It's far from unusual for many women who use social media, dating sites, and other online platforms to recieve nasty remarks, gendered slurs, stalking attempts, and other abuse. To bring attention to this form of violence and get people to take it seriously, writer Soraya Chemaly and actress Ashley Judd created the Women’s Media Center Speech Project. Its website provides information about online harassment and its consequences and legal implications, along with tips for surviving it — and it is sorely, sorely needed. Because, "Well, if you don't want to be harassed, just stay off the Internet" is not a viable solution.
Chemaly tells Bustle over the phone that since she had been doing work related to women's freedom of expression, the Women's Media Center asked her to help them spread awareness of online harassment. Judd had pressed the organization to create a resource about this issue after being harassed for tweeting about sports in March of 2015. Chemaly hopes the project encourages the public to support legislation that punishes online harassers and gives victims legal recourse, as well as challenge social norms that lead to the targeting of women both online and offline and the trivialization of such victimization.
"We know that there is a broad spectrum of gender-based violence and that women in their day-to-day lives experience much more vulnerability and hyper-vigilance because of that," she says. "There's a lot of talk about street harassment. It's really a symptom of much deeper inequalities. And in the same way that we experience a safety gap offline, we experience a safety gap online."
The website contains a glossary of terms related to online harassment, research and statistics about its different forms, and a wheel demonstrating the different types, consequences, and legal classifications of online harassment.
Chemaly says her interest in the project also stems from her own run-ins with harassment as a writer and the stories of other women writers she knows. "I just don't know very many women writers who haven't had these experiences, and the most common among women are often the most violent kinds of harassment," she tells Bustle. "I think we need to be paying attention to the ways in which the culture has a predisposition to silence women who are challenging the status quo." According to a United Nations report, 73 percent of women have experienced online abuse.
While men also experience a lot of harassment online, men and women are targeted differently. Women are more likely to receive threats, sexual harassment, and doxxing, according to the Women’s Media Center Speech Project. "We're not talking about name calling," Chemaly says. "We're talking about activities that affect virtually every aspect of a woman's life."
She also wants to challenge the presumption that the anonymity of the Internet is to blame. Often, being anonymous actually helps women — because, just as they are offline, women are often targeted online by people they know. Instead of blaming technology, she says, "We want to look at the underlying factors that drive a kind of entitlement to abuse or entitlement to push people out of public space."
With increasingly awareness, Chemaly hopes that laws regarding harassment catch up with technology. Revenge porn, for example, is only illegal in about half of U.S. states. Stalking is often overlooked even when it happens offline, she added, and there are very few systems in place to legally deal with cyberstalking.
The prevalence of online harassment toward women leads them to feel limited in their online interactions, and its frequent dismissal leads them not to take their own harassment seriously. By treating online harassment as the crime that it is, we make women less likely to blame themselves — because going online should not be another item on the list of behaviors women are told to avoid to stay safe.
Images: Fotolia; courtesy of Soraya Chemaly