At the beginning of the Odyssey, Penelope enters the great hall and begins to speak. Her son, Telemachus, quickly tells her to return to her room because speech is “the business of men.” And ever since, men have sought to silence women’s public voices. Indeed, male hostility toward women’s participation in public discourse is far more common today than many of us are likely to be aware. For example, a male attorney recently admonished his opposing counsel that it wasn’t “becoming for a woman” to raise her voice during a contentious deposition. In sanctioning the male attorney, the judge wrote, sexist remarks such as this man’s are “all too common [and] reflect and reinforce the male-dominated attitude of our profession.”
Law is hardly the only male-dominated activity. Let’s look at three other areas – video gaming, sports broadcasting, and politics – where in seeking to silence women, men’s rhetoric often reaches a shocking level of brazen vulgarity.
According to The Washington Post, “threats and sexual innuendo are par for the course for women gamers.” A case in point is Anita Sarkeesian, a young social activist and media critic. For her website, Feminist Frequency, she created a series of videos entitled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Her intent was to expose and critique sexism and misogyny in gaming. Because of this project and the speaking and writing she has done with a similar purpose, Sarkeesian has been subjected to near continuous harassment. At the Game Developers Choice annual meeting where she was scheduled to receive the Ambassador Award, the organizers received an anonymous email, “A bomb will be detonated at the … award ceremony tonight unless Anita Sarkeesian’s … Award is revoked.” Sarkeesian has received images of video-game characters raping her; her Wikipedia page was edited to state she is a “hooker who focuses on drugs”; and a video game was created called “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” in which players could punch her image and watch her face become bruised. Utah State University’s Center for Women and Gender was planning to give her an award when the school received an email that the event would prompt “the deadliest school shooting in American history… Anita Sarkeesian is everything wrong with the feminist woman, and she is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU.”
Despite the threats, Sarkeesian is still speaking, blogging, and making videos, but she says the harassment “sucks. It really sucks, and I don’t want to think too much about it, because I can’t do anything about it. It’s my new normal.”
In late April of this year, Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, two TV sports journalists, posted a video featuring a group of men reading to them some of the anonymous online comments they had received. You “should be beaten to death” and “hope your dog gets hit by a car” are among the milder ones. More typical is “Someone tell [her] to SHUT THE F**K UP…dumb broad.”
A catalogue of offensive examples of men’s attempts to silence women would not be complete without a few anti-Hillary Clinton comments: “When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs,” “Shill-ary,” and “I don’t need her to drown me in estrogen every time she opens her mouth” are among the non-obscene ones. And, of course, Donald Trump has not been silent. “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”
We could multiply almost without limit the tasteless, vile instances of men seeking to silence women’s public voices. The question, however, is how a woman should respond when she is the subject of such an attack? The Supreme Court has made it clear that social media threats are prosecutable as a crime just as other forms of threats if there is criminal intent. But because of the difficulties in tracking down perpetrators and the light penalties involved, cyber harassment has a low enforcement priority.
So, a woman subject to cyber harassment – even as severe as that to which Sarkeesian has been subjected – is largely on her own. If she knows the identity of the harasser – and she is not running for President of the United States – she might try responding with humor rather than outrage. For example, one woman who was told she was too ugly to be on TV responded by writing an article for a popular newspaper titled, “Too Ugly for TV? No, I’m too brainy for men who fear clever women.” If she has the ability to produce an interesting, engaging YouTube video, she might use it like DiCaro and Spain to draw public attention to the vile, misogynistic comments she is receiving. But what other actions are realistically available, and is there anything that is likely to really stop the harassment?
In a future blog post we will discuss some practical, effective actions a woman can take in this situation, but we would like to hear your ideas. Have you had experience with social media harassment? Has a friend of yours? What have you done? What do you wish you had or hadn’t done? We’d love to hear from you and start a conversation.