Sexual Harassment, Online Abuse, And The Contortions People Will Go Through To Not Believe Women

Sexual harassment allegations and claims of misogynistic abuse online both involve women talking about something they experience as hurtful. So in both cases there are people lined up to tell them that it never happened.

Nov 9, 2011 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

The two Lady Business stories I’ve been following most closely on the internet lately are the Herman Cain sexual harassment allegations and the new campaign for female bloggers to speak out about misogynistic abuse online. Both involve women talking about something they experience as hurtful, so in both cases there are people lined up to tell them that it never happened, men have it just as bad or actually worse, and what is anyone supposed to do about it, anyway?

Let’s take these in order, shall we? Because nothing helps me deal with a “why are you being such an oversensitive ninny” line of questioning like a nice numbered list.
 
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1. It Never Happened

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate has already done an astonishing job taking on the right-wing response to the Herman Cain charges, so I can only quote her (read the whole thing):

Remember, we don’t know what happened, beyond the fact that several employees came forward with complaints and received cash settlements. That’s not a lot of information. Cain defenders could have stopped there. Instead, great swaths of them have opted to assert that there could never be a valid sex discrimination claim because the whole thing is just a racket. And they went even further: The same folks criticizing the National Restaurant Association employees who came forward with claims that they were uncomfortable in their workplace are willing to deploy the most archaic and gender-freighted stereotypes to get there. Sexual harassment can’t be “real” because the women who claim it are money-grubbing, hysterical, attention-seeking tramps.

Lithwick points out the unforgettable first lines of conservapundit John Derbyshire’s article on the subject: “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like ‘racial discrimination’? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up.” Oh, those women, always blowing things out of proportion just because they feel horribly violated. It’s just a feeling you’re having, ladies, it’s not for real!

Likewise, responses to the new openness about online harassment start with denial. Anti-feminist women writers point out that they’ve never had rape threats (which is probably because they’ve never condemned rape apology, so people don’t think they have to be forced back in line), or they claim their worst insults come from feminists. Men like Brendan O’Neill in the Telegraph shrug it all off as hysterical whining about a little “coarse language” -- why listen to the women who say the attacks they experience are genuinely vile? You only have a lady’s word for it, anyway. And sometimes a handy data analysis.

Basically, this is a side dish of gaslighting to go with your main course of verbal abuse. Denying that people’s experiences are real, or even possible, sets you up as the authority on their reality -- what happens to them, how they feel about it. It’s a timeworn tradition for keeping abused parties doubting themselves, blaming themselves, and coming back, over and over. You’re supposed to think “god, maybe I am inventing a problem, making a big deal out of nothing. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. Maybe this is just the way things are.”

Yeah, it is the way things are. People are vicious and violent online, and to women they’re vicious and violent in a gendered way and for gendered reasons. There are bosses who think it’s funny or complimentary to come on to female employees or make comments about their bodies. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t feel shame or horror or anger or disgust, or that you shouldn’t feel those things, or that feeling those things is meaningless. It just means that the way things are fucking sucks and needs to be fixed.
 
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2. It Happens To Men Too

Certainly there are people who post threatening and hostile comments to men online, and it’s hard for men to get it taken seriously by law enforcement -- though much easier for them to get it taken seriously by peers.

Look at the case of “David Mabus” (real name Dennis Markuze) for an interesting illustration. Mabus made a habit of threatening science and atheism bloggers, including PZ Myers, who’s extremely influential in that community. A Change.org petition finally got Mabus’ local police to consider him dangerous, but first Myers needed to rally other people Mabus had targeted.

It was a long slog with the police department. But meanwhile, almost 5,000 people signed a petition saying that “The problem must be addressed before it escalates beyond Internet bullying and veiled threats to become something worse.“ That’s a pretty far cry from “stop being so hysterical.”

Myers was vocal from the beginning about what Mabus was saying to him, so he was able to form a network with other people who had experienced the same harassment; a lot of female bloggers don’t do this, in anticipation of exactly the kind of backlash they’re seeing now. That’s one of the major ways that online threats against men differ from threats against women.
 
There’s also the fact that, as Myers himself points out, a man gets attacked for the things he says, but not for the mere fact that he’s daring to say things. The people who send these threats are often explicit about the fact that their goal is simply to make women stop talking. Calling for an end to misogynistic, silencing attacks isn’t introducing some kind of Soft Ladyperson Protection Program, singling women out for special treatment. It’s telling people to quit singling women out for special hostility.

It’s also different because of the background radiation of misogyny that flickers behind so much of our communication. When a man is abused online, he’s not being abused in a context where men are expected to shut up and do what they’re told. He’s not being threatened in a context where men are routinely punished with physical or sexual violence for getting out of line, and where such violence is ignored or condoned. If he’s subjected to insults that reduce him to a body part, he’s not subjected to them in a context where advertising, entertainment, history, and culture reduce him to body parts as well. He’s not being attacked in a context that believes attacks on a person like him can’t ever be real.

It’s still not acceptable. But it’s also not the same.

Likewise, sexual harassment of men is just as deplorable as sexual harassment of women -- and men tend to face a steeper slope trying to get it addressed, due to the same macho attitudes that say harassment of women is A-OK. But also, we are only a few decades from the bottom-slapping Mad Men days. There are men in business -- maybe your boss, maybe your boss’ boss, maybe Herman Cain, I don’t know -- who genuinely think that a woman’s role in the workplace is to be decorative and pinchable.
 
It’s creepy as shit for anyone to hit on or make non-consensual sexually charged remarks to any coworker, let alone a subordinate (and honestly, even consensual flirting should be kept to a really dull roar). But when it happens to a woman, it happens in the context of a culture that thinks being creeped on at work should basically be her job.
 
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3. What Is Anyone Supposed To Do About It?

O’Neill wonders “who exactly is supposed to do all this ‘stamping out’ of heated speech – The state? Well, who else could do it?” Um, YOU. YOU are supposed to do it. All of you. Just fucking quit it. Stamp it out by stopping.

Does that trample on your precious rights to throw ugly invective at people online? Does it quash your creative expression where you tell women exactly how you’d like to see them raped and slaughtered? Well, deal with it. We live in a society.

The same sort of slippery slope pearl-clutching -- “but once we say it’s unacceptable to tell people you wish they’d be fucked to death, we’ll have storm troopers reading all our emails and cutting out the naughty bits!” -- occurs in discussions of sexual harassment.
 
Gosh, it’s SO HARD to legislate that kind of thing; I mean, you have to take women’s word that they were experiencing a hostile work environment, and that means believing women aren’t liars, and we’ve already established that that is PRETTY DIFFICULT! Let’s just tell women to stop feeling harassed or threatened. Then we don’t have to figure out how to differentiate acceptable bad behavior from unacceptable bad behavior.

Yeah, no. You avoid the question of “when is harassment too harass-y” by behaving in a professional way with your employees and coworkers. You avoid the question of “when is hate speech too hatey” by disagreeing with people in a civil way or shutting up. All you have to do is treat other humans like humans, people who are not so different from you or the people you love. The erosion of rights that you’re worried about applies only to your right to be a complete jackhole, which incidentally you’re still free to exercise far away where it doesn’t hurt other people. And the insistence that “the state” would have to be involved is tantamount to saying “what, I’m supposed to control MYSELF?”

People convince themselves that harassment and misogynistic abuse don’t exist because they don’t see it, and they don’t see it because they’re so sure it doesn’t exist. They dismiss it because they think there’s nothing unusual about it, and they see nothing unusual about it because they’re so dismissive. They protest that they can’t do anything about it because they don’t want to face it, and they don’t want to face it because they think it’s insurmountable. But all that’s really needed is for women to speak out, and for men (and the women who engage in gendered abuse, you know who you are) to stop.
 
Every time this comes to people’s attention -- every time a woman has the guts to pursue a sexual harassment case, every time a lady blogger speaks out -- we spiral just a little bit upwards out of all that cognitive dissonance. At least, I hope that’s true.