Internet sexual harassment

Internet sexual harassment

Jenn Jones

For someone that spends at least half of their working day on the computer, I tend to be quite selective. There is a lot of rubbish out there, and unless I know the organisation or it’s an official site, I rarely visit. That said, there are a lot of diamonds that are easily missed amongst the rough. To me, the internet is a place where women can gain access to information and resources. The internet is great for women because it provides a space where they can express their opinions, join online support groups, read feminist blogs and news, and participate in online forums. The possibilities are endless. However, the internet does have disadvantages for women. To begin, many women do not have the technology skills to use the internet, nor the money or resources to own computers and internet connections. Computer technology is not a subject that many women study, and on the whole the internet is a man’s domain. Essentially, the internet is a microcosm of society, where oppression of women is replicated and perpetuated. Internet pornography has to be the most obvious expression of this and the hazy guidelines and rules about censorship on the internet has led to hundreds and thousands of hard-core porn sites catering to every sicko’s fantasy.

Apart from porn, internet sexual harassment is another major issue on the internet for women. In an article in the Social Science Computer Review last year, Azy Barak identified two main forms of harassment most prevalent on the internet: gender harassment and unwanted sexual attention. Barak defined the first as “unwelcome verbal and visual comments and remarks that insult individuals because of their gender or that use stimuli known or intended to provoke negative emotions” (p.78). This category can be further divided into active or passive harassment. For example, active harassment is directed at particular users, through derogatory or degrading remarks, telling sexist jokes or making comments of a sexual nature. Here are two that I have encountered on a blog I used to write: “They’re probably busy gagging on your cock”; “You sound like you got some sand in your vagina” Many female online-opinion columnists or bloggers experience this sexual harassment daily. Feminist bloggers experience it the worst, with many moving to ban anonymous or unregistered users from commenting.

Passive harassment on the other hand isn’t as intrusive, or aimed at particular users – which makes it less identifiable and often more accepted. For example, it could be part of a computer users “profile” such as a pornographic picture for their user name, or including in their interests something like “best screw you’ll ever get”. Then there is also unwanted sexual attention, which Barak defines as “uninvited behaviours that explicitly communicate sexual desires or intentions toward another individual”. This could be suggesting or proposing sexual acts, either explicitly or implicitly, in comments on forums or message boards, or in an instant message or email. These are all common forms of internet harassment, and some users register with websites purely to harass other users – there are even special names for these users: “trolls” and “flamers”. This in turn creates a mindset of acceptability of harassment as a natural part of the World Wide Web. Trolling websites is a hobby, a game. It is not seen as either harassment or sexual harassment.

Research has shown that it is specifically women that are targeted for these kinds of harassment. According to a study by University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, those with traditionally female usernames in chat rooms receive 25 times more threatening and sexually inappropriate messages than people with traditionally male or even ambiguous usernames. On average, female user names received 163 malicious private messages a day in the study (which is huge). And this doesn’t include spam emails for Viagra, Cialis, or porn sites. Melanie Killen, Professor of human development in the University’s College of Education and Associate Director of the Centre for Children, Relationships and Culture, provides a description of the harassment: “Gender stereotypes and gender-targeted messages are very prevalent in internet chat rooms. Some people use the protected anonymity of the Internet to send provocative messages, often basing their assumptions about the recipient of the messages on very little information.”

Internet sexual harassment goes relatively undetected and named. Often we don’t realise its harassment, such as with passive harassment, or spam for pornography. Even when we name it as sexual harassment, most people wouldn’t complain, or act against it. Barriers to eradicating this behaviour often seem insurmountable when faced with the size of the internet and the many many ways that predators can get around rules, laws and regulations. The repercussions of challenging internet sexism and sexual harassment can be huge – I felt completely ostracised from the internet community where I used to blog for a number of months after I wrote a post challenging the sexism rampant on that site – but the rewards can be great too. I received over 100 comments on the topic, to varying degrees of support. Unsurprisingly, those users only interested in “trolling” did not see the validity in my complaint. But many women users on the site agreed with me, and asked for it to stop. A dialogue was created about what sexual harassment on the internet was, and how we felt. This goes to show that every individual effort to stand up against internet sexual harassment will make a difference – but a collective stance against it will always be more effective.


Blog = online journal, diary or column; short for “weblog”

Trolling = making deliberately inflammatory comments to incite angry responses or start an argument

Flaming = sending messages or posting comments that are deliberately hostile and insulting, whereby the user is attempting to assert their power or authority over another user.

Flamer = someone who engages in “flaming”

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