Internet sexual harassment
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”
A different sort of dieting
This is about the relationship that women have with food and with their bodies, and about the subtle ways we as feminists manage to maintain the unhealthy aspects of that relationship, even though we’ve learnt not to talk about dieting. This is something that I have given a lot of thought to. Turning these thoughts into writing was prompted some time ago in reaction to the way that ‘healthy eating’ was discussed in “10 wise ways women’s to wellness” in issue 2 of muse. It’s been half finished on my computer for some time and only now, after listening to the conversations over dessert at another community potluck, that I’ve found the motivation to finish and submit my writing.
Because of the huge impact that food and body image has had on my life I don’t feel that I can discuss this issue honestly unless I do so in the context of my own experiences. I must locate myself in my body. I wish that I could give an in-depth physical description of my body so as to locate myself within it, however I have not yet learned to view or talk about my body in a way that I feel is ‘healthy’, and I fear I cannot do so without being self-deprecating. It seems relevant to say however, that my body has never been what is deemed ‘attractive’ by our society and since the birth of my son ten months ago, it has moved even further away from it. Having said this, before I became pregnant my body came close enough to the ideal that I at times experienced the false power and sense of approval that this brings, as well as the particular type of objectification and sexual harassment that many women choose to take as a compliment. While I was visibly pregnant I found that this type of attention stopped and was replaced with an entirely different type. Everyone, from friends to complete strangers seemed to think it appropriate to comment on my body, it appeared to become public property. Pregnant women’s bodies are objectified but this objectification is not sexual. Now that I am not pregnant, have put on weight and am usually accompanied by a baby, I appear to have become quite invisible. My adorable baby is public property for everyone to comment on. I am just an accessory to him.
For as long as I can remember I have found my body entirely unsatisfactory, been trying to change it, found it hard to believe anyone else could find it attractive. I did not see this as having a negative body image because this is how I had always seen other women respond to their bodies and on the continuum of self loathing mine seemed pretty minor. I don’t remember when I first began feeling guilty about what I ate, but this was also something that I believed to be normal. The fact that I enjoyed eating and did not particularly enjoy exercising meant that I have existed in a perpetual state of low level guilt probably since around puberty. I have at times bought into various alternative ideas of ‘healthy eating’ from fasting to low carb to dairy free, claiming to be doing so because it was ‘good for me’ while actually hoping or believing that if I could do this for long enough I would lose weight. I always got a sense of virtuousness from the sensation of hunger and felt that I was doing something morally repugnant when I was eating anything other than salad.
It is only in the last few years, through women’s consciousness raising groups that I have taken part in, that I have come to realise and grieve for the pain and unhappiness my body image has caused me. I now consider it to be a birth right to feel beautiful and sexy that has been taken from me. I have made huge efforts to look at and talk about my body differently. I now ask women not to put down their own bodies around me and ask people not to comment on mine. I’m not sure that I will ever be able to separate how I feel about my body from how society talks about women’s bodies, and I feel absolutely furious about this.
Because of the huge amount of thought I have put into trying to improve the relationship I have with my body and with eating I am now mistrustful of what is really going on when I hear people talking about food in most contexts. Within the circles that I move many women have been analysing and deconstructing their body image in a similar way to me. It is something we discuss often. Many of us have got better at pulling other women up on talking about bodies in an unhealthy way. Despite this, I often hear other feminist women taking part in moralistic discussions about food, of a sort that are very similar to those that happen in the mainstream. Many feminists still consider these conversations perfectly acceptable. Often these conversations are about health and what food is healthy and what food is not. We all want to be healthy. It is important to look after yourself and this means watching what you eat. We would never discuss cutting down our sugar intake in order to look good in a bikini for summer but it is perfectly alright to cut down on sugar because it is bad for you in other ways. The lines between healthy eating and weight loss are pretty blurry though, especially since the food that makes you put on weight is usually food that you can justify cutting out for other health reasons. Discussion of weight, when framed in terms of ‘health’ rather than appearance also often slips by unnoticed. We are told constantly that being fat is not healthy and therefore should be avoided, but since the vast majority of women in our society know deeply that fat is bad and a good proportion of those women are convinced that they are fat, this is not only completely unnecessary but deeply damaging.
I have found discussions about eating healthily to be just one of the subtle ways that we manage to reinforce our bad relationships with food without actually talking about fat or weight loss. Most of the people in my life are very politically active people. We have no trouble finding reasons to restrict what we eat. There are lots of political reasons to avoid different foods. We can cut out animal-related food because of the exploitation, we can cut out a zillion brands of foods because they’re produced by evil corporations, we can cut out foods that aren’t organic because of the effect on the environment. Perhaps we have worked hard to transcend the guilt we associate with food that makes us fat, but we still have guilt and sin associated with food, it’s just for political reasons now. This is still about control. This is still eating disordered behaviour. It also happens to be a lot of the same foods we felt guilty about before. Weight loss is just a side effect. (Perhaps we can see it as a pleasant reward for being so virtuous!) All of these restrictions that many of us place on our consumption create a culture in which food is being talked about a lot. Often health-related diets get muddled into the conversation, someone is on a raw food diet, someone else is trying to cut down on carbohydrates. No one notices that this has stopped being political and become about just depriving ourselves of food for the sake of it. We are so used to talking about what we should and shouldn’t eat that it seems perfectly normal.
A language has developed in which food is ascribed moral attributes. Chocolate is ‘naughty’, chips are ‘junk’ food, wheat is ‘evil’, sugar is ‘bad’, raw grated carrot salad is ‘good’. This language permeates our thinking constantly. We cannot pick up food without assessing its’ goodness or badness before taking a bite. Feeling virtuous or guilty. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just eat! To eat with joy and relish!
In the short term I want to deconstruct this issue further in feminist circles. I would like feminist spaces to be one space where my issues with food and with my body are not reinforced. Dialogue needs to be opened up in order to find healthy language to use when talking about health and food. I would like us to constantly challenge ideas of health, to challenge ideas of ‘good food’ and ‘bad food’. And to constantly remind ourselves that most women in our society can’t think about food without thinking about weight, and as a result any conversation about food has the potential to reinforce negative body image.
As a feminist I have a long term goal that women’s bodies and our sexualities will one day belong to ourselves. That our daughters will grow up believing that they are gorgeous and sexy regardless of their body shape. We will be able to have a relationship with ourselves that is separate to the way we are portrayed in the media and in society. We will be able to enjoy food and decide what food is good for our bodies in a way that is healthy and not projected onto by outside factors. We will be able to get honest health and nutritional information that is not in fact trying to shrink and control us, but trusts women to make decisions about their own bodies.
Building bridges and why we should bother.
Some thoughts from lenka
“What we risk reveals what we value.” Jeanette Winterson
I’ve often heard women who don’t like feminists or call themselves “I feminists” or “post feminists” say that women are women’s own worst enemy. This is usually followed by talking about how bitchy and mean women are to each other. I don’t think that many feminists would try to claim that any amount of bitching, backstabbing or even bad meetings would make other women a worse enemy to them than the patriarchy for its years of rape, violence, control and oppression. But I have heard feminist women talk about being treated badly by other feminists and how traumatic and disappointing this experience is.
I am feeling motivated to write about this right now partly as a result of a rather upsetting weekend-long feminist workshop that I and many other Wellington feminists attended. I do not want to write about the events of the weekend in depth, only to say that communication was not good, people behaved badly at times, there was conflict and many women left feeling hopeless and upset. The way that I have heard many women talking in the aftermath of the weekend has made me realise what extremely high expectations we have of other women, even other women who we hardly know. I think that for many of us having a bad experience with other feminist women is so much harder to take than having a bad experience with any other group. Our expectations of each other are so high, and so the disappointment when those expectations aren’t met is huge. I have heard women say that they feel really reluctant to attend feminist events outside their usual familiar groups because it feels too unsafe.
I have also been finding that lately the feminist groups that I am involved in have lacked passion and energy. We feel a bit lost and listless. I often feel that we have huge amounts of energy and passion when reacting to a crisis or responding to a negative experience we have had with men, but when we come together just as women we don’t really know where to start! This is hard to deal with and many women have felt discouraged and stopped coming to meetings as a result. Many of us have had such amazing, cathartic, life changing experiences in women’s groups that we attend expecting it to always be like that. When we arrive and find that it is unexciting and hard work we feel let down.
While I completely understand and relate to both these feeling I find it really sad and feel that it is somewhat of a victory for the patriarchy that women are not managing to find broader solidarity with each other than we are. I guess that what I am trying to do by writing this article is to encourage us not to give up on each other. Wider solidarity among feminist women is worth fighting for.
I am not suggesting that we should lower our expectations of each other because I do believe we are capable of working together amazingly and achieving huge things. But I think we’re going to need to put some work in to get to that point and that it is likely to push our tolerance and sometimes be hard and boring.
We struggle so hard and so constantly to work with men, in personal relationships, in groups and in families. Most feminists I know struggle to live alongside men and to do political work with men every day. For me personally this has involved struggling to resolve issues of sexism in countless groups. Running some horribly disempowering workshops for men on sexism (and some more successful ones), trying to work with rapists and dealing with being objectified, ignored, belittled and patronised by men I love and trust. None of this has got any easier. I have learned lots of hard lessons. I have incorporated a great deal more separatism into my life but I have not given up on men. It is too important. I have to exist in this world. I have a brother, a father, male friends and most importantly a nephew and a son. Giving up is not an option.
The fact that I can’t give up on men makes it even more important that I struggle to build wider and stronger networks and relationships with other women. And surely if I can endure hard work and disappointment for men I can endure it for women too!
It is lovely to think that we can all come together with ease and automatically be full of energy and have our shit together (by which I mean being able to communicate in a way that works and feels safe for everyone). Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a lot to expect. It shouldn’t be. But we have all been struggling to live under the patriarchy! The fact that we are feminists doesn’t make us immune. If there is one thing the patriarchy has worked hard at, it’s eroding women’s ability to come together and find solidarity without men. I do not want to condone bad behaviour. I am just saying that we are all human. We are hurting and we are passionate. There is urgency and excitement and desperation. We are often scared and often angry. We often get it wrong and sadly we treat each other badly sometimes. I think that this is all a side effect of how deeply we care and just how important it is. If we are going to create a truly strong feminist movement we are going to have to push though the hard bits and challenge bad behaviour in women, just as we have all become accustomed to challenging bad behaviour in men. We have to have high expectations of each other but we also have to have the commitment, understanding and trust to help each other live up to those expectations. It’s not easy and it’s scary, but I believe it’s one of the most important and rewarding things we can do and to me it’s what feminism is all about.
The Revolution won’t be Televised
… it will be online. The internet these days is full of amazing feminist resources that are just waiting to be read! But it can be really hard to find particular stuff when you need it – when you google “feminism” the first sites that come up are Wikipedia, another is for the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the next few sites are kind of random. One is even an anti-feminist site. Seeing as I spend half my life on the computer and internet with work, study, and for fun, I thought I would give the low-down on some of the feminist sites available which include news, information, activism ideas and links to other sites. These are essentially online portals to the feminist revolution…
Weekly feminist newsreader. Interviews with inspirational feminists. Links to hundreds of feminist websites. Probing commentary on the sexist, racist and homophobic nature of society. Thoughtful and intelligent discussion forums. *sigh* this is a feminist web-geeks heaven! Feministing’s mission statement says: “Young women are rarely given the opportunity to speak on their own behalf on issues that affect their lives and futures. Feministing provides a platform for us to comment, analyze and influence.” It is a news based blog by a group of young women in America, who point out the raging sexism in everyday life. Basically, I can’t get enough of this site, and recommend it to everyone, particularly if you need to be reminded why we still need strong feminists. It gives me new reasons every day!
Feminist Majority Foundation
This website is chock-a-block full of real feminist bits. That is, there’s a lot going on at feminist.org! The name was chosen after a Newsweek/Gallup poll indicated that 56% of American females self-identified as feminist – and they also believe the majority of men would support the goals of feminism too. FMF was formed in 1987, and describes itself as “a cutting edge organization dedicated to women’s equality, reproductive health, and non-violence.” FMF explains that its goal is to utilise “research and action to empower women economically, socially, and politically. Our organization believes that feminists – both women and men, girls and boys – are the majority, but this majority must be empowered.” The cool thing about this site is that you can sign up for feminist news updates, delivered straight to your email. The downside is that it is very American focussed, both the news and the site. That said there are some good links and some excellent activism ideas on this site. I particularly like their sister site, Feminist Campus (www.feministcampus.org) because it shows the organisation taking a lead role in spreading the feminist message to American tertiary campuses.
Girlistic say that they are “the ultimate online feminist resource”, which is a pretty big call considering the number of sites around that do similar things. Girlistic’s introduction states “Providing education and entertainment, pop and politics, culture and community, resources and shopping, Girlistic is the first place to visit for women-centered information.” Again, big call to make! What I like about Girlistic though is the combination of fun empowering stuff to do, like on their DIY page, their expansive links page (I mean expansive as in 133 links for “resources”, and 214 links to what they entitle “that’s life” which encompasses sexuality, sexual health, motherhood and blogs.) It also has a snazzy new online feminist zine, which explains itself as “a blend of refined intellect and raw entertainment. Think: Ms. and Bitch have a threesome with Bust and the result is a bouncing baby Girlistic.” Their online zine is coming out on the 1st December so I will certainly be looking out for that. They have a myspace page too, if you’re that way inclined. (www.myspace.com/girlistic)
The F Word
An online zine created by Melody Berger, a women’s studies major at Temple University in Philadelphia. As well has featuring some pretty amazing illustrations, there are interviews with some pretty cool feminists, like Bitch (formerly from the musical duo Bitch and Animal) and Gloria Steinem. Other articles featured on the e-zine confront issues such as gender identity, international feminisms, and feminist craft (yay!). There is also a really great links section to online resources about AIDS, Racism, being Body Positive, Crafts, Disablity, Environment, GLBT, Homelessness, and Vegetarian/Animal Rights. The site is quite user friendly with a focus on all forms of sexuality, creative arts/writing, and a call for interested women to contribute. The only down side is the site hasn’t been updated in a while.
Another feminist e-zine!!! Looks like Muse might have to get internet savvy to keep up. Wo! Magazine is an Australian site, which combines a downloadable PDF zine, a blog (online journal) and a “lad-busters” page, which is where people can send in photos or ideas for good old fashioned activism like stencils, adbusts, and other forms of subverting popular culture. The main focus of the site however is their full colour zine, which has really admirable aims: “It is an attempt, of sorts, at repositioning feminism in a society which is still obsessed with the ‘hairy bra-burner’ myth. We want to pick ourselves up from feminist ‘ground zero’, dust ourselves off and redefine the ‘f-word’. In other words, Wo! Magazine aims to challenge the myths perpetuated in the mass-media and elsewhere whilst providing timely, intelligent and amusing commentary on issues that affect us.” Wo! also comes from a pluralistic perspective, which is something that is coming across very strongly in many of the third wave, or current generation, of feminist websites. I have the feeling however that as Wo! is a quarterly e-zine, not much will change on their webpage for periods of time. Oh, and there is also a myspace page for Wo Magazine too. (www.myspace.com/wo_magazine)
Guerrilla Girls are awesome, and their site is worth checking out to get some ideas for activism if you’re interested in the way women are portrayed in the media, in art and in Hollywood. The GG’s aim to highlight and eradicate sexism, racism and homophobia from the art world and Hollywood, and take drastic measures to do so! The GG crew are all anonymous and wear guerrilla masks when they have public appearances. Their pseudonyms are based on famous female artists. Their site is well organised, and is bright and colourful. My favourite section is where you can view all the feminist activism they have done since the early 80s, in their stickers, posters, billboards and protests. There are also cool downloads like their posters or stickers, so you can spread the GG love.
Guerrilla Girls Broad Band
GG Broadband is an interesting site, but is quite hard to use. The site also doesn’t have much flow… basically it’s a lot of cool but unrelated feminist snippets. They have three main headings: war, the ‘f-word’ and culture. These all have various sub-headings, loosely related. There are some great graphics on this site, downloadable anti-Bush posters, a cute animation, and an interesting quiz about your feminist workplace personality. It’s a good site to spend an afternoon on, but there isn’t much meat there like some other sites.
Although I don’t identify as anarcha-feminist, I really enjoy this site and find it really useful and enlightening. Anarcha provides an alternative perspective on the whole to the more generalised or liberal feminist sites such as Feminist Majority Foundation. The site includes a really good image library, and there are some great anarchist and gender resources such as the “Sallydarity” page. Another purpose of this site is to be a place where anarcha-fems can publish their work, share ideas, and generally be heard. Yay!
So, happy surfing! If you have any feminist websites that you think are worth spreading the news about email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OPINION: When women’s rights are not women’s rights
I recently wrote an article on the impact of postmodernism on feminist history. I spent hours delving into postmodern theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and their application in feminist history by women such as Joan Wallach Scott and Judith Butler. By the end of it, I was quite convinced that postmodernism was truly the way to go for my discipline. It was able to take into account problems with feminist theory such as differences with the overarching category of “women”, and allow all women’s voices to be heard and valued within history (or herstory!)
Essentially, postmodern history celebrates diversity of opinion and experience, encourages plurality of truths, and promotes a “deconstruction” of language and the way that it operates through symbolism, myths and signs. With it comes a shift from feminist history that examines women’s lives and experiences with the purpose of advocating for equity and equality, to gender history, which examines the relational concept of gender as a social construct and the power relationships inherent in relationships. In itself this is not a bad thing, because an understanding of women’s oppression certainly requires an investigation into the aspects of gender relations that contribute to it. What concerned me was the shift in mindset away from women’s history and feminist history, in favour of only studying gender history. To me, this is unacceptable. Gender history should be a complementary discipline, not the primary one.
This shift towards “gender” studies, away from women’s studies, is part of a wider trend in our society that transfers any focus solely on women to a focus on how men are also affected by these issues. While trying to be more pluralistic in our focus, while trying to accommodate different groups within “women” we start to loose sight of the aims of feminist disciplines. Indeed, there is a wider trend within society to take the focus off women, and to show how men are also affected by the same issues. Suddenly, it is “PC gone mad” if we focus solely on women’s issues, and do not take a gendered focus that takes men into account.
Strictly speaking this new discourse is not postmodern, and skews the relational aspect of gender studies – which look at the way the sexes interact and impact each other’s lives. Postmodernism may have been the starting point, but the new trend is having a much more damaging effect on the women’s movement. Campaigns that highlight violence against women become simply anti violence campaigns. Women’s rights officers become Gender officers. Women’s organisations shy away from denouncing the ills of society that affect women, but also point out how men suffer too. The discourse becomes about single issues, such as violence, rather than about a systematic oppression of one gender by the other. In fact, gender is often taken out of the equation all together.
I don’t know the solution to this problem. What I do know that when women’s rights are demonised as too politically correct, or as reverse sexism, something is seriously wrong. Particularly when we live in a world where one in four women have been raped or sexually abused, earn 86% of what men earn, and are still subject to demeaning stereotypes in the media. No amount of deconstruction or semiotics or postmodern theory will solve these problems. Only advocacy and activism grounded in personal experiences can.
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