Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Online Sexual Harassment and Strained Analogies

Via Pandagon I came across a fairly interesting discussion about online sexual harassment at The Adventures of Tobasco da Gama. To be frank, I'm generally skeptical about online sexual harassment (and related issues); the "online" context is sufficiently different from the real world that you can't just import definitions unmodified. But I also think it's important to be able to justify that stance and give people their day in court, so I'd like to look at what's being said and see if it stands up to scrutiny.

Tobasco's (if I may presume the familiarity) argument seems best encapsulated in the following passage:

The incident didn’t involve two male players, it involved a male player harassing a female player. We don’t have a full chat log, but there’s no reason to think that the female player did anything to provoke the harassment other than committing the oh-so-grave crime of being a woman on the internet. In this context, the harassers behaviour is clearly equivalent to real-life catcalling, in that the whole point is to make the target feel vulnerable and powerless. And such harassment must also be understood as an attack on an entire group of people, not just the specific target, since the target is singled out solely as a member of the group under attack, rather than for any individual characteristics.

My response is that the harasser's behavior is not equivalent to cat-calling due to the fact that the incident takes place online.

Cat-calling, in and of itself, is obnoxious regardless of the context in which it takes place. It's unwanted, and usually insulting/degrading, attention that serves no constructive purpose. The first place where Tabasco's analogy breaks down, however, is that in the real world you can't /ignore1 people; you have to listen to what they are saying regardless of whether you want to or not. The fact that the target of the harassment, and any observers, can effectively silence the harasser at will without disrupting communication with anyone else makes online occurrences of this sort of situation substantively different from real world occurrences.

This is why I think Amanda's analysis, quoted by Tabasco, isn't really applicable in this case. Online the target has the ability to muzzle the offender at will with little or not cost to their interaction with other people. Moreover, the reaction of the target of the abuse isn't scripted in the online world in the same way that it is in real life. The option of totally ignoring the perpetrator, and thus robbing them of most of their leverage, is much more feasible online.

But that's not even the biggest difference in my mind. In the real world cat-calling is pernicious because, apart from what is actually said, it carries an implicit threat of escalation. The perpetrator conveys the message to the target that "yes, right now I'm limiting myself to verbal harassment, but later on I might decide to come over and grope you, or follow you back to your apartment and rape you". Cat-calling, when it takes place online, doesn't have the implied threat of future violence to back it up.

And that, I think, is the key differentiator between the real world and the online one, at least when it comes to harassment. What makes various types of harassment effective in the real world is that they are backed up by credible, usually implicit threats of retribution/escalation if the target doesn't change eir behavior to conform with the requirements of the perpetrator. In the online world, by contrast, the perpetrator typically cannot escalate beyond name calling2; they don't have a credible threat of force to accompany their harassment.

They're not just "less scary", as Amanda says in the Pandagon post; I'd argue that they're not scary at all. They've no power and, once muted, can only make their presence known visually (if at all). This effectively reduces them to, at most, a nuisance.


1 "/ignore" is the World-of-Warcraft mechanism for filtering out all messages from a particular player; I presume that a similar mechanism exists in the context of Playstation Home.
2 Disregarding, for this discussion, threats/harassment which leak over into the real world in some significant fashion. There was no hint of that sort of thing in Tobasco's post.

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