The trauma of online misogyny

“I’ve tried to rise above it, I’ve tried to get into the trenches but mostly I would scroll through these social media platforms with one eye partially closed – but you can’t make a cucumber out of a pickle. What is seen, goes in – it’s traumatic,” actress Ashley Judd said in her eloquent TED talk on misogynistic cyberbullying.

In her speech, she superbly articulates the additional modern struggles women around the world face as they exist in the digital spheres. She also speaks out about how, even in being candid about being a survivor of sexual abuse, she was attacked on social media. “It’s clearly traumatising. Our mental health, our emotional well-being are so gravely affected because the threat of violence is experienced neurobiologically as violence,” Judd says.

Misogynistic cyberbullying ranges in its forms and in severity. It manifests through namecalling, ‘trolling’ commentary, shaming, stalking, revenge porn, rape threats and death threats. Many harassers exists under pseudonyms or anonymous accounts and it can therefore be extremely challenging to hold someone responsible for their misogynistic messages and posts. In addition, one harmful comment may trigger a mob effect, in which other social media users will jump on the bandwagon.

Despite the popular suggestion to simply ignore it, online misogyny should be taken as seriously as physical gender-based abuse. It is certainly not as harmless as many people may dismiss it to be. The harassment women face online is compounded with the sexism and abuse women face in ‘real life’ and adds to the discomfort, anxiety and fear women endure in a patriarchal society.  Sometimes these threats even yield to real-life danger. “Online violence is an extension of personal violence,” Judd said. The internet is merely another tool with which misogyny is being allowed to manifest and flourish.

When men are harassed on the internet, it is usually not due to being male. When women are harassed on the internet, it becomes the old-age case of controlling, marginalising, shaming and punishing. Amanda Hess writes about how Hanna Rosin, an editor at Slate, argued that this harassment is a good sign; women are finally in positions in which they are widely read. Rosin’s comment makes the assumption that is women’s responsibilities to overlook the abuse they receive – even when they are not writing in professional capacities. It also underestimates the emotional damage that constantly being exposed to vile and intimidating commentary causes for women.

The internet additionally becomes a platform on which revenge porn, sextortion and rape video humiliate, and manipulate women by exploiting their natural sexualities. The victims  are not the only ones who are negatively effected by revenge porn.  It feeds into the larger picture of  rape culture and the sexual oppression of women, in which their sexuality is seen as solely for the perverse consumption of male voyeurs.

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Often women will deactivate or completely delete their social media accounts to avoid the abuse, but this is not a sufficient solution. In this era, many women rely on digital platforms for their jobs. Misogynistic cyberbullying disrupts women’s abilities to work and further disfranchises women. Social activitist and journalist Gillian Schutte wrote about the extensive struggle she has gone through to bring about some kind of legal justice to the traumatic content that she has been featured in.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr have not been particularly helpful in fighting misogynistic cyberbullying. Ironically, the report-abuse options that many social media platforms offer can be a hindrance in attaining legal action against the harassers. Cases of deleted messages and/or posts and disabled accounts often means that the evidence to form a case is lost.

While physical harassment against women is taken a lot more seriously in court, it still has a long way to go. What, then, becomes of cyber misogyny, a murkier topic? Currently, South Africa is looking to criminalising revenge porn and has a vague Act concerning cyberbullying.

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