Every morning, Bailey Poland wakes up and goes online, following a routine familiar to most of us: read the news, check email and social media. From there, her routine will be familiar to many women, especially those with an active internet presence: she checks on the accounts that have sent her rape threats recently, to see if a report has been updated or if they are planning another wave of attacks; the she scrolls through the Facebook groups and blogs and other public postings to see if groups that coordinate harassment of women online are planning another attack on her or her friends. She preemptively blocks social media accounts that appear to exist only to allow someone to harass women online.
Wake up, get online, begin dealing with online violence.
If that sounds exhausting—or like a massive drain on brain power, mental health, and time—you are beginning to scratch the surface of why online harassment and violence is such a pernicious and urgent problem. Online violence is always-on, widespread, and almost never taken seriously by law enforcement. It drains the victims of time, money, peace of mind, and sometimes even leads to targets losing their jobs, with no hope of recourse or justice. Online violence plays out in much the same way that systems of prejudice, privilege, and power play out in real life: for example, black women are subject to a blend of racism and sexism (“misogynoir,” a term coined by queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey), while trans women deal with a blend of sexism and (“transmisogyny,” a term coined by trans-bi activist and biologist Julia Serano in her book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity).
Truly addressing online violence and harassment will involve a broad, intersectional movement that examines how real life power structures affect our interactions and environments online, but at the moment, even getting our broader culture to take online violence seriously is a struggle. When reporting online behavior that would be clearly illegal in real life (stalking, rape threats, death threats), law enforcement very often is uneducated on the basics of the internet, or is unwilling to pursue cases that involve tracking down anonymous account holders. Victims are told to “just log off”, “just block them”, or “don’t feed the trolls”—in other words, to handle harassment by ignoring it. Academic research and data collection on online violence and harassment is often treated as a byproduct, and not as a topic worthy of study in and of itself.
[Read next: Crawling Out of the Cyberswamp: It’s Time for Cyberfeminism 2.0]
It is in this environment that Bailey Poland published Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online. Her book, while academic in tone and thoroughly researched, is informed by Poland’s first-hand experience with online cybersexism (including a stalker that sent her rape and death threats for over a year), as well as by watching others in her network be subjected to varying degrees of online harassment and violence.
Poland is quick to note that her experience is relatively privileged—she is a cisgender, straight, white female who got a police officer to actually listen to and understand her problem—and the ways in which identities and online violence intersect is complex. As such, Haters focuses primarily on cybersexism, without venturing into a broader discussion of how racism, homophobia, transphobia, and more play out in online harassment. Poland calls for others from those backgrounds to write about the online violence they experience, and takes the approach in her book of diving deep into the causes, effects, and responses to the ways real life sexism is replicated (and very often amplified) in online life.
“Sexist attitudes color the majority of women’s interactions with the world, from expectations about how—and if—women should talk (online and off), to the skewed media representation of women, to male dominance, to violence against women, and more,” Poland writes. “The continued and rapid erasure of the lines between online and offline activities makes it impossible to fully separate online and offline harassment. Online harassment is rooted in offline beliefs, and those offline beliefs are supported and reinforced by the prevalence of sexist behaviors online.”
From the first chapter of Haters, Poland builds her case, examining first the broader cultural trends that impact women, then moving to how those patterns are replicated online. Cybersexism is expressed through two behaviors that stem from offline activities: 1) active and passive verbal harassment, and 2) graphic gender harassment. Very often, these two are combined, such as in a Twitter account that uses a graphic profile photo with a slur in the username to send threatening text and images to targets of harassment (Poland points to studies that examine how conservative views of gender are often expressed through memes, but calls for more studies to be done on how memes are used to communicate messages). Before the internet, laws and simple physical boundaries made it somewhat more difficult to harass women, with the result that targets were often limited to an individual or a handful of people. Now, it is possible to send threats to hundreds of people every hour at the press of a button.
The ease of finding female targets online to abuse, combined with the relative ease of staying anonymous while doing so and the low risk of being caught or punished for their behavior, means that cybersexism flourishes online. According to Poland, “Most cybersexists appear to feel a sense of impunity regarding the harassment and abuse they commit. […] Online harassers also assume that the Internet is an inherently sexist place, and therefore they see accepting abuse as the cost of entry for women; the prevalence of this attitude and its roost in the Wild West idealization of the Internet give online sexism the appearance of being an incontrovertible norm.” As cybersexist abusers are able to get away with worse and worse behavior, they are able to recruit more people to join in with them, and create an environment where increasingly extreme behavior is not only tolerated, but encouraged.
Most cybersexist abusers are aware that their threats will be taken seriously, so they often claim they were merely joking, and rely on a tactic often seen in domestic violence situations: DARVO (deny, attack, reverse victim and offender). In this tactic, it is the target of harassment that is the true offender for wanting to punish the abuser for a “joke”, and any attempt to claim these actions are harmful is people just being overly sensitive and “politically correct”. This attitude comes from the early days of the internet, when the perception of it being a lawless Wild West created a space that was male dominated, but it also comes from real life sexist attitudes, where women entering what is perceived to be a male space is seen as a threat that must be pushed out or silenced. As Poland explains, “By forcing the conversation to analyze women’s response to abuse rather than the abuse itself, cybersexists reinforce the idea that abuse is as inevitable as bad weather and, as a result, make it seem like our only option is to choose how we react to it.”
Ask a woman with a presence on the internet, and it is highly likely she has experienced some form of gendered harassment. Poland lays out a few of the various forms of harassment: derailing conversations and “mansplaining”; sexual objectification and gender essentialism; claiming free speech in response to criticism of sexist attitude; threats of violence; and doxxing and SWATting and stalking. A woman on the internet has probably heard all of the common responses to online violence as well, from victim blaming, to dismissal of the claims as serious (because “it’s just the internet”), to being told to “just log off.” Poland covers why none of these responses are particularly useful and can even be actively harmful, and she walks through some of the features and actions that tech platforms and authorities can take to actively reduce online harassment without resorting to victim blaming or lazy privacy policies.
Haters also has its weaknesses. Poland is hampered by the lack of research around the topic, so she returns to the same authors and scenarios to illustrate her arguments throughout the book. Furthermore, if a reader follows the topic of online violence and harassment closely, there may not be much in this book that is new. Poland does an excellent job of bringing together the research that does exist (the bibliography is 22 pages long), but does not offer much in the way of new research.
Overall, Haters is a thoroughly researched work that is best approached as an introduction to the challenges involved in addressing online harassment and violence against women. Poland examines the roots of cybersexism, challenges the common responses to online harassment, and presents the obstacles involved in fixing the problem through a studious, academic approach. As an introduction, the book will be a good starting point for anyone who wants to understand this increasingly complicated problem (and today, who can afford to be uneducated about how online harassment and violence affects our culture and politics?). It is our hope it will also be a jumping-off point for more research into this topic, because we cannot address online violence in any form without understanding the causes and elements that enable it.
Photo by narcosislabs, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Disclosure: Fibonacci Media Co./WhiteHat Magazine participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.
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