Dispatches from Durham: Sexual Double Standards, Victim Blaming, and Online Abuse
In a series of recent pieces, the Duke Chronicle documented the experience of female students who were shamed for their expressing their sexuality. In one case, a young woman sent an e-mail to her sorority sisters saying that she had sex with a well-known performer who visited campus. The e-mail was leaked to multiple fraternity listservs, the site Betches Love This, and anonymous gossip site Collegiate ACB. On the site, the student was called a “whore, cum dumpster, and swamp monkey.” The various posts received hundreds of similar comments. The student deactivated her Facebook profile, deleted her Instagram, and disabled her Twitter account. Duke freshman “Lauren” was working in the porn industry to earn money to defray some of her college expenses. Lauren had not told anyone about her porn work, until a male classmate confronted her after watching her in a porn film. The student shared his discovery at a fraternity rush event. The story of the “freshman pornstar” went viral. The day after the student talked to his friends, Lauren received more than 230 friend requests on Facebook. Within days, the topic “Freshman Pornstar” was trending on Collegiate ACB. As Lauren confided to the school newspaper, the torment on Duke’s fourth campus–the online campus of the “towering chapel of Facebook,” the “student center of Twitter,” and the “grungy alleyways of Collegiate ACB”–was unrelenting. In a month’s time, the “Freshman Pornstar” thread on Collegiate ACB had 136 comments. The post was the seventh-most-recently commented post on Duke’s page on the gossip site. Some of the now-188 comments were vile, urging readers to write in once they have “banged” her and claiming that she slept with specific individuals and members of fraternities. Some were dangerous, noting her name and address. Comments blamed her for the abuse she was getting: “we going to pretend like she was unaware of the social consequences of going into that business? she made a decision, now she needs to live with the consequences;” “There’s no way she’s going to become a lawyer being a porn star (no law school is going to accept her). Seriously, she needs to get over herself and face the consequences of being a slut. I’ll be surprised if Duke doesn’t kick her out;” “Congratulations, you’ve ruined your own life.” Others defended the student: “you’re seriously making fun of her for that? um.. yeah this is the epitome of bullying.. you guys have written on a public forum her full name and where she lives (leaving her open for stalking and harassment) . as well as calling her a slut and attacking her personal beliefs.” As Lauren told the Chronicle, she feels harassed, hated, and discriminated against. She questions her decision to go to Duke given the abuse.
The Duke Chronicle’s editorial board wrote that the elite university is an “embittered battleground and discussions about Lauren–a first-year porn actress–have extracted salacious and sexist commentary from Duke’s student community.” The board found two primary themes in the commentary: characterizations of Lauren as a morally bankrupt slut and comments expressing a lewd desire to have sex with her. A third, unexamined theme, however, was also apparent–that Lauren was to blame for anything bad coming her way. She chose to do porn, so she assumed the risk of online harassment, poor employment opportunities, social shunning, and the possibility of getting kicked out of school.
Blaming the victim is a typical response to individuals facing online harassment, individuals who are mostly female and who are mostly attacked in sexually demeaning and threatening ways, as my articles and forthcoming book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace explore. After tech blogger Kathy Sierra was threatened with rape and strangulation via e-mail and on her blog, the response was that she chose to blog, so if she could not handle the heat, she should get out of the kitchen. College students blogging about sex were told that they “asked for” rape threats, defamatory lies, and the non-consensual posting of their nude photos because they blogged about their sexuality. Lena Chen’s experience was typical. When Chen attended Harvard, she wrote Sex and the Ivy. Anonymous commenters attacked her not with substantive criticisms of her opinions, but rather with death threats, suggestions of sexualized violence, and racial slurs. On a gossip blog, someone posted her sexually explicit photos, taken by her ex-boyfriend, without her consent. As Slate writer Amanda Hess reported (who would later face rape threats herself, see her recent article about her experience), Chen’s nude photos were reposted all over the Internet. The abuse continued even after she shut down the blog. Chen was accused of provoking the abuse by “making a blog about her personal sex life.” She was labeled an “attention whore” who deserved what she got. Commentators said that she leaked her own naked photos to get attention. Others said that she wrote about sex because she wanted posters to make sexual advances. We hear the same about victims of revenge porn.
Blaming the victim is a recurring theme. Society once blamed female employees for provoking their employers’ sexual advances. Wives were once told that they provoked domestic abuse. Just as society now recognizes sexual harassment at work and domestic abuse as serious social problems that victims did not bring on themselves, female college students are not to blame for online abuse if they have sex or make porn. Bloggers who write about sex are not to blame for online attacks. Revenge porn victims should not be blamed when harassers violate their trust and vindictively post their nude photos. Sexual double standards are at the heart of this response. Would we, for instance, say the same to men writing about sex? Tucker Max earned millions from writing books and a blog about his drunken sexual experiences with hundreds of women. By contrast, female sex bloggers have been attacked and told that they “asked for it.” As the Duke chronicle insightfully noted, the wildly different responses to the sexual escapades of Duke graduates Tucker Max and Karen Owen confirm that a sexual double standard is alive and well.