Sexual Harassment Online Still Counts, Congressman

Now that we know the Twitter crotch-shot of Rep Weiner was user error while harassing women online, can we stop the jokes?

Jun 10, 2011 at 11:02am | Leave a comment

More details about Congressman Weiner's behavior with several women on social networks have emerged, painting a clear picture of why an "accidental" crotch-shot was posted publicly on Twitter. The NY Times reviewed the exchanges between a 21-year old college student, 26-year old mother and a 40-year old black-jack dealer, all of whom contacted him on Twitter or Facebook to talk politics, not sex. Instead, after some initial topical dialogue, Weiner responded with dirty talk and explicit photos. The fact that one of those photos leaked to his public Twitter stream was a mere accident, as it was intended to be a private message.

I'm not shocked by Weiner's behavior. Men of power pursue what they want, and often times, that's women who are not their wives. I'm much more shocked that our reaction to this scandal is a misplacement of embarrassment, rather than disdain. This is textbook sexual harassment, yet, because of his last name, the dick jokes just don't stop, making the issue jovial rather than what it is: creepy, predatorial and unacceptable.

This incident comes on the heels of the IMF chief harrassing an NYC hotel maid and Governor Schwarzenegger fathering his nanny's child while in his own home. Global reactions to those events were unified: we were appalled and ashamed of these men. Now here we have a congressman who sent pictures of his penis to women online and we laugh about it. What's the difference?

What's the difference? Why is this so funny? Why aren't we calling this a sexual harassment incident?

Is it that it's a different man? Imagine if Weiner was an older man. Or roomed with someone other than the Daily Show's Jon Stewart's in college. Or a guy who wasn't married to a brilliant and beautiful woman. Or a guy who wasn't a liberal democrat, voting in favor of civil rights. Would you still find that initial crotch-shot on Twitter and the intense media circus to follow? Those who say he should remain in office because he never technically cheated on his wife are sending a more subtle message. It's almost like they're saying that these women should be flattered that an attractive, powerful man was hitting on them.

Is it that these are different women? College students, a blackjack player from Nevada -- are we making cultural assumptions that these women are gold-diggers? Promiscuous? Most news sources fail to remit that one of the women Weiner bothered is a single mother: Why is that single part relevant? If Weiner had sent these pictures to an intern or a maid or a nanny, we'd be in uproar.

Is it that the medium of harassment is different? The whole thing happened online. Nobody touched, groped, stalked or ripped anything. Does that make it victimless? Let me ask you a direct question: Has anyone ever sent you a picture of their penis online? I've gotten them. Fellow xojane editor Lesley has gotten them (and would like them to stop, please). Fellow xojane Daisy has gotten them even though the guy "was SO NORMAL!"  Men have even gotten them. It's one thing to get these from complete strangers or as spam -- it feels more anonymous, more distanced, yet still gross. From a person of power, from a person you may have voted for, from a person representing you: This is all kinds of inappropriate. Some of these messages came from Rep Weiner's official Facebook campaign account!

Just because it happened online didn't mean it didn't happen between two real people. Even though millions hid behind the anonyminity cloak in the 90s, the late 00s forced a connection between our online selves and our real selves. Facebook takes one's real identity very seriously, even going so far as to tie your real name to your real cell phone number for security purposes. Twitter is more lax, since it supports accounts for perspectives (like businesses, fake celebrities, emergency response orgs), but nonetheless Verifies accounts for notable users, elevating the status and trust level for some users.

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Is Twitter to blame? No, I don't think so. Facebook? No. It's our attitude toward the acceptability of this situation.

We have laws against registered molesters keeping their physical distance from minors, and we have the power to get restraining orders to physically distance people who'd harm us, but, in social networks, what beyond a "block" button will stop them?

We need to be consistent in our approaches to making people comfortable online. You wouldn't print pictures of your penis, put them in an envelope, and mail them to a stranger you'd talked to twice, would you?

We need to be honest with these victims, honest with his constituents, and honest with ourselves: This was wrong. Stop joking about it, and stop making it OK for creeps to do this to us online.