick, a postgraduate student in New York 
studying culture and communication, says: "There's the disturbing 
possibility that people are creating online environments purely to 
express the type of racist, homophobic, or sexist speech that is no 
longer acceptable in public society, at work, or even at home."

Last year I had my own run-in with online sexism when I was invited 
to a lunch meeting with Bill Clinton, along with a handful of other 
bloggers. After the meeting, a group photo of the attendees with 
Clinton was posted on several websites, and it wasn't long before 
comments about my appearance ("Who's the intern?; "I do like Gray 
Shirt's three-quarter pose.") started popping up.

One website, run by law professor and occasional New York Times 
columnist Ann Althouse, devoted an entire article to how I was 
"posing" so as to "make [my] breasts as obvious as possible". The 
post, titled "Let's take a closer look at those breasts," ended up 
with over 500 comments. Most were about my body, my perceived 
whorishness, and how I couldn't possibly be a good feminist because I 
had the gall to show up to a meeting with my breasts in tow. One 
commenter even created a limerick about me giving oral sex. Althouse 
herself said that I should have "worn a beret . . . a blue dress 
would have been good too". All this on the basis of a photograph of 
me in a crew-neck sweater from Gap.

I won't even get into the hundreds of other blogs and websites that 
linked to the "controversy." It was, without doubt, the most 
humiliating experience of my life - all because I dared be 
photographed with a political figure.

But a picture does seem to be considered enough reason to go on a 
harassment rampage. Some argue that the increased visibility afforded 
people by the internet - who doesn't have a blog, MySpace page, or 
Flickr account these days? - means that harassment should be 
expected, even acceptable. When feminist and liberal bloggers slammed 
Althouse for her attack on me, she argued that having been in a photo 
where I was "posing" made me fair game. When Filipovic complained 
about her harassment, the site responded: "For a woman who has made 
4,000 pictures of herself publicly available on Flickr, and who is a 
self-proclaimed feminist author of a widely-disseminated blog, she 
has gotten pretty shy about overexposure."

Ah, the "she was asking for it" defence."I think there's a tendency 
to put the blame on the victims of stalking, harassment or even 
sexual violence when the victim is a woman - and especially when 
she's a woman who has made herself public," says Filipovic. "Public 
space has traditionally been reserved for men, and women are supposed 
to be quiet."

Sierra thinks that online threats, even if they are coming from a 
small group of people, have tremendous potential to scare women from 
fully participating online. "How many rape/fantasy threats does it 
take to make women want to lay low? Not many," she says.

But even women who don't put their pictures or real names online are 
subject to virtual harassment. A recent study showed that when the 
gender of an online username appears female, they are 25 times more 
likely to experience harassment. The study, conducted by the 
University of Maryland, found that female user-names averaged 163 
threatening and/or sexually explicit messages a day.

"The promise of the early internet," says Marwick, "was that it would 
liberate us from our bodies, and all the oppressions associated with 
prejudice. We'd communicate soul-to-soul, and get to know each other 
as people, rather than judging each other based on gender or race." 
In reality, what ended up happening was that, online, the default 
identity became male and white - unless told otherwise, you would 
assume you were talking to a white man. "So people who brought up 
their ethnicity, or people who complained about sexism in online 
communications, were seen as 'playing the race/gender card' or trying 
to stir up trouble," says Marwick.

And while online harassment doesn't necessarily create the same 
immediate safety concerns as street harassment, the consequences are 
arguably more severe. If someone calls you a "slut" on the street, it 
stings - but you can move on. If someone calls you a "slut" online, 
there's a public record as long as the site exists.

Let me tell you, it's not easy to build a career as a feminist writer 
when you have people coming up to you in pubs asking if you're the 
"Clinton boob girl" or if one of the first items that comes up in a 
Google search of your name is "boobgate". And for young women 
applying for jobs, the reality is terrifying. Imagine a potential 
employer searching for information and coming across a thread about 
what a "whore" you are.

Thankfully, women are fighting back. Sparked by the violent 
harassment of Sierra, one blogger started a "stop cyberbullying" 
campaign. This was picked up by hundreds of other bloggers and an 
international women's technology organisation, Take Back the Tech, a 
global network of women who encourage people to "take back online 
spaces" by writing, video blogging, or podcasting about online 

It won't mean the end of misogyny on the web, but it is a start. Such 
campaigns show that women are ready to demand freedom from harassment 
and fear in our new public spaces. In the same way that we should be 
able to walk down the street without fear of being raped, women 
shouldn't have to stay quiet online - or pretend to be men - to be 
free of threats and harassment. It is time to take back the sites.