Online Violence Against Women: Continuing the Conversation After the UN’s Working Group on Gender

Note: This post was originally published on The Reboot Gamers in 2015.

It is no secret that the internet, or any public forum with anonymity, can be a dangerous place for women. These past few years, we’ve seen surges of very public, very violent attacks against women online, such as the infamous GamerGate, which targeted women gamers, such as game critic and scholar, Anita Sarkeesian (for a great series discussing GamerGate, those involved, and the people who were targeted, check out Why Are You So Angry, by Innuendo Studios). These assaults go beyond internet trash talking, featuring, but not limited to, virtual rape and/or death threats (which may not seem tangible, but are very real, and should be taken seriously); “doxing,” which involves finding and publishing someone’s private information such as their home address online; and bomb-threats. Increasingly, it seems that if someone chooses to identify themselves as female online and voice their opinion (especially from a feminist critique standpoint), they are at risk. I even feel apprehensive writing articles such as this or even retweeting articles and posts by Sarkeesian and other feminist game critics because I know by doing so, I put myself at risk for similar threats and harassment as a result of my gender and the gendered critiques I present. I am not alone in this feeling, nor is gendered online harassment exclusive of just a few women in the gaming world.

According to a report released by the United Nations last week during a UN Commission’s Working Group on Gender, “73% of women have already been exposed to or have experienced some form of online violence.” Further, the report stated that women from 18 – 24 are “uniquely likely to experience stalking and sexual harassment in addition to physical threats.” Such exclusive abuse is bound to conceptions of gender, a public female identity, and the public presence of women in an online world, especially in video game spaces, which tend to be viewed as an exclusively male domain. This is undeniably a gendered issue that attacks people based on their female identity and attempts to discuss issues of gender and patriarchy in a public, online forum. When a woman is twenty-seven times more likely to be victimized on the internet than a man, it is hard not to view it as anything other than an attack against those who identify as female and an example of a culturally-defined patriarchal structure which seeks to preserve a perceived norm (which defines public and gaming spaces as male) and actively attacks any attempts to critique or change this construction based on gendered assertions.

Sarkeesian and game developer Zoe Quinn (who faced similar threats during and after GamerGate) attended the UN event and were panelists in a discussion about the systemic nature of the problem of online harassment, according to Polygon reporter, Allegra Frank. They further discussed their own experience with online harassment as a result of their activity in the gaming community. Both have been pretty vocal about the threats they have received, which, while sickening to look through, have been able to document and highlight this issue, which would normally go unreported and largely ignored. Further, even if such threats or harassment are reported, the chances of it being taken seriously or actually leading to a prosecution are slim, as The Atlantic reporter Marlisse Silver Sweeney discusses. There is a severe limit to what public officials can do to prosecute online sexual harassment and death or rape threats, and some officials remain ill-equipped to properly treat online harassment as a serious threat.

I think it is also worth noting that this online harassment did not start with GamerGate, is not a recent phenomenon, and is not a result of violent video games. While there has been a surge in the amount of women being attacked and threatened as a result of their online presence, there is also an increase in the amount of women willing or able to report this issue. That’s not to say that paying attention to the UN report or continuing a dialogue about gender-based online harassment isn’t important. This issue needs to be addressed and should not be accepted as an everyday, inevitable occurrence. In spite of some critiques of the UN report, which essentially state that the report incorrectly identifies violent video games as part of a contributor to online violence, present vague solutions, and does not fully understand the issue of online harassment and violence women face in their day-to-day experience (and instead also discusses issues of sex trafficking and pornography, which, the above article asserts, should not have been part of this conversation), it is still nice to see even an attempted dialogue about online harassment and the attacks against women due to their virtual presence by public officials who do recognize this online treatment as an issue.

I will admit that the report’s conclusions about online harassment and the solutions they provide are not as defined as they should be and honestly extremely difficult to enforce. Their solutions as stated in the report, were as follows:

Sensitization – Preventing cyber VAWG [Violence Against Women and Girls] through training, learning, campaigning and community development to promote changes in in social attitudes and behavior.
Safeguards – Implementing oversight and maintaining a responsible Internet infrastructure through technical solutions and more informed customer care practices
Sanctions – Develop and uphold laws, regulations and governance mechanisms to deter perpetrators from committing these acts.

Such recommendations are meant to be applied on a global scale to stop violence against women online (reduce VAWG). Their intentions, while admittedly vague, are understandable. The report essentially calls for greater awareness of this issue, better education about what constitutes as online harassment and violence, increased online monitoring of such attacks (and subsequent removal or restrictions against it), improvement in laws which recognize these threats as legitimate, and improved prosecution of offenders. In spite of the Motherboard article which addresses potential issues in these solutions violating free speech and enforcing censorship, I have to agree with the solutions the UN proposes. Even if the report misunderstands the problem of online violence and incorrectly attributes violent video games as a contributor to this harassment, they do, at least, comprehend the need to raise awareness of this problem, which will allow for greater public criticism of whenever this behavior is witnessed. Similar to denouncing someone who is verbally attacking or threatening someone in the real world, we need to call out those who choose to harass and threaten online. It is not censorship, it is, instead, creating a safer space for people to interact and voice their opinions online without fear of being attacked. To deny the this right is censoring their voice and encouraging verbal assault as a means to quiet anyone who presents an opinion that others might not agree with.

Further, as the UN report illustrates, there is ambiguity and uncertainty in determining where this type of online harassment comes from and what exactly constitutes as a threat to be taken seriously. In a recent article by The Guardian, Sarkeesian discusses the issues of defining these harassers as trolls. As she states in the article, she doesn’t like to use the words “troll” and “bully” when discussing those behind GamerGate and other online harassers because “it feels too childish. This is harassment and abuse.” The same debate has been seen in discussions about the issues in prosecuting any form of online harassment or virtual rape and death threats. When is an online attack just a rant by a “troll” and when does it pose a serious threat? Of course, I would argue that any threat is a real one, and even if it does not result in actual physical violence, it should still be taken seriously. But, the question still remains: how exactly can you report and prosecute online harassment from generally an anonymous source and have your report taken seriously? Even if the UN report doesn’t have the exact answer, it at least encourages further consideration. It is adding to the discussion and highlighting a huge issue right now in the virtual world with real world implications.

As a gender historian who primarily focuses on reproductive health and rights, such conversations about gender discrepancies and harassment are common. My training, similar to Sarkeesian’s, focuses on viewing the world through a gendered lens. My research investigates how how historical conceptions of patriarchy affect constructions of the self and societal norms and how gender is evoked to assert specific morals or goals. However, I am not the only one noticing such issues. As the UN report shows, this is a systemic problem experienced by women on a large scale, and something that many are choosing to comment on. It is not a marginal experience or one that shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is a very real threat to women’s safety online and in the gaming world. And, while an ultimate solution has yet to be found, by discussing these issues in a larger public forum, we can make this issue known and actively work toward stopping it. The best thing that can be done now is to continue the conversation, raise awareness, and support those who choose to speak out against online harassment and virtual violence.

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