In an Unsafe Space - Pacific Standard

In an Unsafe Space

How the rhetoric surrounding online harassment of women leaves us at risk.
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(Photo: uncalno/Flickr)

(Photo: uncalno/Flickr)

There is no one simple story about online harassment. Yet the most-repeated examples of abuse, those targeting high-profile commentators and media activists, have ossified over the last few years into one in which all women online are marked by perpetual danger. The Internet is a “hate machine,” and it hates women for simply existing while having an opinion, a kind of victim-blaming likened by writer Laurie Penny to the “short skirt of the Internet.”

But we have been in an Internet panic ever since people who wrote for magazines for a living got whiff of life online. We had barely entered the age of the Web browser when the first wave hit. In the mid-1990s, publications without websites of their own warned parents that the Web was not much more than hot-and-cold running “cyberporn.” This was ’80s stranger danger updated: The man in the white van lurking around the schoolyard was now armed with a modem.

Those panicked stories have by now merged with the reality of a much larger globally networked public, one that includes feminist activism and media criticism. Of course, feminist activism and media criticism have been part of life online long before social media’s dominance, from Usenet to Webrings to LiveJournal to the landmark feminist magazine Bitch, which has been online since 1996. But today, the story of what it is to be a woman online is to be exposed to abuse. Coping with harassment and violence have nearly drowned out anything else that might also define the experience of being a woman online. This is what violence does: It wears you down. It’s meant to. It erodes what seems possible.

This is why what some critics consider simply “trolling” or “bullying” is understood by some feminist activists as something different and arguably more severe. In the last year, a range of high-level solutions have been proposed for addressing online abuse directed at women. In a controversial report issued by United Nations Women, the U.N. Development Programme, and the International Telecommunication Union, the authors define this problem as “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls,” describing experiences ranging from “hate speech (publishing a blasphemous libel), hacking (intercepting private communications), identity theft, online stalking (criminal harassment) and uttering threats.”

“When the national discussion became organized around ‘It could happen to anyone,’ ‘anyone’ came to mean the women with the most visibility, the most power, and the most public sympathy, the citizens whose experience of violence is taken most seriously.”

This collapsing of varying forms of online experiences obscures more than it clarifies. It gathers under the same umbrella what, in offline contexts, would include activities as disparate as sending hate mail by postcard to columnists, to parking a car outside an ex’s workplace with the intent of following them to a date. It’s fair to say these are all actions that serve to terrorize women, to control their ability to live in public space. But they do not all call for the same solutions, particularly the solutions offered in the U.N. report, written up in characteristic policy talk mnemonic: “The 5 P’s of Due Diligence,” to “prevent,” “protect,” “prosecute,” “punish,” and “provide redress.”

The reason these top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions to online abuse fail has as much to do with their narrowness as it does their lineage. Fighting online abuse as “cyber violence against women and girls” will also mean inheriting that definition’s history and drawbacks.

Scholar and activist Beth Richie, in her landmark book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation, identifies one key weakness of this approach to ending violence as “everywoman analysis,” defined by her as “a popular public discourse about rape and intimate partner violence that hinged on the generalized risk to all women and children.” There is a history and a logic behind anti-violence activists defining violence this way, going back to the roots of the anti-violence movement in the 1970s. Richie explains, “Originally, this construction of ‘any woman could be a battered woman’ and ‘rape is a threat to every woman’ was a strategic way to avoid individualizing the problem of domestic and sexual violence and to focus on social dimensions of the problem of gender violence.”

But what was meant to maneuver around the patriarchal norms that cast women as solely responsible for the violence against them also ended up flattening all women’s experiences into this “everywoman.” In elevating a story of all women’s universal and shared risk, advocates risked masking anything that fell outside the simple marker “women”: race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, occupation, each inextricable from what by then had become simply “violence against women.”

“Put another way,” Richie adds, “when the national discussion became organized around ‘It could happen to anyone,’ ‘it’ was reduced to direct physical assault from household members and stranger rape, and ‘anyone’ came to mean the women with the most visibility, the most power, and the most public sympathy, the citizens whose experience of violence is taken most seriously.”

Some advocates fought against this everywoman trope, insisting on centering black women, poor women, lesbian and bisexual women, any woman not considered “innocent” or deserving of help. But in the battle to gain legal recognition and resources, the “everywoman” story won out among policymakers, the press, and the public. As Richie notes pointedly, “we won the mainstream but we lost the movement.”

Now we arrive at the U.N. declaring “cyber violence against women” a phenomenon it says risks becoming “a 21st century global pandemic,” while also making only token gestures toward recognizing the role race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality have in who is considered a target of “violence against women.” And, almost immediately, the U.N. report on “cyber violence” was criticized by advocates working against online violence for being too broad, poorly sourced, and disconnected from their advocacy. Critics also narrowed in on the report’s claims that, key among drivers of online violence, were “violent video games” and online porn.

It was on the Internet that I first came across the idea that what we call “safe space” is itself so contingent on who we are that it can never be more than temporary, if even ever realized.

Technology journalist Sarah Jeong noted the report’s repeated attempts to link sex work to sex trafficking and to “cyber violence.” Randi Harper, the creator of GG Autoblocker and founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, told Jeong: “Sex trafficking, sex work, and pornography should not have been included in a report about online abuse. It was a distraction from other valid concerns that should have been covered more thoroughly, and, furthermore, it was a call for censorship. It is becoming clear that certain groups are willing to fly the flag of online abuse on their pet causes, such as banning pornography or wanting to remove the safety of anonymity.”

“Cyber violence is a phrase that sounds like it's straight out of a 1990s episode of 60 Minutes,” she added.

In describing online abuse as violence against women, I can recognize the existence of what these agencies and their informants describe. I would not contest that. But in these kinds of definitions, I do not recognize myself, nor the experience of many women I know, even when we have faced down all of the above.

To say I grew up online is not to say I ever considered the Internet to be a “safe space.” I have neither the room nor the inclination here to detail all the times I felt that safety was compromised since I first saw a Web browser in 1994 and first made a website the following year. I did sex work online, dated online, and wrote online about gender, technology, and politics. Nothing about my life and its intersection with the Internet has spared me from being a target. In fact, it has led me to seek to preserve everything that permitted me to have that life.

It was on the Internet that I first came across the idea that what we call “safe space” is itself so contingent on who we are that it can never be more than temporary, if even ever realized.

#ImagineaFeministInternet. This is the provocation of a group of grassroots activists convened by the Women's Rights Programme of the Association for Progressive Communications. Together, they offer an alternative to the standard high-level report-style recommendations, with their Feminist Principles of the Internet, a collaborative document. They emphasize women’s access to the Internet and their resistance to oppression and abuse, and they reject censorship as itself an attack on women’s rights.

There is no universal woman, and to construct our visions of safety around one will produce danger: Some women can gain entry to the sanctuary, but only so many can fit.

This is a vision of what the Internet could be, when we aren’t worn down, or despite that. It also reminds me of the Internet I first found: a vehicle, a home, something in between, something that offered possibilities worth taking risks for, something that was always ours.

If online harassment is going to be theorized primarily as violence against women, we may limit ourselves to the same compromised responses from the fax and pager era. Rather than again working to “raise awareness” within the state, to “empower” police with tougher laws, perhaps the first step in fighting violence is confronting our own power to define what violence is. This is how we signal who makes an acceptable target. Otherwise, whatever we call “fighting violence against women” will remain as it is today: “fighting violence against some women, some of the time.”

“See, the assumption of safety is all too often an assumption of sameness,” wrote Mimi Thi Nguyen (for Punk Planet in 2000 and also on her blog, where she wrote about punk and sometimes fashion and also politics), “and that sameness in riot grrrl – and in other feminist spaces – depended upon a transcendent ‘girl love’ that acknowledged difference but only so far.” There is no universal woman, and to construct our visions of safety around one will produce danger: Some women can gain entry to the sanctuary, but only so many can fit. The rest will remain exposed and neglected outside the door.

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