Online Harassment Against Women In The Trump Era

12/05/2016 10:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2016

The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot recently did a profile on Brooklyn attorney, Carrie Goldberg, who specializes in sexual privacy law. Apparently business is booming, and this is largely due to crimes against women that are carried out online, such as revenge porn and involuntary pornography shared on a variety of unsavory websites. It turns out that existing criminal and civil laws do exist to combat these privacy violations either directly or indirectly, and prosecutors and courts are becoming increasingly sympathetic to the plight of the victim. On the other hand, Goldberg points out that since Trump’s election “she’s seen a ‘dramatic uptick’ in people seeking her firm’s help—evidence of what she worries is a ‘new license to be cruel.’”

Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has also received complaints about anti-woman street harassment parroting misogynistic comments made by the president-elect. As but one example, a girl reported to the SPLC that when she was on her way to school in New York, a man on the subway told her he was “allowed to grab my pussy because it’s legal now.” When men become cavalier and emboldened enough to make these statements out in the open, it stands to reason that online sexual harassment and bullying against women, where perpetrators are often able to make statements anonymously, is only going to get worse.

A new report on online harassment, digital abuse, and cyberstalking based on research conducted last summer shows that even before the election of a pussy-grabbing misogynist to the White House, a staggering four in ten young women said they have self-censored themselves online to avoid harassment. Women are also far more likely than men to be the victim of cyberstalking. And among those who reported experiencing online harassment and abuse, women were almost three times as likely as men to say that the harassment made them scared and twice as likely to say the harassment worried them. Perhaps this is because online bullying against women is often carried out in the form of threats of rape and similar expressions of male dominance and violence that can be disconcerting even to the strongest and most assertive of women. Uniquely anti-female in nature, such harassment takes root in everything from slut-shaming of teenaged girls (which can lead to suicide or violence), to unauthorized sexualized photos plastered on the web, to rape videos used to shame women and for extortion purposes. As the author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” law professor Danielle Citron, has pointed out,

So much of online harassment of women, without question, is because they are women. It is sexually demeaning, it’s sexually threatening, it reduces the victims to basically their sexual organs, and sends the message that all they’re there for is to be sexually abused, used and thrown away, that they offer nothing.

President-elect Trump’s new chief strategist (and the CEO of his campaign), Steve Bannon, runs the Breitbart website, which is notorious for providing a platform for misogynists (and racists, and homophobes, etc.) of all ilk. One of his outrageously offensive headlines has a “solution” for women who are scared and worried about online sexual harassment: “[It’s] Simple: Women Should Log Off.” This “logic” is akin to saying women who are sexually harassed at work should quit (a view espoused by our president-elect incidentally) or that women who don’t want to be raped shouldn’t dress a certain way or drink at parties. Victim blaming lets perpetrators off the hook but, of course, that is precisely Breitbart’s point. As the article makes clear, it is the view of Bannon’s site that “[w]omen are . . . screwing up the internet for men by invading every space we have online and ruining it with attention-seeking and a needy, demanding, touchy-feely form of modern feminism that quickly comes into conflict with men’s natural tendency to be boisterous, confrontational and delightfully autistic.” Really. Which is really a long-winded, flowery way of saying “boys will be boys, dammit,” so just get over it.

As a feminist mom and blogger (albeit middle aged), I have seen up close and personal how intimidating it can be to put oneself out there on the Internet. To avoid hate flung squarely at me and my family, I use my birth name (aka maiden name) to write, as well as a catchy pseudonym (“The FeMOMist”). It’s a good thing too, because in the course of writing my blog, Musings from the FeMOMist, and publishing several high profile pieces on Huffington Post, I have received my fair share of misogynistic and sexist feedback when I dare to be an upstart female and tell it like it is.

That’s why it wasn’t terribly surprising that when I published my piece, entitled The Secret Lives of Nasty Women: How Trump, Trolls, and Bros Have Chilled Our First Amendment Rights, I seemed to have touched a nerve. Secret Lives—which was liked on HuffPost close to 4,000 times, and shared over 2,000 times—explored why a group like Pantsuit Nation (unnamed in the piece since it was a newly formed “secret group” on Facebook, and I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to “out” its identity) needed to exist. Why do many women (and even some men) not feel comfortable expressing our enthusiasm about Hillary Clinton online or in our personal lives? What emerged was a pattern of reasons that can be broadened to explain why women don’t feel they can exercise their freedom of expression whenever it goes against the grain of patriarchal society of which we are all a part—whether we know it or not—like it or not. We women have been raised to neither rock the boat nor make the waves. When we are strong enough to express unpopular opinions or opinions that others view as going against the societal or cultural norms, we put ourselves squarely at risk. At best, we may be belittled and told in no uncertain terms we don’t know what the heck we’re talking about. At worst, we are the subject of hostile and misogynistic attacks, are called hateful and hurtful names or slurs, and are even threatened with bodily harm, including that most violent and hostile form of male domination known as rape.

I consider myself lucky that to date, I have only received the more “benign” sexist feedback from white males in the form of belittling (known in some circles as “mansplaining”), as well as some outlandish reactions from both men and women to my admittedly pro-Clinton or anti-Trump writings (that in retrospect likely had more to do with fake news consumed by these readers, than with anything I wrote). Perhaps my alter ego persona is, indeed, a protective deterrent. However, I was recently contacted by one woman (whom we will call Alexa) who has, along with some of her likeminded friends, experienced online bullying of the worst kind, and we know that it is not an isolated incident but rather that women, who have the audacity to be online, experience this sort of thing on a regular basis. What makes her experience different from the usual horror story is that Alexa is a member of a local secret Pantsuit Nation Facebook group in Minnesota that formed after the national secret group exploded into what is now a full-fledged movement—about 4 million members strong—predominantly comprised of women with progressive and feminist sensibilities as inspired by Hillary Clinton. Somehow this private, secret group was infiltrated by a member of the Ely City Council, Dan Forsman, and one or more of his friends, who didn’t let on that they were in fact rabid Donald Trump supporters. What happened next is emblematic of why women are so reluctant to express their viewpoints on the Internet. The council member posted a meme (see below image) that was clearly designed to threaten and intimidate—e.g., bully—the members of this pro-Clinton private Facebook group. Alexa and other members were both outraged and made to feel violated and unsafe in what was supposed to be an area where they could freely express their opinions.

Since voicing her concerns within the “secret” group, Alexa has heard from a friend of Forsman via her Facebook Messenger account who characterized the meme (which encourages the Pantsuit Nation members to commit suicide with a chillingly creepy photograph of the notorious suicide doctor, Dr. Jack Kevorkian) as “harmless.” An Ely businessman and the town’s former mayor took to Facebook to denounce the Pantsuit Nation support group as an “evil liberal group” of “haters.” Wonder where these men got the idea to bully and then deny that it’s a big deal or even try to turn it around on their opponent? Think back to our president-elect’s behavior and treatment of women and his female opponent during the election season and his billionaire playboy days and you may be on to something.

The solution to online harassment is certainly not to force women off of the internet. We have just as much of a right to take up space—even cyberspace—as men do. The solution is, rather, to force online harassers and bullies to think twice about their misconduct and show why it’s something we ought to condemn as a society. And the way to do that is through books like Citron’s Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, which appropriately cast egregious acts of harassment against women as the civil rights violations that they in fact are, criminal cases like those brought by Carrie Goldberg on behalf of her clients, and increased awareness raised about the problem leading to real changes online (such as Twitter’s decision to allow users to report specific offensive tweets as hate speech). Twitter in particular seems to attract vitriolic anti-woman sentiment (and that’s just from our president-elect) and so such changes are certainly a welcome start. Likewise, Cynthia Lowen, the co-producer and writer of the critically acclaimed documentary, Bully, which tackled school bullying, is working to bring us Netizens. Netizens is a documentary in the final editing phases that will explore online harassment and cyberbullying of women by following the targets and sharing their stories. I am proud to be supporting Netizens and accompanying efforts to reform and tame the new Wild West that is the Internet. As Lowen, the director of Netizens has made clear, she hopes her film will “debunk this idea that ‘Oh, it’s only the internet. Just turn off your computer. Just walk away.’ We need to change our attitudes about what is normal online and foster constructive digital citizenship.”

To contribute to the kickstarter that will bring Netizens to theaters, click here.

This piece was edited to correct Cynthia Lowen’s role in writing and co-producing the documentary, Bully, and in directing Netizens.

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