Cyber Harassment: Yes, It is a Woman’s Thing
In response to yesterday’s post, commentators questioned whether cyber harassment is a gendered problem. The answer is yes. While cyber attackers target men (see my post here), more often their victims are female. According to a University of Maryland study, online users who appear female are 25 times more likely to receive threats and sexually explicit messages than online users with male names. The disproportionate targeting of women accords with statistics compiled by the organization Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA). In 2007, 61 percent of the individuals reporting online abuse to WHOA were female while 21 percent were male. 2006 followed a similar pattern: 70 percent of those reporting online harassment identified themselves as women. Overall, in the years covering 2000 to 2007, 72.5 percent of the 2,285 individuals reporting cyber harassment were female and 22 percent were male. 70 percent of the victims were between the ages of 18 and 40 and half of them reported having no relationship with their attackers.
What of the comment that these statistics are somehow skewed because women are just more likely to “*complain* about it [whereas] Men are more likely to either ignore it, see it as trivial, or engage in self-help.” Here, the study from the University of Maryland’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is particularly instructive. Robert Meyer and Michel Cukier studied the threat of attacks associated with the chat medium IRC. They used a combination of simulated users (i.e., bots) and regular users. In an experiment using silent bots, they tested whether or not the gender of the user-name had an affect on the number of attacks received. The female names used were Cathy, Elyse, Irene, Melissa, and Stephanie. The male names were Andy, Brad, Dan, Gregg, and Kevin. The study found that female bots received on average 100 malicious private messages a day while the male bots received an average of 3.7. It found that the user gender had a significant impact on the number of sexually explicit and threatening messages received. Moreover, studies suggest that women under-report cyber harassment due to feelings of shame, not over-report as the commentator suggests.
Some commentators suggest that my work ignores the First Amendment. As my article Cyber Civil Rights develops in great detail, the civil rights proposal that I suggest for the most egregious of these attacks accords with both First Amendment doctrine and theory. Indeed, working to change our online culture to prevent such cyber sexual harassment would, in fact, enhance more valuable speech than it would inhibit. As L.P. Sheridan and T. Grant explain in their work, victims of cyber harassment are often advised to stop using computers. And recent cases suggest that many women do precisely that: Kathy Sierra shut down her blog “Creating Passionate Users” in the face of cyber harassment as did the many female bloggers attacked by Anonymous who were literally shut down by the group’s denial of service attacks. Without the fear of rape threats, published home addresses, and technological attacks, women would continue blogging and aggregating their ideas with others online. That honors the First Amendment.