Let’s Talk to the Men This Time: Combating Online Harassment

Today we’re featuring two separate guest posts, both about online harassment. Stay tuned for the second one!

This is a guest post from Alice Marwick, PhD. Dr. Marwick is the Director of the McGannon Center for Communication Research and is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.

Over the last two years, gendered online harassment has finally been recognized as a significant issue. High-profile cases of women doxed, attacked, or shamed in public, often those speaking out about sexism, highlight the ways in which the technical affordances of the internet enable systemic persecution. The same technologies which allow for positive collaboration and creativity can—and are—used to threaten, provoke, and hector journalists, bloggers, software developers, activists, or even just random people online with disturbing regularity.

This is a difficult problem to solve. The desire to harass women is not a virus spread by the internet that strikes individuals at random. Instead, it’s fueled by very real, and very complicated, underpinnings of structural misogyny (and, often, racism, homophobia, and classism as well) that affect who gets harassed. During the panic over cyberbullying a few years ago, LGBT activists implored the press to remember that implementing anti-bullying campaigns without addressing larger issues of trans- and homophobia ignored the underlying issues. I’m currently working to do something similar with gendered online harassment.

Many well-meaning people are proposing a host of legal and technical solutions, from eliminating online anonymity, to reinforcing anti-harassment statutes currently on the books, to increasing moderation in online communities. Some of these solutions may work, and some may not. But I share the EFF’s concerns; we shouldn’t use gendered online harassment, as awful as it is, to chip away at protections for online speech. Online anonymity is frequently used by activists, domestic violence survivors, and sexual minorities as a protective tactic. And companies like Facebook and Reddit, who are not legally required to actively patrol harassment on their platforms, have shown themselves unwilling to invest in greater moderation or content regulation.

Even given all these suggestions, we still have very little information both about why people choose to harass others—and, more broadly—why men adopt, adhere to, and spread sexist and misogynist views. You’d think the latter would have been extensively researched in the 1970s, but it seems to have been barely studied at all. I (and two PhD-level research assistants) have been unable to find any major studies identifying motivations for men adopting sexist views, let alone motivations for harassing women, whether that be sexual harassment, street harassment, or online harassment. (I would be extremely happy if you could comment with any studies you may know of and I can be proven wrong). But this is the missing piece. Without understanding why people are harassing others online, we cannot accurately solve this problem.

So I’m posting this to ask for a favor. A project I’m involved with is currently up for a People’s Choice Award in the fifth Digital Media and Learning grant competition (called the Trust Challenge). Together with another professor at Fordham, Gregory Donovan—who’s worked extensively with diverse groups of young people in NYC on other participatory research projects—we’re hoping to study harassers with the collaboration of young women who’ve been harassed. We think it’s extremely important to involve victims of online harassment to avoid the paternalism that often comes into play when creating solutions to help young women. The information and expertise provided by a focus group of young, diverse New York City area women will help us understand where this harassment takes place, what it looks like, and how to combat it. It will also inform the second half of the project. We hope to identify, contact, and interview people online who have harassed others. From these people, we want to understand motivations. Is it for the lulz? Do they identify as trolls? Is it because they subscribe to a Men’s Rights ideology? Is it a way to let out aggression? With the information we learn from both groups, we hope to create best practices for tech companies and legislators to design any strategies to combat harassment. We hope to include not solely harassment for being feminist, but harassment for merely existing as a woman online—especially a woman of color, a queer woman, or someone with an intersectional perspective.

Please vote for our project on the DML website. It takes a second—just click the heart—and it gets us one step closer to getting this project fully funded. We’re asking for money to support summer funding for both of us, a semester off for Gregory so he can devote himself to the project, incentives for our participants, and a grad student to help out with the project. We hope that you’ll agree that this project is worth funding.

(We also encourage you to check out FemTechNet’s project which focuses on creating educational content to combat harassment of feminists specifically).

5 thoughts on “Let’s Talk to the Men This Time: Combating Online Harassment

  1. Jay Gischer

    This seems like a really good idea. I support it. I voted for it. I wish you all success.

  2. Aaron F.

    This project sounds really cool! For what it’s worth, I want to respond to your call for prior studies about men’s motivations for adopting sexist views and sexually aggressive behaviors. Since I have no expertise in any relevant field, I doubt I can say anything useful that you and your research assistants don’t know already, but I feel compelled to shoot my mouth off anyway in the hope that I might accidentally include a good reference in the pile of irrelevant junk I’m about to dump out. If there is anything useful in here, I suspect it will be Lord (2009) and its references.

    I should start by emphasizing that everything I’m about to say is centered on structural misogyny in the context I feel most familiar with—the US over the last few decades. I’ll assume implicitly that all of the research and writings that I cite can be applied in that context, and I’ll often say things which are obviously false outside that context.

    References are at the end. Be warned that some of the books I cite are written for a popular audience. Lewis (2006) is a Master’s thesis, and Lord (2009) is a Ph.D. thesis.

    —- Consciously and unconsciously acquired attitudes —-

    When you describe the kinds of information you’re looking for, you start off by asking “why men adopt… sexist and misogynist views,” but later refine your phrasing to focus on “motivations for men adopting sexist views,” suggesting that you’re particularly interested in men’s conscious decisions about what to believe and how to behave. If that’s the case, I’m not too surprised that you found few references, because I have the impression that there’s a general consensus in sociology and gender studies that structural misogyny does most of its work on an unconscious level.

    If you’re willing to look at unconscious processes, I think there’s a pretty large base of research on how people in general and men in particular acquire sexist attitudes. As a random example, consider the 2009 review of rape myth acceptance done by Bohner et al. The research cited there might be directly relevant to you, because I would imagine that the attitudes underpinning gendered online harassment and sexual assault are closely related. Although attitudes that encourage sexual assault by men against women seem to be held by both female-identified and male-identified people at comparable levels (this is the case, at least, among the participants in Chapleau et al. 2007), the authors of the review suggest that the some of the mechanisms for acquiring and maintaining such attitudes are gender-identity-specific. Look under the headings “Gender-Related Functions for Women” and “Gender-Related Functions for Men” for details.

    Patterns of gendered aggression, including online harassment, may be driven in part by the ways we socialize children to perform aggression depending on their assigned gender. There’s been a lot of research on this. Section 3 of Estévez et al. (2012) looks like a pretty comprehensive review. You can find several references scattered throughout the first few chapters of Valian (1998), although they may be somewhat out of date by now. Campbell (1993) looks like a nice synthesis, with the caveats that I’ve never read it, it’s even older than Valian, and it says some things that appear inconsistent with Valian and others.*

    * For example, Campbell refers to “a bigger picture that suggests that mothers are relatively sex-blind when it comes to raising their children,” and suggests that “it is the father, not the mother, who will nudge the child toward…” “a gendered set of interests and behaviors.” In contrast, both Valian (Chapter 2) and Fine (2010, Chapters 17 and 18) offer evidence that parents of all gender identities contribute to the gendered socialization of their children, although Valian notes that some socializing behaviors are especially pronounced in fathers. Since Valian and Fine are both writing later than Campbell, maybe mothers’ gender-socializing behaviors were just less apparent in earlier research?

    —- Men’s attitudes and people’s attitudes —-

    I can easily believe that among people who harass women speaking out against sexism online, the vast majority are male. I have the impression, however, that many of the factors contributing to structural misogyny are present in pretty much everyone, although people with different gender identities may express these factors in very different ways. (In fact, I’ve been led to believe that this is a typical feature of structural oppression in general.) As a result, the kind of research you’re looking for may be harder to find if you search for studies that focus exclusively on men.

    As a random example, consider Lord (2009), whose first two chapters review a great deal of research on the structural foundations of gendered public harassment. Although many of the studies cited do focus exclusively on men’s attitudes, the review itself does not. Similarly, in spite of its title, Nutt (1999) reviews research on gender role socialization in people of various gender identities.

    I mentioned before that Bohner et al. discuss gender-dependent ways for people to acquire and maintain certain sexist attitudes. They also talk about gender-independent mechanisms, under the heading “Self-Perpetuating Aspects of the Rape Myth Schema.”

    —- References —-

    Bohner, Eyssel, Pina, Siebler, and Viki (2009). “Rape myth acceptance: Cognitive, affective and behavioural effects of beliefs that blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator.”

    Campbell (1993). Men, Women, and Aggression.

    Chapleau, Oswald, and Russell (2007). “How Ambivalent Sexism Toward Women and Men Support Rape Myth Acceptance.”

    Estévez, Povedano, Jiménez, and Musitu (2012). “Aggression in Adolescence: A Gender Perspective.”

    Fine (2010). Delusions of Gender.

    Lord (2009). The relationship of gender-based public harassment to body image, self-esteem, and avoidance behavior.

    Nutt (1999). “Women’s Gender-Role Socialization, Gender-Role Conflict, and Abuse.” What Causes Men’s Violence Against Women? Eds. Harway and O’Neil.

    Valian (1998). Why So Slow?

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