Resisting #assholesonline – feminist activism against online sexual harassment

Online sexual harassment is part of many girls’ and women’s everyday life. As legislation is slow and patriarchal structures urges women to disengage and avoid any risks rather than to fight back, resisting isn’t always the easiest way to go. But by using online platforms as a way of exposing and responding to harassment, a growing number of women are finding new, creative ways of fighting back.

Screenshot from https://www.instagram.com/datingafeminist_/

A study from Swedish children’s rights organization, Friends, shows that one-in-five girls in the age 10-16 in Sweden have been victims of online sexual harassment last year (Friends 2017). An American study shows how online harassment is on the rise in the US.

41% of Americans have been personally subjected to harassing behavior online, which is a six per cent uptick since 2014. Nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have been subjected to particularly severe forms of harassment online, such as physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment or stalking (Duggan 2017).

In this post, I will focus on the case of online sexual harassment (OSH) and give some examples of creative resistance, digital activism at its bravest. My main source of inspiration is the article Dick pics on blast: A woman’s resistance to online sexual harassment using humour, art and Instagram by Vitis and Gilmore (2016).

Citron (2009 in Vitis and Gilmore 2016) defines OSH as consisting of three components: its victims are female, the harassment is aimed specifically at women and the abuse invokes gender in sexually threatening or degrading ways.

The use of sexually violent threats against women in male dominated online spaces, specifically women who are openly feminist has been normalised…

‘to the extent that threatening rape has become the modus operandi for those wishing to critique female commentators’”

(Jane, 2012: 535).

With new media (see here for a definition of new media) comes new preconditions for harassment, such as anonymity, immediate sharing with a large public and instant interactivity. But, as we know by now, the possibilities of new media platforms can just as well be used for “good” reasons and offer resistance against harassers as legislation is moving slow and seems hard to implement, not least considering the uncountable amount of cases of online harassment every day.

Social media can be a space in the public sphere where, in the words of Fraser (1990), subaltern counterpublics (members of a subordinated group, such as women), invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn “permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and need.”

And the fact is, more and more women have started to engage in online public spheres to expose OSH, as we soon will see.

Disengage or fight back – how would you react if you were sexually harassed online?

Patriarchal structures and actions from “real life” are mirrored in the online world, just as other societal structures and norms are. In the case of OSH this means that many women are urged by those concerned about their safety to avoid public spheres where they run the risk of being harassed. You can compare it to how women and girls offline are asked not to where skirts that are “too” short or not to walk alone in the dark in certain places. It is part of a victim blaming culture and norm. So, not surprisingly, a common response to OSH is disengaging from online platforms or limiting online participation. It is completely understandable. The scarier part is the development towards recommending women to take responsibility for managing their own risks, while the harasser gets to continue harassing (Vitis and Gilmore 2016).

However, there are many women refusing to give in, using online platforms as a way of engaging, resisting and responding to harassment, hopefully (most certainly) empowering other women (and men) to take the fight.

Exposing sexual harassment using art, humour, shaming and satire

Social media provides its participants with more than an open platform for testimony; it is also a space of entertainment, creativity and social interaction.

(Vitis and Gilmore 2016)

Below are a few examples of contemporary techniques employed to resist and witness OSH; exposing/critical witnessing, shaming, using art, humour and satire, all while using the potentials and culture of online media.

Exposing sexual harassment, the way advocacy group Hollaback! does in the video above contributes to what Vitis and Gilmore call critical witnessing, meaning that victim narratives move and provoke readers by ‘plac[ing] demands upon [their] sense of social justice’ and imploring them ‘to ask … questions of those who perpetrate violence’. (2016:10)

The use of humour and satire in resistance can also have great impact.

“It is this subversive and transformative quality of humour, the ability to shine a light on hegemonic assumptions and render them absurd and ultimately laughable, which makes it a valuable tool for those outside the dominant sphere and acting within fraught spaces.”

(Vitis and Gilmore 2016).

Here are three examples of Instagram accounts, run by three different women, using humour, satire and counter shaming as resistance tools.

@datingafeminist_ “An inside look at my dating inbox. Strong and disturbing content. Consider this your content warning. Silent Co-admin. All posts are up for grabs.” (Instagram.com 2017:a)

#saidnowomanever #saidnomanever

A post shared by @datingafeminist_ on

@instagranniepants “Objectifying men who objectify women in 3 easy steps: Man sends crude line via internet. Draw him naked. Send portrait to lucky man, enjoy results.” (Instagram.com 2017:b)

Rafael is definitely a Rhodes scholar. #tinder

A post shared by Anna Gensler (@instagranniepants) on

An example from Sweden is called @assholesonline and is run by a young professional hand ball player. Her resistance work online has generated enormous press coverage and made her a celebrity in Sweden. Most posts are in Swedish, but some English speaking men also “reach out” to her…

See how I leave with every piece of you. Don't underestimate the things that I will do. #assholesonline #linneaclaeson

A post shared by Tired of assholes online? (@assholesonline) on

Worth the risks?

Combined with legal action and regulation this kind of online resistance activism is a powerful tool, in my eyes, to expose and resist OSH. But individual resistance comes with risks, because the more you are exposing harassers, the more exposed to harassment you are. It is crucial that we, as individuals, as fellow activists, as democratic institutions or as part of a greater movement for equal rights, back them up. Once again, as we have established many times in this blog: even a like or an acknowledging comment, matters.

What do you think of the techniques described above? And what are your thoughts and/or experiences of online sexual harassment and how to fight it?

References

Duggan, M. (2017). Online Harassment 2017. [online] Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017/ [Accessed 6 Oct. 2017].

Fraser, N (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy, in Social Text, No. 25/26 (1990)

Friends. (2017). Friends nätrapport 2017 › Friends. [online] Available at: https://friends.se/fakta-forskning/rapporter/natrapporten/ [Accessed 6 Oct. 2017].

Instagram.com. (2017:a). @datingafeminist_ • Instagram photos and videos. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/datingafeminist_/ [Accessed 6 Oct. 2017].

Instagram.com. (2017:b). Anna Gensler (@instagranniepants) • Instagram photos and videos. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/instagranniepants/ [Accessed 6 Oct. 2017].

Jane EA (2012) “Your a Ugly, Whorish, Slut”. Feminist Media Studies 14: 531–546.

Vitis, L. and Gilmour, F. (2016). Dick pics on blast: A womans resistance to online sexual harassment using humour, art and Instagram. Crime, Media, Culture.

5 thoughts on “Resisting #assholesonline – feminist activism against online sexual harassment”

  1. Frida, I enjoyed reading your post so much! It’s really sad that OSH is something that a large number of internet female users are exposed to. It reveals the existing gaps in legislative and judiciary bodies that fail effectively address gendered cyber violence.

    Furthermore,your post connects with the today’s conference #HerNetHerRights on online harassment. A Danish feminist Emma Holten stated that OSH is often regarded as entertainment, thus the society rests the importance of cyber harassment. The main idea was that decision-making authorities should implement measures to protect girls’ and women’s online as well as sanction perpetrators. OSH dehumanizes and denigrates women as human beings and cannot go without punishment.

    I do believe humour is a good strategy to visualize this problem. Since we are all saturated with the images of victims, irony and parody are powerful tools in catching public attention.

    However, I’m left with the doubt. Do these strategies have a positive impact on perpetrators? As you said, online counter activities may imply certain risks for those who bravely denounce offences.

    And,most important,are these initiatives enough to combat online violence? It comes to my mind numerous examples showing how deeply patriarchal culture has been interiorized by ourselves. Think of all these negative but apparently innocent comments on someone’s body or new relationship (“women must take care of their physical appearance” or “he is too old for her: she just wants his money”). I think the change should start at home and schools to make us aware of everyday sexist language.

    1. Thank you, Simona! After following the conference today I am, just as you probably are, struck by how many people (99 % of them women) and organizations (more or less organized I guess) and other initiatives/groups that are involved and engaged in the issue of online violence and harassment against women.

      I agree with you that what the indivudual women do, that i presented in the blog post, doesn’t solve any of the underlying problems or structures, probably not even the harasser. What they do, however, is exposing the harassments and thereby they raise awareness and hopefully empower other women and girls to raise their voice, and not to be silent. We can fight back.

      I already feel empowered just by reading about this and listening to the speakers today. The fight is on, on so many levels, from EU legislative level to indivudual Tinder users, refusing to be shamed. This is another interesting initiativ working across the globe, and on many levels: http://www.heforshe.org/en

      I know, Simona, the depth of those patriachal structures is frightening – permeating our language, it seems. I read this piece today in Dagens Nyheter by journalist Niklas Orrenius, where he talks about how the Nazi movement, as well as the IS islamist movement use feminin and LGBTQ-related words, like “Little miss” or “faggot” to belittle people. Sorry it’s in Swedish. https://www.dn.se/nyheter/sverige/om-man-vill-gora-ner-en-pojke-da-kallar-man-honom-froken-fjolla-bog/

      But of course, he concludes, if it were only extremist movement using that kind of language, we would not have to be so worried. But it’s everywhere. “Locker room talk” as Trump said…

      1. Thank you Frida! I am eager to learn more about women’s initiatives to combat OSH.

        Yes, you are definitely right: publicly expose online abuses is already a very brave step and an example for other victims to feel empowered and may fuel more similar initiatives.

        I’m happy so many organizations and individuals were following the conference today. After all, OSH concerns all of us: digital media users, victims and perpetrators.

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