The Rise of Cybersexism

Photo by Evan Prunty

I worry about a lot of things with regards to the career I’ve chosen to pursue. I worry about not being good enough to get stories published. I worry about messing up when quoting sources or with ethical procedures. I worry every day that my writing is not original enough and won’t make a mark on the world. But hey, this is a worry that every aspiring journalist has in the beginning. But there’s one thing I’m worried about as an aspiring journalist who identifies as female, and it is crafting my career during the growth of social media and cybersexism.

Bailey Poland, author of the book Haters, writes that “…hardly a month goes by when the news isn’t following yet another extreme example of the price women pay for being visible online.” She describes cybersexism as “the expression of prejudice, privilege and power in online spaces and through technology as a medium.”

I think everyone, including the tech-savvy millennials, are still adjusting to the power that comes with the advancements of the internet. Often, we’ve been hearing stories of people — most of whom are in the spotlight — getting harassed for voicing their opinions online. There have always been and always will be conflicting opinions, as well as people who are willing to voice them. But it’s clear that the accessibility and connectivity of social media outlets are giving a stronger medium than ever before.

I remember back in middle school, our generation was being warned about cyber bullying during a time in which we were just being introduced to the sheer power of the internet and what it can do. Now, I’m in my third year of college and we’re still having the same problems that are growing and evolving in different ways. While in middle school, I remember receiving mean messages from people via Myspace, and today I get anonymous messages on apps like Yik-Yak or Twitter. Nothing has changed, it’s only evolved. Now there are even online chat groups or Twitter accounts specifically made for saying terrible things about people. The hate has grown and changed, and as usual, it targets certain groups of people more.

Holly Bland, a Journalism and Pre-Law student at Cleveland State shares that sexist hate on the internet is almost too common for her.

“One instance that really sticks out to me was when I started talking about my abortion online. I got a lot of hate from people that I grew up with and I got a lot of death threatening messages from women as well. There was this one girl who was explicitly blowing up my inbox saying that I should’ve known what happened when I ‘opened my legs.” Additionally to this Bland experienced online abuse during the 2016 Election and got bombarded by hate messages from people to the point where it got overwhelming and tiring.

There’s always a medium for hate, and it feels like people don’t see the seriousness of it when it’s just through cyberspace. “Just block and ignore them,” some say. A lot of times it’s not that simple, because a great deal of this online harassment has deep roots in our cultural foundation. Words and symbols can matter, and the stronger the medium, the more it’s able to shape culture as well as our perception of others — especially those with less privilege.

Cybersexism emerged as a term when the threats through cyber bullying became gender-specific. Celebrities as well as well-known journalists who are women get very specific cyberbullying, including rape threats or other insults relating to their sex. In 2014, the story that really blew up was that of Anita Sarkeesian, a video game critic who brought up female stereotypes usually perpetuated in games. Sarkeesian made an editorial on her YouTube channel talking about this and the video game community attacked her to the point of death threats. A more recent example includes the incident with Leslie Jones, one of the stars of the new Ghostbusters film who was attacked because of outraged misogynists who were upset by the fact that the film contained female actors. The comments Jones received were not only sexist but also racially charged. On January 19th, 2016 she tweeted, “I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart . All this ’cause I did a movie. You can hate the movie but the shit I got today…wrong.” It’s clear that the environment online towards women can get so toxic that it is impossible to ignore.

Online spaces can foster misogyny and sexism in many different ways because it provides a new kind of outlet to express bigoted frustrations. It used to be mostly a problem coming from people we know in our circles, but now it’s a whole different ball game with hashtags and anonymous accounts. The highest influx of online hate that I’ve received and seen other women receive is through Twitter, or in the depths of the comment sections on Facebook. It’s interesting that the most hate women get is when they’re defending anything to do with feminism — a movement dedicated to advancing toward equality of the sexes. It’s clear that a lot of these internet “trolls” even go to the lengths of simply searching “feminists” in the tags to find a woman to harass. These people might not be the same ones going to feminist marches and counter-protesting, but the internet gives them enough courage to speak their true views about how much they hate female empowerment and how feminism is a threat to them.

It’s important to note that, given the age we are living in, these aren’t just comments that are made online and can be deleted. Women get comments like this on the street, at school or in their place of work constantly. So when we’re also getting bombarded with these message online, it creates a whole new level of abuse — an abuse that now includes sexual harassment which reinforces the idea that men have the power to harass women all they want. It becomes constant and it begins to enter every part of our lives. 
 The cybersexism that women experience is reinforcing an age-old concept: a woman who is vocal is seen as an enemy. A woman who has any kind of power, even the power of social media and connectivity is seen as a threat. This is a problem just evolved in a different medium, with a different type of stifling. People like to think that this won’t do that much harm — that these are just words on a screen that have no impact. I hypothesize that isn’t the case. Cyberbullying and online abuse can often lead to affecting an individual’s mental well being, so we shouldn’t’ fool ourselves that we’re safe behind the screen.

Social media can embolden discriminatory behavior as as much as it can help fix it, and we shouldn’t be naive. It’s time to understand that social media and the online world have become a normalized thing in our present and future. The online world is a great source of political and cultural power — stifling this or taking it away from people with less privilege is another form of oppression. The internet will never truly be ‘the great equalizer’ if it doesn’t treat all women with all backgrounds with full respect and openness. Digital spaces and interactions have become just as real to us in some ways, so that makes the pain and abuse we experience just as valid. The one way to combat this is to call out misogynists online as you would in the real world. Just because a sexist comment is on Facebook doesn’t make it less harmful. Just because something is tweeted at you, doesn’t mean you should feel stupid for being hurt. It is important to realize that with each advancement we make as humans, the hate and bigotry often advances as well.

Originally published in the Vindicator Magazine, 2017 March issue