So you’ve got proper online security, strong passwords, and great software all good to go. But are there other kinds of threats you may face online? What about abuse, verbal violence and harassment that no firewall or plug-in can prevent?
‘I faced sexual harassment and it was published in [a prominent newspaper], and then it was put up on the Internet. But the kinds of comments that went around Facebook – all kinds of judgements passed upon me. Like, “How can it happen to a man?” or “This person will never do it.” [It’s this] kind of character assassination that takes place.
‘Ever since we started advocating for sexually education stuff… on our website, I get death threats saying that we are spoiling Indian culture. I keep ignoring, but I wonder if there is a time one should turn around and say something.’
‘I had made a poster about something to do with feminism, and a guy was having an argument with me online about it. He found my father’s account on Facebook and messaged him questioning his manhood because he gave birth to a “mangina”… I did try to speak to him, but he replied with my [phone] number – I hadn’t put it up anywhere — and asked, “Do you know who I am?” I stopped replying to him, because I thought the more I do that, the angrier he’s going to get.’
Often we believe that the Internet is a democratic space where people are finally free to live without the constraints of their real lives. And in many cases this is true. The Internet has allowed communication and the sharing of information on unprecedented levels, and has afforded many opportunities to experiment with fluid identities, meet new people, and create alternative personas. However, what is happening online is still very much rooted in the offline world, including prejudices. As the examples from participants above illustrate, gender based abuse faced by women, sexual minorities and gender rights activists online often mirrors experiences in the offline world.
When a woman steps out into the street, gender-based harassment appears to be part and parcel of that experience. Because she is in a public space – a space that isn’t meant to be hers. London-based journalist Laurie Penny writes, ‘A woman’s opinion is the mini-skirt of the Internet.’ If women wearing revealing clothing on the streets are seen as ‘asking for it’ – ‘it’ being the range of harassment and violence they may face – similarly, it seems that just using your voice as a woman in the virtual world (also a public space), is ‘asking’ for the abuse you receive. Your voice is gendered, and your gender is unwelcome.
Gender based abuse online often targets the most visible marker of gender – the female body. As a result, women face a lot of abuse dealing with images, including instances of images being circulated without permission, photographs being morphed, or con-consensual sexual videography.
In a research study comprising 17 in-depth interviews with women across the country, the Internet Democracy Project explores experiences of verbal abuse women face online, and their strategies for dealing with it. Abuse women face includes being made to feel uncomfortable or inadequate in male-dominated spaces such as technology forums, threats of violence, threats against family members or children, harassing mentions of sex, and rape threats. These threats are largely designed to silence women; to tell them that they’re in a space that isn’t theirs. The strategies women adopt for dealing with the abuse vary from person to person, and depending on how severely the incident is perceived. Strategies can include ignoring it, blocking the abuser, reporting the abuser, taking them on directly, or as a last resort, going to the police. Some women may even close down their accounts or pages as a response to the threats, and go entirely offline.
Like with street sexual harassment, however, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Says one woman,
Don’t let it stand. That is your dignity at stake. It is like dealing with street harassment. You walk on the street, someone whistles at you, you put your head down, you walk a little bit faster, you cross that patch, you move on. Second day. Third day. Eventually the space on the street you can walk on keeps shrinking, shrinking, and eventually you are just off the street. It’s your street. On the road, fighting off the bad guy is full of risks. On the Internet, it is not that risky. There is absolutely no excuse for not doing it.’
While it may not always be as easy as this woman makes it out to be, people are fighting back in unique and often coordinated ways. One example of a collective fight back against sexism online is the development of the Twitter hashtag #MisogynyAlert, where people who face or witness sexist abuse on Twitter can collectively respond to the perpetrator and help create a more gender-equal environment online.