New Technology, Same Old Misogyny

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

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Online misogyny is still hitting the headlines. What was seen, only a few years ago, as a relatively niche issue has become a topic of serious interest for the mainstream media. Reports abound of women receiving rape and death threats simply as a result of being online and female at the same time.

From the vicious trolling of Professor Mary Beard to #gamergate and the threats leveled at women like Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu, there is finally some recognition in the popular press that the harassment of women on the Internet is a real thing. It's not just trolls being obnoxious for the lulz; it is the silencing of women online and in real life.

With the increasing acknowledgement of woman-hating on the web, the discussion has turned to questions about what can be done. Some suggestions are relatively mild, like better moderation in comment sections. This is a start, as un-moderated comments are a nightmare. But spare a thought for those who have to moderate. It doesn't stop the abuse; it just means we can't see it all anymore.

Other suggestions, like The Block Bot, have already proven to be extremely flawed. The idea sounded great, even pro-feminist: "Twitter is polluted by a number of anti-feminist obsessives, who viciously harass those who don't support their warped views. The Block Bot is [an] application to automatically block the nastiest of these people." Except, as it turned out, lots of those nasty people could just use it to put feminists themselves on the blocked list, thereby limiting their ability to be seen by other users. The result? More silencing.

Others have focused on the need to update, or more consistently apply, existing laws relating to harassment, threats, and vilification to address what was once just dismissed as virtual vitriol. The more positive idea of a "Mary Beard Prize" to reward those who encourage women's participation online was even mooted recently in the UK.

But none of these ideas really strike at the heart of the problem. We are too focused on the medium—new technology and media—rather than the message—women are fair game. This message is not new. It is, in fact, very, very old. I wish I could also say that it is outdated. But we are witnessing a resurgence of misogyny, in politics, in pop culture, in our private lives.

Should be we be surprised that in a world where women are paid less, our opinions are also seen as worth less? Should we be surprised that in a world where women suffer epidemic levels of sexual violence, we also suffer rape threats on Twitter? These abuses all exist on a continuum of women's inequality.

Making these connections also makes it clear that there is no simple solution, no block button, to fix things. But if we don't talk about online misogyny within a wider cultural context of woman-hating, then we will forever be dealing with a symptom, rather than the cause.

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