“Stand up like a man, You better learn to shake hands, You better look me in the eye now, Treat me like your mother. Come on look me in the eye, You wanna try to tell a lie? You can’t, you know why? I’m dressed like your mother.”
-The Dead Weather, Treat Me Like Your Mother
When women are being called names, something’s not right. When women are being harassed, something’s wrong. When women are being threatened with rape and death, something’s got to change. Right? Most of us can agree on that. But what if these things are happening online? Is the fallout any different because the words showed up on a screen rather than in the mailbox or on a voicemail? Is the emotional toll and the fear any less because it was done electronically? Does the vehicle by which a threat was issued even matter? Is a threat not a threat?
Journalist Amanda Hess wrote an article titled,“Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet”. She goes into great detail about the vile comments she has received over the years. She has an active presence online as a writer and has endured angry rants, threats of rape and threats of death. She has had one individual in particular stalk her online.
Lauren Mayberry of the indie band Chvrches wrote an op-ed that appeared in The Guardian. She wanted to shed light on the misogyny that she has been subjected to on-line. Her band gained notoriety and acclaim after posting some of their songs on a music blog. The internet has been a crucial part of their success. For this reason they find it important to keep communication going between their fans online. Among the gushing fan postings were some hostile comments. Name calling. Threats of rape. Details of lewd acts.
These two women are not alone. They unfortunately are in good company. There are writers, singers, actors, business women, students, executives, and kids who have all experienced the same thing. They are mostly women. And they are considered targets by some simply because they have the audacity to log on to the internet. They are told to shrug it off, laugh it off, don’t engage, move on. In other words, suck it up. Good girls stay quiet, don’t make a fuss. Just smile and don’t make anyone uncomfortable. It’s a response that women have heard for ages. Don’t make a fuss about voting, just try to sweetly influence your husband’s vote. Don’t complain about your boss grabbing your ass, just be grateful you have a job. Don’t bother reporting that rape, everyone will just think that you did something to encourage it.
There has been talk of taking the anonymity out of sites like Twitter. Sure. Being anonymous makes it easier for these perpetrators to be more brazen. There have been questions asked concerning who should be tasked with investigating these threats…. the police? The companies that own these websites like Twitter, Facebook and AskFM? Sure. An avenue for women to report these assaults could give them a way to fight back. While these things could be helpful, they are merely the tourniquet on a bleeding wound. The only way to truly change the dynamic that is festering online is to find the source of the bleeding.
Where is all of this coming from? Is it the continual and persistent objectification of women in all parts of the media? Is it the rampant disregard for other’s feelings? Is it a culture that views women as easy targets, the weaker sex? All of the above?
More than ever before, women are portrayed in a sexualized way. Pop singers wear less and dance like someone should be throwing dollar bills at them. Magazine covers show more skin, more suggestive poses, more sensuality in general. And don’t even get me started on music videos, especially hip hop videos. I am not opposed to someone expressing their more sensual side, but it does seem that it has become the norm, the expected. Boys see this. Girls see this. At a young age they absorb all of this. It plays into their perception of things, of people. They don’t see men being represented in the same way. They don’t see George Clooney draped in a bed sheet. They don’t see Jay Z with his ass sticking out and a pouty look on his face. They don’t see male celebrities portrayed in a come-hither-I’ve been a bad boy-don’t you want me kind of way. When men show skin it is usually done with a very macho tough-guy feel. They pick up on this, the kids. They see women being treated and portrayed differently in the media. It seeps into their subconscious and sometimes may result in them seeing women as commodities. Not living, breathing, feeling, real people.
Then there’s the lack of empathy. Recent studies have shown a decline in empathy in our youth. This disturbing trend is not just some factoid for psychologists and behavioral specialists to be concerned with. We should all be worried. As parents, it’s our job to teach these skills to our children. I believe it is the most important thing we teach them. Socialize them at a young age. Set an example of compassion. Talk to your children about social issues that demonstrate the need for caring and understanding. If kids don’t learn these lessons, they may be more likely to bully. They could see a sexual assault of a drunk girl at a party and take a video of it instead of trying to stop the crime. They may be the person who sees such a video and posts it to social media. Without any apparent remorse or concern for the victim. These kids will laugh. They will ridicule . They obviously don’t view the girl who has been violated as a living, breathing, feeling, real person.
There’s the detachment that is part of the online world. Typing a message on Twitter is a little easier to do than screaming it in the person’s face. Harassing someone on Facebook takes a little less nerve than doing it in person. Behind the keyboard, a person is likely to feel more bold. Some people feel that the lack of physicality gives them a license to be a little meaner, a little more cruel, a little more threatening. They are able to act out from the safety of their home, they can say things they may never say in person. The scary fact that for the person on the receiving end of these kinds of messages is that they have no way of knowing when or if the perpetrator is going to take it to the next level.
Does it matter that these threats are online? No. The threat is no less real. The only difference is it is easier to hurl a lewd comment or convey violent intentions over the internet. It takes less effort than the more traditional means of harassment or stalking. But the result is the same. A woman is belittled. A girl is shamed. Their safety is threatened. They feel violated.
The world we live in has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. The internet is an integral part of all of our lives. It is a part of our work, our education, our entertainment, our socializing. We have more access to more information. We can reach more people with a keystroke. While all of this access to information and people affords us all kinds of benefits, we can’t ignore the risks. We can’t enjoy the fruits of the digital world and turn a blind eye to the uglier side of what is taking place. Social media has become a way for journalists and artists and business people to promote their craft. But it has also become a breeding ground for abuse.
It’s time for us to come to a collective reckoning. These things need to be addressed, scrutinized, understood. We need to understand that the person we see on the computer, tablet or phone screen is a real person. A living, breathing, feeling, real person. They are not a character in a video game. They are not a “virtual” anything. They are women, they are girls. They are Amanda Hess and Lauren Mayberry. They are your mother, your sister, your friend, your daughter. And they deserve to be treated as such. They are trying to bring this issue to light, they are starting the conversation. It’s our job to continue it.