Men define how women should use the internet through a range of complex behaviours. The behaviour includes all-pervasive re-enforcement of sexist stereotypes. Our truths are lost, submerged in twisted, patriarchal tales.
The internet had much promise in the golden age of initial exploration. There was potential for gender to be irrelevant. . And yet, sadly, it’s become increasingly obvious to radical feminists that the internet mirrors life. Women are marginalised, misrepresented, and harassed online by men. Isolated, individual women challenge the status quo in numerous ways within particular cyber spaces. As with the real world, men respond by demonizing her.
I’m going to use my own story from an experience of an LGBT, male-dominated, website to illustrate how a woman can be harassed, and scapegoated online. I will call the site “UC”. It’s a good example because there are fewer anti-feminist women cheer-leaders than elsewhere to muddy the waters. Patriarchy at work can be seen clearer as a result. However, I also reference the experience of other women’s accounts. Stories like mine can be seen all over the web. Site features are used to reinforce sexist myths and to marginalise and demonise women for the benefit of men.
PERSONAL ONLINE HARASSMENT AND ABUSE
My appearance, weight, age, sexuality, integrity, illness, and “who I really am” were all regularly publically attacked on UC. Numerous stories trivialised and distorted my life experiences and online choices. They were repeated cyclically as if they were facts. I was accused of lying about serious matters in the real world, including making a false allegation of rape. The attacks against me were permeated with stereotypical sexist myths. That’s how we know this is not about one woman and one group of men. It’s how online misogyny works. Men create false representations of women. Others on the site are marginalised and singled out. However, the sexist stereotyping of my personality and life experiences, whilst men involved are championed, is what makes the experience characteristic of online misogyny.
ANONYMITY vs. “TRUE” IDENTITY
There are some commonly accepted “truths” about using the internet. It’s widely assumed that these “truths” are “gender-neutral”. I don’t believe this is so. I think women’s accounts about life online are subsumed under patriarchal mores.
Men tell us how we should represent ourselves on the internet. They have two main, opposing, approaches. We should either use our full names and be fully open about who we are (says Zuckerburg, founder of Facebook) or we should be “anonymous” so we can “leave our mistakes behind“, according to Chris Poole, founder of an infamous /b/ site where users are largely anonymous. http://www.googlestream.com/tech/4chan-founder-zuckerberg-wrong-on-privacy/ The anonymous posters on /b/ site indulge in unpleasant behaviour including uploading humiliating photos of women and misogynist posts. Men frequently use anonymity to re-enforce aggression towards women, and others, online.
Pressure to reveal true identities leaves women exposed. Feminists and women bloggers have been threatened. One woman had her home address published (http://bitchmagazine.org/article/from-the-archive-wack-attack) .She stopped blogging. If people don’t reveal “who they really are” online through up-to-date photos, real name, age and other details, then they are often accused of being that much-feared net-alien, a “troll”, on discussion forums and they are vulnerable to being doxed (real life details exposed in public).
From an early age, women are made aware of rape and the threat of rape. It serves to control how we live and many of us are cautious about giving out personal details. Under patriarchy, “not being who you are” on the net can symbolically and, in reality, represent liberation for women after a lifetime of oppression.
If we do hide our true identities, many men seek to expose us or reinvent our motivation for doing so to fit with theirs. They assume we do it, like they do, out of malevolence. The paranoia and fear that someone may not be who they seem online constantly replays across the internet, even if all a woman wants to do is post her ideas.
Women are trapped between these two opposing positions, pressure to be anonymous or provide full disclosure about real life identity, neither of them providing protection from the consequences of online patriarchy.
Most men want to protect “freedom of speech” on the internet. Un-moderated environments tend to be rife with woman-hatred. The reinforcement of online misogyny can be both subtle and unsubtle. Thoughts stem from entrenched social norms telling us how things should be. Methods of online communication perpetuate those social norms. They are littered with unconscious patriarchal assumptions about who women are and how we behave.
The belief that people should be free to type what they want online is often championed above blatant misogyny. Women objecting to misogyny face ridicule and accusations of wanting to “censor” men. The discussion is then shifted by men to one about libertarianism. It’s another way in which online misogyny continues unabated.
Male “guardians” of social networking websites have a key role to play in reinforcing patriarchy online. When men use their economic power or technological knowledge to set up a website they determine how that website should be used. They do this by creating rules and features and banning/suspending profiles. They define the boundaries of personal, online, expression.
The unofficial “guardians“ of a site have a colluding role. These are influential posters who retell site-related stories as if they are universal “truths”. Any forum over time, develops invisible rules and a common way of viewing the world. Irving Janis (1972) calls destructive, shared ideas among people who interact, “groupthink”.
http://www.psysr.org/about/pubs_resources/groupthink%20overview.htm For radical feminists, “groupthink” is not gender neutral. Men define the world according to how they see it and women either fit in or are seen as “other“. UC‘s “groupthink” re-created my existence to fit with patriarchy’s view of women as manipulative, attention-seekers who lie and scheme.
HOW WOMEN ONLINE ARE PORTRAYED
UC mimics the media’s obsession with women. The “angel and the whore” phenomenon means some women posters (those who don’t challenge the status quo, look pretty and/or side with men against other women) and some celebrities are the “angels”, while others are “whores”. The “whores” are wicked, evil manipulators who lie and deceive our way through life.
My experience on this particular site is mirrored by accounts from other women elsewhere on the internet . There are millions of other internet pockets where men are acting the same way towards women. Feminists have written extensively about how women are seen as “mad” or “bad”. What is new is how this manifests itself across the internet, the most powerful modern-day communication tool there is.
WHY DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER?
Here we are. We’re on the cusp of some critically important ways in which the internet can change how the world communicates. It’s fast, we can talk to people internationally as if they’re in the same room, for free. Acting collectively on the internet is a new people power unseen before.
And yet, men’s power and control over internet activities means abuse and “gaslighting“ of women is all-consuming. Our attempts to hide from, or challenge, online harassment or sexism are manipulated by men and used to further humiliate, ridicule or silence us. It’s all eerily familiar with many parallels within the real world.
Men have publically told my online story, negatively, for years. It feels liberating to finally tell it myself. I believe there are many more women and girls confused and damaged by how others portray them in public cyber spaces. I hope, this article will form part of a growing radical feminist analysis about how online patriarchy thrives.