Taking back the tech

Bitch. Whore. Slut.

If you’re a woman on the Internet, you’ll probably receive one of those insults at least once in your life. Chances are, you’ve already heard some of them.

The reality is, social media is often an unsafe space for women. Outspoken women online brace themselves for misogynistic backlash that they feel is, unfortunately, inevitable. When sexism is rampant on the streets, in workplaces and even at home, women turn to the online world as a safe outlet to voice their views – only to find out it’s not as safe as we’d hope.

Amanda Smith*, a 21-year-old university student, says she gets two to three hostile or abusive messages a week. She says if she’s voicing her opinion about anything controversial, the abusive messages flood in daily, or even hourly. When a men’s rights activist group came to her campus, Smith tweeted her opposition to it. As a result, she faced an influx of misogynistic messages, including numerous rape and death threats.


Online feminist Nashwa Khan says online abuse can seriously affect one’s mental health. (Hana Shafi / Ryersonian Staff).

“The best thing you can do for yourself is to just step away from it, because often you’re not going to stop the trolls,” says Smith, who adds that Twitter rarely takes reports of harassment seriously.

Scrolling through Twitter, one can frequently see users reporting abusive accounts as spam, knowing that reporting spam is more likely to get an account taken down. Take Back The Tech, an organization that hopes to end violence against women in the tech world and online, has exposed social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for their lack of efficient response to reports of harassment.

For Smith, however, the abuse she received online followed her into her into her real life. “They followed me from campus twice over,” says Smith. “They were motivated. They waited outside my house.” Smith even received dozens of phone calls from numbers she didn’t know. Eventually, she created an anonymous Twitter account in an attempt to escape the abuse. Still, her personal account was bombarded with hateful messages.

The abuse escalated, and Smith was attacked at a feminist event where a men’s rights activist deliberately slammed a door into her head. The brim of her baseball cap caught most of the door. “He laughed,” says Smith.
But Smith’s story doesn’t stand alone. Sophia Banks, a 34-year-old cook at a queer bar in Toronto has also experienced frequent incidents of harassment. She says that these days, she’s harassed at least once a day.

“Social media is a platform that everyone needs to be able to use,” says Smith. “It showcases how far we have to go in terms of gender equality, because women can’t have a space online, they can’t have a space on the streets, and obviously not in gaming right now.”

“No doubt I get more,” says Banks, “but I have a lot of transphobes blocked on Twitter and I keep a very limited Facebook profile.” Banks identifies as a transgender woman and is fiercely vocal about it.

But this makes her an easy target for transphobic people online.

“(The fact) that I am vocal about trans rights and liberation certainly increases the abuse I get,” says Banks.

Like Smith, the abuse escalated from a few mean words online to serious threats. “At one point my home address was being circulated by transphobic feminists, and that had me in a panic for several weeks,” says Banks.

She even had her photography business sabotaged by people online, who wrote fake reviews and called her a “man” and a “pervert.” “They pretty much made it so that I could do no social media advertising,” says Banks.

Still, she continues to be as opinionated and outspoken as ever in spite of the online harassment she faces.


No matter what hate is thrown at women online, many of them will continue to voice their opinions regardless. (Hana Shafi / Ryersonian Staff)

Banks says that usually, online abuse stays online. But even online abuse has become increasingly detrimental to the mental health of women.

Many outspoken women online frequently deactivate their accounts or go on social media hiatuses just to make themselves less vulnerable to the volume of hate.

Nashwa Khan, a 23-year-old university student and writer, says that abuse online can have a serious impact on one’s mental health. She says that a year ago, she thought online harassment wasn’t real harassment, and would pretend it didn’t bother her.

But her opinion has changed since then.


“In recent months, I (have come to) believe mental health can be detrimentally impacted for anyone navigating the Internet from a feminist lens,” says Khan. “Especially a feminist that is anti-racist and intersectional.”

Khan frequently blogs about both gender and race politics, and as a woman of colour she gets a mix of both misogynistic and racist hate online. She says that while all online hate against women is abhorrent, women of colour and other marginalized women endure a higher degree of such abuse.

“We need to challenge misogyny wherever we see it, and get social media platforms to sanction users who harass and abuse women,” say End Online Misogyny founders Alison Boydell and Catalina Hernández.

Khan says that there’s a difference in the negative reactions to opinions written by women of colour as opposed to white women – they’re often accompanied by xenophobic comments like “go back home.”

Khan says that even within progressive circles online, harassment still exists. There’s a divide between different feminist perspectives – which means there can even be hate in online communities one might think would be safer.

“Social media is a platform that everyone needs to be able to use,” says Smith. “It showcases how far we have to go in terms of gender equality, because women can’t have a space online, they can’t have a space on the streets, and obviously not in gaming right now.”

Smith is referring to the most recent outburst of online misogyny, the GamerGate movement. What may have started as a simple discussion about gaming journalism turned into a horrific, sexist backlash against Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the video blog series Feminist Frequency. GamerGate supporters claim their anger towards Sarkeesian and her gaming reviews has to do with ethics in journalism, but some of the hateful comments showcase the obvious misogyny still rampant in the male-dominated gaming world. One GamerGate supporter even went so far as to create an online game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian.

From young girls exploring their online identities, to journalists and activists, being a woman means being a target for abuse online – regardless of age or profession.

Even celebrities are victims to online misogyny, where their private photos are often stolen and released to the public.

Hacking threats are often used to silence women online, who are afraid that if they speak out, photos or videos of them could be released without their consent. These days, the prospect of enduring online abuse feels more like an inescapable fact than a possibility.

End Online Misogyny, a campaign run by a team of dedicated women who hope to end online misogyny, believes that ending sexist harassment lies in making it unacceptable and intolerable.

“We need to challenge misogyny wherever we see it, and get social media platforms to sanction users who harass and abuse women,” say founders Alison Boydell and Catalina Hernández.

Though the issue is widespread, there is still hope for change. Women continue to speak out online despite the risk of abuse, proving that no matter what’s thrown at them, they won’t be silenced.

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