Our Conversations Shouldn’t Focus On How Men Feel About Female Victimization
By Dianna Anderson
When we dehumanize women by making them vessels for telling traumatic stories, it’s nothing more than trauma porn.
Whenever I bring up the ongoing media conversation about harassment of women online with people who don’t spend much time on the internet (or have apparently been living under a rock) and explain the kind of treatment I’ve received, I get some variation of a shocked “People said WHAT?” Sometimes, that shock and surprise turns into a strange kind of sadness, with the person attempting to apologize on behalf of people they’ve never met, and having all kinds of feelings at me about my experiences with online trolling.
As a writer and woman with a slightly-lower profile online, I don’t get the levels of vitriol or abuse many women and non-binary people face. I’ve been told once or twice that I should be raped, but no one’s sent me pictures of where I live or threatened to show up at my work. Most of the time, the harassment I receive can be somewhat amusing — like the guy who told me I’d broken a “blood covenant” by having premarital sex or the dude who insisted I tell him my income. But I’ve also occasionally felt scared when trolls made comments far too personal or indicated that I’m easy to find, should they want to. Mercifully, no one has ever acted on those inclinations.
When I describe this background noise of harassment to men, usually in the same tone as one would recite a grocery list, it seems to bother them. It’s as though they expect some kind of emotional performance — perhaps tears or hysterics — and when I don’t engage, they feel the need to feel those emotions for me. All too often, a conversation about my experience of harassment online becomes about how my male friends feel about it and the entire discussion turns into me attempting to console them like Jack Donaghy trying to console a hungover Liz Lemon. Once, for example, when I explained to a male friend that I had been dealing with hateful messages on Twitter for 48 hours, he began to tear up and expressed frustration over not being able to help — I ended up assuring him it was okay, even though I was the one dealing with the messages.
Men seem to expect some kind of emotional performance — perhaps tears or hysterics.
This same dynamic of emotional labor has played out again and again in campaigns attempting to raise awareness of the way women are trolled online. Recently, I couldn’t get away from the #MoreThanMean campaigns from Just Not Sports, where men read harassing and hateful tweets to the very women — sports reporters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro — who received them. The tone starts off joking until they get to the tweets with misogynistic slurs. Then the men don’t know what to do.
At one point, a man reads a tweet saying “Hopefully this skank Julie DiCaro is Bill Cosby’s next victim. That would be classic.” He looks up at her, as though pleading for help, as though looking for comfort. “I don’t know what to say to that,” DiCaro replies.
Throughout the video, the men look up and around, recognizing the physical proximity of the woman hearing the tweets. At times they seem to be looking at the woman for reassurance that “it’s okay,” “it’s not that bad,” which the women, to their credit, refuse to give them. In the end, all they can say is “I’m sorry” on behalf of other people. Without the comforting words of the woman, these men seem lost, unable to carry the burden that this harassment brings up.
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There are a number of projects and videos that utilize this method to try and get men to understand the experience of being a woman online — men reacting to their girlfriends being catcalled, for example. In a recent campaign from Teen Vogue, stories of sexual assault are interlaced with the reaction of men hearing these stories, seemingly to point out to men the gravity of the assaults. Reaching out to men as allies to combat the epidemics of online and street harassment and sexual violence appear to be the in vogue campaign for media outlets wanting to go viral.
And indeed, on its face, the method seems effective — it rounds up and engages people who are complicit in the harassment and who have friends and family who may be abusive, to demonstrate how much it affects and hurts the women involved. These campaigns represent an attempt to humanize targets of abuse, which can feel pivotal these days given the widely accepted notion that the internet has dehumanized people to the point where harassment “just happens.” We don’t see the person on the other end of the tweet as human, so we’re willing to go further, to say nastier things than we would in a typical public setting.
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It’s good and well-meaning to attempt this humanization of abuse targets, but much of this work turns into trauma-porn, where we continue to dehumanize women and other marginalized groups by making them vessels for telling traumatic stories. The effect is consumptive — women open a vein, tell these stories of horror, and watch as men squirm and struggle with the emotional burden women have been living with their entire lives. And then women have to participate in the emotional labor of responding to and comforting men who inevitably have feelings about this ever-present aspect of our daily lives. The conversation becomes about how men feel about female victimization, rather than about how such harassment can actually be stopped.
Amanda Levitt, a researcher in online trolling and an online fat activist, told me that she doesn’t bother to watch such videos because they are designed to go viral — not necessarily to actually change how men interact with women. In fact, she points out, the harassment women experience online is hardly different from the stuff they experience offline. She says:
“I think [these awareness campaigns] do very little to stop the harassment people experience online, and instead strengthen the misguided belief online harassment is somehow different from the things people experience on a daily basis offline. Social media is a tool that has been used to heighten the harassment people can experience, but the rhetoric being used isn’t new.”
It can be argued that the reason online harassment is garnering such attention nowadays is because of the ease with which social media platforms allow it to happen and the increased visibility these platforms provide. A person can now quickly and easily send a tweet and harass someone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their behavior is rooted in something different from in-person harassment. A harasser will find ways to harass, whether it’s through Twitter or Facebook or out of the window of a passing car.
What’s being taught, though, through these campaigns and viral videos is that women have an additional responsibility to care for the feelings that men in our lives have about our experiences. The act of talking about trauma becomes a further emotional burden because campaigns like these subtly reinforce the idea that our stories exist for men to have feelings about.
What’s being taught is that women have an additional responsibility to care for the feelings that men in our lives have about our experiences.
Levitt points out that a central problem with these videos is that they don’t necessarily encourage men to speak to other men about the issues. “The vast majority of men do not stop their friends or relatives when they speak in an abusive way about the women around them,” she says. “It’s hard for me to watch them squirm in their seat when I’ve spent most of my adult life being called a ‘cunt,’ ‘dyke,’ and ‘fat bitch’ — on and offline — never having men tell other men to stop.”
In other words, these awareness campaigns once again place the onus for solving the problem on women, not the men who are harassing. Men are placed in the role of passive listener while women assure them that they are Not Like Other Men and that the abusive actions of others do hurt but we’re okay. It doesn’t actually humanize women as survivors of trauma so much as it makes a spectacle of trauma for the benefit of men who want to compare themselves to the harassers and the trolls and see themselves as better.
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Men who harass women, whether online or off, aren’t likely to listen to the very women they’re harassing and suddenly see them as human. This dynamic means the onus is on other men in their lives to do the work, to take on that emotional labor, and to speak up and out. Campaigns that don’t make a big show of soul-bearing trauma and instead focus on how men can speak up about this trauma would be much more effective.
Asking men to actually take care of their own feelings and act on them to stop other men from dehumanizing women is harder than simply asking them to feel — but it’s ultimately a better solution that creating a viral video and hoping men will get the idea.