Harassment, male privilege, and jokes that women just don’t get

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(Cross-posted to Concurring Opinions blog)

A familiar theme comes up frequently in internet discussions: Women who complain about online harassment are just missing the joke.

As an initial descriptive matter, it’s pretty clear that women and men are often treated differently in online discussion. (Quick, name a case in which someone was harassed online. Was the person you thought about a woman? I thought so.)

A few months ago, John Scalzi noted that:

In my experience, talking to women bloggers and writers, they are quite likely to get abusive comments and e-mail, and receive more of it not only than what I get personally (which isn’t difficult) but more than what men bloggers and writers typically get. I think bloggers who focus on certain subjects (politics, sexuality, etc) will get more abusive responses than ones who write primarily on other topics, but even in those fields, women seem more of a target for abusive people than the men are. And even women writing on non-controversial topics get smacked with this crap. I know knitting bloggers who have some amazingly hateful comments directed at them. They’re blogging about knitting, for Christ’s sake. . .

I can contrast this with how people approach me on similar topics. When I post photos of processed cheese, I don’t get abused about how bad it is and how bad I am for posting about it. People don’t abuse me over my weight, even when I talk explicitly about it. I go away from my family for weeks at a time and never get crap about what a bad father that makes me, even though I have always been the stay-at-home parent. Now, it’s true in every case that if I did get crap, I would deal with it harshly, either by going after the commenter or by simply malleting their jackassery into oblivion. But the point is I don’t have to. I’m a man and I largely get a pass on weight, on parenting and (apparently) on exhibition and ingestion of processed cheese products. Or at the very least if someone thinks I’m a bad person for any of these, they keep it to themselves. They do the same for any number of other topics they might feel free to lecture or abuse women over.

It’s this sort of thing that reminds me that the Internet is not the same experience for me as it is for some of my women friends. (Emphasis added.)

That bears repeating: The Internet is not the same experience for men as it is for women. (No wonder women are numerically underrepresented in prominent internet discussion spaces.)

Why is the internet a different place for men than for women? There are doubtless a number of contributing causes, but one of the major factors is that the internet is largely a male-constructed discursive space, and internet discussion norms often build on assumptions of male privilege.

Men build discursive spaces and discursive norms based on their own experience. And for instance, in a male-built discursive space, a threat of sexual violence may be viewed by male participants as an obvious joke. After all, the vast majority of men will never experience sexual violence in their lifetime. (Fewer than 4% of men will be sexually assaulted.) And so within the context of a male discussion on a World of Warcraft forum, for instance, it may seem entirely innocuous to use ideas of sexual violence to express one’s views on the game, or to use “rape” as a verb to describe one’s gameplay skills.

Women as a group have a vastly different experience with the idea of sexual violence. One in six women will be a victim of sexual assault during her lifetime. (Yes, some men are also sexual assault victims. But the numbers are overwhelmingly female — about 90% of sexual assault victims are women.) Rape is not an abstract idea or an obvious joke. For thousands of women, it is an immediate and extremely painful reality.

At one point during class I was talking about male privilege, and one student asked me to explain. He noted that he is a man and he doesn’t feel particularly privileged. In response, I noted my own privilege: “When I leave the building late at night, I don’t give a second thought to my safety as I walk to my car. If it’s ten at night, if it’s dark, I just assume that I’ll be fine. But for many women, there is a constant thought process: Do I find someone to walk me to my car? Is it safe at this hour? What are my options?” And then I asked, “who has gone through that train of thought recently?,” and every woman in the class raised her hand. And then they told stories: About avoiding parts of town; about setting their schedule in certain ways; about making sure that they had someone to walk them out; about being on their guard, all the time. The need to guard against the possibility of sexual assault is simply not part of most men’s everyday thought process, while it is a major part of many women’s everyday lived experience.

And the fact that as a man I don’t have to spend mental energy thinking about protecting myself from sexual assault is itself part of male privilege. One part of male privilege is that you never have to notice the ways in which you benefit from male privilege.

The same goes for statements about violence in general. In a male-dominated discursive space, it may be viewed as normal to make aggressive, threatening statements. However, men’s and women’s experiences with violence are also vastly different. One in four women in the United States has been a victim of domestic violence. Suddenly, the joke about wanting to punch somebody else isn’t so funny.

Women face these kinds of microaggressions on a daily basis, in all sorts of environments ranging from the workplace to the public sphere. And they seem to be especially prevalent (surprise) in discursive spaces built by and dominated by men. (It’s true that not all women struggle to express themselves in male-built discursive spaces, and some women develop real facility for the kind of bullying that sometimes passes for dialogue on the internet. But, as Danielle Citron’s work makes clear, many don’t.)

And then when someone (almost always female) stands up against the male-constructed discursive norms in which threats of violence and sexual violence can be characterized as merely a joke, she is attacked for being oversensitive. These attacks are another instance of denying of the reality of women’s experiences. Male commenters discount women’s experiences as irrelevant if when those experiences don’t conform to male discussion norms. Feminist blogs have a term for this: Mansplaining, where a male interlocutor explains to a female writer that she ought to ignore her own experience and bow before his superior wisdom.

This discounting of women’s experience echoes equally problematic discussions that happen in the political arena, where male writers incredibly feel comfortable opining that sexual harassment probably doesn’t even exist, it’s all just something made up by overreacting women. For instance, here’s a direct quote from prominent male conservative writer John Derbyshire: “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like ‘racial discrimination’? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up.” Yes, Derbyshire is arguing that sexual harassment does not exist. Of course, this is a topic about which he has a vanishingly small likelihood of having any personal experience, since sexual harassment is overwhelmingly targeted at women. But I’ve never personally seen a zebra; therefore, they probably don’t exist.

Male privilege on the internet — or in law, or in society at large — isn’t going away any time soon. But let’s call it out, and let’s label it for what it is. When male interlocutors tell a female writer that she is overreacting and just isn’t getting the joke, they are speaking from a starting place of male privilege. They are assuming that casual threats of violence are something which can easily be shrugged off, and are ignoring the vast difference between lived experiences of men and women in America. And they are denying the reality of something which, in all likelihood, they don’t even understand.

Which Scalzi explains well in a follow-up post:

Underlying all of that is the basic set of advantages I get unearned by being what I am, i.e., a white male. I became aware of this fact only over time, by having this advantage set pointed out to me repeatedly by those who are not what I am. Which is a bad deal for those folks, to be sure — the highest life crisis of everyone else in the world is not, in fact, making the White Male understand what he gets unearned.

I suspect in my case it would have been even more work for the rest of the world if I hadn’t had the experience of growing up poor, which meant that every time I saw or read someone who’d never been poor expound obliviously on what was really going on with poor people, I had to fight back the urge to beat them to death with a hammer. The experience of having to deal with people wealthsplaining poverty, and then trying to get them to listen to someone who had spent actual time in poverty, made it possible for me to more easily conceptualize the idea there were lots of subjects about which I had great potential to show my ass simply by opening my mouth.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. So sit back. Calm down. Pay attention. Take notes. Learn. And stop denying the reality of women’s experience.

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11 Responses to Harassment, male privilege, and jokes that women just don’t get

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  2. iesu says:

    This reminds me of a conversation I was having about the term “owned” or “pwned” being used frequently as internet slang. I’ve always had an aversion to the phrase because of the ties it has to the concept of slavery, as “owning” another person implies that said person will be so defeated that they will become the property of the victor. Slavery is alive and kicking in the world still, but this again is another facet of unexamined privilege that should be met with critical self-examination, not crude dismissal and mansplaining.

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